The sheep bleated angrily from below. They had every reason to be annoyed. They were locked in the luggage hold of a rickety old bus winding its way through the hilly Anatolian countryside.
My friend and I were on our way to see a saint. In Islamic tradition, they are called the friends of God – who through rigorous piety and service to others have achieved such closeness to God that they become spiritual guides. Their tombs are places of blessing.
Our destination was the tomb of Yunus Emre, a 13th century mystic whose poetry, written in simple language, could be understood by peasants and paupers.
We arrived in the town bearing the poet’s name just before dusk. A lone passerby pointed us down a long road leading to a deserted tomb. We said a prayer.
Afterwards, we entered the adjacent mosque for evening prayers expecting many congregants. We found just three – including the Imam. His name was Ihsan and we later learnt he was also the cleaner, the handyman and the one with the keys.
We could hardly speak Turkish, but the language of the backpacker is universal. Soon we were marching through pitch dark fields to his home for dinner.
I’ll never know how he told his wife we were coming, but we arrived to a feast: steaming cabbage rolls, fragrant lamb stew and white rice, along with dripping honeycombs, and fresh cherry juice. It turned out Ihsan’s job at the mosque was unpaid – an act of love.
Through an elaborate mix of drawing pictures and broken Turkish we told him we were on a journey to visit the great shrines of the East. He beamed with pride – feeling at once part of our quest.
As we walked back into town to catch the only train of the day, he stopped to introduce us at the local cafe. He told our story as if he was the one travelling. His friends joined us at the station, tickets in hand. While with Ihsan, we were not to pay for anything.
As the train pulled in, we said thank you. He hugged us and said, “Thanks are never given to one’s brothers.”
As we pulled away, tears streamed down Ihsan’s face.
We came to visit one saint and found another.
“I am not here on earth for strife,
Love is the mission of my life.
Hearts are the home of the loved one;
I came here to build each true heart.”
Abdul Rehman Malik is programmes manager at The Radical Middle Way Project and contributing editor at Q-News Media.