A Non-Believer’s Prayer

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris

Mar 9, 2020 · 4 min read
Oman, 2004. Crossing the jebel at Birkat Sharaf

How did it all start? In another life, another continent, where everything’s dead, buried alive out of necessity and desperation. But while any connection to where I come from has been erased, over and over, the words that started everything remain seared into me, and I can recite them at will, again and again, as I have to myself over a lifetime. Prayers from someone who believes in nothing, spoken to no one and everyone.

I was a child when my father took down For Whom the Bell Tolls from the bookshelf that also doubled as the bar. Smuggled alcohol in 1980s Bombay, spirits from around the world that would arrive in a black duffel bag carried by a bearded Parsi, a prophet whom we’d all gather around, as he dug out bottles of Armagnacs and single malts and Żubrówka, with its single strand of grass that a bison had sniffed on a faraway steppe that I would one day explore.

I was too young to drink, and I needed help with Hemingway. But what I was read was what came before the book even started:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

And on top, the statement to Meditation XVII:

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.

Now this Bell, tolling softly for another, saies to me, Thou must die.

And those words of John Donne have stayed with me forever, and they made everything I have ever done possible.

More than a decade after I first heard them, I was spending sleepless nights online, to the beat of a gray dial-up modem, and the rise and fall of a sea that told me I was nowhere. I had barely stumbled through college, and I was left with only pieces, shards of dreams and a broken family. I had nothing, and I wanted more than anything else to run away, as far away as possible from anything recognizable: the further, the harsher, the better. And in those hours under a jaundiced moon, in which anything seemed possible and yet nothing was, I chanced upon a message board, and a question: did someone know the source of those words?

I did.

My answer caught the attention of an American specialist in oral literature and learning. She was intrigued that a teenager in Bombay was writing about a 17th Century metaphysical poet and a Latin inscription. She offered me my first job, researching for her, paying me a New York salary. Suddenly, I went from being a broke kid who couldn’t afford a camera to earning more money than the adults around me.

I blew it all up, buying a camera I had seen in the National Geographics that had lined the bookshelves that held the Hemingways and smuggled VSOPs. I shot the streets of Bombay, mostly without pay, mostly without knowing what I was doing. I learnt HTML and built a website, and put my photos up.

The manager of a publishing group in Oman saw my work and offered me a job. I would have gone there if she’d said I’d be an unpaid intern and have to sweep the floors. I was only a kid with a fancy camera, running on fumes. Instead, she thought I was a professional and made me editor of Oman Today, a travel and adventure magazine. I’d get an allowance to buy a car. I’d have a goddamn salary. I’d have my own place. Most importantly, I’d get the hell out of where I was.

I hadn’t heard of Oman. I looked it up on Lonely Planet. There was a picture of a man in a purple dishdasha. I took all my money out of the bank, and taped together a soft, light blue Samsonite that my mother had bought decades before I was born. I knew this was a one-way journey. It had to be. And it was. I’ve never been back, except for the times I’ve been thrown out of countries.

And that’s how I started. With five Latin words.


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