Khalil opened his eyes. He was laying flat on his back under the shade of a tamarind tree. He could remember nothing, his mind felt as if a river had washed through it, his head was empty and unblocked and he felt a great pureness. For many minutes that gathered into hours, Khalil lay on his back in absolute bliss, nothing troubled him, and no words hassled him; he was at peace.
He sat-up and stared with wonder, it was then that a thought formed within him, the first he’d had in over four hours, “Where am I?” He tried to stand but found it difficult, his body felt different, he felt an ethereal lightness and the usual muscular action which controlled his body seemed now not to prove effective, he found now that he could move almost effortlessly, he felt like he was gliding down the golden hill side. He looked about him, now he his mind was slowly filling with words again.
“Where am I? It’s beautiful here.” The cool breeze was laced with the combined perfume of hundreds of different fruits and flowers. Trees of all kinds abounded, he saw flowers uncountable in their variety and whose colours were mesmerising. “What is this place?” He walked on under a cloud of enchantment until his senses were caressed with an unmistakable sweet fragrance, “Honeysuckle,” he thought. He walked, trying to discover the shrub, looking out for its distinctive little white blossoms. To no avail.
He saw many other types of tree and shrubs, oranges and lemons, olives, fig trees but he could not discover where the delicious odour was coming from. He felt tired and decided to take a seat by a river and so moving through a lawn of wild flowers he noticed the fragrance grew ever stronger, ‘Could it be these small flowers?” He bent down to smell them, their richness intoxicated him but yet the fragrance he was seeking eluded him. “Never mind, I’ll sit down by this flowing river”. As he did so, he gazed into the thick waters which flowed slowly and peacefully, he put a hand into the waters to refresh himself, and jumped back with a cry of surprise and disbelief. His hand was covered with a thick clinging substance, “In the name of Allah it is honey, how can this be?” He cautiously sniffed his hand then tasted it, it was indeed honey. His mind reeled, he stumbled back and his foot sank into a rivulet of water. Khalil looked down at his foot to find it ankle deep in a white liquid ‘milk!’ he shouted “This cannot be! What strange land this is I must discover!” He took his foot out of the rivulet of milk and ran frantically across the plain until he was stopped in his tracks by a sound.
“Hey you over there,” he turned and saw a figure standing near an orange tree with an orange in his hand. Khalil didn’t move: fear and incomprehension rooted him to the spot.
“Don’t be afraid, rejoice!” the figure ran towards him, Khalil backed away, “have no fear for this is paradise.” said the figure.
“My name’s Arslan, in the name of Mohammed rejoice for we have our reward!” Arslan spoke fervently with a great smile of beatitude on his face.
“Is this really paradise?” Asked Khalil.
“But of course, haven’t you seen the golden palaces? The milk and honey flowing abundantly?”
"Then I am saved,” then Khalil thought for a moment, “but I don’t remember dying.”
“I do,” Said Arslan, “I was poisoned by a rogue who offered tainted hospitality.”
Khalil thought for a moment puzzled, but his thoughts were disturbed by the sound of melodious singing voices.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Angels” Arslan answered, “come and see.”
So the two men walked off following the sound of singing that seemed to drift down from the surrounding mountains. “But I can’t see them,” Khalil complained.
“Nor can I,” Arslan answered, “but I can hear them, I suppose they are hiding their true nature but all will become clear in time.”
The melodious sound echoed between the mountains and produced an extraordinary sensation in the two listeners, they felt dizzying enrapture by the singing. Then from nowhere beautiful strains of music flowed accompanying the music.
Both men were so moved that they could not refrain from dancing, and so they moved in slow circles, eyes closed with arms outstretched:
“As we turn the sun turns; as the sun turns the world turns and with it all life turns as we turn.” Arslan sang.
As the music showed no signs of letting up they danced for hours, until the singing seemed to very gradually become quieter and quieter, it seemed the voices were moving away and the players too.
“Let's follow, see if we can find the angels,” Arslan suggested.
Khalil agreed and so they walked bare-footed in the grass and wild flowers. Ahead he saw something.
“What’s that shimmering on the plain beyond? It looks like the sun’s fire.”
They walked on drawing ever closer to the shimmering plain that seemed to be ablaze with light.
"What new enchantment can this be? it will consume us." Khalil exclaimed anxiously. “It seems to be…no it can’t be... look, it’s gold, pure gold!”
They rushed headlong onto the golden field rolling in flakes of pure gold until their beards and hair were sewn with gold.
“God be praised," Arslan exclaimed "but come let us follow the music more for they have shown us this marvel, perhaps there are yet more thing to see in heaven.”
They walked on following the tune, each man was by now almost a shimmering statue of gold, they sparkled and shone and rejoiced for the riches of paradise. They moved reluctantly away from the field of gold and started to climb a steep hill, they climbed accompanied by the heavenly music.
“You know,” Arslan said “all my life has been a struggle, I have seen rich men live indecent immoral lives while the poor people I knew always lived by God’s law and they suffered unjustly. I could never understand why men who denied God’s law could prosper while the poor and humble people lived decent lives and were rewarded by more poverty and were made to suffer even more. Now I understand. I do not know my parents, I had been near to death many times before, my life was a daily struggle against death and starvation.”
“You had no parents? that is strange, nor did I, I am an orphan. My life too had been hard.”
They had nearly reached the summit of the hill, the climb had been hard but the top was in view and the music too seemed to be drawing ever closer becoming louder and sweeter yet.
“How fortunate that two such as us should finally receive our just reward.” Khalil said. They were near the top now; just a few more footfalls and they would be standing at the summit.
“But one thing I don’t….” Khalil began but suddenly his words fell from him as he gasped in awe at a new miracle before him. They were on top of a hill, five hundred feet below them they saw the distant golden field sparkling and further they saw the streams of milk and honey. But right now, in front of them they saw a great sparkling palace decorated with porcelain gold and jewels.
“A poor man never was so rich!”
“Dara al salaam!” Arslan exclaimed.
Before them stood a palace of glittering golden cupolas whose glow rivaled the sun itself. The walls were painstakingly decorated with the finest porcelain with designs painted upon it which mirrored and embellished the surrounding paradise. With coloured inks of uncanny synthesis and brush strokes of astounding finesse and resolution; the painted tiles showed tall heavy-laden fruit trees, rising up towards the golden cupolas as trees yearn towards the sun. The trees bore fruit of all colours which, although mere paintings, seemed to contain all the promise of zest and juiciness of the genuine article. Khalil and Arslan tore their hungry eyes away from the painted fruit and scanned across to see all manner of extraordinary animals: forms that confronted their vision astounded them:
“What are these creatures? What dreamlike visions. Look Arslan that yellow beast as high as the trees, is it not wonderful? And there,” he pointed, “a monster which looks like a huge grey stone, look Arslan it has two tails, one at each end of its body!” They gazed into the painting long and hard getting lost in the detail of a tree of a thousand brush strokes, in a forest of a million.
“Arslan, see there,” he pointed to the painting of a decorated palace “it is this palace!”
“By Allah you’re right! it’s the very same palace, and look there, there are two figures, I can’t believe it, it is me and you! There we are standing just as we are here, looking at the walls of the palace!"
As they gazed in astonishment, a sound rose from the darkened recess of the palace: the sound of gentle women’s laughter and dainty conversation.
“Who is within? Perhaps this is no place for us,” Khalil's voice betrayed a sudden unease, “we must leave, let us go down to the field of gold once more then we can feast on the ripe fruit that lie by the honey river.”
“But this is paradise! no ways are barred in paradise!”
“But there are lords too in paradise, this is their rest not ours, let us be gone.”
“Nonsense, we are dead what have we to fear? I’m going in with or without you.”
Arslan walked briskly towards the yawning palace entrance, “see! no one stops me, there are no guards!” Khalil pondered for a moment, then started walking towards the entrance “wait for me then!” he walked briskly after Arslan but he was soon engulfed by the obscurity within so Khalil could no longer see him. He paused by the palace entrance, again the sound of gentle laughter emanated from within, “Arslan what is there?” He called but heard no answer; only the sound of women’s voices answered him.
“Arslan I can’t see you, where are you?” Again he heard no answer but the women’s voices which were like the babbling of a gentle waterfall: their voices were cool and soothing, it seemed to Khalil that they were calling him inside. Their voices filled him with thoughts of love and pleasure; his mind had already embodied the voices giving them sweet faces and full bodies. His concern returned however, why did Arslan not answer? Then he reflected, perhaps he was otherwise engaged, he smiled. He strode into the darkness. As Khalil's eyes grew used to the darkness he noticed he was in a long grey stone corridor with a small opening just ahead, the voices of the women still aroused his desires and drew him onward with increasing rapidity.
He walked through the opening and brushing aside a coloured silk curtain he looked on in ecstasy. The room was richly furnished with silks of all colours hanging from the walls; on the floor were an extraordinary array of carpets of every design and from every part of the known world. The floor was a chorus of colours, all blended in perfect harmony with the noble geometry of the carpet’s designs. The furniture in the room was of gold and upon the furniture and lying on the floor were beautiful Haris wearing extraordinary dresses, one represented dawn with all the colours of daybreak, another was dusk, a dark eyed, silent woman was wearing an approaching storm and a green eyed Hari with fair brown hair who was a river. At once he forgot Arslan, but remembered that Mahommed had promised to those who should obey his will, all the enjoyments of paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found in the society of beautiful nymphs.
Khalil was extremely desirous of sensual gratification as he looked about him at the beautiful damsels, some of who were singing and playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, others yet were dancing. He noticed two more Haris moving towards him proffering wine and viands, and tempting him with dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses, they soon shed them and taking him with expert hands indulged him with caresses and such wondrous physical refinements until he fell into an exhausted slumber.
In his dreams he found no escape from paradise but took it with him and explored still further its wondrous excesses. He found in his dream that he could fly like a bird, in fact he was becoming a bird: golden wings budded from under his armpits and shone dazzlingly bright. He surveyed his golden kingdom from on high, ahead he saw a forest of improbably high trees, their roots and trunks lies many hundreds of feet below him but they soared up many hundreds of feet, perhaps thousands; their tops were lost in the clouds. Khalil flew up higher and higher intrigued by this mighty forest but exhausted himself long before he saw even the slightest tree top. He rested on a branch, his golden wings had disappeared, he looked down: many thousands of feet below him was the ground, he realised the precariousness of his predicament and suddenly the tree began to shake and rumble, a noise like thunder shook the branch, Khalil slipped from the branch. Then he awoke.
The sound of thunder echoed through the palace, absolute silence had suddenly fallen on the Haris. A mighty gong was being struck somewhere in the palace, it was surely the most enormous gong ever cast: its sound shook the walls of the palace; strangely the sound seemed to be coming closer, the sound of thunder growing nearer like an approaching storm that intimidates the forest and overshadows the plain as it travels.
Then suddenly the thunder struck outside the hall and the Haris bowed their heads casting their eyes to the floor. A large concealed door swung, opening-up a large portion of the back-wall, smoke filled the room and a deep and heavy intoxicating odour filled the room. Music was heard and the sounds of angels' voices chanting a deep song whose rhythm pulsated and seemed to move inside Khalil and carry him off on a particular musical journey where their were up and downs, twists and turns; a crescendos that drew Khalil into a frenzy of expectation and then a diminuendo which just as soon brought him giddily down so fast that he felt dizzied by the voyage. Then, deep within the thick clouds he could see a dark shape moving; coming closer, until the figure of a hooded man in long white cloak, broke through the clouds, though his face was cast in shadow by his hood, Khalil knew he was watching him and something told him he was smiling.
“What is this?” Khalil asked, the figure gave no answer.
“Allah?” Khalil asked nervously.
“Indeed, it is he,” the bearded figure answered.
At once Khalil bowed with eyes averted.
“Oh Allah, creator of the stars the angels and the Djinns; giver of the holy law and judge of all men high and low, I humbly ask your pardon for I have erred in my life through ignorance and poverty.”
“Enough!” thundered the figure who had stopped smiling, and a flash of light burst into the room, dazzling Khalil who was now trembling with fear.
“Your life has indeed been miserable and your acts most impure,” the figure continued, “you have one more chance. You will serve Lord Hassan for he is my prophet and will guide you well. Disobey him in anything and you will never see this place again.”
With that the figure backed away into the clouds again. The angels' chants struck up again and the acrid smoke filled the room entirely, Khalil once again fell asleep.
Khalil opened his eyes, to find himself surrounded by hard male faces staring at him.
“See, he opens his eyes.”
“Where am I?” he asked in bewilderment and confusion.
“You have returned to us, Allah be praised, by my power I have stolen you from death’s jaws, is this not so?”
“It is true, I was dead, and I saw paradise.”
“And was it pleasing to you?”
“Indeed it was, rivers of milk and honey and beautiful nymphs just as the prophet described.”
“And now we have given you life will you serve your Lord and master Hassan? We have the assurance of our Prophet that he who defends his Lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourselves to be devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you."
“Lord Hassan, if it is by your power that I am returned to life then I wish by that same power to be returned to death for I am life weary and need sleep.”
“Hold your tongue, or you shall lose it and more besides, for I am the Prophet returned to Earth and at my word your rest shall be a torment that will last a thousand years, see here what horrors await he who disobeys the Prophet’s decree.” Hassan stood aside and brought out his right arm in an arc that pointed to a table behind him.
“Come closer!” Hassan ordered, Khalil obeyed and looked upon a table were a great feast was spread.
“What would you eat to sate your hunger?” Hassan asked “perhaps this,” Hassan indicated a whole roast baby lamb with an outstretched palm, “or this” he waved towards a carafe full of a blood red wine. “Or this,” he pointed towards a circular plate covered by a dome like silver lid.
“You shall lift it.” Khalil approached the plate hungrily lifting the lid he reflected that he didn’t know what Hassan was talking about and suspected him of being a mad man, he lifted the lid anticipating something delicious, his heart jumped and he felt dizzy and sickened by what he saw. On the plate there was a singular piece of meat: a human head in a pool of blood. It was the head of his new friend Arslan.
“What is this?” he asked, sickened and confused.
“Silence, you shall speak only when I demand it, there are lessons to learn and to learn quickly, otherwise you shall share his fate,” Hassan indicated the head.
“Now you shall know my power for I am the Prophet Ali returned on earth to show the way to paradise and help those in darkness to avoid falling into purgatory. Arslan!” Hassan addressed the head, “I return you to life in the name of Allah.”
To Khalil’s astonishment the head opened its eyes.
“Now, tell this man what you have seen,” the head answered:
“By the grace of my lord Hassan, I shall tell what I have seen. Horrors have I seen and worse horrors have been my just reward for my crime for which I am punished for disobeying the word of my rightful divine lord, lord Hassan ibn Sabbah from the divine line of the fourth Imam Ali. I thank your grace my Lord Hassan for calling me back to life and sparing me the horrors that death has waiting for me. In death the body cannot further die and so there is no escape from the cruel punishments. My body was pierced with a thousand holes that gushed an endless torrent of black blood and ooze. My limbs were twisted and broken again and again, my eyes burnt out a thousand times, no faint hid me from these tortures as it does when we suffer as mortals, but in death there is no escape. I curse my folly when I tasted paradise by lord Hassan’s bounty, but then I spurned him and sought out death by my own hand and was awakened not gently by the sweet breath of fragrant nymphs but by the hot breath of a dog’s ravenous muzzle biting at my face. Love your just lord Hassan lest you suffer as I have.”
“You see!” Lord Hassan thundered, “from what fate I wish to save you, and now, you shall depart troubled spirit.” With a gesture from Hassan, a huge bearded man with ferocious burning eyes raised a cudgel and smote down into the head silencing it forever.
“Now, Khalil the fatherless, join your fellows and obey your Lord Hassan as you obey Allah.” Abdul joined the ranks of about 30 other men while Hassan addressed them:
“Your training is ready to begin, over the next six months you will learn much that is unknown outside the walls of my court, this knowledge will prepare you for God so completely that you will sit by Ali’s side in the garden of paradise which some of you have already tasted by my grace. But, you can never leave my side, you will learn to fight for me and for God, you will be respected and feared throughout the world, your exploits will echo into future generations and you shall be truly the army of God. Now to your tutors Ismailis.”
With that the assembled group of young men were taken away by their tutors to begin their training. When they were gone Hassan waved away his attendants and walked out through a door in the back of the room, he returned with two men, signalling down to the smashed head on the silver tray he said, “get rid of this rubbish,” The men removed the tray which had a hole in the middle around under the head and opened the table exposing the rest of the dead man’s body, they lifted the body between them and left the room.
Hassan alone now mused to himself and distractedly rubbed his genitals, “hmm, time to visit paradise I think.” And left the room.