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Mamad's New Stories

It was many, many years ago that a young man by the name of Mamad suddenly appeared at my home in Berkeley. His visit with me was one of those events we are sometimes supplied that provide an abrupt and entirely new perspective on life, a perspective that is awakened and refreshed, reminding us of the vital significance of being human.

Mamad was born on a remote island, among a people who knew nothing of the world that lay beyond the sea's horizon. They lived simply, without regulation by a government as we know it, eating the fish and fruit that was readily available, and passing time telling stories to one another— stories that explained the nature of their world, and provided moral lessons for appropriate ways of living in that world.

However, as he grew older Mamad began to notice that the stories he heard were wearing thin from having been told and retold so many times, and he realized that he was different from the others of his community in his eagerness to find new stories to tell. He became so obsessed with the idea of new stories that might be found beyond the horizon that one day he pushed his little boat beyond the lagoon and into the sea and undertook a great sea journey, traveling farther than anyone he had ever known had ever gone.

After sailing for many, many days he came finally to another island, the great island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. There he began discovering the enormous world that had been hidden until then beyond the horizon that had surrounded his little island home.

Mamad travelled everywhere throughout the years that followed, and listened closely to the many new stories that were told to him by the people of Africa and Europe and the Near and the Far East, and by people of all ages and all stations in life. He listened, and heard, and gathered and savored these stories as an eager young connoisseur of the human condition might. His ear had been well trained by the childhood that he had spent listening to his people's stories; he knew how to listen, and he knew how to retell the stories that he heard.

I learned from Mamad for example how he first learned about war and Christmas, one warm aromatic evening at the Taj Mahal. He had found a young man there softly weeping alone in the moonlight. When Mamad went to him, asking why he was so sad, the young man told him that he could not go home for the Christmas holidays to be with his family because he had run away from a war in a country called Viet Nam. The terrible, poignant irony of those two ancient elements of humanity— religion and war— pressed firmly against one another in my own mind, and stirred such deep feelings within me, much like those that had been stirred within Mamad, and within the sad young refugee at the Taj Mahal.

There were many such stories Mamad told me during the months he stayed in my home, all stories that told how the world simply is, with a clarity gained when it is unveiled to the natural mind that listens with an innocent willingness to hear. These were the stories Mamad had sailed so far to learn, stories of the enormous, poignant significance there is in being human.

The sad footnote to this story is that his island, I am told, was taken over by the armed forces as a military air base several years later, and the people who lived there were quickly absorbed into the 20th Century. I do not know if Mamad had been able to return to them before this happened, to tell them the new stories he had gone to bring home to them, stories that could have helped them to prepare for this exceptional, abrupt and permanent disruption of their idyllic way of life. I like to think he did, and that his leaving and his return fulfilled some kind of commitment to his people by a caring god.

This article previously appeared in The Listener: volume four, issue one (Spring 1999).

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