Ibn Firnas, the first up in the sky

… He was walking to Jebel Al ‘Arous. These mountains behind his city stood resilient, hosting silver leafed olive trees, now dusty and tired-looking. The summer air and the vast blue sky made this spot one of his favourite places since he has moved to Cordoba when he was only seven years old. It always reminded him of Izn Arrunda, his birth place, where he spent his summers, wondering amongst the brambles, drawing birds one after the other as he was scraping around at the back of the city.

“Oh, Medina-Runda! La de los

grandes y profundos tajos.

La de las estrechas calles.

La eterna doncella postrada a la

Orilla del Guadalevin.

La flor de loto de la meseta”

Ronda’s hills were friendly but rocky, the kind of place that makes you edgy, either from impatience or your unfulfilled discoveries. He still had both and this has not changed even now at the age of forty-six. He still had a little boy inside of him, though, who marvelled at all possibilities his mind could make up.

Life is a series of ideas pulled together by your perseverance and God’s help, he smiled at the thought and sat down on the southern slope of the Bride’s Mountain. It was the spot where he always sits, a round patch of grass and the big stone he leans against is familiar. He took out his notes, brown parchment laid out in front of him. If God created man in his image, it is this movement of sitting in the mountains writing that He must have conjured for human beings, he though. Ideas and inventions come from the most obscure places when we allow our mind to rest from the noise that fills it incessantly. His age taught him to be slow and deliberate and his movements followed this understanding. Life is no longer about doing things fast as he used to when he was younger. In Baghdad he rushed from teacher to teacher, thirsty to learn everything he could. His time felt contrived, limited as he needed to head back to Cordoba after some time. Besides, he could not have been happy in that land, it was just too unfamiliar to his spirit. He was deeply disturbed by the Persians and their ways. He returned to Cordoba with a content heart as while Baghdad satisfied his mind, it could never satisfy his heart. He belonged to the mountains of Andalus. Mountains have a secret, he thought, as he drew the nearest peak on his parchment where he was sitting. The lines soared, bold and ambitious, only softened by the gentle slopes in between the two mountains that dominate the scenery. They stand tall and proud but they are held by their own height hidden underneath the earth, he thought. Their power is under the soil, keeping them pegged in, never falter, never waver. God has given mountains a special permission to stand on their own weight and their magnificence is not the height in the sky but their depth on which they are rooted.

Knowledge of humans is like the mountains, nothing grows on feeble, fickle foundations. The peg on which the human spirit shines is a solid foundation, a holding that makes a man who he is. Without knowing one’s self, there is no knowing God. Without knowing the basics there is no innovation and this much he knew from his childhood. In Baghdad he studied but without the curiosity he would be floating in ideas, like the clouds on the sky, aimless and lazy. He looked up the summer sky, his mind floating with the cheerful clouds that moved above him. He laid on the grass, feeling the pulse of the earth, the chirping of the birds gently rocking him to a slow slumber.

He was woken by the adhan that came from the neighbouring village. He was getting his senses back and soon after he was fully awake, made tayammum to pray. He loved praying with dust on his hands and face, it was a different sensation of connecting to God. Water washes your worldly thoughts away, it refreshes in the heat and cleanses in the cold , but the earth brings you closer to the ground even before you place your forehead on it. Dust is a soft, true reminder of where we all come from, and his thoughts would not settle during his prayer, no matter how hard he tried to focus. He was reminded of the first time when he saw someone flying. He was only a child, perhaps eleven, when he saw a crowd gathering in front of the mezquita. By the time he got there, some people standing around whispering, others still unsure whether they should stay or not, he saw a man preparing a strange looking machine made of silk and wood. He panted as he pulled it through the square, not caring about what people thought. He has hardly cared about anyone’s thoughts, in fact, he had been cheating them with his stories, card games, making as much as money as he could. Nobody trusted Armen Firman in Cordoba, not even a mile around it. As he climbed to the top of the minaret, the crowd stood still as he jumped off, some said he hung in the air for quite some time.

He recalled the face of Armen as he fell onto the stones screaming of pain, while people rushed to help him and put him on a stretch. His face grimaced an agony he could not hide with his arrogance that preceded wherever he went. “Maybe today my name will be added to his”. People will talk about it and laugh at Ibn Firnas who fell from the mountains”- he thought. Many years passed since he saw drawings in Baghdad, as he was pulling his machine after him, not looking up. The day has finally arrived when he will be able to try whether his theory has worked, or he will be left deluded for the rest of his life.

Flying is a fascination many of his curious fellows discussed when he was in Baghdad. They spent most of their time debating whether birds are conscious of their movements or it is an intrinsic mechanism that make then fly? Do they know how miraculous it is when they take flight? How does it feel to be flying above the houses, squashing through every crevice, flying through holes no one has ever seen with their naked eyes? Occupying land is easy but dominating the sky must be a real power, they all thought sitting in their seminary, copying the books they were desperate to memorize in order to understand what seemed like a miracle.

As he turned, he saw a small crowd amassing a few slopes away. He could not believe how many people had already arrived. There was no sight of the emir and his entourage yet, they will be the last ones to arrive. This gives him time to prepare and be fully ready when they grace the crowd with their presence. In the distance he could hear horses and trumpets blown but he estimated them to be a while, perhaps it was a local army practice the emir has ordered for all his soldiers.

His machine was so wide he needed to navigate carefully not to walk around bushes that might rip the silk and the feathers he used up to make the parachute. He held it by the wooded rod that ran right across the entire length of the parachute giving it a solidity needed for the structure to stabilize in the air.

“People of Cordoba, I, Ibn Firnas, a son of this city, attempt what not many has attempted so far, I am going to fly in the sky” – he announced, and some cheered him while others started to laugh loud. He was neither embarrassed, nor hesitant and carried on preparing his flying machine. He assembled the top layer by adjusting the feathers he has been gathering for many moons now. They were glittering in the sun, sparkling pink, beige and yellow with some deep blue and dark green. After having the two top layers firmly attached to the main piece that would sit on his back, he busied himself with the front of his body. It was designed to be held by a long rod across his chest and on both sides a clip would allow him to move left or right.

The crowd was getting fidgety, they shouted from one end to the other wanting him to start but he was not ready. The parachute seemed flapping in the breeze and his anxiety grew with each passing minute. Where was his excitement he felt when he left his house this morning, full of hope that today he is writing history? Instead, his stomach churned, and his hands were shaking as he had one last look at the feathers moving gently behind him. Maybe I could just tell everyone the parachute is not working so I will do it another day. Why did I tell people what I was planning? I should have stayed quiet,” he thought to himself as he fiddled with the strings attaching to his wrists for the clips for directions. He climbed and climbed, the rocks getting sharper with each step, his leather boots thin and ripped in his left sole. He clambered toward the top of the rock he estimated to be the highest in the area. He gazed across the land, stopping for a breath before he finally stood on the top peak.

“Ibn Firnas, you are going to fly”-  he kept telling himself in utter disbelief and with a deep conviction he has never experienced before. The feeling of conviction and curious carelessness washed over him as he adjusted his parachute the last time. His mind was floating in the air already while his body was hesitating to launch from the rock he stood on. The mountain is holding him, pegging his mind and body onto the only safe spot he knew in the moment. Is he ready to bounce off, he kept asking himself. Everything seemed to be coming together in this very moment as he concluded. Life is this moment, the bouncing off the spot our mind considers safe. Yet, it is only a split second of letting his feet go from security. He stood there hesitating while some shouted form the crowd: Come on, do it if you dare!

In moments like this whether he dares or not is never the real question. He would not be standing there if he did not dare. The right second, however, was a different matter altogether. The right split of time, when hesitation subdued and the speckle of a new moment opened must be observed, whatever we are doing- be it a flight, a new invention or a thought that is pushing its way through one’s consciousness. Ibn Firnas was not scared of the height, he was waiting for the right split of time to enter the universe. The sun was burning his back and his head began to spin. He stopped looking at the crowd, tightened his lips and with a firm decision in his mind he kicked his legs off from the rock. Time split, finally, as he felt weightless and thoughtless. He did not look down but kept his gaze and attention on the mountains ahead of him. His body, feeble and weak, his mind strong as steel felt in unison, a sensation he suddenly realized has been missing. Now it was his time, swooshing in the air, measured, deliberate, powerful. He has been waiting for this moment for a very long time and he wanted to enjoy it.

The crowd started to cheer under him but he kept his gaze up knowing that balance is key to keep his machine afloat straight. His trousers, made of feather, started to feel warm and his turban fell off his head but he did not care. The moments of flying have given him a new capacity of not caring about anything before him, after him, under him. The only thing he could think of was what was above him- the sky, God and the vast weightlessness was enough to entertain his mind. If only he could penetrate what is beyond those clouds! If only he knew what made this world work! Thoughts and ideas come from the most obscure places and this moment was just that!

Suddenly, in the soaring, he felt a jolt. A slight stop in the flow and something felt wrong. He thought of looking back but he knew that he would disturb the balance his body and the parachute created, and this delicacy was more important to stay up than checking his machine. Yet, the balance was tipping him off more and more. Within seconds of realizing this thought he felt pulled towards the ground, his descend started and ended with a huge thud. He did not feel the pain first, all he could think of was his parachute being broken. Can he repair it? Could he get a new set of feathers to try again? How long did he stay up in the air? Questions came rushing into his mind as he was lying on the floor with his back down, face looking up the blue sky he was part of just minutes ago.

“He must have broken his backbone” – he heard from the distance and looked up only to see that a few strong man from the village came to see what happened to him. He did not know them but they seemed to be familiar with his name.

“Abbas, can you hear us?”- a voice asked, and he nodded.

“Alhamdulillah, you can recognize voices. – he smiled and put his arms under his head, lifting his head slightly. A sharp pain ran thought his entire body, his legs and back feeling like hot iron running through them. When he cried out loud, the man placed his head back onto the ground gently.

“He must have injured his back so badly he cannot move. Maybe he will never be able to walk again, we need to take him back to Cordoba”- he heard.

There was no hesitation in his mind whether it was worth the flight or not. He, in his delirium, was happy to be telling the men who carried him home how liberating it was to leave the earth, even though the retuning was nothing short of disgrace. His speech clear in his mind but inaudible for others because of the pain, kept him entertained until they placed him on his bed and ordered a doctor to visit. He looked at his room, filled with drawings and half- assembled machines of all nature, he knew he had found something valuable to complete before he leaves this earth. He knew it was a work God has placed in his hands to polish and complete, even though he had no idea how he would do it but that did not matter to him. God places you on wings you need to learn how to fly with, he thought as he pulled out his drawings as if they were his most valuable possessions….

…to be continued…