by Ali Hammad
There was once a man within whom resided dreams, such that it was hard to tell where dreams ended and real life began, or vice versa. Life, it seemed, was a set of questions, and dreams were where one found answers.
In the early 8th century, Ben Adhem was born in a life of dream: the prince of Balkh, in Central Asia. He grew up a pensive young man, given more to contemplation befitting a sage than conviviality expected of a youthful prince.
“How does one get to God?” he thought and spent many a night awake in his sleeping chambers considering this question. One night, in a state somewhere between dream and awakening, he thought he heard someone on the palace roof. He called to inquire.
“I am looking for my camel here,” said the person on the roof.
“You are looking in the wrong place, my friend,” said Ben Adhem. “How can a camel get to the roof?”
“Fool,” said the voice on the roof, “how, then, do you look for God while lying in your golden bed and comfortable in your silken pyjamas?”
The voice on the roof left Ben Adhem shaken. Days later, as he held court, the voice was still ringing in his ears. Along entered a man, bearded and tall, locks flowing, beating down the marble floor with his staff ahead of every step he took.
“Who are you and what do you want?” asked Ben Adhem of the man.
When the man spoke his voice reminded Ben Adhem of the voice on the palace roof. “I’m a wayfarer and I’d like to stay in this inn for a few days,” said the man.
“This is not an inn,” said Ben Adhem. “This is my palace and you are in its audience hall.”
“Who owned this before you did?” asked the man.
“Who before him.”
“And before him?”
“A sultan from another dynasty.”
“And before that?”
“Then, indeed, this is an inn, and you merely a wayfarer, not much different from me, and not here for terribly long either,” said the man, then tapped his staff on the floor and disappeared.
Who was that? An apparition? A dream? An epiphany? Ben Adhem didn’t know, but the message had sunk in: that his time on earth was short and the meaning of life and nearness to God may be hard to find in the comfort of a palace.
Continued on the next page