There are sands all over, and there is a beautiful horse. The undulating sand is a coarse red. It is so hot that it feels like the sand is burning. But the sand doesn’t change colour or shape or form, only shifting when the wind picks it up.
In the distance are the outlines of men, so far out they are the size of ants. A group of Bedouins are travelling in a goum, walking one by one with camels to their sides. The camels pace themselves.
Mother is not standing on the sand. Instead, she is sitting on top of a horse. The horse, a speckled white, looks back at Mother, but it doesn’t move. A question comes automatically to her mind.
Why am I on top of a horse?
The next question is an obvious one.
Where am I going?
But Mother has been wandering around this question for some time, over and over again in her mind. It does not matter if she is at home, kneeling to prayer, or on her way to a supermarket to buy food. Her life has been one long journey with no destination. She wakes up, she readies herself, she does some chores, and she goes to bed, wondering what was the meaning of it all. Most of the days have a ready and obvious answer: it was all meaningless. She prays and prays and talks to God.
When will my son marry? When will my son return home? When will my son return to God?
And now Mother is on a horse and is talking to a horse. The winds are loud, the heat makes her body sore. And yet she is feeling so comfortable.
Have I ever even ridden a horse?
Would her father have let her when she was younger? Like any man of that generation, there wasn’t much idea of what a woman could do outside of her role in the family. Mother saw the way her own mother toiled in her cooking, lived for the sake of her daughters.
There is only one time she remembers being around a horse, when she was a little girl. It wasn’t the usual dusty colours of the horses that roamed around the village. It was a jet-black stallion, which made Mother curious. She wondered if its hairs felt like a hairbrush. She wanted to get closer and kiss it.
But as soon as she came close, her father yelled loudly and her mother shrieked in fear.
She doesn’t remember why they were so scared. Perhaps she was far too young to be around a horse or any unpredictable animal. In hindsight, it made sense for a parent to be frightened. Mother would have acted in the same way if Son had come too close to a work animal.
But Mother was slapped by her father. And when Mother tried to explain what she was doing, her father slapped her again. And when Mother stood up and got angry and shoved her father with her tiny arms, he pushed her down. He took out his belt and started whipping her.
A girl was not meant to explain herself. A girl was meant to behave.
Probably the punishment was needed. Or perhaps the punishment was too strong.
No one should be punished so strongly and without explanation.
At least that is a rule clearly written in the Qu’ran.
Nevertheless, after that, Mother was frightened to do anything that broke an unspoken rule.
The skin of the horse feels a little stodgy. It has a smell and roughness that seeps into Mother’s skin. She feels a little dirty, but she also kind of likes it. She wants to hug the horse. She wants to push her body against it until there is nothing but their commingled smell of human and horse and nothing in between.
There are so many animals like you in the world that I have never interacted with, or even thought of interacting with. A dolphin would be slippery to the touch, like algae. The needles of a porcupine would puff out my hands with their poison. A dog would be nice to pet, but so many of them roll in the mud and rub their paws all over you. Cats cause me to sneeze, just like camels and rabbits.
But this horse feels softer than a bedsheet. It is so smooth it doesn’t feel like I’m touching something living.
To take the time to touch an animal is beautiful.
It’s not a sin. It’s not a transgression. It’s an act of our bodies integrating.
Mother lies on this horse, as if she is resting on a bed. She lets herself sink into it. She feels time and space merging, as if her mind knows no boundaries. There is Mother, there is the horse—they are interconnected, they are borderless, they are one.
Mother almost forgets that she is not alone in the desert. The Bedouin in the distance have noticed her and are shouting something. Their bronzed skin and sun-sculpted faces are covered in white. They motion with their hands, their shouts menacing.
What is Mother wearing?
She dares not look down. She feels her skin burn in the heat. She feels naked, humiliated. She is sure the men will come and tear her off the horse. She fears they will do much worse things.
A phrase leaps out to her in Bedouin.
I and my brother are against my cousin, I and my cousin are against the stranger.
While it is not a phrase that belongs to her, her mind is suddenly amending it.
And yet when I see the stranger, all I feel is jealousy. I do not trust the stranger, but I want to know their world.
So, there it is. Mother is not afraid of these men. Mother is not afraid of this horse. She is afraid that she will be rejected, that suddenly a barrier between her and someone else will appear, that it will be impossible to feel anything in relation to anyone.
I want to feel one with another person.
I want to feel one with this horse as well.
Or rather, I want to feel one with any being of the cosmos.
That’s why I pray.
I know it’s all illusion. I know nothing can truly destroy me. I know my soul is eternal. My time on this Earth is a test, designed only for me.
And yet I tire of taking this test over and over again.
I pray because I believe that is how I will find the answer.
But every day I feel more and more distant, making no progress.
This is not what I want for myself.
I need to get going.
I need to find an answer.
Suddenly the horse neighs furiously. Before Mother can make sense of it, the horse is dashing. It is like the beam of an arrow breaking through the line of the dust storm. The winds strike the sand like missiles, causing the Bedouin men and their camels to be flung out of the background. The sky grows empty and clear, with the whitish outline of an oasis in the far distance.
Or is it a mirage?
I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I am going.
But all my life I’ve prayed and waited for the answer.
Perhaps it is time for me to ride.