THE HIDDEN PEARL
(A true story from Yemen)
-As-salamu aleykum! (= Peace be with you, May God protect you!).
Everyone makes the same friendly greeting: the shy shepherd, the boys on the back of the donkey, the old man driving her caravan of camels, women with faggots of firewood loaded on their heads. I walk for hours by the wadis, the beds of dry rivers. In my opinion, it must be years since water has run here. You can’t see a shred of green. I sit for a moment on a big rock and sip water from my canteen.
Wow! What do I see? I lean over and spy a little flower, of a striking red and smaller than a match head. Who could have put it there for me? Why is it so hidden behind the rocks where nobody sees it, where camels and goats pass by below it, where people pass without noticing? Why does it sojourn there, so happy to bloom up there? Was it waiting for the day when a lone walker such as I might see it?… And while I’m looking at thi s discreet flower I suddenly remember Loulou.
Loulou was a Muslim maiden. Her name means “pearl”, and even though she’d never had a real pearl in her hands, she had always dreamed that she would one day.
Her misfortunes began as soon as she was born. “Ah! What a pity!” complained the women it’s only a girl. And what an ugly girl! “. Alright, so she comes from Allah, but… who has ever seen such a faded pearl? Loulou limped, was wall-eyed, and was so ugly!… Nobody ever knew why she had been named “Pearl.”
Poor Loulou! How they mocked her:
“ Look at her, the cripple!”
“Hey, there goes the wally!”
Fortunately for her, soon she had to put on the veil. So no one saw her face any more. Only she did:
“Look at her, the lame dame!”
Each time she heard that, her heart saddened. She never got used to it.
But didn’t anybody ever understand how much she was suffering? Did nobody know how to see that kind girl who remained hidden behind the veil? Did anyone realise she’d need to be loved just as any child? No, nobody. Everybody insulted her. Sometimes they even went so far as to hit her.
She worked from early morning until evening. Fetching water from the wells, returning sadly, with the very heavy jar on her head. And she helped with the farm work, tidied the house, kneaded and baked bread, seasoned the food, did the washing up. And nobody gave her a word of affection.
SCHOOL AND WEDDING
The happiest time of her life were the few years she could go to school. But this only lasted a short time.
“There’s no sense in it”, decided her father “Why does a girl need to study? As if reading helped she to knead the bread better! Bah! Get to work, cripple!”
But Loulou learned to read, something that no one could ever take from her.
They tormented her, they made fun of her, but she never cried. She kept doing everything quietly, with courage. She hid her grief deep inside herself. Get married? What a joke! Who would want a misshapen girl? And then one day, a horrible day, that old man came, already married to two women, and he told her father that he would gladly take a maiden like that to wife.
She knows how to work hard and that’s good because the two wives I have are already very old, too worn out and lazy.
Loulou was sold by her father in exchange for bread.
One couldn’t expect more for a girl who limped and was wall-eyed.
The wedding wasn’t even deserving of the name, so sad was the girl. And the gold jewelry that a bride wears to take a husband, don’t even think about it, she got married without jewels nor baubles.
After that, life became even harder for her. If until then it had been a hell now… the other wives didn’t even lift a finger to help her, but never left off mocking her. If only she could have had children. That would have been some consolation. But that happiness was also denied her. If only she were dead!
BESIDE THE WELLS
It was one morning, near the wells. I saw how they pushed her aside and she had to wait patiently until all the other women had filled their pails. To draw the water, she pushed her veil aside for a moment and I could see her eyes. I could hardly tell that she was wall-eyed. What I did see was an infinitely sad expression. When I passed my arm over her tired shoulders, she shivered. Nobody had ever touched her like that. It was as if someone had finally discovered the true Loulou.
I saw her again the next day and the next, and then all the days, weeks and months that followed. Little by little I began to win her trust. For the first time in her life, her heart expanded. For the first time there was someone who listened to her without laughing at her, insulting her, or rejecting her. A friendship grew there, beside the wells.
LONELINESS AND DEATH OF LOULOU
The time came when I had to leave Yemen. How I was going to miss her, Loulou. The eve of my departure, I gave her a booklet, a beautiful booklet that talked about God. She hid it for safety. It was the last time I saw her on this earth.
Back in Holland, many years later, I found out what had happened to her. Loulou read and reread this book every time she was on her own. The only place where no one looked was her trunk where she kept her clothes, and that’s where she hid her treasure after reading it. What could have been in her heart when she spread out her carpet to pray five times a day toward Mecca? God only knows…
Her husband beat her more and more. Her co-wives treated her worse and worse. One day, one of them went through her trunk and found the booklet. She denounced her. Loulou received punches and kicks until she sincerely confessed that she believed in Jesus, the Son of God. Then, as fundamentalist Islamists prescribe, she was executed as an apostate.
THE LITTLE RED FLOWER OF FIRE
When I returned to Yemen (Yemen had suffered some civil wars between north and south), someone told me where Loulou’s tomb was. In Muslim cemeteries a stone is placed for a man and two for a woman. But it seems that Loulou was not even worthy of a stone! Tears rolled down my cheeks, I went to get a couple of pebbles to put carefully on her grave. And through my tears I just noticed one of these tiny flowers, one of the flame-red blossoms. No, the people had not seen it, but God had. For him, Loulou had been a tender little flower like that one.
That night I had a dream. A dream so real that I was convinced that was true. I saw Loulou walking toward the throne of the Lord Jesus. She wore a veil and limped the whole time. I saw Jesus as he delicately removed her veil and took her into his arms with affection. I saw her cry in his shoulder. She cried without end! All the sadness and pain, the tears contained throughout her life, finally flowed like a flood. I saw Jesus himself wipe every tear from her eyes and couldn’t believe it: above him, all the tears turned into pearls! Laughing together, Jesus and Loulou made of these pearls a beautiful necklace. And while he tenderly passed the collar around her neck, I heard him whisper:
“Loulou, my pearl of great price!”
When she looked at him, I saw her face. I stopped breathing. I had never seen a face so happy! Loulou dazzled as the midday sun, walked perfectly. So she returned to go, straight and upright, hand in hand with Jesus, the Pearl of great price.