For a year or more before the six months that we spent preoccupied with our strange visitor, counterterrorism was our spiritual life.
Sabah Arbilli, Alif, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. Copyright Sabah Arbilli. Courtesy Janet Rady Fine Art.
—Surat At Tawbah, Quran, 3:167
At first the boy jihadi showed up just once. Trailing a bright-red wheelbarrow with a formless load wrapped in a pillowcase inside it, he appeared at the threshold of our apartment building.
A slight figure, almost as short and thin as the ancient kalashnikov it cradled—and immediately we were incensed. How dare such a thing as this invade the living space of two dozen upstanding families, good citizens, and good Muslims, the pride and joy of their third-world country’s bourgeoisie? He wore a Pathan salwar kameez with a camo jacket on top and a tight white turban wrapped like a cup, one loose fold coming down alongside his ponytail. We could tell by his beard that he was at most fourteen. The unshaved wisps wanted to hang down from his chin, but they were so soft and sparse all they could do was curl upward.
He would be silent for as long as he stayed but he looked us in the eye from the moment we gathered behind the gate, ducking and dodging as we advanced to unbolt it. Some of us were waving kitchen knives we had scrambled upstairs to fetch. The retired colonel who lives on the ground floor and works as the head of security at the local branch of a multinational, his semiautomatic unsheathed as he stationed himself on the landing, was aiming straight for the head. But for all that the boy’s face remained serene. No matter how loud we yelled at him, or what obscenities we tried to browbeat him with, no matter how many times the delivery kids from the fruit seller’s and the ironing shop groped his crotch—one of them trying to undo his turban, another impetuously pawing the load in his barrow—he never budged.
Silhouetted against the glare but still precisely visible in the square frame of our lives’ portal, the boy stood.
Not until he was hemmed in, chests and shoulders bearing down on his cheeks, hands clutching and kneading his buttocks, did he finally make a move. Raising his arms above his head to give himself a little space as he squealed the words “al-khilafah qadimah” (“the caliphate is coming”), he jumped high, higher than it seemed possible to jump, and as he came down in one fluid dive he seemed to crouch by our feet.
There must have been twenty of us, apartment owners and shopkeepers and passersby all cramming in to block his passage, but the next we saw of him was a bright-red streak receding at the corner of the main road—nearly a mile away. By the time we gave chase he was irretrievable. We had gone on scuffling to seize his weapon while somehow he transported himself beyond reach.
We had been overeager to march him to the nearest army deployment, General. As you no doubt realize, Sir, at the time there were tanks ringed with conscripts looking out for jihadis everywhere in the city. Citizen Protection Forces, they were called. The sight of mound-like vehicles manned by tired and pauperized young men from the provinces made us uncomfortable by reminding us that war could break out any minute but also safe knowing we would not have to fight that war. Not that we had any doubt: it was a war we wanted. Long before the arrival of the boy jihadi, we had all individually fantasized about hunting down a religious fanatic to defend the nation. We would engage them in mortal combat and emerge triumphant, handing over the corpse to someone like yourself, General, Sir, and be named an honorary brigadier or something. For a year or more before the six months that we spent preoccupied with our strange visitor, counterterrorism was our spiritual life.
Somehow that never stopped us from practicing the religion we shared with him, though it cast him and other committed practitioners of that religion in the role of the enemy. We felt no contradiction. One of us would be warning the other against the insidious ratsbane of extremism even as he admonished him for missing the last salat at the mosque. Fanaticism was one thing, but no one could afford to be lax about doing the homework assigned to them by Allah, could they now. I suppose we believed the jihad was a misinterpretation of the faith, though in that case we also believed we might be wrong. What Muslim would not want the caliphate to come, logically speaking. Maybe it was the modern state and its infidel army that contradicted the will of the God we believed in? Just maybe, it was not freedom-fighting jihadis like the boy but the patriots who killed them off who were terrorists. This was the suspicion that secretly tormented us, and in a reverse-psychology kind of way, it explained our hatred for jihadis.
Having had him by the balls, however, this time we lost our terrorist. With grins and groans we hung around discussing what to do about the incident, which of us would go where to report what, and what precautions must be taken to manage the crisis. Who knew when or where the little demon might wield his kalashnikov for real.
You will remember, Sir, that was when we first got in touch with you, you being a distant relation of the banker on the top floor and in the military intelligence, General, one of a handful of men responsible for the current counterterrorism program. Later on we would keep you in the dark as to what was happening, leading you to believe that the police had already captured our visitor, until we decided to invite you back here and tell you the whole story, so that we could experience the end of it all together, back where it started. I have the honor of being spokesman and storyteller, but be assured that I speak for all of us even when I say I. In case we have not expressed our gratitude enough, General, thank you again for accepting our invitation, Sir.
That, then, is what happened when we first contacted you. In the name of Allah:
The boy jihadi made his appearance between seven and eight in the morning, when everyone in our uptown plexus of avenues was setting off to work. Maybe because of that his flight did not feel as uncanny as it actually was. We did not have time to analyze what we had witnessed (or, rather, failed to witness), and when we came back in the evening it was as if nothing had happened. If not for the two policemen coughing up boiled-egg spittle by the gate the next morning—I remember being struck, first, by the odious noises they made slurping tea—I at least was prepared to believe the incident had been early-morning REM sleep.
Had the boy been a hologram, things might have been explainable. As it was we had touched and heard and smelled him, we had known he was real.
My neighbors and I never talked about it at this point, but it could hardly have escaped our notice that no one had seen the boy coming, neither the foul-mouthed garage attendant who was warming up our cars (car after car with the doors left open right there in the middle of the intersection, creating at least three traffic jams and spewing insults at the drivers who complained) nor the ghostlike woman in niqab who had already set up the little beach table on the sidewalk right across from our building (with a stack of very stale bread on top of it that she tells you is the freshest in town as she sells it to you, sitting down on a beach chair).
Had the boy been a hologram, things might have been explainable. As it was we had touched and heard and smelled him, we had known he was real. And now we also knew that no one saw him coming. Certainly no one could explain how he left, not the people we asked on the main road or the street characters who were rounded up for questioning and, so we were assured, sufficiently tortured so they would tell the truth. But now that he was absent something in our attitude began to change. We thought about the fact that he never fired or detonated anything. We noted the neatness of his clothes, the cleanliness of his visage. We marveled at the musky scent of his skin. No one who smelled like that could be of low birth, General.
Now the two policemen assigned to our building turned out to be slimy whore-sons, Sir. Their snot and piss were all over the facade, and they would grab our women’s bosoms in the same breath as they pored over their pocket Qurans. I doubt they had any interest in protecting us, let alone the courage to act. By the time they left at the end of the week we had regretted soliciting official help in the first place. And from then on, in ways both subtle and desultory, we began to ask each other whether the boy jihadi was the menace we had taken him to be or some kind of mystic signal, a message or manifestation, though we did not dare conjecture its meaning or where it originated. For three months we thought of him every time we passed the gate coming or going, our hearts softening by the day, and before three months had passed we were no longer clear about his intentions. Knowing what an Allah-fearing man you are, let me confess that, as far as intentions went, we were no longer even sure of our own. At the end of the first quarter I think we were longing for the boy’s return.
I don’t know if this had to do with counterterrorist sentiment conquering the media once again as explosions and sabotages grew fiercer and more frequent, but it was then that I started thinking about things in a new way. Watching the news, my neighbors and I were growing even more patriotic (just as we were meant to) but also, out of fear for our lives and uncertainty about the future, more pious. That too was permitted. And suddenly it seemed batshit that it should be. Surely piety should lead to the jihad, not to the patriotism that aimed to uproot it?
As the talk-show hosts reiterated in gleefully regretful tones, there were not enough jihadis for full-scale war.
For the first time in my life it was dawning on me that there is a point where patriotism and piety, the state and the caliphate, taper into the same ungraspable thing, their conflict receding into the far distance like the back of the wheelbarrow on that first day, leaving you with the feeling that you were tricked into missing the chance of a lifetime. And I figured this thing must be us: the bulwark of our third-world society, movers and shakers in an anally-fisted country that we continued to complain about, feeling no responsibility for its being anally-fisted, and which was now embodied in the image of a pubescent boy dressed like an Arab Afghan to be framed by our building’s interface with the world.
As the talk-show hosts reiterated in gleefully regretful tones, there were not enough jihadis for full-scale war. But as they later observed with tragic inflections, this did not prevent Islamic terrorism from reaching an unprecedented level. As patriots we should really have been volunteering to serve in the army. At least we should have been chasing every bearded man we saw with a stick. But, being devout Muslims, we were actually taunting each other about salat more severely than ever before. It got to a point where, at the end of our group salat, when it came time for prayers, we would openly request of Allah that the boy jihadi return.
The stated reason for this was that we wanted to find out what was in the pillowcase in his wheelbarrow. But if that was all there was, we would not have talked about inviting him to be where you now are, General, Sir, right here in the Owners’ Union Bureau on the roof of the building (after asking him nicely to leave his weapon with the colonel, of course). I suppose what we really wanted was to have a theological conversation with him. Already we were fantasizing about a place we could reach as we talked to him, and him to us, a place where he and the Citizen Protection conscripts could work together for the benefit of both the nation and Islam or rather some third entity in which the two merged into one, making it so that there was nothing to complain about in our country while, being good citizens and good Muslims, we could remain exactly where we were. We wanted his presence at our doorstep to be as ordinary as that of the face-covered bread woman looking up at us every morning like some black satin wraith.
Of course I could see that this military nation-caliphate was unreal, just as impossible as the idea of two policemen who could effectively secure the premises without harrying the vomit out of our guts. But I also realized it was the only place where our apartment building and we in it could make sense. We, good citizens and good Muslims, the pride and joy of all humanity: that unreal place reached through doctrinal repartee with the boy jihadi was the only city where our existence was not self-negating. We could take responsibility for such a place. In it we could live up to who we thought we were, which was more than we could ever claim to be doing anywhere real. We could confront the truth of our situation, the unadorned sight of us framed by our apartment building’s entryway, and not end by blowing ourselves up (unless, that is, it was a suicide operation directed against the infidel). That, anyway, was what I started thinking.
Then one day he showed up again. It had been three months and, overjoyed, we filed down to take a look at him. The retired colonel had kept his semiautomatic upstairs and, neither ducking nor dodging, we sauntered after him as he unbolted the gate and stepped forward with open arms, like someone receiving an old friend at the airport, his face contorted with a broad grin. That day we treated the boy with incredible hospitality, the women trying not to fawn on him too much as they offered him leaf tea and Aleppo baklava, the men beating up the delivery kids when they so much as sniffed his butt. But still for as long as he stayed the boy refused to say anything. He did not eat or drink. He did not in any way exercise his motor functions.
Of course, as we had said we would, we should have contacted you then. We should have indicated that our building was under threat of terrorism once more and asked you to unleash your plan to capture and interrogate the boy. But I trust you understand from what I have said so far why we did not. I know you have kept your coming here secret and arrived unarmed as per our request, General. But I am afraid that is the whole point. There is nothing you can do now, Sir. You certainly may not leave or use your phone. But being the Muslim you are you will have faith in your fate, realizing that everything is written.
You will relax, sip your tea, eat your baklava. And you will kindly listen. In the name of Allah:
For three months after the program was relaunched with you out of the picture, Sir—oh, our answered prayers, General!—the boy jihadi came back every day. For three whole months, he came. In the same Tora Bora costume, his rusty Russian rifle the only accessory, with the same mysterious load in the same wheelbarrow, he would stand for an hour or more while we went out to work, then leave with the unvoiced promise that he would return the next morning.
Even the day we decided to perform the dawn salat together on the landing so we could wait for him by the gate, looking out in every direction, we saw naught.
I say leave. Nobody ever saw that happen. Nor were we ever in a position to countersign his arrival on two feet. Even the day we decided to perform the dawn salat together on the landing so we could wait for him by the gate, looking out in every direction, we saw naught. The boy did not materialize out of thin air or fall from the sky, but every time he came or went we happened to be unaware of the relevant line of vision. Looking up or down, looking back or to one side, at some appointed hour we would suddenly find (or not find) him. Less fearfully each time, we would be baffled by that development. Yes, it was paranormal, but not in a way we experienced as scary or sinister, rather in the blessed spirit of the Sufi saints whose parables our mothers had told us in childhood. As we got used to seeing him on our way out, resigned to al-khilafah qadimah being as much utterance as we would get out of him—he had said it again a few times, once with a sweet, sweet smile!—we began to admire his face. The first time we had not noticed his fine white skin and the symmetry of his features. He had impossibly large eyes that, when you looked straight back at him, shone with what felt like the pure Allahwi light, the light of Allah’s luminance. General, we were falling in love with the boy jihadi, both men and women, Sir.
Especially now that we had witnessed a new sound emanating from him without him opening his mouth, we were entranced. Whether this was a different register of his voice or something speaking through him we could not tell, but it was unlike anything we had heard, including the by now endearing squawk in which he would repeat his haunting prophecy. Rising above the noise of the street, it was an ambiguous drone. By turns it sounded like a million-man demonstration chanting slogans, a million-man dhikr (the Sufi invocation ritual, you know), or a million-man pilgrimage with drumbeats. But, for the few minutes that it lasted each time, it got us. It wrapped us in a kind of pillowcase where we felt precious and unknowable, like the occult sages of some utopia from the ancient past or the distant future. The pillowcase was in a wheelbarrow and the wheelbarrow was the world. And, while it bore us along hidden on its orbit of asphalt, we grew certain of the coming of the caliphate. We just knew that, before our apartment building came down, we would serve as agents of that coming.
By the end of the second quarter we could tell he was leaving. Settling over that slight figure and our silent interactions with it, a sadness as if of parting told us he would never come back. What soothed our preemptive bereavement was the sense that we had not only conversed with him but also reached our military nation-caliphate in doing so. The country itself had not changed, but it felt like we were living in the utopia we had envisioned. I must admit it looked more caliphate than nation, maybe because things had settled down by then and there were no more tanks on the streets for now, no more bomb blasts or jihadis to hunt down or war, whereas the bearded men and the women in niqab and hijab and the mosques seething with believers were more plentiful than ever. In the last week I began to feel the weight of contradiction lifting. It was something, as you will realize in a moment, Sir, that would prove life-changing for all two dozen upstanding families of our building. Patriotism is one thing, General, but no one can be lax about the homework assigned by Allah. Can they?
The day we went down to find he was not there the bread woman had failed to show up, as she sometimes does for no apparent reason. In her place were the garage attendant and the delivery kids hovering about the bright-red wheelbarrow. The colonel leading the way as usual, we approached. It was at this point that one of the women, the wife of the theology professor on the third floor, broke the silence with a shrill cry and started to weep. She was moaning that the dear boy, beautiful as the moon, had gone forever, but that he had not had the heart to depart without leaving us a memento, something to remember him by. The theology professor was trying to silence her but, if not for propriety and fear of Allah, we would have hugged her one by one. She was speaking for all of us when, with tearful gratitude, she pointed out that he had granted us our deepest wish by leaving the wheelbarrow with its contents for us to inspect and keep. Gingerly the colonel picked up the load in the pillowcase while my next-door neighbor and I lifted the wheelbarrow itself and we all moved back inside and up here to the Owners’ Union Bureau.
That day no one went to work. We gathered here where we are keeping you, General—see the wheelbarrow in the corner, Sir?—to ceremoniously unwrap our gift. No one spoke. Heavy with grief and anticipation, we wanted to find out what was in the pillowcase. Our life, all that our lives could mean in the wake of what had happened, depended on what would be there.
The load was not a bomb. It was not a dead baby. The load was an ornate box in which, together with a vial of the same musk we had picked off the boy’s young skin, we found this piece of parchment. As you can see, it has beautiful calligraphy on it, General: a verse of Surat At Tawbah (the chapter of The Repentance), Sir. Below the holy verse it says the apartment owners in this building are not hypocrites in the eyes of Allah, and that, to demonstrate it, they will carry out the instructions they are hereby given by isolating and doing Allah’s will unto a certain general of the military intelligence, one of a handful of men responsible for the current counterterrorism program, who happens to be a distant relation of the banker on the top floor. In Islam the prescribed method of execution is beheading by a sword, but praying for forgiveness we shall rest content with the retired colonel’s semiautomatic. That, then, is how our story ends. You will say your prayers now, Sir. May Allah have mercy on you. Goodbye, General.
Youssef Rakha is a novelist, poet, reporter, and photographer. He was born in Cairo in 1976. His work has appeared in English in the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times, Parnassus, Aeon Magazine, McSweeney’s, and The Kenyon Review, among others. He is the author of seven books in Arabic, some of which have been translated into German, Polish, Slovak, and Italian. Rakha was chosen as one of the best-known and loved new voices of modern Arabic literature at the Hay Festival/Beirut World Book Capital competition, Beirut39. The Crocodiles: A Novel and The Book of the Sultan’s Seal are Rakha’s first novels to appear in English.
Author photo by Annasofie Kernecker.