On the Winds of the Rub' Al-Khali
by Stephen Gaskell
Praise be to Allah, the Creator of heaven and earth!
My name is Ismail Dhu-Nuwas. I am Bedouin. My clan is the al-Ghafran, part of the mighty al-Murrah tribe. For thousands of years we have skirted the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali desert in
the southern reaches of Arabia, living a simple life tending our herds, seeking new pasture,
leading trading caravans.
Obedience to the Sunnah -- the customary law of the ancestors -- has preserved our way of life
through the centuries. It stresses the values of loyalty, generosity, cunning, and honor.
When I was four years old an object cut a blazing trail down from the heavens into the heart of
Although I couldn't understand the import of this event -- couldn't know how it would
irrevocably alter my path -- I already knew that whatever befell me, I would live as Bedouin.
The professor came six years later.
The little rains had been especially feeble that season, vanishing almost as quickly as they had
arrived, and I was encouraging the famished goats to feed on cacti when he shimmered into view.
He rode a lone camel, and was led by a single guide. It was not my place to announce visitors, so
as they drew closer, disappearing and then appearing again as they rose and fell with the
undulating dunes, I simply watched.
The guide was Bedouin, but not of a tribe I was familiar with, and the camel was an Arabian
breed, one of the finest I'd had the fortune to set my eyes on. As for the man, he was dressed in a
dark suit with a blue bow tie, utterly inappropriate for the blistering heat. His only concession to
the sun was a white keffiyya wrapped around his head.
As they passed by, despite the fact that he was clearly suffering -- thick beads of sweat
peppering his brow -- the man gave me a respectful nod of the head and a warm smile. I think I
might've smiled back, but I'm not entirely certain.
They proceeded into the heart of our encampment, where one of the majlis -- the tribal elders --
was already waiting. At their arrival the customary hospitalities were begun: the camel was led to
a shaded water trough; the guide to one of the communal tents; the visitor to the sheikh's
I turned my attention back to the bleating goats, still speculating as to the purpose of the man's
visit, but already anticipating that he would be just another in the long line of infrequent,
seemingly unimportant, guests that passed through. Much like the occasional sandstorms that
blew hot rains of stone through our camp, I fully expected no trace of him to remain in a day or
"Ismail," called one of the older boys an hour or so later. "You're wanted in the sheikh's tent."
I kneeled on the sand, picking ticks out of one of the goat's patchy hides. I'd been wondering
how the pests flourished, and whether isolating the goats might help rid the herd of them. I turned
my head, shielding my eyes from the sun's brilliance. "Me?"
"Yes you, Ismail."
My skin tingled from the tips of my buried toes to the roots of my shorn hair. Perhaps the feeling
was more akin to nerves than excitement, but whatever the feeling, I felt truly alive then. An
invitation to the sheikh's tent was something few adult tribesmen got, never mind a gangly,
awkward ten year old.
What could the sheikh -- and by extension the ill-clothed visitor -- want with me?
I stood up, brushed the sand from my 'abya, and skittered down the slope.
Many eyes were upon me as I ran between the long, black tents, and as I grew close to the
sheikh's -- the largest in the camp -- I eased up to a respectful walk. As is usual during the
hottest part of the day, the sides and back of the tent were rolled up to allow what little breeze
there was through. Between the short poles I could see a tightly-bunched row of men's backs.
They sat cross-legged, revealing the leathery soles of their feet. Hearty chatter spilled out.
As I went inside, the smell of cardamom-laced coffee rich in the air, the voices went quiet. I
blinked, my eyes getting used to the dark. My father was present. His face was grave, and I
realized the conversation had been confrontational rather than genial.
Everybody's eyes were on me.
"Come, sit, Ismail," the sheikh said, patting an empty cushion to his right. I sat, joining the circle
of men which was only broken by the coffee hearth. Everything about the sheikh's tent from the
rugs to the serving implements was grander, more luxurious than I was used to, but I had little
time to appreciate it. "Ismail, I want you to meet someone," he went on, turning his palm to the
mysterious visitor. "This is Professor al-Wahab."
"Please, call me Muhammad." The professor started to offer his hand, thought the better of it,
and simply nodded, his mouth creasing into a smile. He spoke with a thick accent, but I was still
able to understand his Arabic.
My gaze met my father's. His eyes flashed.
"I am humbled," I said quickly, dipping my head as befit a child greeting an elder.
A beautifully embossed egg-shaped cup was placed before me, coffee poured. I am ashamed to
say that pride swelled in my chest, my father's distress easily forgotten.
The sheikh went on. "Professor al-Wahab has a few questions for you, Ismail. Answer them to
your best of your ability." I noticed that as he said those words he glanced at my father. Perhaps
if I was older I would've understood what that look meant, and what was at stake.
"Ismail," the professor begun, "I understand you help entertain the tribe. Is that right?"
I nodded, thinking of how uncomfortable he must have been in his suit. Thick hairs matted
against his skin between his socks and ends of his trousers.
"Can you tell me what you do?"
I shrugged. Most of the time I was simply entertaining myself, and any enjoyment the tribe
derived was incidental. "I make puzzles."
"What kind of puzzles? Tell me one."
I glanced at my father. He remained silent, his expression stone-like. I couldn't understand his
anger. Why wasn't he proud?
I stared at the whorls of steam that eddied off my coffee, thinking. "Every bayt in the tribe is
entitled to one jar of goat's milk per day. However, there are only two milk pitchers. One holds
three jars, the other five. How can every bayt get their fair share without spilling any milk?"
The professor grinned, but remained silent.
I looked around the circle, watching the men think. This was my favourite part: to catch a wry
turn of the lip or a sudden rise of the brows -- to share in the thrill of revelation.
I realized that some of the men had found the answer, but they were reluctant to answer before
the sheikh. It must've been one of my first lessons in politics. It wouldn't be my last.
"If I might be permitted --" the professor began diplomatically.
"Of course," the sheikh replied, neatly solving the majlis' dilemma. "Go ahead."
"The three jar pitcher is filled, and its contents poured into the five jar pitcher. Then the three jar
pitcher is filled again, and the five jar pitcher filled to the brim. Thus there is left one jar in the
three jar pitcher."
Murmurs of approval and gasps of understanding filled the tent.
"Here's one for you, Ismail," Professor al-Wahab said, staring up in thought. "A wise king's
beautiful daughter is sought in marriage by three princes. To ensure his daughter marries the
most intelligent prince, the king devises a test. The three princes are brought into a room, and sat
in a triangle facing each other. On the floor between them are three white hats and two black
hats. They are blindfolded and three of the hats are placed on their heads, while the other two are
removed. The princes are told that when their blindfolds are removed they must work out the
colour of their own hat from the what they see before their eyes. The right answer will win them
the king's daughter in marriage. The wrong answer, death." He paused, taking a sip of his coffee.
"Now, imagine you are one of the princes. Your blindfold is removed, and you see that the other
two princes wear white hats. After a short while, neither of the other two princes has answered.
What colour is your hat?"
I remember picturing myself as that prince, sitting in a pristine, marble-white chamber, facing my
two rivals. When neither answered quickly, the colour of my own hat was obvious.
"White," I said.
"Are you sure, Ismail? The pain of death awaits the wrong answer."
The answer was clear, no doubt in my mind. "My hat is white. If my hat were black, the other
two princes would see one white hat and one black hat. They would quickly realize that their own
hat couldn't be black for that would mean the other Prince would see two black hats and
immediately realize his own hat must be white. Thus they would realize their own hat must be
white. Since neither prince gives this answer, there can be no black hats. All the hats are white."
I could tell the men were impressed, for awed whispers met my words.
"Very good, Ismail. Your grasp of logic is impressive." The professor turned his head to the
sheikh. "He shows great potential. Would you permit me to stay longer in order --"
"You are welcome to stay as our guest for as long as you like." The sheikh picked up the silver,
slender-necked coffee-pot, and poured the professor another cup. "We should, however, discuss
all the --" the sheikh stroked his chin, seeking the right word "-- eventualities." He turned to
me. "Ismail, you may go now."
I stood up, obedient, but disappointed I couldn't stay longer. In the professor I sensed a man of
insight and curiosity, a kindred spirit who would understand me, not as a source of throwaway
puzzles, but as a like-minded individual -- even if I was only a boy.
Most of all I wanted to know what he intended for me.
"Ismail," the professor said before I'd gone a single step, "another puzzle for you. An emperor is
preparing for the biggest celebration of his reign. The day before the party, after gathering a
thousand bottles of his finest wines from his cellars, he discovers that one of the bottles has been
poisoned. Anyone drinking even the smallest drop of the poisoned wine will die within a day. He
has a thousand slaves at his disposal, but he would rather use the condemned men awaiting
execution in his prison. What is the smallest number of men he must use to determine which
bottle is poisoned?"
I understood the problem, but I couldn't begin to fathom an answer.
"It is not an easy problem," the professor said, "but see if you can make some headway."
I nodded, knowing that I wouldn't rest in my pursuit of the answer. I skipped out of the tent,
enthused, but nervous, glancing once at my father.
His expression was still grim.
The men spoke for many hours.
It was long after nightfall, long after I'd pulled the goat's hair blanket over my body, that I heard
my father come in. He stroked my cheek, whispered blessings. I feigned sleep. My mind was far
from the world of dreams, the strange visitor foremost in my thoughts. I hoped that my mother
and father might talk, and that I might learn something about his plans.
Through the slit of my eye I watched my father slip under the blankets beside my mother.
I was in luck.
"Al-Habib," my mother muttered, rousing herself from slumber, "you're freezing." She coughed,
the illness that had beset her many moons ago worsening by the day.
From the silhouette of their huddled form I could tell my mother held my father close, gave him
warmth. Whenever something occupied his mind he would hike a short distance from the camp
and stare at the stars. He always said if you looked hard enough the constellations offered
guidance from Allah.
"He wants to take Ismail, doesn't he?"
I held my breath, trying to hear my father's reply. My heart hammered loudly in my chest.
My mind cartwheeled. I felt afraid but excited. Where would I travel? What would the professor
teach me? Why did he need me?
There was a desperate edge to my mother's next words. "The sheikh --"
"-- has to think of the tribe. The wells are dry, the animals are starving. Professor al-Wahab
promises much wealth in exchange-"
"He is not to be bartered like a camel!" My mother raised herself into a sitting position, gave out
a long hacking cough. "We can leave, join another tribe --"
"No. That would only bring shame." My father sat up, placed a hand on my mother's shoulder.
"Think. With the money we can buy medicine for you."
It was only then that I realized I wasn't the only one whose life was about to change. I was an
only child. My leaving would be devastating.
My father sighed. "I am not happy with this, but who are we to question Allah's will?"
My mother had no answer to that, only tears.
She cried for a long time that night.
In hindsight I am sure Professor al-Wahab could have left with me the next day. There was
nothing more for him in the desert, nothing but discomfort and delay from his work. Instead, he
accepted the hospitality of the tribe -- partaking in the feasting, listening to the tales of the
elders, sharing prayer times. When he wasn't involved with these duties, he would spend time
with me asking about my family, tracing shapes in the sand, talking about the night sky and the
secrets of the heavens.
I understand now that as well as beginning to prepare me for what lay ahead, he was giving me
the chance to find peace with the fact it might be long years before I returned. I am grateful for
that. During those last few days I experienced long hours of wonderment, punctuated by
moments of sadness. The hidden beauty of the cosmos was being revealed to me, but I would
soon be leaving everyone and everything I knew.
Whenever I asked him where I would be going, or why he had come for me, all he would say was
"All in good time, Ismail. All in good time." He said that it would be an adventure, that I would
see amazing things, and that I would be contributing to a noble endeavor. The mystery scared me
as much as it thrilled me.
When I wasn't with him I helped my mother and father with their work -- mending pots and
making saddles -- all the while turning the puzzle about the emperor and his poisoned wine over
and over in my mind.
I understood that if each of the thousand bottles was drunk by a different set of men, then the
pattern of deaths would reveal which bottle was the poisoned one. Exactly how many men were
needed to create the required sets stayed out of reach, however.
It wasn't until the morning of our departure, three days after the professor had arrived, that the
answer came to me. I'd led a couple of the tribe's goats over to a near-dry watering hole and was
watching them drink, when I realized there were four combinations of drinking patterns for two
goats: both abstain; one abstains, one drinks; the other abstains, the other drinks; and both drink.
Therefore two men would be needed if there were four bottles of wine, three for eight bottles,
four for sixteen, and so on.
I slapped the hindquarters of the goats, herded them back to the camp, and tethered them to their
"Ten men," I shouted as I ran between the tents, giddy with excitement. "Ten men are needed!"
Coming round the corner of the sheikh's tent I almost ran square into the back of Professor al-Wahab. He stood in conference with my mother and father and the sheikh.
"The emperor needs ten men," I blurted.
The professor nodded, smiled as if he'd always known that I'd get the answer. "We must leave
now, Ismail." Off to one side I noticed that two camels had been prepared, the same guide who'd
arrived with the professor tightening their saddles. My elation vanished as fast as a disturbed
gecko. I felt hollow.
My father stepped to me, placed his hands on my shoulders. "Allah has blessed you with a
wonderful mind, son," he said, eyes glistening, "but it is up to you how you use it. Never forget
that. And remember, no matter what happens, you will always be in our hearts." He edged back,
made way for my mother.
Despite her sickness, she wore a beautiful embroidered dress and her hair was tied up. "It seems
like only yesterday that you were a baby, Ismail," she said unevenly, not hiding her tears. "And
now you're a man, ready to make your way in the world."
I knew she didn't really think I was a man yet, but I appreciated her confidence in me.
"Wear this for me," she said, pulling an amulet from a fold in her dress and tying it around my
neck. "It will protect you from evil spirits." She pulled me close, hugged me tight.
"I will think of you every day, Ommah."
The sheikh helped the professor onto his camel, while my father helped me on to mine.
My mother's tears, wet on my shoulder, evaporated in the brilliant sunshine before we'd gone
even one hundred paces.
Camel-back became crowded bus.
The world beyond -- and even within -- the smeared, dusty windows beguiled me, helped me
forget the pain of being wrenched from my old life. An old woman passed a bag of aniseed
sweets between the passengers. Young and old wore colorful clothes, the fabrics emblazoned
with all manner of animated words and icons. At the rest-stops little kids younger than me
jumped aboard and hawked everything from ice lollies to ident jammers. Outside, the hand of
man became more and more evident as we moved from rough pasture to vast industrialized
landscapes to the outskirts of the city.
"This is Riyadh," Professor al-Wahab said, looking up from his tablet. Since we'd boarded the
bus twelve hours earlier his attention had been consumed by the electronic device in his lap.
"This is the capital of your country."
I peered at the thrusting structures far in the distance, disbelieving that anything could stand so
tall. "Is this the end of our journey?"
He powered down his tablet, folded it up and slipped it into his inside pocket. "No, Ismail, this is
just the beginning."
We didn't linger in Riyadh, trading the glittering towers of glass and metal for the squat,
dilapidated tenements of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Stepping off the near-empty
plane, every fiber of my body still tingling from the wonder of flight, the thick, muggy heat of
central Africa pressed against my skin.
The stifling air made me yearn for the dry heat of the desert.
Without even leaving the shimmering runway, we switched to another aircraft -- a bare,
cavernous, noisy beast in stark contrast to the quiet, upholstered luxury of the first.
Soldiers with mottled blue uniforms and shiny guns slung around their necks slept or joked or
played dice on the rumbling floor. They spoke in languages I couldn't understand. When they
made faces or said something to me, Professor al-Wahab would say a couple of stern words and
they'd get back to whatever they were doing.
"They are curious about you, Ismail. That's all."
"Is there a war, Professor?" I asked. I knew about warfare from the old films my father liked to
watch when our trading routes took us to the small villages that had electricity generators. Zulu,
Black Hawk Down, Kandahar Nights. War seemed dangerous but exciting.
"These soldiers are part of a multi-national taskforce to help keep the peace. There is no war."
Professor al-Wahab stared into space, pensive. "At least not yet."
We landed on a narrow airstrip that cut a black line through swathes of tropical forest, then
transferred to a battered truck. As we hurtled down the rutted road, the light dim from the thick
foliage, conversation between the soldiers dwindled. Above the whine of the engine, the crunch
of the driver changing gears, and the constant rattling of the seats the jungle hummed with life. I
smelt the men's sweat, felt the periodic bite of mosquitoes.
The truck stopped at several checkpoints. At the last, a high chain-link fence topped with razor
wire running off on either side, the professor and myself got off while the soldiers headed on. I
felt sick. Whether that was from the road, the fatigue, the heat, or simply nerves, I don't know. I
thought of my mother and father in their tent, an empty space on the floor where I should've
The professor led me into a modern complex next to the checkpoint. I stayed in that place for the
better part of two days taking tests, answering questions, shuttling between all manner of strange
machines that whirred and beeped and groaned as I clambered in or on or under them.
Eventually, late in the second afternoon, after they had nothing more to ask or probe or take, after
they made me sign documents that they read aloud but I couldn't read, they let me into the
"We'll settle you in later, Ismail" Professor al-Wahab said under dusky, purple skies, letting a
soldier scan his ID as he passed through another security post. "Right now I want to show you
why I've brought you all this way."
I raised my ID badge and the soldier scanned it, waved me through.
Rough tracks for vehicles crisscrossed the earth, but we traveled by foot. The original rainforest
had been razed and the fertile ground was now dense with tubers and grasses instead. Here and
there the stumps of old trees still dotted the landscape. The site was enormous, all number of
structures within it including loud, smelly generators, spires of hollowed metal, and a huge field
of tanks. Despite all the soldiers, an eerie air of abandonment and decay permeated the place.
We hurried on, headed for the concrete-walled heart of the site, my 'abya soaked with sweat.
Near to the high walls I noticed a girl and a boy playing a swing ball game. A tennis ball was
attached to a piece of string which in turn was fixed to a metal pole driven into the ground. They
swiped their plastic bats at the ball, the girl hitting the ball in one direction, the boy in the other.
When the girl saw us, she stopped playing, stared. The boy turned, stared as well. The girl said
something and the pair of them laughed.
"That's Judith and Wai Tat," Professor al-Wahab said. "You'll meet them soon."
At the final security gate embedded in the walls of the central structure I had to press my face
against a goggle-shaped machine. A chime sounded, the turnstile clicked open, and I stepped
To this day I can still bring forth the memory of the strange sensation of that place. It was as if
the air itself was electrified. My skin tingled at its touch.
"You feel it, don't you?" Professor al-Wahab said, eyes sparkling.
I nodded. I didn't just feel it either. The air looked odd too, heavy and shimmering. Fifty or so
paces away a dark rippling mass floated a dozen hand widths above the ground.
"As you get closer it will examine you. Don't be afraid." Professor al-Wahab stepped forward,
motioned for me to follow.
I took a couple of tentative steps nearer, experiencing what I can only describe as a mental breeze
pass over my mind. It was unsettling but not unpleasant, a complex, powerful force. I felt it
linger, circling my psyche, before drawing closer.
A perfect circle bloomed in my mind, ensnared between two hexagons. The hexagons changed,
became octagons. Somehow, I realized that I was being shown a method for calculating the ratio
between the width and the perimeter of the circle -- an eternal ratio that was the same for every
circle. In my mental space, I kept increasing the number of sides of the bounding shapes until
they became indistinguishable from the circle.
The breeze drew back, and I knew that I had pleased it.
Next, the circle spun to become a sphere.
"Ismail." Professor al-Wahab grasped my shoulder, breaking my trance. "Are you okay?"
I blinked as the outer world rushed back, the breeze no longer with me. My legs felt weak, my
head tired. "It was inside me, inside my mind," I said, suddenly afraid.
I related what I'd seen and done.
"Geometry. Interesting," Professor al-Wahab said. "The fact it wanted to play with you some
more is a good sign. Some very gifted mathematicians have been rejected point blank."
"Professor, what's that?" I asked, pointing ahead. As my eyes had sharpened, a slumped form
had come into focus through the murk.
The professor followed the line of my outstretched arm, squinted. He paled. "It's Dr. Cheng.
Come, Ismail, help me." He took a couple of steps forward, then twisted his head. "And Ismail,
count in your head the whole time."
He hurried over to his colleague, not waiting for a reply. I didn't have time to ask why I had to
count or what would happen if I didn't, so I began counting in my head: one, two, three . . .
When I got to Dr. Cheng's side, Professor al-Wahab had already pulled the man to his feet. His
flesh had a sickly pallor and he was barely conscious. As I stared at him, I stopped counting. The
presence came back, a terrifying, howling gale where before it had been a mere breeze. A wave
form sprung up in my mind's eye, extending to the mental horizon --
"Count, Ismail! Count!"
Eleven, twelve, thirteen . . . as I moved through the numbers the wave trembled, then
disintegrated . . . fourteen, fifteen, sixteen . . . this time I didn't waver, scared that if stopped the
wind would come back, even more violent than before.
"Take some of his weight," Professor al-Wahab said. "We need to get him out of here."
It was lucky Dr. Cheng was a small man, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to provide much
support. I wrapped an arm around his belly, and between us, with stuttering steps, we walked him
towards the exit. When we got to the turnstile, Professor al-Wahab called the guard on the other
"Why did he collapse?" I asked, as we waited for help.
"Dr. Cheng got careless," Professor al-Wahab replied, breathing hard. "It won't happen again."
Professor al-Wahab wouldn't speak further about the matter, but I could tell that it deeply
troubled him. As for myself, my encounter with the object (as I would learn to refer to it) had left
me badly shaken. I didn't know much then, but even I understood that the object was the reason
I'd been brought here, and that it wouldn't be the last time that terrible wind would tear through
After letting me rest in my room -- where I passed up the bed for the floor, but still didn't
manage to sleep -- he came back with a hard chick pea like thing. I rolled it in my palm, unsure
what to do with it. Did he want me to eat it? It didn't look much of a meal.
"It's an interpreter," he said, as if that explained anything. "Put it in your right ear."
Uncertainly, I did as he instructed. The chick pea felt cold and hard, an intruder in my ear. Then
it warmed and softened, accompanied by a pins and needles sensation.
"You'll get used to it," the Professor said, laughing.
It took me a moment to realize he hadn't spoken the last words in Arabic, yet I had still
Afterwards, he led me to a communal lounge.
"Everyone," Professor al-Wahab announced at the threshold, "I want to introduce Ismail Dhu-Nuwas, a promising young mathematician from Saudi Arabia."
A mathematician? Me? I'd barely ever heard the word before, never mind being one. I glanced
between the dozen or so faces that were staring at me, feeling like a deceiver.
How could they not see me for what I really was? Right then I wanted the floor to split and the
earth to swallow me whole.
"Another kid, Muhammad?" a grey-haired man leaning on a cane said with a sigh. "We'll be
overrun with the tykes soon."
Professor al-Wahab rubbed his temple. "We've been over this before, Ed. Two years ago the
steering committee asked us to look at alternative methods --"
"I know, I know!" The grey-haired man brandished his cane at Professor al-Wahab, "And we let
you talk us into this harebrained scheme! We've got boys and girls who know tensor calculus,
but can't tie their shoelaces." He nodded at a frail kid in an oversized sweater beside one of the
many whiteboards that lined the room. "No offence, Lukas."
"I use Velcro now, Professor," the kid replied, grinning.
"Ismail," a woman with a red bow in her hair said from a round table in the middle of the room,
"excuse Professor Wheater's rudeness. He forgets people have feelings. I'm Hilary Stamp. It's a
pleasure to meet you. Is that traditional dress?"
I looked down at my 'abya. It was filthy. "Yes, I'm a Bedouin," I said, ashamed that I looked so
dirty. I felt I was letting down my tribe.
Judith, the girl from the swing ball game, said, "I didn't know the Bedouin taught themselves
mathematics." There was a mean edge to her voice.
"We don't," I said. The room went very still and quiet at my words.
"Do you know topology?" Judith asked.
I shook my head.
"Do you even know algebra?"
"That's enough!" Professor al-Wahab glared at Judith. "You'll find Ismail a very accomplished
natural thinker, I'm sure."
There were murmurs, shakes of the head.
"Who's going to teach him, Muhammad?" asked a tired voice from the back of the room. I
craned my neck to see Dr. Cheng slouched in a high-backed armchair, a patterned blanket over
"We're going to try something different this time," Professor al-Wahab said. He rested his hand
on my shoulder. "The object will teach him."
Professor al-Wahab led me around the room, introducing me to each of the mathematicians in
turn. Five minutes later, in my unease, I would be unable to name half of them. There were five
children, the eldest being Wai Tat, who was fifteen, and the youngest being Lukas, who was
eight. There were eight adult mathematicians, all professors or doctors from all over the world.
All the contents of the whiteboards and sheaves of paper scattered around the room were filled
with meaningless squiggles, unintelligible to me.
I didn't even think I could operate the coffee machine.
From the children I could sense disdain, from the adults, a condescending sympathy.
Later, I approached Professor al-Wahab. He stood alone by the window, frowning. Far off,
occasional streaks of light lit up the night skies.
"Are they fireworks?" I asked.
He turned to me, ruffled the hair at the back of my head. "No, Ismail. They're rockets."
"Are we under attack?"
"In a sense." He smiled. "Don't worry. We're quite safe here."
I wanted to know more. "Why do they fire rockets, Professor?"
He sighed. "It's complicated. Congolese guerillas -- a private army if you like -- don't like the
international presence here. This is how they let us know their feelings." He glanced around.
Most of the mathematicians were involved in lively conversations, gesticulating expansively or
jotting ideas on the whiteboards. Wai Tat sat apart, staring at me. Professor al-Wahab returned
his gaze to the world outside. "I think it's time I explained this place."
After grabbing some bread and fruit from a small kitchen, he took me to a dining room and
pulled out two chairs from the long table -- one at the head, one to its immediate left. "Sit," he
said, seating himself at the head. "Eat."
I sat, reached for a crust with my right-hand. I was hungrier than I realized, and I quickly
devoured the piece. I reached for another.
"Six years ago," Professor al-Wahab began, "something fell from the skies."
At first, as the object streaked over Africa, he explained, the scientific and military agencies
tasked with watching the heavens, tagged the object as an unusual, though not remarkable,
meteor. That changed when the object reached its anticipated impact site. There was no impact.
Seismologically, the object was invisible -- and it shouldn't have been. Of course, at that stage
nobody thought anything as exotic as the strange, telepathic, rippling black sphere would be
The astronomers expected to find a cometary fragment with an atypical composition or abnormal
geological strata to account for the lack of a collision.
The military agencies didn't second guess.
The Americans, the Chinese, the Russians, the Arab Bloc, and the E.U. all offered assistance to
the D.R.C. within the hour. What with the combustible state of international relations over
carbon, water, and the rest, the object's arrival almost ignited another world war. Fortunately, a
compromise was reached.
I blinked, trying to keep up with Professor al-Wahab's account. The world was getting bigger and
more messy all the time.
"Forgive me, Ismail," Professor al-Wahab said, rubbing an apple against his sleeve. "I'm
confusing you. The bottom line was that the Congolese couldn't control the site themselves, even
though the object was on their land. Before a day had passed, all the major nations had sent
He took a crisp bite of his apple. "As you can imagine, the discovery of the sphere was very
exciting for everybody. It was clearly not a natural phenomenon." His eyes were wide, his
Even then, I could see that the object still generated an almost religious awe in the professor.
Over the coming months I would learn that he, more than anybody else, had made the object his
life's obsession. An obsession that had come at a great personal cost.
"Do you know what that means, Ismail?" he asked, grasping my forearm.
I shrugged. I was still feeling too overwhelmed from everything I'd seen and heard to think
Professor al-Wahab said, "It means there's intelligent life elsewhere." He looked up as if he
could see straight through the sloppy whitewashed ceiling to the constellations above. "It means
we're not alone."
I don't know if it was the Professor's intention, but his words made me feel smaller and more
alone than ever.
"Of course," he said glumly, returning his gaze to me, "the powers that be saw this as a grave
threat. A threat to be kept secret from the world at large. Warmongering idiots."
"But, Dr. Cheng --" I began, thinking of his prone body beside the object.
"The object is powerful, certainly." Professor al-Wahab got up, paced up and down the length of
the table. "Powerful, but not hostile."
"Why did it come here, Professor?" I asked.
"That is a very good question." He stopped pacing, gripped the back of the nearest chair. "If only
we knew, Ismail."
He went on, describing how the assembled military had poked and probed and prodded the
object, while their parent nations squabbled over who should be in charge. "They learnt nothing.
The weapons experts, the materials scientists, the language specialists. Nothing. The object
seemed impervious to any kind of interaction -- they couldn't even move it. The only thing they
learnt was that they were just as bad as each other. The site would've been shutdown if it wasn't
for the visit of a young F.S.B. agent."
"The Russian Intelligence Agency -- it's a special part of their police force. The important thing
was that Dmitri Mirolevich experienced a telepathic connection with the object."
"Yes, like you, Ismail."
Professor al-Wahab continued, spelling out how a second wave of excitement had energized the
community when they realized that the mathematically gifted were able to interact with the
object. "They opened up the site to some of the world's leading mathematicians -- and some of
the lesser ones too. We learnt that the object had a playful nature, that it offered a mental
gymnasium for those who had the requisite skills. Everyone came away changed by their
encounters. Some were humbled. Some went insane. Some fled back to their ivory towers,
inspired and terrified in equal measure."
At his words I recalled the alien wind that had streamed through my mind earlier in the day. I
"The politicians grew impatient, though."
"I don't understand."
Professor al-Wahab slumped back into his chair. "The world is a very difficult place these days,
Ismail. An age of gluttony is coming to an end, and countries are fighting over the bones. Some
leaders saw the object's arrival as divine -- Allah's -- intervention. When it didn't smite us
down, they imagined that it might be our salvation." He held my gaze for a long while. "It isn't."
I thought about the overgrown grass and the dilapidated buildings. "Is that why this place is so
"A few leaders still think the object is a weapon -- a spearhead of a future assault. If it can't be
reverse-engineered they want to bury it. Others think it is a gift for humanity -- a tool to
enlighten us. But most now think it's just a curiosity. No more interesting or consequential to
their power games than the black hole at the heart of the galaxy."
"The black hole?" The only black holes I was familiar with then were the near-empty wells in the
"When gravity --" Professor al-Wahab sighed, then smiled. "I'm envious of you, Ismail. You're
at the beginning of a marvelous adventure."
I tried to share the professor's optimism, but all I could feel was a sense of foreboding. I wanted
to learn, but not with that invading wind as my teacher.
"Anyway," the professor went on, "after three years when the object hadn't brought us to
Armageddon or led us to nirvana, the politicians gave us mathematicians free reign. They keep an
eye on us, but they don't expect their problems will be solved here. Maybe they're right."
"What do you think, Professor?"
"I don't know, Ismail. I believe we've only scratched the surface of this thing. And we'll only
learn more by pushing further." He stared at the lone banana in the bowl in the middle. "Had
enough to eat?"
He got up again, pushed his chair under the table. "I think it's bedtime -- for both of us."
I got up. "Professor al-Wahab?"
"Is that why the children are here? Is that why I'm here? To push further?"
He stood by the door, hand hovering over the light switch. "Professor Wheater, Dr. Stamp, Dr.
Cheng -- they're all brilliant mathematicians who've made wonderful contributions to the
Edifice." I later gathered that Professor al-Wahab always referred to the sum total of human
mathematical knowledge as the Edifice. "And they've all had successes with the object. But the
truth of the matter is that, like me, they're ensnared as much as they're liberated by what they
already know. That's why I started this program. That's why I brought Wai Tat and Judith and
Lukas in. That's why I searched so hard to find somebody like you. Your minds are all potential.
Potential that might make the breakthrough." The zeal was back in his eyes. "Especially you,
Ismail. Especially you."
As I left the room and the light blinked off behind me, I wondered how far he would push me in
his craving for the truth.
That night I couldn't sleep. The novelty of flying, of the soldiers in their camouflaged-blue
uniforms, of the luscious jungle, quickly wore off as I stared at the shadows on the wall. The
night was hot and sticky, completely unlike the cool air I was used to in the desert. There were no
bleats or grunts of animals, only the incessant drone of the insects.
I tossed and turned, my mind ablaze, only able to think of that otherworldly presence that
Professor al-Wahab wanted me to submit to. I imagined the moment of contact, threads of
cognition spinning into a spider's web from which I'd become hopelessly entangled. I was
terrified that a piece of it would break off in my mind and stay with me forever.
My feelings about Professor al-Wahab were confused. From the moment I'd met him he'd treated
me with dignity and kindness. He seemed an honourable man, but could I really trust him? The
passion in his eyes when he'd talked about the object had frightened me. Would he always put me
before his own wishes?
I sat up, tossed the thin sheet from my body that was slick with sweat. I had to move.
Someone had left some fresh clothes for the morning -- Western style dress -- but I slipped on
my dirty 'abya instead. I could still smell the last vestiges of the desert in its folds, and I took
strength from that. I left my room, and tip-toed down the dark hallway back to the communal
lounge. The moon, a thick oval in the night sky, bathed the room in a chalky light, and I didn't
need any further illumination to navigate my way between the sofas and tables. I stopped at one
of the white boards, squinted at the terse lines of mathematical script on its shiny surface. Even if
the lights were on I would not have been able to make head or tail of it.
Back then I could barely read Arabic.
With a shaking hand I picked up the marker pen that rested on the board's bottom lip, determined
to write something. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe I just wanted to mark something
that I felt would always be beyond me. I popped off the pen lid, raised the tip to the board --
I twisted round. Wai Tat stood in the doorway, robed in a silk dressing gown.
"I-I-I-" I didn't know what to say. I clicked the lid back on the marker pen, gently placed it back
on the lip.
Wai Tat stepped over to me, studied the board. He looked much older than his fifteen years, his
face thinner and more lined than it should have been.
"I haven't touched it," I said.
He smiled. "Don't worry, it's all up here," he said, tapping the side of his brow. His Arabic was
clumsy, and I reached for my interpreter before I realized I'd taken it out before I'd settled down
"You speak Arabic?" I could feel my eyes stretching wide as I asked.
"Allah has blessed you," I said, careful not to praise him directly for fear of the evil eye. I already
knew how difficult it was to learn another language from my father's attempts to teach me a
neighboring tribes' dialect.
"My country has blessed me," he replied with a touch of annoyance. "Forgive me, I don't mean
to insult your God," he quickly added.
I shrugged. Allah's will was done, bidden or unbidden.
We stood for a while, both peering at the mathematical lore, I with ignorance, Wai Tat with
"Could you not sleep?" he asked, when he was satisfied with whatever he was looking for on the
"I was the same when I first came here. I didn't think I belonged." He turned to me. "But I was
wrong. I do important work now. I'm sure it'll be the same for you in time."
I tried to take heart from his words, but my expression must've betrayed my true feelings.
"Is it the object?" he asked.
"It was like a gale in my mind," I said quietly.
"You needn't fear it. It's strong, but it's not evil."
"How do you know?"
"When I'm with it, it's like --" he clicked his fingers, searching for the right word "-- it's like
swimming in gentle waters. If it wanted to it could pull me out to sea and drown me. But it
What if you couldn't swim in the first place, though? I turned back to the script.
Wai Tat started towards the door. "Try and get some sleep." He grinned. "I want you fresh for
swing ball, tomorrow."
I stood alone in the room, looking over the leftovers of the mathematician's work -- strange tree-like diagrams, the neat lines of proofs laid out like verses from the Qur'an. It was like coming
across weird marks in the sand and having no inkling of the creature that had made them. I
appreciated Wai Tat's concern, but I felt more alone then than ever.
I left the room with a heavy heart, convinced Professor al-Wahab had made a big mistake
bringing me here.
I did sleep eventually. It must've been late, because I remember still being awake when the first
hints of dawn lightened the eastern sky.
My dreams were heavy, claustrophobic.
In one I was back amongst my tribe, stood at the fringes of our camp. The day was searing. The
grains of sand that touched the soles of my feet felt like tiny hot coals.
I scanned the desert, an endless expanse of sand that stretched all the way to the horizon. Far
away, something glinted in the sunlight.
I squinted. Another sparkle.
I noted the direction and set off. I began at a steady pace, buoyed by my discovery. Almost
immediately, the light waned. I glanced up. Thin clouds had raced in, weakening the sun's rays.
The heat had dissipated, the air balmy now. I upped my pace, walking briskly now, but the sky
darkened again. When I looked up, thick, bloated clouds had gathered. I shivered, a chill on the
breeze. I began to run, still careful to keep heading on the right course. The wind got stronger,
sand whipping up into my face. I pressed on, trying to run faster, but the wind grew stronger still,
howling now, and I had to put more and more effort in just to maintain my speed. My eyes stung
from the sand, which was like a crazy, writhing rain.
I slowed down, trudged on determinedly, but the storm intensified, the murk darkening further
until I couldn't even see my own hands in front of me. Pain wracked my feet, my calves, my
thighs, my sides, my chest, my back, my face as the sand whipped against me like the endless
strikes of a lash. I imagined welts and bruises marking my skin. The noise was tremendous -- I
cried out in agony, but my screams were lost in the white roar. Ahead, the darkness was
I stopped, hunched down, while the fury battered me. I couldn't do it.
I turned around, traipsed back, happy to go slow because of the burning shame I felt. The
sandstorm eased, the blows lessening, the wind dropping.
It stayed dark, however, and when I'd completely escaped the clutches of the sand, I saw that day
had become night. The moon was a thin silvery sliver high above, casting little light.
I walked back into the camp, the tents still and quiet. Even though it was night, I could tell
something wasn't right. Drifts of sand had buried the sides of tents, cooking pots, campfires. The
ropes that secured the tents had come loose, flicking like horses' tails as gusts of wind blew
through. There was no sound nor smell of the animals. I crouched down beside what I thought
were the remnants of a fire --
Except it wasn't.
What I'd thought was a rough circle of stones encompassing charred wood was strewn bones, the
carrion long since rotted to nothing or devoured by vultures. I fell backwards, scrabbled away.
You shouldn't have come back, a scratchy voice in my head said.
I glanced back. A wraithlike figure shimmered in the moonlight, ethereal tatters hanging from its
frame. It was a jinn -- the ghost of a dead ancestor.
Spellbound, I peered closer. It was my mother.
I woke up. My body was drenched in sweat. Something heavy pressed on my hammering heart,
burning. With the dream dispersing like smoke in the wind, I reached up to my chest with a tired
hand. It was the amulet my mother had given me, hot as the desert sun.
I understood then that wherever I went I would always be representing my tribe. I would do my
best to bring them honor.
Not much later I got up, dressed, and made my way to the lounge.
"Ismail!" Professor al-Wahab cried on my arrival. "We thought you might sleep all day."
I glanced towards the window. The day was bright, most of the morning gone. The other
mathematicians -- the majority of the group was there -- paused in their conversations. A few
offered greetings or nods of the head. Most made no acknowledgment of my presence.
"Nice look," Judith said, smirking.
I looked down at my new clothes. My short-sleeved checked shirt was carefully buttoned up and
tucked into my trousers. I'd decided against the shoes and still wore my old sandals. "Thanks," I
"You look fine," said Wai Tat.
Professor al-Wahab got up from his chair. "Let's get you some breakfast."
"No, Professor," I said.
I shook my head. "I want to begin."
I felt the atmosphere in the room change at my words, all eyes on me.
"I want to begin learning. I want to be with the object."
For the first few weeks Professor al-Wahab would always accompany me. We'd stay relatively
far from the object -- keep to paddling in the shallows as I thought of it. Professor al-Wahab
explained that there were particular mental techniques for interfering with the connection should
I feel uncomfortable: counting aloud, thinking about a certain piece of music, getting angry.
He told me that the object seemed to have no limit to its capabilities -- that it made no difference
to each individual's experiences whether there were a dozen mathematicians or a single
mathematician present. Not that I saw many of the others in the enclosure.
They made excuses that they had more than enough ideas to be getting on with in the comfort of
the living block, or that the object was no longer aiding their thinking, but I could tell from their
averted gazes that the real reason was fear. The otherworldly presence had unsettled them,
broken their peace-of-mind, and they didn't want to taste it any longer.
I could understand that. I felt it myself. Except that instead of running from it, I embraced it.
The object was not a conventional teacher. It had no program of study. It didn't pat me on the
head when I understood, but neither did it get disappointed when I didn't. Over time I began to
sense different threads to its being, perhaps you could call them moods. Sometimes it was eager
to play, sometimes it wasn't.
I was learning fast, but I had no reference points with which to mark the mathematical landscape
that I was roaming. Everything I learnt was couched in the unusual mathematical lexicon that the
object employed. I was developing an intuitive understanding of number and geometry, but I
would not have named them as such. The categories in my head were less concrete, more
Perhaps you could say that I was learning a deeper mathematics.
"What are you working on?" Judith asked one day a few weeks later.
I lay face down on one of the communal lounge couches, trying to make sense of my latest lesson
with the object. It was to do with how the number of vertices of a geometrical shape changed
when it was brought into a higher dimension. Of course, if I'd known that, I would of said as
much. Instead, I twisted my body and passed my tablet to her.
She creased her nose up with distaste, much like I used to do when I brushed the camel's filthy
hides. "What is this?"
I rolled and swivelled to a sitting position, reached over so we could both see the tablet's screen.
"This," I said, indicating the tree-like structure, "is the whole space. These --"
"Wait, wait, wait," Judith waved her free hand. "Do you mean a geometrical space? What type?
I stared at her blankly. My interpreter was rendering the words in Arabic, but they made no sense
"Well?" Judith was the daughter of a famous English mathematician, and I'd heard she was as
quick to anger as her father.
I shrugged. "I don't understand your words."
She sighed dramatically, shoved the tablet back into my hands. "Maybe you should read some
text books. If that's not too difficult for you."
"Hello, Judith," Professor al-Wahab said joining us. "Do you mind if I speak in private with
She pouted, turned on her heels and left us. Professor al-Wahab sat down next to me.
"She doesn't like me," I said quietly, matter-of-factly. It hurt more than I wanted it to. I yearned
to be strong, self-sufficient, but, deep down, I desired the love and respect of these people.
"She envies you." Professor al-Wahab must've seen the doubt in my face for he nodded to
emphasize his words. "She does."
How could she be jealous of me? In her eyes I was just a skinny kid from the desert. The nearest
she thought I'd come to mathematics before this place was counting the animals. I'd heard as
much when I lingered outside the lounge one morning.
"You're a threat to her, Ismail."
"Why do you think?"
"She can't think I'm a better mathematician than her."
Professor al-Wahab raised his eyebrows. "No?"
"I've heard her joking about me, about my tribe."
"Ismail, did you know that when Europe descended into the dark ages, it was the Arabic
philosophers who kept the candle of knowledge aflame?" He nodded. "Without them, the world
would have fallen back into anarchy. We certainly wouldn't be sitting here now."
"I'm proud of my tribe," I said. I thought of the sheikh receiving Professor al-Wahab with
warmth and hospitality all those months ago.
"You should be. Cultures judge each other too easily. What's important is the human spirit. And
it exists in all of us, no matter where or when we are born."
I pondered on those words in silence, my gaze wandering over the branching paths of my tablet
sketch. "Can you help me explain this to Judith?"
Professor al-Wahab sighed, patted my hand. "Judith will have learn to accept that she doesn't
understand your work -- just like the rest of us."
"But if you can't understand it, how do you know my work is good?" There was a note of self-pity, of exasperation in my voice.
"Ismail, we've been through this before. I don't want you influenced by our ways of thinking. At
least not until your own thinking has matured."
"When will I know that?"
"You'll know. Everything will come together beautifully, formidably -- like a magnificent
fortress in your mind."
Looking back, I realize that at that time Professor al-Wahab couldn't have known that to be true.
I might've been learning nonsense for all he knew. He had his faith that mathematics was
universal, but he couldn't prove it like a piece of logic. Of course, he could never tell me that.
He said, "Your path isn't easy, Ismail. You, more than any of us, have been taken from what you
know. You, more than any of us, walk alone. And you, more than any of us, host the presence in
your mind." The zeal was back in his eyes "But, by that token, you more than any of us, might
make the difference. You might be vital, Ismail. Vital for all of us."
I nodded, morosely. I think he wanted me to be in awe of the object's potential, but I don't think
he realized the burden he was placing upon my young shoulders.
Wai Tat, who'd been watching our conversation from the other side of the room, made a batting
motion with his hand. Swing ball?
We'd been playing most days, and I always found it a welcome relief from the relentless focus on
mathematics. I think he was just being nice, because our matches were no contest and he beat me
easily every time. But I didn't mind that, since he seemed to be the only person I knew who
didn't treat me with fanaticism or suspicion or indifference. In fact, he seemed to be the only
person who got on with everyone. I nodded, jumped up.
"No textbooks," Professor al-Wahab said. I turned and caught him looking at my tablet, his brow
creased in puzzlement.
He couldn't make head nor tail of my sketch either.
End of Part 1
. . . to be continued in issue 43 . . .