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Drinkers of the Wind (A Legend of the Middle East)

Long, ago Abraham's son, Ishmael, made a name for himself when he invented the bow and arrow. They say he invented the Ark of the Desert, too, a palanquin on poles carried by four men. But most marvelous of all, people say, was the gift that came to Ishmael one night when he was alone in the desert wilderness.

The light was beginning to fade when Ishmael lay down to rest. Soon he was fast asleep, and a wind spout began to whirl toward him. Now wind spouts -- a kind of desert tornado -- were common, but this one was faster and stronger than any before, and it blasted red sand and scattered dust for miles as it hurtled toward the sleeping man.

Then its scream and the blast of heat woke Ishmael.

For a moment he froze in fear at the sight, but then, from the center of the dust devil came a sound he recognized as the voice of the angel Gabriel. As Ishmael watched, out of that mass of swirling sand and dust came an extraordinary sight. Ishmael rubbed his eyes, for he did not trust the vision, but when he opened them again, he saw it was true. Out of that chaotic dust came prancing hooves that galloped across the desert, moving so fast they seemed to swallow the ground.

Gabriel called to Ishmael, "Welcome this creature," as above those hoofs emerged one of the most beautiful animals Ishmael had ever seen. He gathered his people to show them the magnificent and magical being. "It drinks the wind," he announced, and they called it for a long time Drinker of the Wind; only later was it called a horse. Every tribe wanted horses of their own, and from that first swirl of strength and beauty came thousands of others.

A time came many years later when the prophet Mohammed was traveling across the desert with the Bedouin, and with them traveled hundreds of camels and horses.

One day Mohammed announced that for three days and nights, he would forbid the horses to drink even a drop of water.

"How can you do such thing?" the people cried. "Wasn't it you who told us every man shall love his horse?"

"Yes," said Mohammed, "but it is the will of Allah."

It was the height of summer, and the heat wafted up from the sands and poured down from the sun. The horses were faint and dizzy with thirst, and the people begged Mohammed. "Please, let the horses drink."

The prophet refused. "Allah commands me to make this test," he explained.

At long last the end of the third day came, and just as the moon began to rise, Mohammed lifted the horn that hung at the entrance to his tent and walked to the place where he had ordered the horses be kept enclosed.

As he approached, the horses looked longingly toward the nearby watering hole, then their eyes traveled to Mohammed's face. Their bodies shivered in anticipation. Would he set them free at last? Their nostrils quivered. They watched intently as he walked to the gate.

And then he unlatched that gate.

Hundreds of parched horses, desperate to drink, raced as one out of that enclosure, and for a moment they looked to be only a swirl of howling dust. As they galloped toward the watering hole, their tails whirling, they seemed almost to fly.

But just before the first horse reached the water, Mohammed raised the horn to his lips and blew into it. This was the call to war.

The horses had been trained to stop at that sound, to come at once to their master. This, they knew, was their sacred duty.

But the horses ignored the call. Some say they could not hear it over the thundering hooves and pounding hearts. They nearly crushed each other in that mad stampede to the cool oasis.

They carried on, and the first to reach it dipped their heads and drank as if they would never stop, edging away only when another desperate creature pushed its way in.

But there were five horses who did hear that trumpeting sound. Five mares stopped, turned around and faced their master. Five mares gave up the dream of that fresh, cool water. Five mares walked toward their master and stood before him, ready to obey his will, no matter what it was.

And so Mohammed knew that these were the five mares that were most worthy of Allah. These, then, were the five mares who would carry Allah's name to every corner of the Earth, the five who would foal the finest horses in the entire world.

He patted their silky manes, and he studied them. Their foreheads were large, he saw. Surely this was because those foreheads held the blessings of Allah. Their high-tailed carriages symbolized the pride of greatness, and their arched necks and high crests showed their remarkable spirit.

"You are creatures of the great Allah," he said, "and you will forever be special." Then he led them to the watering hole to quench their thirst, and as he watched them, he had tears of joy in his eyes.

People say it is from these five horses that the five breeds of Arabian horses, Al Khamsa, descend. The five families -- Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban -- each possess the loyalty and courage of those five mares who passed the test of Mohammed.

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