Kirzai and the desert

Ages ago, somewhere in Central Asia, in a village called Givah, there was a young merchant named Kirzai whose business called him one day to travel to the village of Tchigan. Ordinarily, he would have taken the route that followed along the edge of the mountains, which took four days, and enabled him to make most of his journey protected from the sun. But on this occasion Kirzai was under the pressure of time; it was urgent that he get to Tchigan as soon as possible. And so he decided to strike out directly across the Syr Darya desert, a journey that would take two days.

The Syr Darya desert is known for the intensity of its sun and very few dare to venture across it. Nevertheless, Kirzai watered his camel, filled his gourds and set off on his journey.

Several hours after he left, the desert wind began to rise. Kirzai grumbled to himself and quickened the pace of his camel. Suddenly he stopped, stupefied. Far ahead of him rose a gigantic whirlwind. Never had Kirzai seen anything like it. It cast a terrible shadow all around it.

Kirzai hesitated. Should he make a lengthy detour in order to avoid this strange apparition or should he continue straight ahead? Kirzai was in a great hurry. He felt he did not have the time to take the slower path, so he lowered his head, hunched his shoulders and advanced forward.

To his surprise, the moment he entered the storm everything became much calmer. The wind no longer cut so sharply against his face. He felt pleased that he had made the right decision.

But suddenly he was compelled to stop again. A few steps ahead a man lay stretched upon the ground next to a crouching camel. Kirzai immediately dismounted to see what was wrong.

The man’s head was wrapped in a scarf, but Kirzai could tell that he was old.

The old man opened his eyes, looked at Kirzai intently for a moment and then said in a hoarse whisper:

“Is it . . . you?”

Kirzai smiled and shook his head.

“Do you know who I am? Has my fame spread across the desert of Syr Darya? But you, old man, who are you?”

The man said nothing. Kirzai continued:

“In any case, you are not well. Where are you going?”

“To Givah,” the old man sighed. “But I have no more water.”

Kirzai reflected. He could certainly share some of his water with the old man, but if he did, he risked running out of water himself.

But he could not just leave him. A man is not a dog to be left drying without a backward glance.

I need only find my way to the path along the mountains if I need more water, Kirzai thought. A human life counts more than a business appointment.

He helped the old man drink some water, filled one of his gourds and then helped him mount his camel.

“Go straight ahead that way,” he said, pointing his finger, “and you’ll be in Givah in two hours.”

The old man made a sign of acknowledgement with his hands. Before leaving, he looked for a long moment at Kirzai and uttered these strange words:

“One day the desert will repay you.”

He then turned his camel in the direction that Kirzai had indicated. Kirzai continued his journey. The opportunity that he had been hurrying to in Tchigan was no doubt lost, but he felt at peace with himself.

Time passed. Thirty years later Kirzai’s business took him continually back and forth between Givah and Tchigan. He had not become rich, but what he earned was enough to provide a good life for his family. He did not ask for more than that.

One day, when he was selling hides at the marketplace in Tchigan, he learned that his son was gravely ill. It was urgent that he go to him immediately. Kirzai did not hesitate. He remembered the shortcut across the desert that he had wanted to take thirty years before. He watered his camel, filled his gourds and set off.

Along the way he battled against time, spurring his camel unceasingly. He did not stop or even slow down while drinking, and because of that the accident occurred. His gourd suddenly fell from his hands and before he was able to get down to retrieve it, the water disappeared into the sand. Kirzai cursed out loud. With only one full gourd it was impossible to cross the desert. But thinking of his son, the old man pushed himself onward:

“I must do it, I will do it.”

The sun of the Syr Darya desert is merciless. It cares little why or for what purpose man tries to brave its rays. It blazed unremittingly with always the same power and intensity. Kirzai soon realised that he had made a great mistake. His tongue became parched, his skin burned. His only remaining gourd was already empty. And now, to his dismay, he saw that a sandstorm was beginning.

Kirzai wrapped his head in his scarf, closed his eyes and let his camel carry him forward where it would. He was no longer conscious of anything.

A gigantic whirlwind now rose up in front of him. It cast a large shadow, but Kirzai remained nearly unconscious and saw nothing. His camel entered into the whirlwind, advanced a few steps and then abruptly sat down. Kirzai tumbled to the ground.

I’m finished, he thought. My son will never see me again.

All at once, however, he gave a cry of joy. A man mounted on a camel was moving toward him. But the closer the man came, the more Kirzai’s joy turned into stupefaction.

This man who was now dismounting from his camel – Kirzai knew him. He recognised his youthful face, his clothes – even the camel that he was riding. A camel that Kirzai himself had bought for two valuable vases many years before.

Kirzai was certain: the young man who had come to help him was himself. It was Kirzai himself as he was thirty years before.

“Is it . . . you?” said Kirzai in a hoarse whisper.

The young man looked at him and smiled.

“Do you know who I am? Has my fame spread to the desert of Syr Darya? But you, old man, who are you?”

Kirzai did not answer. He did not know what to do. Should he tell the young man who he was, or say nothing about it?

Meanwhile, the young man went on:

“In any case, you are not well. Where are you going?”

“To Givah,” Kirzai replied. “But I have no more water.”

Kirzai saw that the young man was weighing the situation to himself and he knew exactly what was going through his mind: should he help Kirzai or continue on his own business? But Kirzai also knew what the decision would be and he smiled as he watched the young man offering him a drink of water. The young man then filled his gourd, helped him up on his camel and pointed his finger:

“Go straight ahead that way and you will be in Givah in two hours.”

The old Kirzai looked a long moment at the young man he had once been and made a sign of acknowledgement to him. He would have wished to speak to the young man of many things, but he could only find these words:

“One day the desert will repay you.”

And then he went off to Givah.

Kirzai grew to be a wise man, respected by all. And when he would tell his strange tale, everyone who heard it believed him. Ever since that time the desert of Syr Darya has been known by the name Samovstrecha, which means: the desert where one meets oneself.

– From Jacob Needleman, Time and the Soul, pp. 53-58.


Jacob Needleman comments on this ancient story –

“This is a story to live with. We must not try to understand it too quickly. But only note the ripple of feeling that it may have evoked. This kind of feeling is rarely met with in our day-to-day lives. It is a feeling that involves an entirely new sense of relationship to oneself.”


Perhaps reality as we know it is not reality. Perhaps all we experience has already taken place. Perhaps it will take place again, and again, as an unceasing potentiality at the heart of the universe. And you, me, others and all things are these potentialities – taking birth, dying, taking birth again.

Flowers take form from buds, spread their fragrance, and wilt. They fall to the earth and from their seed new flowers are born. They look just like the old flower. The cycle continues.

Nature knows both metaphysical time and chronological time. We, perhaps, have forgotten metaphysical time. We take chronological time to be real, and remain lost in its demands of becoming.




~ by tdcatss on March 24, 2016.

2 Responses to “Kirzai and the desert”

  1. I am reminded of that story from Ramayana mentioned in A.K Ramanujam’s essay ‘three hundred ramayanas….” when Rama drops his ring and hanuman is sent to fetch it from patala. On being told about the ring the king of patala lok shows hanuman a plate with hundreds of rings, saying every thousand years the same thing repeats, pointing towards the continuity of Time.

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