Islamic Fiction Contest Winner - 2012
IWA Member Category - 1st Place
by: Diana Maxfield (Najiyah Diana Helwani)
What bothered me most was the noise. And the smoking. And the cold. And the quandary.
Back at the base I’d had a quiet room with one sedate roommate. Aziz liked to play pool, so he was in the common room a lot, and although he smoked, he was a good sort and kept that in the common room as well, since he knew it made me turn green. In return, I pretended I didn’t notice him praying in the room. We had kerosene heaters in the barracks to keep us warm, and I never thought much about serious matters like quandaries.
Those were the days when I was a supply manager. The most demanding thing I had to do was get up from my desk and walk back to the stockroom to take inventory. Boot laces, check. Canteens, check. Helmets, check. It was boring, but at least it allowed me to postpone telling my father that I wasn’t going to join him at the pressing shop; that I was going to sell sewing notions with my mother’s brother who was rich and whom he hated. So I ordered supplies, hung out with Aziz and bided my time.Then the terrorists moved closer to the city and the army was already spread so thin they called up the likes of us. We had 48 hours’ notice. I went home to see my parents and my neighbor Amira, who didn’t know I planned to marry her after I’d saved enough from selling safety pins. When I came back everyone’s duffel was packed, the supplies had all been shipped to another base and Aziz had shot himself. His note was written in quick chicken scratch: “I will not be a killing tool for this malignant regime. I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger.”
I had always admired Aziz for risking his hide by praying; I could never have done something like that. I wondered whether he was rewarded or punished for his suicide. I hadn’t really prayed since I was young, except at the Friday prayer. It always burned me that my father said all his prayers faithfully, but it didn’t seem to help his behavior. In any case, I began praying in Aziz’s place. Silently, secretly, most often with furtive tayamam instead of wudhu, I picked up his habit for him.
The auto repair shop we took over and used as a base camp on the outskirts of town was cold and damp. There were no cozy kerosene heaters or chestnuts to roast on them; only two noisy, harsh space heaters that were at the mercy of the anemic power grid. Of course our two officers, who stayed in the family’s three bedroom house above the shop, had kerosene heaters. And even kerosene, although I have no idea where they got it.
The army told us when we deployed that we wouldn’t see any action. Of course if they really believed that they wouldn’t have deployed us – we were the bottom of the barrel. Soft and lazy and…expendable. Even our officers were fat and old.
Most of the people on the block we held had “evacuated;” not really at the point of our guns but at the sound of our boots anyway. Soon the rebels were fighting their way back toward us, though, as if their leaving had been a mere feint. They knew the streets, and we began to lose men to snipers. I hadn’t really been close to any of them. I made it a policy not to get close to anyone. Not because I was afraid of losing friends, but because most of them were all machismo, and in the army that meant smoking and drinking and shouting. I was no goody-two-shoes, obviously, but rowdiness and smoke made me feel claustrophobic. And it got worse after Aziz died.
There was no common room for the men to gather in at the auto shop, so all 14 of us slept, ate, played cards and roughhoused in one room. The smoky din made me nauseous. The nausea made me anxious. The anxiety made me nauseous. I spent a lot of time on volunteer watch duty outside, where it was colder and damper but quieter and calmer.
When I was outside I had to decide between pacing, which made the blisters on my cold feet burst and bleed, or standing still, which allowed the cold to seep into my soul. I would sit on the curb and rock back and forth, pretending I was just shivering when I was really saying Aziz’s prayers for him. After awhile I began to think of them as my prayers. I began to pray about him rather than in place of him. I began to pray for myself, too, whereas before I would occasionally pray for Amira and that was about it.
The more I prayed, the worse I felt. At night I would cover my head to keep out the din of guys cheating at Rens and the choking stench of stale Al Hamras. While I fought for sleep my brain fought back with accusations. I knew the “terrorists” were really my classmates and countrymen. I knew that if I wasn’t in the army I would be fighting alongside them. I would be, wouldn’t I? Would I have had the guts to fight, if I had had the choice? I certainly hadn’t had the guts to disobey the order to deploy. Look at me – carrying an AK 47 down someone’s street in my clunky boots.
Then there was Aziz. Had he been noble to take himself out of the hands of the regime, or had he just taken the easy way out – preferring an easy death to the torture they would have inflicted upon him if he’d stood firm and refused to serve? And what about me, rationalizing my role all along? I told myself that my piddly little job wasn’t harming anyone, but supply management is what kept the army marching on neighborhood after neighborhood. It was no different than pulling the trigger myself. And that always brought me to the quandary: What would I do when it came down to it - when the choice really was to pull the trigger or not?
I wanted to be strong and refuse to shoot at the freedom fighters, but I didn’t want to die. I wanted to stand firm but I wasn’t brave or steadfast or even indignant enough to overcome my own fear. So I kept watch in the cold and prayed I wouldn’t have to.
When the quandary came for me I was in the middle of Asr prayer, taking shelter from a drizzly, miserable rain under the overhang behind the mechanic’s shop. There was a skull-cracking burst of close machine-gun fire, the echoes sucked up immediately into the rain, and then silence. I could hear the guys gathering their weapons and slamming on their helmets. The officers came clomping down the stairs and began shouting orders. I thought I was going to avoid my reckoning – that I would be able to hide in the back and get lost in the chaos and not have to meet my true self, whoever he was. But the officers brought the platoon out the back, and before I knew it I was caught up in their march. My helmet was inside, but someone shoved a weapon into my hands and I was carried along with their momentum out into the street. “I didn’t finish my prayer...” I thought.
We fanned out and took up posts in the doorways of shops, around corners and behind the few cars that had, for whatever reason, not made the journey with their owners. I found myself on a small side street, accompanied by Colonel Bayazid. He was shouting orders but I couldn’t hear him. I flattened myself against the wall, and waited for it to all go away.
When a rebel fell in the street just around the corner from me, I began to hear again. He was wearing a red and blue plaid shirt and no coat. There was a set of prayer beads wrapped around his wrist. “There is no God but Allah,” he shouted, and tried to bring his handgun up. He saw me. He was struggling to aim.
“Finish him!” shouted the Colonel. He was shooting in the other direction. “Finish him and come cover me!”
And that’s when the quandary melted away. All the power it had held over me, all its gut-wrenching guilt and fear drained from my heart. There was noise all around, and cold and smoke and chaos, but Allah gave me what I had been longing for since I was a seventh grader seething about my father’s hypocrisy: peace.
Peace of heart, peace of mind; peace that bloomed from the inside and couldn’t be touched no matter what happened on the outside. The peace of knowing that nothing mattered but Allah. Absolute tranquility about my own soul, about the fate of my family and my country and the girl I had wished to marry.
I brought my firearm up, pivoted on my heel and shot the Colonel, then rounded the corner and ran to the brother on the ground. He’d been hit in the shoulder, and was still trying to aim his pistol at me with his mangled arm. I tossed the gun aside and began to drag him across the street to his friends.
La illah il Allah, Muhammad arRasoolullah, I panted over and over. We were going to make it. The wounded man’s comrades were holding out their arms to us, waving us in to safety. With about two meters to go I slipped and fell backward. As I struggled to get up a bullet from one of my platoon members found my uncovered head. I didn’t feel a thing.
Except the peace. It stays with me, fills me fully and shines from me now. I’ve seen the brother I tried to save a couple of times, although I haven’t seen Aziz; I don’t know if he is here or not. But it’s quiet here, thank God, with clean, crisp air, warm sunshine, and not a quandary in sight.