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The sun was at its highest. Along the streets of the small Arab town, few people wandered in the sweltering heat of the midday sun. A couple of heavily veiled women walked along silently, accompanied by a swarthy man in a white khanzu, just as silent as them. A man in a donkey cart went along a small side street, the poor beast's hooves going clop-clop-clop on the hard paving stones.

The simple buildings gleamed in the sun, their walls bleached a blinding white by the constant exposure to the sun. In places the paint was cracked and peeling, especially in the old section of town where the poorer half of the town people lived. Most of the houses had probably seen only one coat of paint since they were built and the worn brown showed through the thin layer of paint that remained on the walls. In front of some of them, ragged children played in the dust, keeping well to the shade until the shadows had receded completely. Then they went inside to continue playing. It was too hot to continue playing outside.

One little girl stood in the doorway of her house, black hair falling into her eyes and her skin burnt brown by hours of playing in the sun. From the outside, the house seemed like the shabbiest, most dilapidated structure in the entire town- the walls were crumbling, completely devoid of any paint, the wood of the door was rotting. It seemed tiny, like it had been squeezed in as an afterthought between two other houses that were not much bigger but at least weren't falling apart.

A woman's voice called softly from within the house, not too loud, lest she be heard by anyone walking outside. Curiosity was not welcomed by any around here.


The little girl sighed as she rubbed at her face with a dirty hand, leaving a large mark on her face.

'Laila, where are you?'

Still, she refused to reply. She scratched the back of her left leg idly with the foot of the right, watching the shadow in front of her house lengthen as the sun began to go down. The heat of the day wafted along with the wind, and when she took a few steps outside, it felt like she was stepping into a furnace… nothing that she wasn't used to. Footsteps went along the dirty street in front of the house as men went home after a long day's toil. Some of them were neatly dressed in khanzus of white or blue, a white cap or a checkered cloth covering their heads as they hurried towards the mosque that was two streets away to perform the evening prayer. Others, men who toiled their days away on farms like the old-time fellahin, walked slower as they made their way home, one or two pausing to dig the grit out from under their fingernails before they continued on their way. One detached himself from the pack of workers and walked towards the house where the little girl stood. He had a short, rough beard and coarse hair that was in bad need of a trimming. His skin was burnt brown by hours in the sun, and he walked with a very slight limp.


Like every night, Laila ran towards the road, her bare feet making little noise in the dirt. The still air could not mask any sound and the small patter her feet made hung heavily even after she had passed. Her dark eyes sparkled as she ran towards her father, a sparkle that was reflected in his eyes as he stopped and leant down with his arms outstretched. He scooped up the little girl and swung her around, both oblivious to the curious stares of the rest of the people on the road, who, as tired as they were, always stopped to watch them. Most of them mustered a weak smile before they went off, too tired and much too miserable to care. Some even wondered how they could be so happy when they were obviously so poor.

But they didn't care.

Laila slid from her father's arms, running all the way back to the small hovel. Her mother stood in the doorway, watching as her husband approached, the small girl slipping by her and into the house. He smiled, a very tired smile that made him look about ten years older than he actually was.

'How far did you get today, Hamad?'

The smile slipped from his face.

'Not too far,' he said sourly as he walked into the room. There was a small sound of disapproval from his wife; a small clicking of her tongue that she always used when she thought her husband was being foolish.

'You could have used ma-'

Hamad raised his hand, interrupting her. 'Look, Saira, how many times have I told you that I don't want to use…' he paused, lowering his voice to a whisper. 'I don't want to use magic.' He didn't shout, but there was a strained note in his voice, a note of tension and of alarm.

Saira persisted. 'But when you built this house…'

'When I built this house, I had no choice. I had to make it look smaller than it was otherwise people would wonder how I managed to build it.' He looked around the room sadly, taking in its enormous size as well as the many doors set into the wall that led to other rooms. It was definitely over three times as large as the whole house looked from the outside. 'If they knew what I was… if they knew where I came from…' he trailed off.

But she only shook her head, as one would do when explaining something to a naughty child. 'Hamad, that was years ago. No one would remember-'

'That's the problem. They do remember what happened.'

'But it wasn't your fault-'

'It was my fault. I lost my temper, Saira. I killed someone.'

Saira took a deep breath. 'You killed a man who was trying to take my dignity. There's no shame in that.'

Hamad stared moodily at the wall opposite. 'I killed him because I could. I knew the curse and because he would have no idea what was happening, I took advantage of it. Everyone knew what I was… there's only one kind of wizard who knows how to kill. You know I swore I would never use magic after that.'

'You can't hide from magic forever, Hamad,' Saira said softly, staring directly at him. 'You know that Laila has it too-'

Hamad stood up suddenly. 'I don't want to hear anything more about magic.'

'But you could make things easi-'

'I told you, I don't want to know!' Hamad half-shouted before storming off towards one of the doors. He pulled it open violently and stormed up the staircase behind it, leaving Saira staring after him. She shook her head again, before turning and walking over to the crude fireplace set into the wall. After listening intently for a few seconds to make sure that Hamad was not coming back downstairs, she knelt in front of the fireplace and muttered as she waved her hands in front of it. When she drew back, the wood in the fire was crackling away. Sighing, she turned to take a pot from the counter behind her, murmuring softly so that only the air heard her apology.

'Sorry, Hamad, but I can't pretend as well as you do.'


Laila lay awake in her small bed, staring at the low ceiling above her. She thought back to the conversation her parents had been having downstairs before she had run up to avoid being caught eavesdropping on them. She hadn't heard much… or, rather, hadn't heard much she could understand, being only four years old. She had heard her father raise his voice over something, she wasn't too sure what, and both of them mentioning magic.

Magic didn't exist at all. Everyone knew that. People just blamed funny things on magic. Some people said that they could do a lot of things if it really did exist… but it didn't, so…

So why did her parents talk about it so much? It wasn't the first time she had heard the word come up… although, everyone said that there was no magic, and anyone who thought that there was magic, or said they used it, was a bad, bad person who tried to hurt other people…

But her parents weren't bad, Laila was very sure. And if her parents weren't bad and they talked about magic…

Then magic couldn't be bad, could it?

A sudden noise from outside the room distracted her from her thoughts. She quickly squeezed her eyes shut tight, so tightly that it hurt, so that she could pretend to be asleep. She heard the footsteps echoing on the bare floor of her room, and the dry cough that was her father's, even if it was rather muffled as if he were trying to suppress it.


She opened her eyes and sat up, looking at her father in the dim light of the candle he held. She only had to pretend to be asleep when her mother came to check on her, because her mother would be angry if she wasn't. Her father never got angry with her.


He smiled at her, and Laila smiled back. She could see the shadows from the candle making her father's face look weird, but she was sure that it wasn't the candle that was making him look so tired.

'Go to sleep, little princess.'

Laila laughed. They always did this every night.

'I want a story.'

'Which one?'

Laila thought hard. She always liked the story of the man who was swallowed by a fish… but then she remembered what she had heard downstairs.

'I don't want a story. I want a question. To ask you. I want to ask a question.'

Hamad stared at her curiously. When he didn't reply, she continued, her eyes shining in the light from the candle.

'What's magic?'

Hamad drew a sharp breath. He hadn't expected this question. At all. Immediately he adopted a gruff tone, drawing up a defense out of habit.

'There's nothing such as magic. Now sleep.'

'But I heard you and Mama talking about it, so it must be there!' Laila replied hotly, searching her father's face. The eyebrows were drawn together tightly, as if he was debating something in his mind, something that was causing him great trouble, his eyes darting around the room. She still stared at him, expecting an answer, as all little girls do when they ask a question.

Hamad sighed. He knew that he'd have to tell her. He couldn't keep denying that his daughter had inherited her parents' powers, and even as he thought about it, he couldn't deny that secretly he had hoped that she might.

But how to explain to a four-year-old who probably had only the faintest of ideas…

He was interrupted by Laila. 'Are you a magic?'

Even Hamad had to smile at his daughter's eagerness.

'No, I'm not a… magic. Magic is… when someone can say something and it happens, or they can make something out of nothing, or…' he whispered, swallowing the funny lump that had lodged itself in his throat, 'or they can have a power to make anything happen just by wishing it.' He stopped to look at Laila, the lump in his throat slowly going away but leaving him with a feeling of foolishness. 'Do you understand?'

For a second, he was afraid that he hadn't been able to explain, then Laila asked, 'Like Aladdin's wishes? The Jinn was a magic?'

He nodded, then stopped halfway. 'Yes... Aladdin's Jinn could do magic. He was a jinn… magic isn't a person, princess, it's something that you do.' He paused, debating on what to say. 'Like… like playing. But instead of pretending, you can make things real.'

Silence. Then…

'Can you do magic, Papa?'

Hamad nodded.

'Are you a Jinn?'

Hamad laughed. 'No, no, I'm not a Jinn. I'm a wizard.'

Laila scrunched up her face as she thought.

'What's a wizard?'

Hamad sighed. As much as he now wanted to have this all over and done with, he wasn't sure that he was doing a good job of explaining. Still, at four, Laila seemed to be a little smarter than she would appear to be… or maybe that was just his fatherly pride speaking for itself.

He had to try. Even if he had to explain it again later, it was better that it was him explaining than… well. Others who might be a little too interested in how Laila could make balls of mud levitate over someone's head when they had annoyed her. If Laila could understand… maybe she could control what she was doing…

'A wizard is a man who does magic.'

'Is Mama a wizard?'

'No, Mama's a witch.'

'But aren't witches bad?'

Hamad shook his head, wondering what he should say. 'No… people used to be scared of witches, so they thought they were bad. Like…' he struggled to find an example. 'Like, you were scared of Abdul Uncle but he wasn't bad when you talked to him…'

'No, he was funny!' she giggled. She smiled at her father, and for a minute, he thought that he was looking at an older version of Laila, that she could understand everything he was telling her… but when he looked again, she was back to four years old and looking at him intently as if she wanted him to continue with an interesting story.

'Have there always been wizards?'


'Tell me about them. About everything.'

'You want a story about wizards?' Hamad asked, his voice slightly rising in pitch. Laila nodded.

'I want to know what they did…' she whispered, looking at her father and again, he felt that he was looking at and talking to someone older… someone much older… and he heard a voice in his ears, a voice he had almost forgotten… the voice of his father, telling him about the wizards and how they lived. He could almost quote the old story, word for word, as it had been told to him.

'Come and sit here, and I'll tell you,' he murmured, and Laila obediently crawled out from beneath the thin sheet she used to cover herself at night and into her father's lap. Wrapping his arms around her, Hamad took a deep breath and began to talk, not seeing the room around him, not feeling the weight in his lap, not knowing anything except the story he was telling.

’Once, a race of men existed who could control the powers of the desert. Strange men these were, men who were granted the wisdom of the desert and the knowledge and power of the sands. Most of them were wanderers, moving from one desert town to the next, awing all the town-dwellers with their mysterious demeanors and apparent ability to control the forces that shaped the earth.

There were some who commanded the ill wind, which brought despair and hopelessness to the poor fellahin who worked in the fields of the rich Sultan. They would rise and demand of the wind to cease its roaring in the homes of the kindly, for their hosts did not deserve the misery that it brought. Most of them would stay only the one night, and a fellah was honored when one of these Wind Masters arrived at his home, for he knew that it was the beginning of prosperity for him. Indeed, most saw a remarkable change in their fortunes from the moment one of these mysterious men stepped over a fellah's threshold. The Wind Masters never went to the Sultan, always tracing their steps to the poorest, loneliest and most disgraced hovel with a request for a bed to spend the night, and leaving in the morning before sunrise. Often, if the man was pleased with the treatment he received, the fellah (who had most probably given up his own bed for his guest) would find a bag of dinars resting near his head when he awoke, a gift from the Wind Masters. But if the Wind Master had been treated carelessly, greeted with sighs and curses instead of welcome, a bag of scorpions' stings was his parting gift.

No one knows much about the Wind Masters; some said that they traveled on carpets that they used to ride the Wind, whom they had tamed to carry them wherever they wished… indeed, they used neither camel nor donkey, and after they had left there was no trace of their paths in the sand and never had anyone seen the same one twice. Some even believed them to be spirits born of the Wind, but the only ones who knew the truth were the Wind Masters themselves.

Then there were the few who had been granted the knowledge of the earth beneath them, and mastery over all that took root from it as well as those who walked over it. They did not stay in the houses of fellahin, nor in the gardens of the Sultan, but rather, looked for the cheapest accommodation available in the town and then offered three times its price to the owner to take possession of it. There, they would set up their stores, bottles and vials and pouches of extracts from all the living things that could ever be imagined, as well as some that had been taken from sources that were yet unknown to the common folk. The fellahin and their families were glad whenever one of these men came to their town, and in whispers, the news would spread that a Healer was amongst them. Those who were sick dragged themselves to his door, and those who could not walk were carried there by anxious relatives even before the Healer had announced his arrival. All knew that the Healers had such power that they could grant one immortality, if they so chose, but this gift was never given out to anyone, only rumors of it along with cures for all those who eagerly awaited their turn with the miraculous man. He could make boils vanish in an instant, and a touch from his healing hands on a boy who had been beaten by the Wazir's guards immediately set the child walking and laughing, causing all present to gasp in astonishment as they had clearly thought the boy to be dead. He brewed his concoctions by night, in several large cauldrons, vials of which he handed out to those who needed them the most. Sometimes, he would call a patient in and take them behind a curtain that had been set up within the room; what he did there was unknown to everyone except those who were present, and they did not talk of what he had done as they had been forbidden to speak of it.

Still, there were times when even one of these men could not cure a patient of whatever the poor fellah was suffering from. He did not give them false hope, but instead tried to at least stopper the pain and prepare the family for what was to come. On the night of death, the Healer would leave his own house and help to make sure that the person passed in comfort. It is even said that most of them wept profoundly with the family and would help them to carry out the burial rites, for nothing brought more grief to a Healer than one whom he could not help.

The strange thing about the Healers was that they never, ever, took gold for their services. On the contrary, many who went to him came back with a bulging money-bag that he had pressed upon them as they left, insisting that they take it and use the money to better their lives. The tatters and bare feet of children would touch these men so profoundly that there were none who could- or wanted to- dissuade them from gifts of gold to help clothe and feed a child who had probably never eaten his fill in his life. Yet, even after giving they always had more; they refused anything from the fellah who had less than nothing to give, and reluctantly accepted gifts from the few who could afford to give them. Some said that they knew the secrets of turning the sand they walked on into gold; others said that they had been blessed with the gift of eternal wealth as well as wisdom. Whatever it was, these Healers were highly respected and became an essential part of the towns they moved into. Some settled forever, marrying into the local community and teaching their children their secret art, while others would disappear from the town after many years, going as silently as they had come and leaving the inhabitants in sorrow until the next one came along.

Not all of this race were as good, however. There were those who wandered the desert sands, as dacoits do, causing mayhem wherever they appeared. These were men who had succumbed to the great Evil that lies in the desert, just waiting for those who harbor greed, envy and spite in their hearts. No one knew where they came from; no one knew where they went to, where they lived, what they looked like… nothing.

They had no name, because no word seemed bad enough to describe them. They committed evil deeds, purely for the sake of it. There are oases in the desert that even the traveler dying of thirst would not dare to visit, because it was once a town that was destroyed by the evil ones, a town that was burnt to the ground in a night that people have tried to forget. They killed all those they encountered; yes, they did, but before they killed them… they tortured them. No one knew how these people were tortured, but the screams… the screams still ring in the ears of those who heard them, and still managed to escape… their screams still ring in my ears…' Hamad choked out, blinking in the darkness as his eyes burned. He quickly raised one hand to wipe at his face so that Laila wouldn't see him crying… then realized that she was asleep, her head resting against his chest and one small arm around his neck. He laughed, a soft and bitter sound, before untangling the small girl from himself and laying her down on the bed as gently as he could.

A small cough in the doorway caught his attention. He whirled around, backing up against the bed and assuming a protective stance in front of it, before dropping his guard as he saw Saira with a candle, standing just inside the room. From the looks of it, she had been crying, and even as he thought of it, she wiped hurriedly at her face as if she hadn't noticed he had already seen her.


Again, Hamad let out a small laugh, still bitter, letting it turn into a dry sob halfway. 'She overheard us downstairs.'


The two adults stared at each other. Both of them seemed to be thinking of events long passed that only they knew, both of them wondering. A silence that seemed heavier than it had ever been settled over the room, a silence in which questions floated through Hamad's mind. He knew that in telling his daughter the story of wizards, he had actually come back to face everything he had run from his whole life. He idly wondered if she had understood… and how much she had actually heard before she had wandered off into dreams.

'When did she fall asleep?' he asked, not bothering to whisper but his voice raspy from so much talking.

'Right after you finished talking about the Healers,' Saira answered, looking down, suddenly keen on avoiding Hamad's eyes. Her own voice sounded pinched, like she was trying desperately to control herself.

'Maybe it's better that she doesn't know about… them. About me.'

He looked back at Laila, asleep, her mouth open slightly, and busied himself with the long sheet that had been thrown to the side when she sat with him. He draped it over her, smoothing it out, fixing the corners so that the sheet didn't slide off sometime in the night.

'Sweet dreams, Laila,' he said, leaning down to kiss her forehead and push a strand of dark hair away from her face. Asleep, she was all of four, a small figure in a bed and a small speck of sand in the desert. She slept, so unaware of anyone except herself and her dreams.

And as she slept, Hamad wondered if she would dream of magic.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013