Ali Ashiq is a legend in Kurdistan. His story is retold both as a celebration and a warning about true love. I heard the tale of his life many times in many different ways and each telling moved me.
As Ali got older the Kurdish Government built him a house outside of Soran close to a waterfall, high above the twists and turns of the roadway below. He was often seen walking the hills going about his business, bothering nobody and in turn not being bothered. He died recently and this is my interpretation of his story.
Ali sat in the shade of the only tree on the lower mountainside. Glancing up at the unbroken blueness of the sky, he marveled at his life. His sheep grazed peacefully on the rich grasses, deep green and lush after the spring rains. This was Ali’s favourite time of year. The mountains were waking up, peeling away the old dried grasses, like dry skin from the bottom of his foot. Winter’s rains and the thin layer of snow that had come and gone had softened them. The new grass pushed the old away and spring rain washed it down to the river to be carried away.
Ali laid down his wax cloth and slowly began the ritual of folding back each corner to reveal his lunch. Since a small boy of ten until now, nine years later, Ali enjoyed this ritual. His sister would prepare his lunch and not tell him what it was. So that he could have a surprise, she said. So that he would know she loved him and thought about him, out there, all alone. Of course, Ai was not alone. He had his sheep and his two dogs. He had grass and rocks, mountains and rivers. The sun was his friend and the rain was his close cousin.
The tin pot was still slightly warm and Ali’s mouth watered. He took his time, savouring the moment. Dolma or Kofta? Maybe Biriani. He unfolded his mother’s bread, thin and delicate, slightly scorched in patches where it had stayed too long on the sér. Just as he liked it. The slight sharpness, the change in texture from pale to dark excited his mouth.
Closing his eyes, Ali lifted the lid and sniffed deeply. The tang of sumac, pepper, tomato. The distinctive and subtle smell of garlic that his sister put in just for him. To keep him warm inside, to protect him. So lost in the poetry of the moment, Ali missed the ripple of breeze that passed through the meadow. Opening his eyes slowly, he relished the dolma before tasting it. Tearing a piece of bread, he plunged it into the pot, his fingers deftly scooping and rolling a perfect formation.
Since childhood, Ali had appreciated the small things in life. Sitting with aunties and sisters, he had enjoyed the sounds of their voices as they chitter-chattered stories he didn’t understand. He was fascinated by the busy-ness of their arms and hands as they scrubbed, kneaded, picked and plucked. All the time their voices rising and falling. He liked the way his sister’s hair caught the sunlight and shimmered so that it looked like far away mirage of grass on a hot summer’s day. His favourite times were sitting with mother while she stirred large pots over open fires. Songs would whisper their way from her lips and drop into whatever she was cooking. Although too young to understand what she sang, he would know instinctively whether they were sad, when she lifted the spoon and blew on it before pressing it to his lips to taste. Sometimes it was bitter and he would screw up his face, other times the sweetness would make him choke.
As he grew older, Ali spent less time with the women in his house and more time with his father. Roaming the mountains, finding the best place for the sheep and goats to graze. Listening to his father’s wistful voice telling him of conquests old and new. Teaching him the ways of the Kurdish man who was fearless in battle. The protector of the land, the gladiator. The man. Ali listened dutifully, but his heart remained with the gentle cadence of his mother’s songs. With the fierce gentleness of his aunts and sisters. Ali knew there was poetry in life. Words that fit together in such a way that only beauty could come from them. So he listened to his father like a good son and dreamed of beauty.
The year Ali turned eighteen was when the two sides of him met. The feminine and the masculine combined and brought about the biggest change in him. She was beautiful. She was more than beautiful. She was Zozg mountain on a clear day, standing out against an azure sky. She was the waterfall pulsing in March. She was almond blossom, dazzling against the craggy mountain. When she smiled at him, her head turned slightly to one side, a small wrinkle in her brow as though trying to remember him, Ali knew that she would be his. For one year he had dreamed of the day they would be married. He planned each detail so carefully that sometimes he thought it was real and would be surprised to look around and see not the walls of their small home but mountains and sheep.
Ali was mopping up the last of the rice, his fingers smooth with red oil, a slight smile of satisfaction on his face. The sheep were still. Like monuments of the past. Waiting. Aware. At first, Ali did not notice anything his mind still focused on the life he would spend with his beloved. As he began to tidy away, he wiped his fingers on the grass and noticed the line of ants next to him for the first time. They scurried with determination, carrying crumbs of bread, grains of stray rice and twigs.
Something caught in Ali’s mind. He wasn’t sure what, but somehow there was a marching through his mind. A carrying of crumbs and fragments that were indecipherable. This time, he felt the breeze that blew through the field. It reached inside him and scattered his peace. The sheep began to bleat and Ali heard whispers. As though somehow the sheep were telling him a secret. In the distance he could hear drums. Faint. Beats missing as the sound bounced off the mountains. There was a whistling and shrilling moving in and out of the air around him.
The sounds of a wedding in the village. Ali knew these sounds. He heard them almost every Friday. Soon, he thought, they will be for me. But he didn’t feel the extra beat in his heart that usually accompanied that thought. Looking down he noticed the ants had begun to walk over his outstretched leg. As though he wasn’t there. As though he was part of the landscape.
The sheep were silent now. All turned towards him. Their sweet faces blank as usual but their eyes dripping tears. Above him the leaves began to rub together, straining on their branches as a fierce wind shook them. She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone.