It’s just eight in the morning, but the sun has burned off the night chill and turned the air over the desert into an oven.
Since the car has no air conditioning, we drive with the windows rolled down. The breeze makes the heat more manageable, though it does mean that sand and grit blow in as well. The sand gets everywhere. It’s in the upholstery, in the grooves of the rubber mats on the floor; it gets into the folds of my clothes and makes my eyes water. It sticks to my palms and chafes them against the steering wheel, and it even gets in my mouth if I try to talk.
That’s as good a reason as any not to talk, anyway.
“You understand, don’t you?” the producer from al Hayat asks, for the third or fourth time. He sits hunched over in the seat next to me, his hand pressed against the dashboard, as though that would make the car move faster. He’s a thin man with a long nose and bulging eyes, his manner nervous and abrupt, like a grasshopper. “It may or may not be today, but you have to act as though it is.”
“I get you, Abu Sulaiman,” I say, just to stop him from repeating it over again, but he doesn’t even look at me. He doesn’t listen to anything anyone says, never has; his one love is for the sound of his own voice. I go back to watching the road, squinting to limit the glare of the sun from the white desert.
Behind me, the camera crew in their lorry hangs back, trying to avoid the worst of my dust. They don’t like coming out of their posh offices and mingling with us ordinary fighters. They’re better paid, better housed, and with privileges the like of which the rest of us can’t even dream; with their cameras and their computers, they’re far more valuable than an ordinary warrior who can merely press the trigger of a gun. I glance briefly in the rear view mirror, but the lorry is almost too far away to see.
As I drive, I remember once again what Abu Musab had said when I’d been ordered to go back from the front line to this assignment. We’d been sitting in a shallow trench on a hillside, watching the opposite slope for any sign of movement by the enemy. “Lucky,” he’d told me, tapping a piece of stone against another. “You’re lucky, Abu Walid.”
“Lucky?” I echoed. “What are you talking about? I’ll have to act like a performing monkey in front of the cameras – and you call me lucky?”
Abu Musab hadn’t looked at me. “I’d take your place in a heartbeat,” he’d said, “if only I were given the chance.”
That had disturbed me, because Abu Musab was a senior fighter, one who’d been in the war against the murtaddin since the last days of the Crusader occupation of Iraq. But of course I’d said nothing.
“Not that I doubt why they want you,” Abu Musab had said finally. “With your English, you’ll be just the kind of person who’d be ideal for the job.”
I do not want to be ideal for the job. I want to be sitting beside Abu Musab, fighting the enemy. That is what I’d thrown away my old life for, and made the hijrah to the Khilafat. If I’d wanted to perform for the cameras I’d have tried my luck with a casting agency.
The engine coughs slightly, and then recovers. I’ve no idea what’s wrong with it. This car is ancient – it doesn’t even have seat belts – and my knowledge of engines is almost nothing. I only learnt to drive before making my hijrah, so I might be of more use to the Khilafat. I hope the engine doesn’t quit, and mutter a quick prayer to Allah in that regard.
Will Allah listen to me? If Allah’s will is for the engine to fail, then am I going against His will by imploring Him to keep it going? This is the kind of theological discussion I always try to avoid, because all it does is provoke acrimony. Not that, going by what I’ve seen, acrimony can be avoided anyway.
Far away, a hump of pink and yellow rises above the desert. That’s the old fort of al Qila, where we’re headed. I’ve been there once before; a tumbled heap of giant blocks of sandstone, among which scorpions crawl slowly and malevolently, tails curved over their backs. It’s easy to lose one’s way among the maze of ruins.
“The video will be seen across the world,” Abu Sulaiman says. “Are you sure you know your lines?”
I nod. The steering wheel is sweat-slick beneath my hands, and I wipe them one by one on my thighs. Back home, right now, the green leaves will have broken through the skins of the trees, and fruit begin to swell, green ripening to pink. If I were at home now, I could have been sitting under a tree with a girl, playing with her hair, feeling her leaning against my chest, the smell of her heady in my nose. I’ve chosen to give all that up, to come half the world to do as my conscience commanded me, to fight the murtadd and the kufr for the glory of the Khilafat – only to drive a car across the desert at the command of a man whose plan for me is to perform before a camera.
It could be worse, I tell myself. I could be home still, doing things that might give momentary pleasure, but damn me in the long run, things I should be ashamed of. I’ve told myself this so many times I’ve lost count. I think it’s a fault in my spiritual make-up that I have to keep telling myself this.
Al Qila grows larger and larger in the windscreen. The remnants of the walls are still impressive, high enough that one has an idea of how gigantic they must have been once. From above those walls, generations of young warriors must have peered out over the desert, looking for the sunlight glittering on the spears of enemy armies. Now those walls are tumbled stone, and those warriors blown dust.
I glance at Abu Sulaiman out of the corner of my eye, wondering what he’d say if I talked about what I’ve just been thinking of. But his attention is on the old fort.
“It’s a great backdrop,” he says. “It lends the whole video a touch of drama.”
“It’s also easily identifiable,” I say sourly, pulling off the highway and onto the track leading to the fort. The cloud of dust we’re trailing doubles at once. If the enemy were overhead, we should have been bombed long ago, but Abu Sulaiman has assured me we’ll be safe. How he knows that, I can’t say, but it’s true enough that nobody has attacked us so far.
“We’ll be shooting inside,” he says, and I wince. Between those walls the trapped air will be like molten fire.
Another vehicle is already waiting in the shade of the nearest wall, a dark blue van with the muzzle of a machine gun poking out of the passenger’s side window. A mujahid in a brown uniform walks over when we park.
“It’s not the same one,” he says. “We couldn’t bring him.”
“What’s the problem with him?” Abu Sulaiman asks.
The mujahid shrugs. His face is speckled with blackheads, the corners of his eyes crusted with dried yellow tears. Once, back in that other life, I’d had a girlfriend who’d cleaned the corners of my eyes with her long slender fingers and put blackhead plaster over my nose. “He’s ill. He’s in no shape to face the cameras, Abu Sulaiman.”
“Pity,” the producer says. He glances at me. “Abu Walid, you know what to do, don’t you?”
“I know,” I say, though of course I’m far from sure I do know. I know my lines, I’ve watched the videos, but what would I do if I actually had to...I turn my mind away, and busy myself with getting out of the car and slamming the door with unnecessary vehemence. I’ll handle the other thing if it comes to it. Others have, so why can’t I?
“So who is he, Abu Bilal?” Abu Sulaiman asks. “And where is he?”
“Some guy who wandered into one of our patrols,” Abu Bilal replies. “He seems to have been kind of a tourist. You know, the sort who wanders around a battlefield looking for thrills. He’s in the van.”
While they talk, I walk away, looking down the road back towards the highway. The crew lorry is a puff of dust in the middle distance, the sky already a glare of whitish steel. With every passing moment, I’m feeling more uncomfortable, less sure of myself. At first, when I I’d first thought of coming to the Khilafat, I’d imagined that the journey would be the most difficult part, that everyone would look at me, just see my face, and known where I was going and for what. I’d imagined that I’d be stopped at the airport, and perhaps, if I’m honest, I’ll even admit that maybe I’d half-hoped to be turned back, so I could say I’d tried and failed. But nobody looked at me twice at all, not at the passport controls, or in the plane, or at the border town in Turkey where I’d finally got off the bus. I’d met the person I’d contacted online before beginning the hijrah, and two days later I was in the Khilafat.
Then I’d thought that Allah was smoothening my path. Now. I am no longer so sure.
I resist the urge to glance at the van. Its windows are tinted, and I don’t know if the unknown man inside can even see me, but I feel suddenly intensely unwilling to show him my face. I walk back to the car and get the hood that Abu Sulaiman had given me when I’d picked him up. It’s heavy, thick cloth, and it’ll be terribly hot underneath, but suddenly I want to wear it, as though I want to hide my face, not just from the man in the van, but from the whole world.
This is what I’ve come to, I think wryly. At one time, I had a girlfriend who would cleanse my face with her tender fingers and kiss my lips, murmuring how handsome I was. Now, I hide my face from the world, simply so I can feel secure.
“Abu Walid’s eager to do this,” Abu Sulaiman laughs. “He can’t wait to get dressed for the job. And here I thought he might be reluctant.”
“Here, Abu Walid.” Abu Bilal reaches over my shoulder into the back of the car and brings out the sword. “You’d better practice a bit. We don’t want fumbles, do we?”
It’s impossible to know whether he’s being facetious. Though Abu Sulaiman and he obviously know each other well, I’ve never met him before, and there’s something about him that I find almost physically repellent. I know it’s not right to feel that way about a fellow fighter for the Khilafat, a brother in arms, but I have to suppress a shudder as I take the sword and my fingers momentarily touch his.
The sword is heavier than I imagined, awkward to raise, and I walk away a few steps as I swing it clumsily. The edge catches the sun and glitters, a line of silver fire. Once I recall standing by the side of a lake, far away, and the sun had shone on waves with that same silver glitter, but then I hadn’t wanted to avert my eyes.
The ammunition harness across my back and shoulders is tight, and I debate taking it off. But it’s been with me for months now, ever since I’d arrived and been given it, and I don’t want to be without it now, at this moment, when I’m doing the first thing since I’ve arrived that has had any significance at all.
The film crew’s arrived, and is setting up their equipment. There’s a woman, I’m surprised to see. She’s swathed in a black niqab, but looks young, and is more than likely pretty under that veil. She moves like a dancer. She’s probably someone with experience of movie shoots, learnt back in the sinful West. The sinful West teaches a lot of skills the Khilafat needs, I think, not for the first time.
My girlfriend, who I find myself thinking about more and more these days, had skills we could have used; she was a graphics designer, who could make images and animations that I could barely believe. I’d asked her how she did it once, and she’d laughed and said she’d teach me anytime I had a few hours to spare. It was easy, she said; all I had to do was want to learn.
But I didn’t, did I? I just left her, without a word, and came to the Khilafat, to be a soldier for Allah.
I wonder what she thinks about that now, or about the things we did together, things unmarried people should not do. It is a sin.
Unless, of course, one does it with concubines or slaves, and then it is not a sin.
“Abu Walid?” Abu Sulaiman says. “Abu Walid!”
I find that I am swinging the sword with a power I do not remember summoning, the heavy blade cleaving the air. I’m embarrassed. “What?”
“We’re ready for you.” The producer points to the van. A small figure, clad in bright orange, is being led out by two mujahideen holding his arms. “You remember your lines, of course.”
“I told you I did.” The lines are no problem. I’ve rehearsed them over and over, and in any case they’re nothing hard. What concerns me is the other thing. Can I do it? And if I can’t, will it be held against me?
Of course it will be held against me. A soldier of the Khilafat is a slave of Allah and has no more right to refuse an order than he has to refuse a command from Allah Himself.
I will not hold back, I swear to myself, and swing the sword one final time, viciously. If I’m ordered to kill the damned man in orange, murtadd or kufr or whatever other perversion he’s guilty of, I will. I won’t let him get in my way.
“We’ll do the shoot in several takes,” Abu Sulaiman says. “We’ll use the best one. Of course, if I ask you to kill him, that’ll be only at the end and we’ll add it to the best take of the shoot.”
“Will you ask me to kill him?” I ask, as we walk across the desert towards the fort.
“It depends.” Abu Sulaiman says evasively. “It depends on how the takes come out.”
The set for the shoot is a square with walls on three sides. The sunlight bounces off the light coloured sandstone, so that it looks floodlit from all directions. The heat is incredible. I blink away sweat stinging my eyes.
The captive is hunched over, by the far wall, staring at the ground at his feet. I begin walking towards him, and then suddenly pause. Though the face is scrubby with beard and the hair cut so short the scalp shines through, there’s something familiar about his face, the set of his shoulders, the way his head’s tilted to one side...
A voice from my past, from so long ago, on the field of my old school, at lunch hour, when we were playing football. “Stop hogging the ball. Pass it here!” And I did.
After the game was over, he’d pushed me. “It’s a damn team game, not you using the ball as decoration for your feet.”
I’d pushed him back. “Touch me again, and the ball will be decoration for your face.”
He’d laughed and patted me on the arm. “You’re all right.”
And then again, a couple of days later, when I’d been about to be beaten by a couple of bullies in the alley behind the school, he was suddenly by my side. “Not your battle alone,” he’d told me later, when the bullies, finding things no longer so easy, had walked off. “If I get bullied, I’ll expect you to stand by me.” Only he never seemed to get bullied, somehow.
We’d gone to the movies together, drunk beer in the park behind the church – which I hadn’t cared then was haram – and talked about things like girls and music. I’d even tried to learn to play his guitar, hurting my fingers in the process; I hadn’t known then that stringed instruments were forbidden, and it I’d had, it wouldn’t have stopped me. We’d promised that we’d be friends forever, and that we’d always look out for each other, no matter what happened.
And what had happened? I don’t remember, can’t say. All I remember is him looking at the books on my shelves and shaking his head. “I don’t recall you with all this religious stuff.”
“Does it matter?” I’d asked. “I’m not trying to convert you.”
“I’m not worried about that,” he’d replied. “I’m afraid you’ll end up converting yourself.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I’d asked. But I can’t remember if he’d answered, or what the reply had been.
And now, suddenly, here he is, hunched over in the desert morning.
“Abu Walid?” Abu Sulaiman calls. “Take your place.”
I nod, automatically, like a robot, and my legs begin working again, taking me towards that silent figure in orange. My mouth is dry, the sword heavy in my right hand. I can see the fear in his eyes, looking at me as I come.
If this was a movie, this would be the moment when I would set him free, cut the rope from his bound wrists with one sweep of my blade. Then we’d rout the guards and drive away in the car, taking along the woman in the niqab, who would finally choose one of us over the other in the light of a new dawn. But this isn’t a movie, and as I step round him and take up my place, I can only hope he doesn’t recognise my voice. Perhaps he won’t, through the cloth.
Abu Sulaiman fusses around me, fitting a tiny black microphone to my collar. The wire vanishes under my ammunition harness and reappears to trail across the ground. The woman’s standing beside one of the three cameras, which are shooting us from various angles. As Abu Sulaiman walks back, she gives me the thumbs up.
How strange it is, to be given a thumbs up by a woman here, in a ruined fort in the heart of the Khilafat, while standing behind a bound captive with a heavy sword!
In the moments left to me, while Abu Sulaiman checks his cameras, I look down at the cringing figure at my feet. I’m so close to him I can see the drops of sweat crawling down the back of his neck. I wonder what he’d been doing here, in the Khilafat, and suddenly I know, beyond a shadow of doubt, I know.
He’d come here looking for me. He’d come to find me, if he could, and take me away. He’d looked out for me, as he’d promised.
But I can’t look out for him. The best I can do is try to make sure that he doesn’t know who I am, that I’m the one whom he’s been looking up at with such fear.
Abu Sulaiman raises and drops his finger. I mouth the words I’ve been rehearsing, and they’re meaningless on my tongue, I don’t know what they mean, but I’m saying them anyway, and I can see from the expression on the producer’s face that I’m doing well, that the things I say are exactly as he wants them. I can’t help myself, I know that what I’m saying, the way I’m saying them, are dooming him, my friend, but I can’t stop. And perhaps, perhaps it’s better that I’m the one who ends him here, not some stranger. We’ve been through so much, I can give him that much, at least.
It’s then that I know he knows who I am, and he holds his head up, neck stretched out, at the end, waiting; and when Abu Sulaiman signals and I raise my arm, the sword is so light, so light.
Afterwards, someone’s escaped, and someone’s a prisoner; and I can’t even tell which is which.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016