At night, beds were lined up against the walls and charcoal heaters were placed in the middle. As people nestled into their quilts, the storyteller began his story:
A king grew two horns, one on each side of his royal head. So he called his barber and said: “You cannot trim my hair without removing my turban, so I have to share this secret with you. But if anyone ever learns about this growth, I will cut you into two.”
The barber went home. His urge to share the story with someone was huge but the fear was bigger. At night, while tossing in his bed, the barber thought of a trick that would allow him to share the secret without losing his head.
The next morning, he went to a field, dug a hole under a bamboo tree, and whispered the secret into the hole.
As the story teller paused to pull his hookah, the story slipped out of his hand and entered the realm of virtual reality where it had to compete with other stories on Youtube.
There was this cabdriver from a poor nation, say Bangladesh, who went to an oil-rich kingdom, such as Saudi Arabia.
Now, you can leave your country but you cannot escape your fate. So one day, the cabbie met a man, more royal than the king. He went to the cabbie and said: “Why did you say the Saudi government is not good, you dog?”
He gave the poor driver no opportunity to defend himself and started grilling him. “Why did you say the Saudi government was not good, you dog, you animal?”
He hit him, again and again, and spat on his face. He made the driver admit that he was a dog and so was his father. Then he forced the driver to kiss his hand, again and again.
But the cursor is a tricky thing. It slips out and a slip in the virtual space can bring you back from Alif Laila’s Baghdad to today’s Quetta.
“A corpse remained unattended on the ground for ages. But in the sky the appetite of the circling vulture had died too.” This was Ahmed Shehryar, a poet from Quetta, mourning the death of humanity in his city.
“Words frozen on my lips, speech dead – My hearing stunned and the messenger breeze, dead –Mummified in my time capsule I slept for centuries – And when I woke up, my contemporaries were already dead,” wrote the poet.
Since Quetta’s dead have been buried, we need not worry about them, not until the next killing. So the cursor slipped to another unreal reality: a Pakistani in Toronto telling people back home how not to fight over religion.
“Close your eyes and see inside yourself. You might find that your belief is the best for you. It is your road to salvation,” wrote Asma Mahmud.
“Now take a deep breath and realise that a Hindu, a Christian, a Sikh or a Buddhist also come to the same conclusion through this process. Now, how do you justify condemning other religions?” she asked. “Don’t you see; it gives the same satisfaction to its followers that your faith does to you?”
Since nobody was yet ready to take a deep breath and think, the cursor moved back to the Street of the Storytellers.
A few days after the royal barber shared his secret with the bamboo, some travellers stopped near the tree to eat and rest. One of them cut a shoot, took it home and turned it into a flute.
During his next trip to the city, he put the flute to his lips and started blowing into it. Since he was a good player, a small crowd gathered around him.
As he began to play the flute, he realised that the instrument had a mind of its own. Instead of obeying him, the flute started repeating a single sentence: “Although bald-headed, the king has two horns. Although bald-headed, the king has two horns.”
Back in the kingdom, the cabbie was begging the Saudi faithful to forgive him. “My lord, please forgive me. I will do as you say. I will say, as you say. I am your slave because I have to feed my children, my parents back home,” he said.
“You animal, you dog, say your father is a dog,” said the Saudi.
“Yes, my father is a dog,” said the cabbie. “We are all dogs.”
“What is Saudi Arabia?” asked the Saudi.
“It is the greatest country in the world,” said the cabbie.
“Yes, it is,” said the Saudi and spat on the cabbie’s face.
At the inn, the storyteller was telling his sleepy audience:
When the king learned what the flute was saying, he had everybody arrested and decided to have them beheaded to protect his secret. But the flutist requested to see the king alone, insisting that he knew how to resolve this issue.
When others left, he told the king that killing so many will make this story even bigger and his secret will be out. But if the king accepted his advice, nobody will ever know he had horns.
“And how is that?” asked the king.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a group of American teenagers, all Muslims, watched the video of the Bangladeshi cab driver and the Saudi lord on a cell phone at a barbecue party.
“We all hang our heads in shame every time we encounter such behaviour,” said Ali, a Syrian-American living in Woodbridge, Virginia, to his friends.
“This is an individual act, nothing to do with Islam,” said Mohammed, a Pakistani-American. “Islam is against racism.”
They all agreed. But this bonhomie ended quickly when South Asian kids start talking about other similar incidents their aunts and uncles had seen in the Arab world.