“Is this the boy you speak so highly of, General?” Nour Ad-Din asked.
“Yes it is.”
Shirkuh’s response to the sultan was stern yet respectful. His recent campaign to help Nur Ad-Din consolidate power had been a success. Alliances were made throughout the Fatimid Caliphate, expanding the sultan’s territorial reign and uniting the Arab tribes under one flag, and against a common enemy: the western crusaders.
Taking back Jerusalem was already a whisper among some, but Nur Ad-Din knew better than to raise the issue prematurely.
“Bring him closer,” Nour’s voice was forceful, but with a gentle undertone that seemed to comfort as well as command.
Shirkuh pushed the boy forward. The jolt sent him stumbling towards the ruler. He shuffled his feet quickly and after regaining his balance, stopped to look back at his uncle, whose stoic face told the boy everything he needed to know. He was to stand on his own before the ruler, without the aid or comfort of his mentor.
“You seem strong and able bodied,” said the Sultan. “Your uncle tells me that you wish to join our cause. You want to be a soldier?”
“Because I want to fight for our people… to help take back the land that was once ours.”
“I see. Your response is the same as everyone else’s; it’s the response every soldier in this room has given me. Tell me, how will you be different from all the rest?”
The boy searched his mind for an answer but found none. He said nothing.
“I have no need for another brute wielding a sword for honor and glory,” the Sultan continued. “There are plenty of men around me for that, men who are much more capable than you.”
“Then how else can I be of service?” The boy’s voice was stern, his posture proud, and his eyes wide with determination. He would not be dissuaded.
“A million men with swords will hack away at the sandstorms, competing with each other to be recognized as the victor in an impossible battle.” Nour Ad-Din stood up from his chair and approached the boy.
“Courageous and foolhardy is what most men are,” he continued. “They lack discipline and patience, attributes that nurture the seeds of intelligence.”
He stopped in front of the boy and placed his hand on his shoulder: “I need more men with intelligence.”
The Sultan led him out of the room, to a courtyard behind the palace and then out into the open sand. The two walked in silence for an hour. Nour kept a brisk pace and even though the boy struggled to keep up, his composure never faltered. They made their way to an isolated well, several miles from the palace.
“What’s your name?”
“Fetch me some water from the well and find me a stick.”
Yussef did as he was told. The Sultan sat on the sand with his back resting against the edge of the well. When Youssef returned with the stick and a cup for the water, the Sultan offered him a seat next to him.
“Your uncle holds you in high regard or he would not have sent you to me. Let’s see if I’m to share his opinion.”
The Sultan drew a line in the sand with the stick and pointed to it.
“Make this line shorter?” He ordered.
“As you wish.” The boy stood up and erased part of the line by scattering the sand with his foot. When he was done, he stood there, waiting for further instruction. None came. Instead, the sultan looked at the boy and shook his head. The child lowered his gaze, but the sultan quickly reached over and placed his hand under his chin, lifting the boy’s head until their eyes met again.
He gave Youssef the stick and then wrapped his hand around the boy’s, so that they were both holding the stick. He moved the tip to a spot next to the line and redrew the portion that Yussef erased, restoring the line to its original length.
“Now we will make the line shorter, you and I.”
The Sultan moved the stick several inches below the original line and placed its tip on the sand, drawing a new line across a parallel path. He stopped when both lines were equal, looked at the boy for emphasis, and then continued until the new line was twice as long.
“You see Yusuf, we have made the first line shorter. This is not the obvious way, but it is the better way.”
“But why is this better?” The boy asked.
“Because my way creates something, yours makes less of what is already there.”
The sultan rose and grabbed Yussef’s hand. They walked away from the well, towards the vast desert horizon. The guards stood up and began to follow but the ruler waved his hand, signaling them to remain behind. They walked until the guards disappeared from view and all that was left was the sand at their feet and the air between them.
The sultan stretched his arm and pointed to the horizon, where the sand met the sky. This was the line that the Bedouin tribes always followed: the line that could not be made smaller; the line that could never be conquered; the one that seems closest when it was furthest away.
“Beyond those plains lies an entire world,” whispered the Sultan, “bigger than the widest desert you can imagine. And yet we remain here, squabbling with each other over meaningless footholds in a land as arid as the air we breathe.
“We hack away at the sand so that it shuffles in different directions beneath our feet, keeping our attention directly below us; while above us, the rest of the world drains the water from our wells.
“Understand that strength comes from growth, not destruction, and you will conquer yourself and, with enough time and patience, conquer any army. That is a lesson I learned late in life, and one that I offer freely now, to all those who have more years ahead of them than they do behind them. Maybe one of you will grow wise enough to finish what I have started.”
The Sultan walked away from Youssef.
The boy did not follow. He remained; watching the sand move with the shifting gentle breeze.
After a few moments he marched forward and looked across the nothingness, to the only form that was there — but wasn’t there. The horizon had not shrunk. The horizon had not wavered. It was as still as the cloudless sky and the blaring sun. And these two would also change: soon the sky would darken and the sun would set. But the horizon would remain, unwilling to shrink before any other force of nature. This was the strength the Sultan spoke of. This was the challenge for their people: to match that which has been there all along, waiting to be seen, waiting to be listened to, waiting to be emulated.