Under The Desert Sky
By Barq al Hind (Writing) & Kiran Salim Shah (Art)
Ilham wasn’t the most usual bus driver. He had a gait that suggested he walked carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His slightly long and unkempt hair covered his face half the time so people could hardly read his expressions. Some people just assumed he didn’t cut his hair because he didn’t have the money for the barber. Once, an elderly lady had even tried to give him cash, telling him to get a haircut. He didn’t blame her, that was the stereotype after all. Bus drivers are bus drivers because they are poor.
While his colleagues’ farms in south Asia might disagree, as far as he was concerned, the stereotype was spot on. He certainly wouldn’t have been a bus driver had he not been poor. Ilham was a doctor by education but apart from the one year internship he’d done in Afghanistan, he’d never had the chance to practice his profession.
The problem was that he’d studied his entire degree in Farsi. Things had changed by the time he graduated; hospitals now gave preference to those who’d studied in English. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have been such a big problem. He’d have easily found work in a small, local hospital. But the war had drained his country’s resources. Nobody had money and people got by with what they had. Small hospitals weren’t hiring. He’d even heard of some hospitals having surgeries performed by nurses who’d just learned procedures by shadowing doctors. Who could blame them? Lives needed saving and so did money; people did what they could.
But even so, he could’ve gone back to school to learn English and pass some English-language medical exams like many of his classmates had done. Or perhaps, if he looked hard enough, he would’ve still managed to find a residency in a village somewhere. But the war had something else he didn’t: time.
During his last year of study, his father had been diagnosed with leukemia. He needed treatment and Ilham needed money to pay for the treatment. So when the first relatively well-paying job presented itself before him, he took it. And now he found himself in a Middle Eastern country driving people around and trying to guess the diseases his passengers suffered from.
He’d lost an awful amount of weight since the year he’d started the driving job. He wasn’t quite sure why; if anything, sitting in a seat for some ten hours a day should’ve helped him gain more weight. He suspected that it may have something to do with his troubled sleep at night. Lying in bed, he’d unlock his phone and flip through pictures of his parents and siblings. When he wasn’t staring at their two-dimensional faces, he was thinking about them. Were Hadiah and Hamdast eating right? How were they doing at school with him away? Were they looking after Maman and Papa? Then there were the ever-looming questions about himself and his future.
He had books tucked under his bed; his textbooks that he tried to revise from time to time to make sure he didn’t forget the material, some English books to help him learn the language and some English-langauge exam papers to prepare for the exams he was supposed to take. Emphasis on ‘tried’, he rarely succeeded these days. Between his long work hours and mandatory socializing to avoid looking like a creep, he hardly had time to think about what he was doing. And slowly, the ‘why’ was eroded too, so the only ‘why’ that remained was his family.
But then, there was today. He’d been on his weekly intercity route when his bus tires got punctured and he was forced to park the bus on the roadside. Another bus was on its way to get them. In the meantime, the winter air outside was pleasant, so all passengers had filed out and chose to sit on the sand and talk about whatever they talked about. Ilham was content to lie back on the sand and stare into the distant sky. His life seemed to come to a sudden halt and for the first time in months, he felt like he had the space to think. To breathe.
There was something about the vast expanse before him that made him feel so small. In an almost good way; him and his problems, miniscule dots under the vast sky above him. He closed his eyes and stretched his tired limbs.
‘Ah!’ He yelped, feeling something prick the fingers of his right hand. He’d thrust his hand into a desert thorn bush. It was so small, he hadn’t noticed it before. He looked at it now, half amused.
It was so tiny, lost in the enormous desert where there was no water to be seen. He lay back down and returned his gaze to the sky. As he blinked, his mind started to form thoughts. The sky above him, so vast and so perfect. The tiny (and thorny) plant beside him. They shared the same Creator. It was fascinating to think that the One who created the sun had also created the humble desert thorn beside him. The one who held the sun swimming in space had also provided for the desert thorn in the middle of a desert.
Suddenly, his tiny problems that looked as though they’d been neglected by the Creator came into his zoomed out view of the world. They were tiny from up there, sure, but they weren’t forgotten. How could they be when the meagre plant next to him wasn’t?
It had been so long since he had thought this way about his Lord. His problems had consumed him for so long that he couldn’t look past them. But under the boundless sky, there was clarity. There was reason and there was hope. He laughed at himself, suddenly.
He wasn’t that old, was he? His life wasn’t over, he hadn’t wasted his life. His family was waiting for him. His practice was waiting for him. The textbooks under his bed were waiting for him. He wasn’t doomed, he had things to do and places to be. He had a merciful Lord to look after him and his family. He was going to be alright.
About the Authors
Writing — Barq al Hind is a writer from Hyderabad. With ancestry from Afghanistan, she enjoys reading and writing about the mountainous country. She is not as old as most people make her out to be.
Art — Kiran is a visual artist by profession. She was listed in 2018 by Khaleej Times as one of the “Women at the Helm ‘’. Her work has been exhibited on local and international levels. Kiran is also an NLP Master Coach and works with young Muslim women.
She is currently working on publishing her Muslim YA novel Pink Shoes and Jilbaab — Not your average Hijab guide, a humorous take on a Muslim girl’s life. Coming January 2021, in sha Allah.
She has been a student of the Quran since 2012.