Nabeela Rehman was trained as a biochemist, but has abandoned enzymes and test tubes in favor of a laptop and three children. They live in the suburbs, surrounded by oak trees. This is very interesting for squirrel watching but can be painful in autumn when acorns drop. She spends a lot of time doing dishes and looking out the window. She is proficient in making vegetable soup, chocolate chip muffins spiked with pureed pumpkin, and chick peas in an onion tomato sauce.
Burra Mullah and the Poison Tree
Once upon a time there was a country that did not like its Neighbor. The people were very suspicious of their Neighbors, who came on tourist expeditions to buy blue enameled pottery and gold embroidered linens. They didn’t mind overcharging them, but once the money was gone, they expected their Neighbors to return promptly to their side of the border.
One day, Burra Mullah was walking along the street and peering at the tops of the walls because his wife had misplaced her silver necklace. Although other members of his household were questioning the children or scolding the sweepers, Burra Mullah suspected a crow might have grabbed it, flown for a bit, and then dropped the glittering necklace. As he scanned the mudbrick walls topped with barbed wire or glass shards for signs of his wife’s jewelry, he noticed his friend had a strange tree in his backyard. There among limpid palm fronds and spiky orange-tree leaves, a tall thin tree held aloft thin branches of dense purple-black foliage. Curious, he knocked on the door, invited himself in for tea, and between bites of tea cake, Burra Mullah asked his friend about the unusual tree.
Burra Mullah’s friend poured steaming green tea into the blue porcelain cup. He set the teapot on the tea tray, scratched his head, and finally stammered, “Well, f-f-funny you should ask about that, but a man from the Neighbor country paid me some money to see whether their trees would grow in our soil. They want to expand their orchard business, but they are not sure their trees can grow just anywhere. Special soil requirements, he told me.”
“And you took him up on this venture?” asked Burra Mullah, his hand raised to his heart.
His friend shrugged his shoulders, “Well, he offered me a huge sum and I have a daughter who is getting married next month. She expects a big wedding.”
Burra Mullah nodded sympathetically.
“It is a very easy tree to grow. Hardly requires any work or water, and it is flourishing. The only problem is, it is a poison tree.”
Burra Mullah sputtered his tea all over his coat, the tea tray, and the tea cakes. As the two men sopped up the tea with paper napkins, Burra Mullah said angrily, “How can you tolerate this alien, poison tree in your household?”
“We were warned it was poisonous, and I have told everyone in the household not to go near it, and besides,” he sighed, “I need the cash.”
In the days that followed, Burra Mullah noticed many of these purple-black leafed trees growing up all around his village. The shade the trees cast was so dark that nothing could grow underneath them. As Burra Mullah interrogated his neighbors about their gardens, he soon learned that the businessmen from Neighbor country were very keen to open new agribusiness opportunities. Although they had plenty of poison tree orchards in their own country, they could not keep up with the poison tree product demand.
Burra Mullah and his closest friends regarded the thriving poison tree business with dismay. They formed a close union and vowed to protest this invasion of a new species into their country. They made clever banners and staged a number of very loud protests, but their warning calls seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The problem was the versatility of the poison tree. The fruit itself, when eaten raw, was thoroughly toxic. However, if the scabrous yellow rind was removed and the magenta fruity flesh was put through a series of cooking and condensing procedures, the resulting pink paste was quite edible and high in iron. The smooth brown seeds of the fruit were also highly lethal, but when ground into a powder and used in small amounts, the poison seed spice made food unbelievably tasty. The branches of the poison tree grew quickly and the wood was light and flexible, perfect for furniture manufacturing. The sap from the roots could be boiled into a sort of rubbery plastic that was naturally biodegradable and could be used for everything: packing peanuts, car tires, mops, erasers, gaskets, spark plug tips, or trash bags. The medicines derived from the poison tree seemed to have miraculous, nearly overnight cures and far surpassed anything traditional remedies were able to offer. The scientists of Neighbor country were quite clever, and always came up with new uses and inventions based on the poison tree. Poison trees were lucrative and everyone wanted a part of this emerging industry. Burra Mullah saw his brightest students leave for the universities in Neighbor country to become agronomists, pharmacists, and manufacturing engineers.
Burra Mullah and his companions decided that they should try to develop their own trees of many uses from the indigenous fauna of their country. They searched for native trees that could compete with the poison tree, but these trees always became sickly and scrawny when grown in a commercial orchard network. Finally, one of them discovered that if the native tree was grafted onto the roots of the poison tree, the resulting hybrid grew quite well.
Soon, Burra Mullah and his friends had a comfortably successful tree business of their own. Their trees were not quite as flexible, and they were exceptionally toxic, but they grew well. Burra Mullah and his associates soon developed a small, but devoted, following who believed in the superiority of the native trees. The problem with the hybrid tree was that the fruit was so poisonous that it had very few applications. One of the more passionate young men of the group was certain he could find a way to render the fruit less toxic.
Burra Mullah was proud of the young man’s enterprising spirit, but troubled that the roots of the native trees consisted of that mysterious foreign plant. He wondered whether he should tell the young men about the grafted roots, but as he gazed at the reddish black leaves of his poison tree, he decided against it because he wouldn’t want to say anything that might dampen the enthusiasm of the younger generation.
This class participation exercise makes us uneasy. Our teacher is young, and he wants to make the class more interactive. We are accustomed to Qur’an teachers lecturing at us, quoting eminent scholars from the past and expounding their authoritative interpretations of text. The class starts out, traditionally, with a direct quote: “(2:25) Announce to those who believe and have done good deeds, glad tidings of gardens under which rivers flow, and where, when they eat the fruits that grow, they will say: ‘Indeed they are the same as we were given before,’ so like in semblance the food would be…”
“This ayah tells us we are promised a taste of what we have in this life in the next life,” says the teacher. “Now I want you to think, what is your favorite fruit? Let’s go around the class.”
We start at one end of the class, and each student obediently names her favorite fruit. When it is my turn, without thinking very deeply, I say, “Oranges.” But after I say it, I think to myself, “Why oranges? You’re not that crazy about oranges.”
I realize I meant to say “kinnows,” my father-in-law’s oranges, a hybrid orange developed in California in the 1930s, and brought over to the Punjab region of India ten years later as part of the Green Revolution. Due to their many seeds, kinnows are considered ‘juice’ oranges and nowadays are almost exclusively grown in Pakistan and northern India. They have an unusual color, a deep orange that nearly looks red in the shade.
The month before this class, my family had spent most of December in Lahore, Pakistan, when the kinnows in the orchard were ripe. My children had delighted in pulling fruit off the trees, plopping themselves down, and eating the oranges right there in the sandy dirt. The kinnows were delicious, a result of my father-in-law’s careful selection of the best fruits for his personal orchard. After lunch, the whole family would gather on the front lawn, sitting in patio chairs, a bowl of freshly picked kinnows on the umbrella table. We peeled the kinnows, juice dribbling over our faces and fingers, spitting out seeds onto the grass, enjoying the sun and our time together.
My “oranges” response came from the recent Pakistan holiday, but my favorite fruit is actually the plum. I haven’t tasted plums for many years because I know the taste of a perfect plum and no grocery store plums have ever neared the taste of my memory plum.
My memory plum came one July afternoon in California when I was eleven years old. My mother decided we’d go berry picking as a family. She wanted us to pick a mountain of berries, haul them back home, and freeze the harvest. We worked in the field all morning, loading up on olallieberries and raspberries, but my mother also wanted strawberries. This farmer had no strawberries. We had to go two miles east, but en route and in the middle of the hot countryside, my father announced he was hungry. This was not a surprise.
All the children indulged in a collective groan. Why couldn’t my father just control his appetite and let us finish this berry picking exercise as soon as possible? We all knew his hunger would result in pulling the car over to some farm stand to scrounge around for a snack. Undeterred by our whining and complaining, he pulled over at a stand advertising farm fresh plums.
At the edge of the plum orchard stood an old, dilapidated shack filled with small boxes of large, purple plums. My brothers wanted to pick fruit off the trees, but the farmer said, “No, too dangerous.” They pouted, but my father grabbed four cartons of plums and we sat outside, eating under the trees. The plums were wonderful, juicy. The sunlight filtered through the trees. I can’t remember what we said to one another, but I do remember biting into the fruit and thinking, “This is what purple tastes like.” There was relief from the berry picking and hot sun. We relaxed; the shade was calming, the succulent fruit filled our mouths with amazing sweetness, and we were happy, together. I look back at this snapshot of my family, when we were young and my mom was healthy, long before everything blew apart with disease and death and everyone was scattered and angry.
In class, I recognize that my favorite fruit isn’t associated with just the fruit. The fruit is always paired with family. So is this the taste of immortality? When the taste of something sweet on your tongue will match the sweetness you feel in your heart?
Unfortunately, my epiphany comes while half the students are still naming their favorite fruits. Once the crying starts, there’s no stopping it. The tears flow down my face, and that’s just how it is. My brothers still refuse to sit next to me in a movie theater.
What are people in class going to think of me? I don’t like fruit? I rub my eyes as though I am trying to stay awake, but I’m trying to rub the tears out of existence. I pull my notes close to my nose, as though I am reviewing some terribly important information on Arabic grammar and the use of imperative verbs.
He was fidgeting behind the podium, thumbing the edges of his index cards. The public offering did not fare well: stumbling over words, dropping cards, mumbling, forgetting the order of his slides. In the darkened, poorly ventilated room, the wheezing projector provided no reprieve. He clicked the wrong slides and stuttered as he broke away from the lucid haze of his note-monologue. His jokes lacked timing, and he kept brushing the clip-on microphone to create a cacophony of feedback.
Afterwards, she found him sitting alone at a table set for ten, laboriously cutting into his vegetarian lasagna. She sat down next to the new initiate. He was surprised at how easily she could make him laugh. His whole body relaxed when he smiled, a joyous acceptance of her snares. How odd they read the same books?
That was years ago. The dusty projector has been retired; PowerPoint presentations on sleek laptops are the new helpmates. Staring at him across the crowded conference room, she wonders how much of him is left. His presentation was polished, his timing impeccable, his success tangible, a well-tempered TED talk in his future.
She stands in the line of people waiting to congratulate him.
“Do you remember me?”
“Yes, of course.”
Then he smiles. No joy, no awkwardness, just the feeling of dipping one’s foot into the shallow end of a long Hollywood swimming pool.
The smile confirms it. Every trace of him evaporated in the crucible of success.