Note to reader: One purpose of being a writer is to try and put oneself into the position of a person one normally would never have had any sympathy with; a killer cop, for example, or a Nazi concentration camp guard, or a Rwandan genocidaire.
Of necessity, stories such as this need a mental balancing act which is often difficult to pull off.
It is for the reader to decide whether I have succeeded.
These last few hours of my life seem to stretch on interminably, much longer than all the years that have gone before.
For the fifth time I walk outside into the night, to stand awhile under the stars and sniff the air. Far away, a car passes, a momentary flash of pale headlight washing over the top floor of a building across the street. The building is only half-finished, concrete pillars and raw brick.
I doubt anyone will ever finish it.
If I were to look to the right, I would see the car I’ll be driving tomorrow, parked as close to the house as I could get it. I won’t look at it now, though. All evening I’ve been working on it, and now it’s got seventy kilograms of plastic explosive stuffed under the rear seat and in the trunk. The detonator is connected to a switch I’ve taped to the gearshift.
I’ve done it all myself, so that I know it’s going to work.
Somewhere not that far away, I can hear a machine gun stuttering. Soon, the mortars will join in, hard slaps followed by the explosion of bombs landing. I’ve grown so used to it that I hardly even notice it any longer.
It’s a long, long way from where I grew up.
I lean against the wall a while, and take a deliberate moment to bring my family to mind. My father, no doubt at this moment – I check my watch and calculate the time difference – just getting ready to leave work for the day. My mother, who steadfastly refused to get a job even though she was offered one many times, probably cooking dinner and listening to music on the radio. She never actually hears the songs, though. The music is just the way she fills up the silence.
And there was a lot of silence, in the house, all the years I lived there. My father, far too busy at work to talk, far too busy proving himself a model citizen of his new country. My mother, wanting a large family, and having to settle for one child, found refuge in her own thoughts. And there was I, whom my parents never could admit openly that they loved, and who in turn stayed silent for fear of offending them.
I wonder what my mother would think if she could see me now.
If I close my eyes, I can bring to mind her face, as I saw her last. She had aged suddenly in the last two years, deep lines settling in around her eyes and mouth, and the silver strands shone bright in her hair. She would never dye, of course – the thought would never even occur to her.
“I worry about you so much,” she had told me. “Isn’t it time you started thinking of finding a nice girl and settling down?”
I hadn’t replied, thinking of the girls I’d known and bedded. How would she react if I’d told her about them? Emily, for example, the hoop earrings in her ears flashing when she turned her head, her teeth bright between her red lips when she laughed – what would my mother have thought of her? Or Afia, the good Muslim girl by day, who even wore a headscarf to work – and who drank herself half-insensible on weekends. How would my mother have reacted to her, and to the others – and to Rini?
Rini. I had vowed to myself that I would never even think of her again. And yet, in these last hours of my life, there’s no reason why I can’t cast my mind over her for a little while at least; if only because she’s the last person I met before I left, and the only one I told what I was going to do.
She hadn’t understood, of course. I knew she wouldn’t, yet I felt driven to try.
“Why?” she’d asked, her face bewildered. “You have a job, you have a good life. You have...” and the bewilderment in her face had deepened to pain. “...me.”
How could I have answered her? Should I have said that she wasn’t nearly as important as the thing that called to me, to travel halfway across the world to a country I’d never seen, that even my parents had never seen? Should I have told her that she was part of the problem, that she was part of a lifestyle that I’d come to hate?
After all, what did the life I had offer? I had a job as a graphics designer that brought me money but no satisfaction. I had a life of night clubs on Friday evenings and Saturday hangovers. I had a girl who wanted to get married and have babies. And I had the prospect of growing older with nothing more than that to look forward to.
That had never been enough for me.
I don’t remember the exact words I’d used in self-justification. “It’s not about you,” I think I said. “It’s about fighting injustice, about fighting for a cause I believe in.” And as the words stumbled over my tongue, I’d watched the pain in her face settle in, like a mask, and the tears come trickling out of her eyes.
“I’ll come back when it’s over,” I remember saying. At least I think I remember it. “I’ll come back for you, when it’s all over.”
“No you won’t,” she’d replied. “Once you go, you’ll never come back again.”
I’d looked at her, and not attempted to deny it. “Don’t tell anyone,” I’d said. “Not until I’m gone.”
“Don’t worry,” she’d replied. “I won’t tell anyone – ever.” And she’d turned round and walked away, leaving me to wonder what she’d meant by that.
I’d never seen her again.
Shaking my head to get rid of the memories, I rub my face. I’d grown a beard during training, but today I’ve shaved it off, leaving just a stubble of a moustache. A bearded man is automatically a suspect to those on the other side. My face feels naked now, the cheek smooth like that of a woman.
Far away, framed by the pillars of the half-completed building across the street, a flare arcs down through the night, sparking and sputtering. It’s the soldiers in the base, trying to push back the darkness of the night.
I could have told them they don’t need to bother. They won’t be attacked tonight.
They’ll be attacked in the morning, and I’ll be leading the assault.
Someone laughs in the room behind me, a short bark of a laugh which I recognise. It’s the Turk, Suleimanoglu, whom everyone fears. I’ve seen him do things that I can’t even conceive of. But Suleimanoglu and the others, the Jordanian from Amman and the Indian who calls himself Abu Hamza al Hindi, or the Chechen and the Albanian, they’re all my brothers. Tomorrow, at this time, if we’ve taken the base, they’ll be sitting talking about me and celebrating my martyrdom.
At that moment I feel a great rush of affection for them.
I suppose I ought to have been inside right now, reading the Quran, but, truth to tell, I never did have any time for religion. It’s not for religion that I’m doing this, and I have no illusions that I’ll end up in Paradise. I’m half-convinced anyway that there is no such thing as Paradise. I’m not even certain that there is an Allah.
Some of the things I have seen in these last months would be impossible if there was an Allah.
Nor, despite what I’d told Rini, am I convinced of the cause I’m fighting for. In fact, I’ve become absolutely convinced over the last months that there is no such thing as a cause worth fighting for.
That realisation came slowly. It came in the mud of an execution where the ground was wet with blood, not water. It came in the moans of a man lashed by his wrists to a crude crucifix and left to die in the noonday sun. It came in the shock wave of a barrel bomb that blew down a building, crushing a family in the rubble. And it came in the nightmares that followed me down, into the dark.
I have grown to know them, those nightmares. Perhaps in one of them I am standing behind a line of men, with bowed heads, kneeling before a trench they have dug, and which will be their graves. Sometimes I am whipping another man, for not reciting the suras in the prescribed way. And sometimes I am watching children being put to the sword, and I am laughing, laughing.
But never – not once – have I dreamt of myself as a victim. And this, somehow, bothers me a little.
I have told nobody about the dreams.
Perhaps I should have read more books, I think, and walk over to sit down on the tiny patch of grass which serves as a garden. The grass is dry and stiff, and it crackles under my shoes. Momentarily, I remember the thick, spongy green turf of the parks of the distant city I’d once thought of as home.
If I’d read more books, I might have had a few other avenues of thought, more ways to take my life forward than a dreary middle age of PTA meetings, evenings in front of the television, and worries about income and mortgages. Maybe there would have been ideas I could have found, principles that I might have adopted to suit my life. Perhaps I might have written poetry.
I smile at that thought, and compose a verse in my head.
White blossoms smell sweet
But they wither and fall
At the end of day.
Only the perfume endures
And only in memory.
It sounds trite, and I dismiss any thoughts of writing it down. In fact, I’ve already decided not to leave any last message, either in writing or on video. It would be silly, and I don’t even have the slightest idea what to say.
“Sami,” someone calls from the room. “Come in and eat.”
“Later,” I call back, but I already know I won’t eat again in this life. Food is no longer a thing I have any interest in, and in a few hours I will not need it anyway.
So. I don’t believe in the cause, I don’t believe in Paradise or Allah, and sure as hell I don’t believe in the Caliph Ibrahim. I ask myself, once more – as I have done many times, over the last weeks and months – why I am doing this. And back and again I come round to the same answer.
I am doing this because there is nothing else left for me to do. I don’t want to grow old and die slowly, looking out of the window at a grey street and mourning what might have been.
Maybe there are different paths I could have taken, but this one has pushed me into this one road. At least my brother mujahideen will be happy.
And if I can make them happy, that’s more than I can say for anyone else whom I’ve been with.
I get up off the grass, walk over to the car and get in behind the wheel. I lean back and think of the first time I’d ever driven a vehicle, and the rush of pleasure, the power it had given me.
It’s nothing to the power I’ll have now in my last death ride, I think, checking the detonator switch once again. In a little while, the gates of the base will be growing larger through my windshield, and the bullets will be flying around me. If the soldiers don’t shoot me or blow me up first, I will show them what power is all about.
I feel a little sorry for the soldiers. I don’t hate them either. But I’ll be saving them, too, I tell myself – saving them from the monotony of having to grow old and fade away.
I will make my brothers proud of me when the time comes. Or I will fail, but it will not have been for want of trying.
“Sami,” the Turk calls. “Come in, Sami.”
I don’t say anything. I don’t have to say anything any longer that I don’t want to.
I can, I realise, see outlines more clearly now. The sky is beginning to lighten ever so faintly in the east, and the stars are fading. I must have been out here longer than I thought.
My time is coming.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014