The Berwyn Mountains
I looked around. I was alone. The only human being for miles around. Overhead a red kite swooped and soared whilst before her the grasses bent in the breeze. Tentatively I unzipped my jacket and pulled off the hood. I reached behind and pulled out my hairband before running my fingers through the now-liberated strands. My hair waved in the breeze, stray locks whipping themselves against my face. They were free. I was free. It felt good but also a little guilty. Why I should feel guilty I was not sure. Such thoughts were irrational yet I harboured them nonetheless. I imagined mum and gran watching me and realised that I hadn’t felt the wind in my hair like this for years.
The drive up had been long and painful. Fifty miles per hour speed restrictions on the M1, traffic jams through Birmingham and then roadworks on the M54 before finally getting stuck behind a tractor on the way to Llangollen. By the time I passed Shrewsbury I was ravenously hungry. I’d passed a couple of those caravans that sell bacon and sausage sandwiches and longed… But no! I remembered stopping at one years ago, pretty soon after I’d learnt how to drive. The man had looked at me funny and when I’d asked if the sausages were halal he’d frowned and said, “Dunno about that, probably are. They’re finest local pork see.” I’d ordered a tea and retreated feeling ashamed although, again, I was unsure why. Back in London it was easy to get a snack but out here it was as if I was in a different country entirely.
Yet this was my country, where I was born, and mum, and gran and countless generations before them. And I loved it too, up here on the wild mountains, rugged and ancient. I felt a connection with this land and loved to breathe its air. I loved hiking anywhere – the Peak District, Dartmoor, South Downs, you name it – but nowhere was as good as the land of my fathers and I was never happier than when halfway up a mountain. It’d always been like that, ever since I’d joined the Brownies and climbed up Pen-y-Fan with them as a ten-year old. This was my country, my home.
It was his home too. Not this bit of course; he said that he lived near to Llandrindod Wells which is further south, but even so, it is still Wales, the Wales of green hills and valleys that he loved, that he talked about incessantly, that he was a part of, that even his name reflected. Daffydd: now, you can’t get more Welsh than that, can you? Da-fffffi-ttthh. I rolled the syllables of that oh-so-Welsh name over and over on my tongue. It was a beautiful name, so much nobler than David or Daoud. And it was his name, he that…
“Stop this Aysha!” I admonished myself. “It cannot be so, so stop thinking about such things!” Again I felt guilty. My hair was wild and free, but what about me? I didn’t want to think about such things and so turned my mind instead to the present.
This was a long expedition, the most ambitious that I’d ever attempted alone. Usually I walked in a group but the thought of being with others now filled me with dread. I wanted to be alone, with no one to judge or advise me for three whole days. Starting from Llangollen I was heading south-west over the remote and empty Berwyn Mountains that day to Llangynog where I had accommodation booked that night. Then I would carry on south-west, to Lake Vyrnwy and then over the top to the hamlet of Mallwyd where I would be staying in the romantically-named Brigand’s Inn. And then finally west, through Abergynolwyn to Tywyn where there was a train that could take me back to Shrewsbury, another to Ruabon and then finally a bus back to my car. It would be a hard slog, no doubt about that, but with scenery like this and a cool breeze on my cheeks, it would be an enjoyable one too and a blessed time-out from the rigours of the call centre and… and my other problems.
Except that some of them are not so easy to leave behind.
But nonetheless I would try. I quickened my pace, walking on and on, over the deserted moors, grass at my feet, clouds above, and unresolved questions in my mind.
It started to spit and I glanced up. Those clouds, formerly light, white and fluffy, were now heavy, grey and pregnant with rain. It was going to be a heavy one! Up ahead was a plantation of conifers, some protection at least if I ran for it.
I ran. The drops started falling and I tumbled over the stile into the man-made forest. But there in my path, just in the trees, was something that I had really not expected to see. Not expected to see at all.
This other person was, thankfully, a woman. She had a piece of green canvas stretched between four of the trees and was sitting under it. “Fancy joining me?” she called. I did and besides, it would have been rude to refuse. I settled down next to the woman who she guessed to be in her sixties.”
“I like your shelter,” I said.
“It’s called a tarp and is ideal whenever there’s a shower since it only takes a minute or so to put up. I think hard-core survivalists use them on long expeditions, although I’m nowhere near that category. I just use it for downfalls like this or to keep the sun off me when I’m on the beach.”
“It certainly is. Fancy some chocolate? My name’s Carys by the way, Carys Jones.”
“Nice to meet you Aysha; would you like some coffee as well?”
“I wouldn’t say no.”
As the rain poured we two ladies, separated by four decades, sat under the tarp and talked. I took a liking to this older woman immediately; she reminded me of gran, a strong female figure who knew her own mind. “My family tell me not to go walking in such places, particularly alone,” Carys explained, “but I don’t listen. Their heads are full of tales of muggings, murder and freak accidents from the TV, newspapers and internet you see, but in my opinion they only report such things to keep us afraid and dependent. Take me away from my mountains and you might as well put me in a coffin. I’ve been walking them all my life; these are my home, where I belong!”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “All my friends and family don’t get it either.”
With these words I thought of Rashid. “Why do you insist on doing such things?” he’d asked time and time again. “Don’t you want to do stuff together instead, like other couples do? And besides, there could be anyone out there on those hills, rapists, paedos…” I’d switched off at that point when he began to sound like a Daily Mail editorial.
“Looks like it’s beginning to ease off.” Carys’ words invaded my thoughts. I looked up. Yes, the rain had almost finished. “Which way are you headed: Llangollen or Llangynog?” I asked her.
“Do you wish to walk together?”
“I can’t leave just yet.” My watch had just silently reminded me of the time with a gentle vibration.
“I quite understand; a lot of people prefer to walk alone. I do myself most of the time actually. I’ll just…”
“No, it’s not that; I would like to walk with you, I really would, but there is something that I need to do.” I’d expected Carys to ask what it was, but surprisingly she merely nodded. I got up, retreated a few yards, got my prayer mat out of my backpack, checked the qibla with my watch and then knelt down to pray the Zuhr Prayer. Several minutes later I returned to Carys who had now packed up the tarp. “All done,” I told her.
“Let’s get going then!” she replied.
Walking with others is strange. When I first got into hiking, I noticed that. You plod on for several miles in silence, then a conversation will break out quite spontaneously and then, after an unspecified length of time, it drifts away into nothing and silence reigns once more. And so it was with me and Carys. Through the plantation and for a mile or so over the next mountain neither of us said a word and then, out of the blue, Carys declared, “To me life is like a good walk. We just keep going, some bits better than others, some stretches easy, others hard, meeting random people, until it ends, but it is the journey and not that end that matters.”
I nodded in agreement. I couldn’t think of anything to add to that but it was enough. Silence took over again but only for a minute or so.
“Are you local Carys?” I felt like I had to speak.
“From Llandrindod Wells, a town some sixty miles or so to the south.” My heart contracted a little when I heard that name, but I said nothing. “And what about you?” Carys added.
“East London, although I was born in Cardiff. My family are Welsh.”
“And are you married?”
“Not yet but I’m engaged. We’re hoping to have the wedding in the autumn.”
“He’s a lucky man; you’re a pretty girl” I didn’t dare tell her that Rashid was unaware of this. She wouldn’t understand. Instead I asked, “And are you married, Carys?”
“I was but we divorced ten years ago. Mind you, we were together for almost thirty so I did well enough. It was hard when we split; you get used to having someone else about. We’re still friends though and go out for dinner now and again.”
“So why did you divorce?”
“He wouldn’t let me be my own person. Things like this: he hated me doing them alone yet he wasn’t interested in doing them himself.”
I was again reminded of Rashid and again I wondered why I was marrying him.
“As I said before, life is a journey. But it is a journey that you must travel as yourself, not trying to fit into a mould that someone else has made for you.”
“So what made you convert to Islam, Aysha?”
I’d just retired again to conduct the Asr Prayer and so my religion was clear to my new companion. Of course, I’ve been posed that question countless times before. Once people know my faith and because I’m white, everyone assumes that I am a convert, (I’d given up explaining the convert-revert distinction years ago). “I’ve always been a Muslim. My mum and dad were. In fact it was my gran who first reverted.”
“She must have been a remarkable lady. And a brave one. Not many people were converting back then. Twenty years ago, yes, it was popular, but not forty or fifty.”
My already high opinion of Carys grew with that comment. Few people these days were as judgemental as they had been when I was a kid, (although out in the sticks, in places like Llandrindod Wells such attitudes often persisted), but even so, there was rarely such understanding. “Yeah, Granny Morgan was my heroine when I was young. She went out to Morocco and discovered Islam there and then later reverted when she did some charity work in Palestine. She wore a headscarf in her small Welsh town despite the stares and comments. Her family weren’t impressed – her granddad had been some sort of Christian preacher you see – but she followed her path regardless and when she met my granddad out in Palestine – he was also doing charity work out there and he reverted for her – they married and then moved to Cardiff where they’d be more accepted and that’s where they had my mum and Uncle Farouk.”
“And what about your parents?”
“My mum was also a huge inspiration to me and I always wondered when I was growing up how I’d be able to live up to hers and gran’s examples. She was always a Muslim of course, but after 9/11 she made the decision to wear the niqaab – the faceveil – which was really brave considering what people thought about Muslims at that time. That always left a big impression on me. She met dad on a Muslim dating website. He was a new revert and accepted her after only one meeting and without even seeing her face because he just knew that a woman so committed to Allah must be a good woman to marry and he was right because after twenty-seven years they are still together.”
“And are they happy?”
That seemed a funny question to ask; it was certainly not one that anyone had ever put to me before. “They’re still together so I think there’s your answer,” I replied.
“Not necessarily. I was with my husband for three decades but looking back now I would struggle to call those years ‘happy’. We grew used to one another, there was toleration and even fondness and love, but happiness is something different, something harder to define and achieve. I believe that it comes from flourishing as an individual whilst at the same time not suppressing others.”
I was silent for a moment. What could I say? “You’d have to ask them about that,” I replied.
“What about you?” I asked. We had been walking in silence for a while and I’d started wondering about Carys’ own life journey.
“What about me?”
“Well, do you have a faith? Are you religious?”
“Which are you asking about, faith or religion?”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“These days many people say not. How often do I hear, ‘Oh yes, I have faith but I’m not religious?’ As for me, I’m unsure on both counts. My grandparents on the other hand, now they were very religious, all strong Methodists, chapel-goers.”
“Methodists you say? That great great grandfather of mine that I mentioned, I think he was one of them.”
“I’m not surprised, many people in Wales were. In the 19th century it was almost as if a religious fever swept through the land. Everyone went to chapel on a Sunday, often twice. I’ve not seen religious devotion like that in Britain except with you Muslims when I lived in Birmingham. On a Friday you saw so many people going to and fro the mosques for Friday Prayers; it actually reminded me of the chapel-goers of my youth you know. My grandfather preached fiery sermons and my grandmother was on all the women’s committees. But then something happened: she read a book. ‘Some Mistakes of Moses’ was its name – it was famous at the time – and it pointed out some of the historical inconsistencies of the Bible, or at least, the Old Testament. It basically showed how, historically, many of the things that she had been taught to be true, could not have been. It shook her to the core since from a small child she’d always been taught that the Bible was the Word of God, the literally true record of the workings of God on earth in those early times. She’d been brought up to believe that the world was created in a week, that there actually was a Garden of Eden with two trees and a snake in it, that all of the animals of the earth climbed onto an Ark two-by-two and so on. The book took an axe to what she saw as the trunk at the foundation of her tree of faith. My grandfather dismissed it as a work of an ungodly unbeliever, but she could not, she could not simply discount reasoned historical proofs just because they were inconvenient to her and so it caused her much angst, very similar I should imagine to that caused by some of the recent archaeological discoveries in Palestine and the manuscripts found in Sana’a in the seventies are causing many Muslims.”
“You know about all that?”
“Of course I do; I may be old but I keep up with current affairs you know. Radio 4, it teaches me a lot. What they are now doing to your religion, this book did to my grandmother’s Christianity.”
“But the Quran is eternal, perfect and unchanging.”
“With all due respect, that is not what the historians tell us, and such facts can shake a rigid faith just as those other facts shook my grandmother’s. Anyway, she stayed Christian on the surface – after all she had a lot, socially speaking, invested in it – but she never recovered the same level of faith and her daughter, my mother, went further. As an adolescent she looked into it all and became an atheist, quite a strident one in fact, and that caused great problems for her amongst the family and the community and so in the end she moved. Like your mother and grandmother, mine were a great inspiration for me; they were both brave women for their time and I admire them for their beliefs, but as for me, a literal rigid faith, no that I do not possess nor, I doubt, could I ever have, but on the other hand, something more personal and flexible, yes, that kind of faith, religion, spirituality, call it what you will, that I am blessed with.”
“But you need proofs, Carys. Christianity has a lot of ambiguities, like the Trinity for starters, but in Islam everything is clear and set out. There is a lot that we don’t know about Jesus and those that followed him, but Islam was born in the full light of history; we know every detail.”
“Do we” she replied, looking ahead and up into the cloud-blessed sky.
We walked on over the bleak hills of Berwyn, occasionally talking, more often than not, silent. Then, after several miles, we approached a road and I realised what that meant. I must have looked anxious because Carys smiled at me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, just pull your hood up and pull it tight. It serves the same.”
I was stunned. “How did you know?”
“Intuition perhaps, or practice. In my old life before I retired I was a social worker in Birmingham. You don’t need to wear a headscarf when there’s only women about, but I’ve seen Pakistani girls all put them on quickly when they suspect strange men will be about. And this is the Llangynog road and so there’s a good chance that there’ll be male drivers passing.”
I smiled. “It’s ironic,” I said, “but we wear the headscarf to detract unwanted male attention and yet it only seems to bring stares when I’m in Wales.”
She said nothing.
The walk down the valley was spectacular but after so much time away from civilisation the passing cars, whatever the gender of their occupants, were a distraction that neither of us welcomed. “Are you staying in Llangynog?” Carys asked me.
“Yes, the Tanat Valley Inn.”
“Me too, although that shouldn’t come as a surprise as I think there’s only two places to stay in the village.”
Footsore and hungry we descended the hill and arrived at that hostelry, in fact a pub with a few rooms above. We dined, Carys on chicken with a blue cheese sauce and I on lasagne verdi and then we both retired. And for a couple of hours I was alone.
I was jarred out of the nightly serving of Holby City by a knock on the door. I got up and opened it. It was Carys. “I was wondering if you fancied joining me for a drink outside?” she asked. I nodded. Yes, a drink would be nice.
We sat on one of the picnic benches outside the pub, limbs still aching from the day’s exertions, I cradling a Diet Coke and Carys a mug of tea. “You don’t drink?” I’d asked her when she’d not ordered alcohol.
“Not for the sake of it; it goes right through you when you get older. You’ll learn that soon enough.” That had made me giggle. “No, these days a nice cup of tea suffices.”
“You sound like my mum.”
“Then your mum must be a very civilised lady.”
We were silent for a moment, watching the orange sky darken above the hills and then she said, “You left your scarf off.” I said nothing. “That was brave,” She continued, “but even braver considering that you left something else off as well.”
I looked at her in shock. “How did you know?”
“You told me that your mum wore the veil and I can tell the high esteem in which you hold her both her and your grandma, so how could you, wishing to be both a good Muslim and a willing inheritor of their legacy, do anything other than veil?”
“She never forced me. It was my choice.”
“I do not doubt that for a second, but that still leaves the question as to why now, you are choosing not to wear your niqaab?”
I was silent for a moment. I glanced across to the next table where a group of bikers were sat laughing and enjoying nut-brown pints of beer. I should be wearing both my hijab and niqaab now. Up on the mountains there was the excuse that there were no men about to see me, to be tempted by my awrah, but here, with a table full of them only a couple of metres away, there was no excuse. Yet when I’d come to leave her room I could not. I’d picked them both up and fingered them but then left both on the bed. I had never felt that way before but it was as if a spring, slowly growing inside all these months, welling up with greater intensity, had gushed forth and there was no putting a stone over it to stem the flow. Perversely, I almost felt as if I’d had to go on this hike for purely that reason. And now Allah had sent a complete stranger along to hear my confession.
“I used to believe, completely, wholly, truly. I loved Allah and His Prophet with all my heart just as I loved and admired my parents and family – but especially my mum and grandma – for their bravery in choosing and following Islam against all that prejudice and opposition. They’d endured taunts, strange looks, verbal attacks and failed job interviews for their faith. Strangers would come up to my mum when I was a child and accuse her of being a traitor to her race and faith, of siding with the terrorists and yet she – and gran – would just respond only with a smile and kind words. It was hard for them and yet they persevered and they persevered because they knew the truth. When I asked my gran about why she rejected Christianity for Islam all those years ago she said that it was because Christianity, if you looked into it, had so many discrepancies and holes. She said that there was proof that the Bible has been altered over the years, the Trinity as a doctrine is illogical and goes against what Jesus himself taught. Islam on the other hand, was rational and straightforward. She said that it was born in the full light of history and, unlike Jesus whom we know little about, every detail of the Prophet’s life was recorded and the Quran remained pure and unaltered since the day he recited the exact words that Allah had spoken to him through the Angel Gibreel. Whilst Christianity altered with every age and culture and its denominations were always disagreeing with one another, Islam, for a millennium and a half has remained pure, unchanged and one and that gave me great strength and faith.
“And so it remained all my life, but whilst I remained true, the world changed. When I turned eighteen and started university I was proud to wear the niqaab to show my modesty and faith, proud to live as a good Musilmah whilst all around me the other girls drank, smoked and dated. I chose my path and never once did I regret it. But then, one day whilst on a trip with the university hiking society, a guy got talking to me. He was a Muslim himself, but lapsed and I initially hoped to bring him back to the faith, but then he told me that after reading ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ then he could no longer believe in the faith even though he wanted to. Now, I didn’t know what he was on about, it sounded like some sort of anti-Muslim propaganda – you know, the usual stuff, conversion by the sword and oppression of women rubbish – but I so wanted to bring him back to the deen that I got a copy out of the university library and read it from cover to cover. And that was where it started and, like with your gran and that book about Moses, it really shook my faith to its foundations. Here was a respected and intelligent historian arguing with plenty of evidence that Mohammed – if that was even his name – had lived in Palestine, not Mecca; that his followers were known as Hagarites and that he probably got most of his ideas off the local Nestorian monks. And worse than that, the religion that we know as Islam today was probably quite different to the faith of Mohammed and instead is largely the construct of Arab leaders who wanted an imperial faith to bind their empire together a century or so after Mohammed’s death. I was shell-shocked but I was also very angry! How dare he?! So, I looked for refutations, but those that existed were weak and instead, as every year passed I found more and more material by other respected academics who agreed with Tom Holland and Patricia Crone and who could strengthen their arguments with new archaeological and historical discoveries. By the time I left university I was outwardly still the pious believing little Musilmah that I had always been, but inside I was racked by doubts and yearned for the certainty of the full light of history that my grandmother had believed in.
“And whilst all this was happening there were other developments too. As I continued with my life – got a job and a flat of my own – with nothing changing externally, things got complicated. I got engaged to Rashid, a Muslim man whom I met on an Islamic dating site – I thought that if I had a partner who believed then my own faith would return – and who has never even seen my face, yet at the same time I joined the local hiking club where there was a boy, my age, whom I’ve begun to develop real feelings for, feelings that I don’t have for Rashid. He’s good fun, jolly, he shares my interests and we have a real laugh together on the hikes, and he’s even Welsh like me. But we cannot be together, ever, because of our different faiths, and that is screwing me up because how can something that I’m not even sure is real dictate that I cannot be with a boy who is so perfect for me? It’s weird but my faith was the one thing that I share with Rashid, and even though that was slipping, it was not all gone because I still had the Quran. This may sound daft to you Carys, but the Quran was my rock. So what if Mohammed lived in Palestine and not Mecca? So what if the hadiths were all a construct of the Arab imperialists a century later, the fact remained that the Quran is the eternal, unchanging, perfect Word of God. Or at least, it was until…”
“…until you listened to the same radio programme that I did on the Sana’a Manuscripts?”
“Yes, precisely. Versions of the Quran dating back to the earliest times, and they are different. So, like the Bible that my gran rightly rejected, it has been changed and tampered with. And so if that is not the pure unchanged Word of God then what have I left to believe in? Why should I wear the hijab and niqaab and stay modest and pure and apart from Daffydd Morris if it was all just made up to keep some 8th century elites in power? Why shouldn’t I show myself? Why shouldn’t I eat pork and drink alcohol and why should I pray five times a day? I’ve been trying to suppress it and run away from it but the thing is Carys that I have nothing left to believe in anymore and that terrifies me!”
And with those words I began to cry. Carys said nothing. She merely cradled my head on her shoulder and stroked my hair with her hand.
The following morning I saw Carys at breakfast. I did not dare tell her that, after she’d gone to bed, I’d stayed out for several hours. I did not dare tell her how, after twenty-four years of wondering, I had finally discovered what alcohol tastes like and what it does to you. I’d broken that taboo because, after laying all my doubts bare, I could think of no rational explanation as to why I shouldn’t partake in that which everyone else enjoys so much. I didn’t dare tell Carys of the shame that I now felt, nor of the fact that I’d drank beer because the Quranic verse only specifically mentions wine, thus making my crime – which rationally, was no crime – marginally less. And I did not tell her of the terrible headache that I was now enduring and the thoughts coursing through my mind that such suffering must be the price of sin.
“Morning!” said Carys as she entered the dining room. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all,” I replied. I did mind. Dishonest now, as well as a sinner.
“How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” I lied.
“I’m working my way back to Llangollen today, via Pistyll Rhaeadr, but didn’t you say that you were heading west towards the coast?”
“Yeah, Mallwyd, then Tywyn tomorrow.”
“Then we shall have to say goodbye, but not quite yet. If you don’t mind, before we part there is somewhere that I should like to take you. Don’t worry, it’s not far; indeed, it’s almost on your way and…”
“Fine, I don’t mind.”
“I’m glad because I think that it might help you, with what you were talking about last night.”
An hour later and we were stood outside the pub in their walking gear. “This way,” she announced, “but before we start, take a look at that.” She was pointing at the pub sign by the road. It depicted a lady in a long, flowing dress with a hare sat by her feet and two dogs next to her with a man in the background. Underneath it had the legend ‘Wyn Bach Melangell’”
“Do you speak Welsh, Aysha?” she’d asked.
“It reads ‘Melangell’s lambs’.”
“Who was she?”
“She is the reason for this little detour.”
We walked along a tiny lane surrounded by green fields. Pheasants scrambled in the hedges either side whilst sheep grazed nonchalantly and hares scampered across the meadows. It was a rural paradise. And as we walked, Carys told me a story. The story of Melangell.
“She was an Irish princess they say, who ran away from her father’s kingdom because she wanted to stay a virgin and dedicate herself to God and he wanted to marry her off to one of his noblemen. She fled across the sea to Wales around which she wandered until she came across a beautiful, uninhabited valley. There she made her home, spending her days in prayer and silence until one day Brochwel, the Prince of Powys, came hunting in the valley where he and his dogs had pursued a hare. They chased it until they came to a great thicket and there they found the animal sheltering in the folds of the dress of a beautiful young woman who was deep in prayer. The dogs refused to go near her and retired in fright, and when the huntsman blew his horn, it stuck to his lips for this lady held some kind of divine power. So impressed was the prince that he granted her the entire valley to be a sanctuary for all who flee there and by the time that she died peacefully in her bed years later, a whole community of nuns had settled around her.”
“That’s a beautiful story!”
“Indeed it is, but at the same time, it’s not very rational or historical is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Last night you told me that you have nothing left to believe in because your religion is not historically verifiable or indeed, possibly even viable. You were taught that a load of things literally happened and now that you have learnt that they may not have, you feel cast adrift on a sea of doubt. Now, as we walked yesterday, you asked me about my own faith and so I thought it may help to show it to you in the shape of this place and this story, for my faith is rooted in the story of Melangell and other inspirational women of faith like her. Not literally though. Do I really believe that she was a maiden of stunning beauty after years of sleeping rough in this damp and cold valley? That sounds far too much like a male fantasy to be true! Nor do I believe that she had the power to scare off hunting dogs or cause horns to stick to people’s lips? Of course not, and yet still I believe in Melangell and gain great strength and inspiration from her.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Faith is of the heart whereas one might say that religion – and certainly history – should be of the head. And whatever the historical facts may be, for over a thousand years people in this valley have told of a young woman who denied the fate handed down to her by her society and parents and sought her own path in a humble fashion, harming no one. And so, whatever the details may be, she has lived on in the memory, far longer than the stories of those richer, more beautiful and more powerful that her. It is not rationally verifiable but her message is infinitely powerful. Or put it another way, Aysha, why do you love the mountains so much? Why are you so happy and free when walking in them?”
“They are beautiful.”
“Are they? What makes them so? There is nothing rational or verifiable that makes them any more beautiful than a desert plain, a city street or a concrete motorway and yet to you, their beauty is immense and is a truth.”
“I think I see what you’re trying to say, but I’m struggling. Surely we need some sort of proof, some sort of guarantee?”
“Ssshh! Aysha, hush now and instead of talking enjoy the moment and worry not. All shall be well.”
And so we walked on down the narrow lane in silence. It was indescribably beautiful yet Carys was right, there was nothing that could prove that. Even so, it was overwhelming, this humble green valley. Overhead the modern-day Welsh portent of hope, the red kite, soared across the sky and I felt heartened. Then, around a corner, at the end of the lane, we came to a church.
It was a small church, ancient and weathered, and it seemed to me to be as much a part of the natural landscape as the trees and mountains. We entered it wordlessly and through the time-bleached wooden door an aura of sanctity seemed to pervade the air. Carys sat down on one of the pews and bowed her head, but I walked on towards the altar, behind which the tomb of the humble saint stood. I touched the stone, revelling in its texture and read some of the prayers that people had placed on its surface. Their pleas were timeless and universal, directed towards the One God, the same God that I had always worshipped and loved but was now doubting. Carys had been right: there was nothing rational or verifiable about it and yet there was undeniably a force, a presence in that place, borne of a thousand years of pious devotion. Beyond the tomb was a tiny room, empty save for a small icon of Melangell, a simple cross and a notice.
‘The Cell y Bedd where St. Melangell lived and prayed’
Overwhelmed, I fell to her knees. Was this the same religious experience that had hit the Prophet in his cave – and Melangell in this place – at almost the same juncture in his over fourteen centuries ago? Whether it was or not, I now understood what Carys had been referring to: life is a journey and who you meet on the way matters. The route is not mapped out and is rarely clear but it is that journey and not the destination that matters. Still kneeling, I faced the Christian cross and performed the Muslim prayer.
And as I did so, I knew which direction to take for the next leg of that journey.
It was my own path.
“Allah akbar!” I muttered feeling more at peace than I ever had before.
Written Etruria, UK, August 2015
Initially inspired by a dream