#3: Saladin Ahmed 2016
Fantasy Writing and the Muslim-American Imagination, January 20, 2017
Sci-fi/fantasy and comics writer Saladin Ahmed describes how reading classic science fiction and growing up in an Arab-American immigrant/refugee community influenced his writing, with Muslim faith and culture integral to his world-building, characters, and plots. To illustrate, Ahmed reads his story “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted.” Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and humor writer Mallory Ortberg.
- Saladin Ahmed,
- Throne of the Crescent Moon
- “The Faithful Servant, Prompted”
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I’ll be your host. This is the place where you can listen back to conversations we’ve had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you’ll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today we’ll listen to Saladin Ahmed’s presentation on science fiction and the Muslim-American imagination at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. Saladin was born in Detroit and raised in a working-class Arab-American enclave in Dearborn, Michigan. His first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Crawford, Gemmell, and British fantasy awards, and won the Locust award for Best First Novel. Saladin’s short stories have been translated into a half dozen languages, and he’s also written nonfiction for NPR Books, Salon, and The Escapist. He’s currently writing a new series for Marvel Comics, titled Black Bolt, due out in May 2017.
Before we get into Saladin’s session, we’re going to talk to his friend and fellow 2016 Festival speaker, Mallory Ortberg, author of Texts from Jane Eyre, cofounder of the defunct but still much-beloved website The Toast, and now author of Slate’s advice column Dear Prudence.
Lisa: [00:01:33] So where are we catching you today?
Mallory Ortberg: You guys are catching me in my bedroom, with the door closed, so that you don’t hear the sounds of my dog, in Oakland, California.
Lisa: So how did you and Saladin first meet?
Mallory: So part of what’s funny about that is the Festival of Faith & Writing is actually where Saladin and I finally met in person. I don’t know if it’s like this for a lot of other writers at the Festival, but I often become really good friends with people, often other writers, through Twitter. We get to know one another’s work, we make a lot of jokes, it turns out we watch a lot of the same stupid TV shows or whatever, and I jump into their DMs. I never slide into DMs, by the way, I always leap feet first, and I’m just like, “Hi, I’m here. Can we be friends now?”
Lisa: [laughs] So what drew you to his work?
Mallory: Often, when it comes to sci-fi, fantasy, the sort of mainstream, the kind of books that get written up a lot, the kind of books that win awards, are often very, overwhelmingly white. That’s not to say that there isn’t amazing spec-fic being done by people of color and women and gender minorities, but the kind of big stuff that gets held up is often, funnily enough, kind of unimaginative. It’s always goofy when there’s fantasy or sci-fi properties that are set in this incredibly alternative reality, but gender roles are kind of the same, white males dominate the story, heterosexuality is the order of the day. It’s always a little like, “Well that’s weird, that that would stay the same. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.” That’s just a way in which the fields can kind of lack imagination. And that’s not Saladin.
Lisa: So what did you think of the Festival? Was this your first time?
Mallory: It was my first time, and sadly I was not able to attend Saladin’s session, so I’m actually really glad that you guys are recording this so that I can finally listen to it, because I think mine was going on almost simultaneously. It was fabulous. I mean, it was an amazing time. I loved getting to be there. I got to meet some incredible people who I just loved immensely. I loved that it was the Festival of Faith & Writing and it wasn’t like, “We’ll just be talking about one faith!” So it was great to have sort of a variety of people who were there. And I got to eat a lot of fries with Saladin, which was awesome. He’s very fun to get French fries with. If you’re ever near where he is, and he wants to get French fries with you, I highly recommend going, because he’s a lot of fun.
Lisa: [laughs] Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us about Saladin’s work today. I love the fact that you guys met at the Festival of Faith & Writing. That’s super fun.
Mallory: Guys, thank you so much!
Lisa: And now, here’s Saladin Ahmed, on Science Fiction and the Muslim-American Imagination. At the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing, introduced by Calvin College English Professor Jennifer Williams.
Jennifer Williams: [00:04:26] I grew up on a pretty steady diet of science fiction and fantasy since I was, you know, this high or whatever. And part of that was because it was all over my house. My parents had this living room that has all the books on the walls, lining them, and it was all science fiction. And then also because my dad writes science fiction/fantasy, and he’s published his trilogy, so I would go to these weird conferences with him. Ray Bradbury came to my house for a party once, I’ll just say. Whoa, step back.
So I’m pretty familiar with the genre, and so when I got your book to read, Throne of the Crescent Moon, I was like, “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.” And I must say, I was a little skeptical of the idea, like, is this going to be one of those books where you kind of metaphorically say, “Yeah, there’s faith there,” and I was so delighted and even surprised by how that is not the case. I was pretty much knocked over by the first sentence, even, of the novel. What’s so great about this is that the novel has as much sword and sorcery as you want. Like, you’ll get all that, you’ll get your ghouls, your skin-ghouls, your djinn, all this kind of stuff. But the thing that’s so intriguing is that questions about faith are so woven in together, it’s almost like you don’t notice it. It just feels so natural, like it really should be there. It’s not decoration added onto the plot; it is the plot.
So questions like, “Why did God call me to this work when other people get to have such good lives?” or “God, what do you want me to with my life?” or “God, the thing that I most want is to be loved,” or “I want security,” or “The very thing I was so sure God called me to do, the only thing I ever wanted, I think I might’ve been wrong. I don’t know my vocation anymore.” And we can all deeply resonate with these kind of questions. So like I said, the thing that I love so much is how much sense it made that these questions were in there while the swords were flying and the incantations were happening, and the big evil and the good and all that kind of stuff. It really made me feel like you really can’t separate the faith from the plot or the plot from the faith. They’re like natural companions, the way the story works out.
So before I quit babbling, I just wanted to share a favorite place of mine in the novel to show you what I mean about faith and plot being natural companions in Throne of the Crescent Moon. This is right at the beginning. So there’s a guardsman, and we immediately are plunged into this terrible situation where he’s being brutally tortured. He’s been forced to see other brutal murders and brutal tortures. He’s been in this box for nine days, and he’s beginning to feel himself slipping away. He doesn’t know what to do anymore. He’s absolutely terrified. And then, on the second page, he thinks to himself, “Though I walk a wilderness of ghouls and wicked djinn, no fear, no fear can,” and it gets filled out a little bit later for us at another crucial moment, “Though I walk a wilderness of ghouls and wicken djinn, no fear can cast its shadow on me.” And it just feels so perfect. It doesn’t feel like, of course, “though I walk through a field of ghouls,” like, it makes sense. It doesn’t seem like gimmicky rewriting of the Lord’s prayer. It just really feels right in that moment. So, I will turn it over to you now, and I’m looking forward to hearing this story, too.
Saladin Ahmed: [00:08:42] Thank you so much. Gosh, Jennifer, thank you for that wonderful introduction. It’s good to be here in front of a different type of audience than I usually find myself. Most of the time when I’m doing public readings I’m at a science fiction convention, so it’s a lot of guys in Klingon costumes and things like this. Which is wonderful. I’m gonna try and stop bumping my mike. It’s interesting, what you were saying about the novel and about the place of faith in it, and about you as a reader finding it unobtrusive. It’s wonderful to be in a setting where that might feel more natural to readers, because not a huge percentage but a vocal percentage of the readers of the novel in some reviews will say things like, “Why are these characters talking about God all the time?” Because science fiction fandom is typically a fairly secular—there’s significant communities of the faith within, but overall—is a fairly secular, sometimes dogmatically secular community. So it’s been funny to see which readers have kind of been able to absorb that as a kind of natural part of the novel’s setting and which readers have kind of been immediately hostile to it.
So hi, everybody. I’m Saladin. I am here to talk. I think, when I was pressed to trying to give some kind of coherent title to my rambling thoughts here, I said something like “Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Muslim-American Imagination.” It’s kind of a grandiose title for me telling you a bit about myself and a bit about what it means to me—because we can all only really speak for ourselves—what it means to be a Muslim-American writing science fiction and fantasy in the 21st century, and some of the connections that might exist with the bigger themes of the Festival here. And then I’m going to actually read you a story. So I’m not going to ramble on terribly long because I’d rather illustrate to you what I do rather than talk about it.
I guess the idea of Muslim-American science fiction is—I should start by telling you a little bit about myself. I grew up just a couple hours east of here, just outside Detroit, in Dearborn, Michigan, which is a significantly Arab, suburb of Detroit, a working class community there. My folks were born here but I grew up in a largely immigrant population there, and for me, the stuff that I write has kind of emerged naturally, I guess as for any writer, as a kind of synthesis of the things that make me. For me, a huge part of that is the community that I grew up in. Hearing Arabic just on the street—my own Arabic now stinks, because I haven’t spoken it regularly for years—hearing it and, at least as a small child, speaking it, the smells of spices and Lebanese cooking, Yemeni cooking, and the sorts of expressions that shape lives, “Inshallah,” is a very common expression in Arabic, right, meaning “God willing,” and what it means to exist in a community where that’s a kind of constant, constantly slipping off the lips, and seeing the world in a way that it’s shaped by something greater than what you see in front of you. These are all kind of atypical influences, I think, for an American, 21st-century fantasy or science fiction writer. But they fused, for me, pretty naturally, with my geekier elements.
I, so I grew up in Dearborn. My father, when I was quite young, was a factory worker and eventually started a nonprofit with my great-grandmother, which was serving Arab immigrants to the area. This was in the late 70s, early 80s. He was really immersed in the community. He gave me a very strong sense of ethnic pride. He was not a particularly religious person himself, but the Muslim and Arab identities in our communities were so connected that although he was not necessarily a believer—that’s shifted a bit as he’s gotten older—at the time he wasn’t a believer, but it was important for him to take me to the mosque, for instance, and see what went on.
So I grew up in this community, but my father was also a nerd. He was a Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert, you know, comic book nerd. So I grew up with tons of comics around. I grew up with The Hobbit, I grew up with Dune. All those sorts of things. He was very happy, unlike some of my friends who are Muslim who had more conservative parents, my father was very happy to introduce me to really every, pretty much except GI Joe, which he wasn’t really into because of the military interventionist thing, right, but other than that, pretty much all Star Wars, all of this stuff, He-Man, all this stuff that was nominally for kids, he was really into getting me toys for, because I think he had this science fiction and fantasy nerd side to him that he was indulging by allowing me to indulge it.
[00:15:03] So these things sort of synthesized, for me, pretty naturally. I mean, my biggest influences when I talk about, whenever I’m interviewed and people ask about what influenced you as a writer, Dungeons and Dragons was a massive influence to me, even more so than Tolkien or say Robert Howard, who wrote the Conan stories. I didn’t know that source material when I was eight years old and reading. I only knew the dungeon master’s guide and the monster manual and things like that. That kind of pulpy, handed-down fantasy stuff, Marvel comics,all of that stuff was in almost in my DNA, I was reading it so early and so often and so deeply, if one can read Marvel comics deeply. You think about the ways that some people come to their scriptures and read again and again and find new meanings and new nuances; that was me with Fantastic Four. I read those things until the covers fell off.
At the same time I was being raised in this immigrant community with narratives both of what was happening currently in the Middle East, the population I grew up in was not only an immigrant population but a refugee population from southern Lebanon, largely, and there was a lot of pain in the community, a lot of trauma in community, a lot of resentment, and those narratives were out there about what was happening out there in the world. Also the older stories: my great-grandmother was a great collector of Arab lore and it was very important for her, even if I didn’t have the language to impart these stories, and so I grew up with the Arabized or original version of some of the Arabian Nights stories, and some of the stories about things that the companions of the Prophet Muhammad did. Those were bedtime stories for me. And, I guess, after I laid down those stories percolated with the Dungeons and Dragons, with all that other stuff, it seeped in.
Years later I find myself working on a fantasy novel, and it was perhaps inevitable that it wasn’t going to be a straightforward, Tolkien-esque, Western European fantasy, that the characters, the setting, all those trappings were going to be inspired by things that were more immediately important to me and influential on me. The analog in Throne of the Crescent Moon—now Throne of the Crescent Moon, my first novel, is set in a fantasy world; it’s not set in our own history—but the fantasy world is very much influenced by an analog for the kind of medieval, Islamic world. That was inevitably, almost, gonna be my approach, rather than a Western European-influenced fantasy world. But I think that the influence goes deeper than just the setting or the characters in that I think the values that I tried to write into the novel, and some of the questions that Jennifer raised in her introduction are absolutely explicitly asked in the novel because those are questions that I wrangle with, and also they’re questions that are present, maybe, in Arab culture and in Muslim culture: questions of one’s relationship to God, questions of how one—of course, the word “Islam” means submission, right, submission to God’s will—so what does that mean though? What does that look like? There are a lot of people doing a lot of wonderful and horrible things who think they’re submitting to God’s will. So how do we know? Those sorts of questions I saw present in my communities in a way that maybe they weren’t present in mainstream secular American culture, so they too found themselves being expressed in the novel.
[00:19:41] The main character of the novel is a sixty-something, kind of fat, grumpy old man. Even that is very much a kind of expression of more traditional cultures and especially Islamic culture. For me Arab culture does this certainly, as is the case in other Islamic cultures: a kind of reverence for age and a reverence for wisdom, rather than being interested in the story of the plucky young teen hero who discovers his own powers and goes off and explores. I was driven to consider the story of a man who—there are plucky young teen heroes in this novel if that’s what you’re looking for, we’ve got it all. And there are certainly readers, especially younger readers who’ve latched onto those younger characters. But at the center of the book is a man who, rather than wanting to go off and explore the world, wants to defend his home. A man who is, rather than kind of still figuring out everything about the world, is fairly content, has a grumpy but pious relationship with God, and really wants to defend what little he has left at the, near the end of his life, rather than go out and explore the new. So all of those sorts of choices were definitely influenced by my faith as a Muslim, by my culture as an Arab-American, and I can’t imagine having written another sort of novel and I can’t imagine writing other sorts of short stories than the ones that I write.
I’ve been lucky enough that there’s been a significant enough cross-section of folks, either people who are not traditionally genre readers or people who are and have been looking for stories that are more inflected with a kind of faith or are looking for more diverse sorts of stories than have typically been told. I’ve been lucky enough to find a pretty warm reception in the field doing this. There are always going to be those people who are hostile, either to the general idea of faith or very specifically hostile to Muslims and hostile to Islam. If I were to really talk honestly what being a Muslim-American science fiction and fantasy writer means, a big part of what it means is fielding a great deal of hate. This is a particularly hostile time right now and I take it part of my task to kind of try and counter some of that, but you can never, thinking you’re going to save the world with your writing is a dangerous path, which almost inevitably leads to disappointment. So you take that part of your job to not only be influenced by the background or influenced where you’ve come from but to protect where you’ve come from and honor where you’ve come from when it seems like a big chunk of the country is attacking it. That’s a lot of rambling.
What I’m going to do now is read you guys an actual story that I think will illustrate some of this a bit more clearly than my abstract babbling does. A couple of notes about this story: it’s going to take 20-odd minutes to read it. I will do so in a stream, and if any needs to use the bathroom or has children or something, I really don’t get offended if you need to go do that. The other thing that is a sort of warning before I give any sort of context for this story is that this story is remarkably foul-mouthed. It’s quite foul-mouthed. I do, particularly in a context where folks, that may not jive with some people’s values, so if it’s gonna bug you, yeah. It’s hard R. Just in the things people say, not so much in things that happen in the story.
Despite that, I think it’s maybe my story that’s most explicitly about faith. The setting is a kind of post-apocalyptic world, a post-apocalyptic Middle East to be specific. We don’t know a lot about what’s happened, but there has been a great war that’s used biological warfare, amongst other things, and there’s a disease called the Green Devil which has been going around which was spread we don’t know by whom. And I think that’s all you really need to know. Oh, the last thing: you’re going to hear me read some of these lines in a very mock-theatrical voice and those lines, if you are reading this on the page, appear set apart in italics. They’re actually, the main character that you’re about to meet has retinal screens implanted, so these are actual prompts that are appearing before him.
[00:25:19] This story is called “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted.”
If I die on this piece-of-shit road, Lubna’s chances die with me. Ali leveled his shotgun at the growling tiger. In the name of God, who needs no credit rating, let me live! Even when he’d been a soldier, Ali hadn’t been very religious. But facing death brought the old invocations to mind. The sway of culture, educated Lubna would have called it. If she were here. If she could speak.
The creature stood still on the split cement, watching Ali. Nanohanced tigers had been more or less wiped out in the great hunts before the Global Credit Crusade, or so Ali had heard. I guess this is the shit end of “more or less.” More proof, as if he needed it, that traveling the Old Cairo Road on foot was as good as asking to die.
He almost thought he could hear the creature’s targeting system whir, but of course he couldn’t, not any more than the tiger could read the vestigial OS prompt that flashed across Ali’s supposedly deactivated retscreens.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will report for uniform inspection at 0500 hours.
Ali ignored the out-of-date message, kept his gun trained on the creature.
The tiger crouched to spring.
Ali squeezed the trigger, shouted “God is greater than credit!”
The cry of a younger man, from the days when he’d let stupid causes use him. The days before he’d met Lubna.
A sputtering spurt of shot sprayed the creature. The tiger roared, bled, and fled.
For a moment Ali just stood there panting. “Praise be to God,” he finally said to no one in particular. I’m coming, beloved. I’m going to get you your serum, and then I’m coming home.
A day later, Ali still walked the Old Cairo Road alone, the wind whipping stinging sand at him, making a mockery of his old army-issued sandmask. As he walked he thought of home–of Free Beirut and his humble house behind the jade-and-grey-marble fountain. At home a medbed hummed quietly, keeping Lubna alive even though she lay dying from the Green Devil, which one side or the other’s hover-dustings had infected her with during the Global Credit Crusade. At home Lubna breathed shallowly while Ali’s ex-squadmate Fatman Fahrad, the only man in the world he still trusted, stood watch over her.
Yet Ali had left on this madman’s errand–left the woman who mattered more to him than anything on Earth’s scorched surface. Serum was her only hope. But serum was devastatingly expensive, and Ali was broke. Every bit of money he had made working the hover-docks or doing security for shops had gone to prepay days on Lubna’s medbed. And there was less and less work to be had. He’d begun having dreams that made him wake up crying. Dreams of shutting down Lubna’s medbed. Of killing himself.
And then the first strange message had appeared behind his eyes.
Like God-alone-knew how many vets, Ali’s ostensibly inactive OS still garbled forth a glitchy old prompt from time to time.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will pick up your new field ablution kit after your debriefing today.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will spend your leave-time dinars wisely–at Honest Majoudi’s!
But this new message had been unlike anything Ali had ever seen. Blood-freezingly current in its subject matter.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will go to the charity-yard of the Western Mosque in Old Cairo. She will live.
Ali’s attention snapped back to the present as the wind picked up and the air grew thick with sand. As storms went, it was mild. But it still meant he’d have to stop until it blew over. He reluctantly set up the rickety rig-shelter that the Fatman had lent him. He crawled into it and lay there alone with the wail of the wind, the stink of his own body, and his exhausted, sleepless thoughts.
When the new prompt had appeared, Ali had feared he was losing his mind. More than one vet had lost theirs, had sworn that their OS had told them to slaughter their family. Ali had convinced himself that the prompt was random. An illustration of the one-in-a-trillion chance that such a message could somehow be produced by error.
But it had repeated itself. Every night for a week.
He’d told the Fatman about it, expected the grizzled old shit-talker to call him crazy. Half wanted to be called crazy. But Fahrad had shrugged and said,“Beloved, I’ve seen a few things in my time. God, who needs no credit rating, can do the impossible. I don’t talk about this shit with just anyone, of course. Not these days, beloved. Religion. Hmph! But maybe you should go. Things sure ain’t gonna get any better here. And you know I’ll watch over Lubna like my own daughter.”
So now Ali found himself following a random, impossible promise. It was either this or wait for the medbed’s inevitable shutdown sequence and watch Lubna die, her skin shriveling before his eyes, her eyewhites turning light green.
After a few hours the storm died down. Ali packed up his rig-shelter and set back to walking the ruined Old Cairo Road, chasing a digital dream.
[00:31:18] There was foot traffic on the road now, not just the occasional hover-duster zipping by overhead. He was finally nearing the city. He had to hurry. If he was gone too long, Ali could count on the Fatman to provide a few days of coverage for Lubna. But Fahrad was as poor as Ali. Time was short.
Running out of time without knowing what I’m chasing. Ali blocked out the mocking words his own mind threw at him. He took a long sip from his canteen and quickened his pace.
Eventually, the road crested a dune and Old Cairo lay spread before him. The bustling hover-dock of Nile River Station. The silvery spires of Al-Azhar 2.0. The massive moisture pits, like aquamarine jewels against the city’s sand-brown skin. Lubna had been here once on a university trip, Ali recalled. His thoughts went to her again, to his house behind the jade-and-grey marble fountain, but he herded them back to the here-and-now. Focus. Find the Western Mosque.
The gate guards took his rifle and eyed him suspiciously, but they let him pass. As he made his way through the city, people pressed in on every side. Ali had always thought of himself as a city man. He’d laughed at various village-bumpkin-turned-soldiers back when he’d been in the army. But Old Cairo made him feel like a bumpkin. He’d never seen so many people, not even in the vibrant Free Beirut of his childhood. He blocked them out as best he could.
He walked for two hours, asking directions of a smelly fruit-seller and two different students. Finally, when dusk was dissipating into dark, he stood before the Western Mosque. It was old, and looked it. The top half of the thick red minaret had long ago been blown away by some army that hadn’t feared God. Ali passed through the high wall’s open gate into the mosque’s charity-yard, which was curiously free of paupers.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will remember to always travel with a squad mate when leaving the caravansarai.
“Peace and prosperity, brother. Can I help you?” The brown, jowly man that had snuck up on Ali’s flank was obviously one of the Imams of the Western Mosque. His middle-aged face was furrowed in scrutiny.
Ali stood there, unable to speak. He had made it to Old Cairo, to the charity-yard of the Western Mosque as the prompt had said, and now… Ali didn’t know what he hoped to find. A vial of serum, suspended in a pillar of light? The sky splitting and a great hand passing down cure-money? He was exhausted. He’d faced sandstorms and a tiger to get here. Had nearly died beneath the rot-blackened claws of toxighuls. He’d traveled for two weeks, surviving on little food and an hour’s sleep here and there. He started to wobble on his feet.
Why had he come here? Lubna was going to die and he wouldn’t even be there to hold her.
The Imam stared at Ali, still waiting for an explanation.
Ali swallowed, his cracked throat burning. “I…I…my OS. It–” his knees started to buckle and he nearly collapsed. “It told me to come here. From FreeBey. No money. Had to walk.” They were a madman’s words, and Ali hardly believed they were coming from his own mouth.
“Truly? You walked all that way? And lived to tell the tale? I didn’t know such a thing was possible.” The Imam looked at Ali with concerned distaste and put a hand on his shoulder. “Well… The charity-yard is closing tonight for cleaning, but I suppose one foreign beggar won’t get in the way too much. You can sleep in safety here, brother. And we can talk about your OS tomorrow.”
Ali felt himself fading. He needed rest. Food. Even a vet like him could only go on so long.
He sank slowly to the ground and slept.
[00:35:23] In his sleep he saw the bloody bodies of friends and children. He saw his squadmates slicing the ears off dead men. He heard a girl cry as soldiers closed in around her.
He woke screaming, as he had once done every night. His heart hammered. It had been a long time since he’d had dreams of the war. When they were first married, Lubna would soothe him and they would step into the cool night air and sit by the jade-and-grey marble fountain. Eventually, the nightmares had faded. Her slender hand on the small of his back, night after night–this had saved his life. And now he would never see her again. He had abandoned her because he thought God was talking to him. Thinking of it, his eyes began to burn with tears.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will deactivate the security scrambler on the wall before you. She will live.
Ali sucked in a shocked breath and forgot his self-pity. His pulse racing, he scrambled to his feet. He looked across the dark yard at the green-glowing instrument panel set in the mosque’s massive gate. But he did not move.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will deactivate the security scrambler on the wall before you. She will live.
The prompt flashed a second time across his retscreens. I’ve lost my mind. But even as he thought it, he walked toward the wall.
Screen-jacking had never been Ali’s specialty. But from the inside interface, the gate’s security scrambler was simple enough to shut down. Anyone who’d done an army hitch or a security detail could do it. Ali’s fingers danced over the screen, and a few seconds later it was done.
Then a chorus of angry shouts erupted and an alarm system began droning away. Two men in black dashed out of the mosque and past him, each carrying an ornate jewelry box.
By the time he decided to stop them, they had crossed the courtyard. He scrambled toward them, trying not to think about him being unarmed. Behind him, he heard the familiar clatter of weapons and body armor.
“Thanks for the help, cousin!” One of the thieves shouted at Ali. Ali was near enough to smell their sweat when they each tapped their hover-belts and jumped easily over the descrambled wall. Infiltrators waiting for their chance. They used me, somehow. He panicked. What have I done? His stomach sank. They’ve been using my OS all along! How and why did they call him, of all people, all the way from FreeBey? He didn’t know and it didn’t matter.
I’m screwed. He had to get out of here. Somehow he had to get back to Lubna. He turned to look toward the mosque–
–And found himself staring down the barrel of the jowly Imam’s rifle. The holy man spat at Ali. “Motherless scum! Do you know how much they’ve stolen? You helped them get out, huh? And your pals left you behind to take their fall? Well, don’t worry. The police will catch them, too. You won’t face execution alone.” He kept the weapon trained on Ali’s head. Ali knew a shooter when he saw one. This was not good.
“I didn’t–” Ali started to say, but he knew it was useless.
A squad of mosque guardsmen trotted up. They scowled almost jovially as they closed in. Ali didn’t dare fight these men, who could call on more . He’d done enough security jobs himself to know they wouldn’t listen to him. At least not until after they’d beaten him. He tensed himself and took slaps and punches. He yelped, and they raked his eyes for it. He threw up and they punched him for it. His groin burned from kicks and he lost two teeth. Then he blacked out.
[00:39:02] He woke in a cell with four men in uniforms different from the mosque guards’. Cairene police? They gave him water.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will report to queue B7.
Ali ignored the prompt. The men slapped him around half-heartedly and made jokes about his mother’s sexual tastes. Again,
He pushed down the angry fighter within him. If he got himself killed by these men he would never see Lubna again.
They dragged him into the dingy office of their Shaykh-Captain. The old man was scraggly and fat, but hard. A vet, unless Ali missed his guess.
“Tell me about your friends.” the Shaykh-Captain said.
Ali started to explain about being framed but then found the words wouldn’t stop. Something had been knocked loose within him these past few days. He talked and talked and told the old man the truth. All of the truth. About Lubna and the messages, about leaving Free Beirut, about the toxighuls and the tiger, the Western Mosque and the thieves.
When he was done he lowered his eyes, but he felt the old man glare at him for a few long, silent moments. Ali raised his gaze slowly and saw a sardonic smile spread across the Shaykh-Captain’s face.
“A prompt? Half the guys with an OS still get ’em–what do they mean? Nothing. I got one that said I fucked your mother last night. Did she wake up pregnant?” The men behind Ali chuckled. In the army, Ali had always hated the Cairenes and their moronic mother jokes. “Sometimes I don’t even know where the words come from,” the old man went on. “Random old satellites squawking? Some head-hacker having a laugh? Who knows? And who gives a shit? I got one a couple weeks back that told me to find some guy named Ali, who was supposed to tell me about ’great riches lying buried beneath a jade-and-grey marble fountain.’”
For a moment, Ali listened uncomprehendingly. Then he thought his heart would stop. He did everything he could to keep his face straight as the Shaykh-Captain continued.
“Do you know how many fountains like that there are here in Old Cairo? And how many sons of bitches named Ali? What’s your name, anyway, fool?”
“My name? Uh, my name is F-fahrad, Shaykh-Captain, and I…”
“Shut up! I was saying–I told my wife about this prompt and she said I should go around the city digging up fountains. As if I don’t got enough to do here.” He gestured vaguely at a pile of textcards on his desk. “’In the army,’ I told her, ’I got a prompt telling me about some pills that could make my dick twice as long. Did I waste my pay on them?’” The old man gave Ali an irritated look “Y’know, you and my wife–you two fucking mystics would like each other. Maybe you could go to her old broads’ tea hour and tell them about your prompts from God! Maybe she’d even believe your donkey-shit story about walking here from the north.”
The Shaykh-Captain stood slowly, walked over to the wall, and pulled down an old-fashioned truncheon. “But before the teahouse, we have to take you back downstairs for a little while.”
Ali felt big, hard hands take hold of him and he knew that this was it. He was half-dead already. He couldn’t survive an Old Cairo-style interrogation. He would never see Lubna again. He had failed her, and she would die a death as horrible as anything he’d seen in the war.
Faithful Soldier, she will live.
The prompt flashed past his retscreens and he thought again of the Shaykh Captain’s words about riches and the fountain.
No, this was no head-hacker’s trick. No thieves’ scheme. He did not understand it, but God had spoken to him. He could not dishonor that. He had once served murderers and madmen who claimed to act in God’s name. But Lubna–brilliant, loving Lubna–had shown him that this world could hold holiness. If Ali could not see her again, if he could not save her, he could at least face his death with faith.
He made his voice as strong as he could, and he held his head high as he uttered words that would seal his fate with these men. “In the name of God, who needs no credit rating, Shaykh-Captain, do what you must. But I am not lying.”
The Shaykh-Captain’s eyes widened and a twisted smile came to his lips. “So that’s it! ’In the name of God, who needs no credit rating!’ In the name of your mother’s pussy, you superstitious fool!” The big men behind Ali grumbled their southern disgust at the fact of Ali’s existence and started shoving him. He’d revealed himself with the old saying as a Northerner, a Free Beruiter, and he’d been on the losing side of the war. The old man cut them off with a hand gesture. He set down the truncheon, pulled at his dirty grey beard, assumed a mock gravity. “A genuine Free Shi’ah Anti-Crediteer. The scourge of the Global Credit Crusaders. Hard times for your kind these days, even up north, I hear.”
The Shaykh-Captain snorted, but there was something new in the man’s voice. Something almost human. “You think you’re a brave man–a martyr–to show your true colors to me, huh? Pfft. Well, you can stop stroking your own dick on that count. No one down here gives a damn about those days any more. Half this city was on your side of things once. Truth be told, my fuck-faced fool of a little brother was one of you. He kept fighting that war when everyone knew it was over. He’s dead now. A fool, like I say. Me? I faced reality. Now look at me.” The old man spread his arms as if his shabby office was a palace, his two goons gorgeous wives.
[00:45:03] He sat on the edge of his desk and gave Ali another long look. “But you–you’re stuck in the fanatical past, huh? You know, I believe this story about following your OS is actually true. Not a robber. Just an idiot. You’re as pathetic as my brother was. A dream-chasing relic. You really walked down the OC Road?”
Ali nodded but said nothing.
A sympathetic flash lit the Shaykh-Captain’s eyes, but he quickly grimaced, as if the moment of fellow-feeling caused him physical pain. “Well, my men will call me soft, but what the fuck. You’ve had a rough enough trip down here, I suppose. Tell you what: We’ll get you a corner in steerage on a hover-cluster, okay? Those northbound flights are always half-empty anyway. Go be with your wife, asshole.”
Ali could not quite believe what he was hearing. “Thank you! Thank you, Shaykh-Captain! In the name of–”
“In the name of your mother’s hairy tits! Shut up and take your worn old expressions back to your falling-apart city. Boys, get this butt-fucked foreigner out of my office. Give him a medpatch, maybe. Some soup. And don’t mess him up too bad, huh?”
The big men gave him a low-grade medpatch, which helped. And they fed him lentil soup and pita. Then they shoved him around again, a bit, but not enough to matter.
When they were through they hurled him into the steerage line at the hover-docks. Ali was tired and hurt and thirsty. Both his lips were split and his guts felt like jelly. But war had taught him how to hang on when there was a real chance of getting home. Riches buried beneath the jade-and-grey-marble fountain. Cure-money. Despair had weakened him, but he would find the strength to make it back to Lubna. He would watch as she woke, finally free of the disease.
Faithful Soldier, you will
The prompt cut off abruptly. Ali boarded the hover-cluster and headed home to his beloved.
Saladin Ahmed: Thanks.
Lisa: [00:47:18] Special thanks to Saladin Ahmed. He is prolific on Twitter, and you can follow him at @SaladinAhmed. Special thanks also to Mallory Ortberg. You can find her Dear Prudence advice columns on Slate.com.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you’re into social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what what we’re doing here on Rewrite Radio, leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show and we’re so grateful. Also, we’ve got 26 years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you’ve been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.