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FICTION: Courting terror

The young Arab stepped out into the torrential downpour in the late-night gloom. As he stood up, his jelbab fell down from just under his knees to just above his ankles. He wrapped his black dishdasha more tightly around himself to shield his body against the torrential downpour. The wind blew hard against his kuffiyeh but his black agal (or u'qal) held it tight on his head. Behind him, a trickle of all-night juggernauts whizzed by, oblivious to this out-of-place stranger heading into the darkness beyond the edge of the freeway.

“Please, don't hurt me,” she pleaded through her sobs, seeing her doom close in on her from yet another side. He took a few more steps towards her and she let out a desperate scream. The other dark figure stopped his assault for a moment.

As his eyes adjusted to the unlit darkness, Amir saw the young woman's station wagon with its hood up and realised it had broken down. He also noticed a large van with its engine still running and understood that her panic was human-induced. Surveying the scene ahead of him, he became consciously aware of the inappropriateness of his extravagant choice of dress.

Not much of a fighter, Amir felt the urge to take flight. “Help,” she pleaded to the darkness. Summoning up what reserves of courage he could find, he demanded that the two assailants leave her alone.

“Get the fuck out of here, you sand monkey,” one of the thugs laughed, looking mockingly at the cane upon which Amir was propped. Despite his height, Amir could see by their reaction that he did not cut a very intimidating figure – the darkness around and his clothes had probably led them to the conclusion that he was a frail old man. Deciding that he wasn't a threat, they resumed their slippery struggle with the young woman.

Amir took a few tentative steps closer and became aware that his right leg and left shoulder were trembling uncontrollably. Caught between paralysis and epilepsy, he took a deep breath to calm his nerves and tried to reel in his terror which stemmed from his inability to gauge whether these guys took joy in violence or were bluffing to get rid of him.

He suddenly became aware of the double-edged scimitar hanging from his belt and realised that it might just work some magic here, as it had done earlier that night. He unsheathed the replica Zulfiqar–thecurved sword preferred by Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali, the first shi'ite Imam or fourth sunni Caliph – with the legend ‘There is no hero except Ali and no sword except Zulfiqar'.

Brandishing it before him like some sort of ‘Sword of ', he heard himself say in a self-mocking parody: “I don't fear you, heathen!

“Protecting a woman's honour is the sacred duty of every Muslim man. It is an integral part of our Jihad in life. In situations like this, it is halal – permitted by the almighty Allah – for me to slit your throat like the dirty, vile swine that you are.”

Confronted with this Bin Ladenesque diatribe, the yobs exchanged confused glances as they tried to figure out how serious this Mad Muhammad was. “I don't believe you,” one of them challenged, his voice cracking slightly, undermining his apparent defiance.

“Ahh, ye of no faith, heathens, infidels,” Amir laughed fiendishly. “I don't care. I can't lose. If you kill me, well, in death will be glory because I will have died in an honourable cause. I will be a shaheed, a martyr, dwelling in paradise, lying with willing virgins – unlike your pathetic selves – and sipping from rivers of wine. But if I kill you, you will be violated by hot pokers for the rest of eternity for your crimes.”

Amir then held the sword high above his head and charged towards the two attackers , screaming “Besmellah el-rahman el-raheem” like a maniac butcher chasing a sacrificial lamb, his dishdasha flapping behind him like Batman's cape. In a panic, the two men dropped their bravado and sprinted towards their car, disappearing in a cloud of wet mud and spray splashing off the hardtop.

Giddy with his unexpected success, Amir dropped to his knees, falling over his sword as a fit of uncontrollable laughter took hold of him and wrestled him in the waterlogged grass. The dishevelled woman stopped sobbing and started following Amir's freakish performance. Not knowing whether she could breathe a sigh of relief or whether her apparent rescuer may become her next attacker, Naira raised her guard. “Are you some kinda fanatic or terrorist or something?” she asked in confusion, as she started to take backward steps away from his writhing figure.

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“Terrorist… No, I was terrified, actually,” Amir yelped in manic joy as he rolled in the mud and kicked his feet up in the air, baring his legs and revealing his Doc Marten boots. “Well, I couldn't say I was a vigilante,” he cackled. “And I'm way too young to be your vigil uncle,” he laughed, pleased that he was able to make a pun in English. “Wait, my mum has an aunt who's younger than her, so I could be,” he rambled.

Naira was becoming increasingly alarmed at this exhibition. Just my luck, she lamented to herself, I do the goddamn nightshift for the extra cash, break down on my way home, get attacked and saved. But instead of some knight in shining armour, I get this certified A-rab wacko in a dress and a cape. The glint of his sword reflecting the moonlight caught her eye, sparking a fresh surge of fear in her breast.

Sensing her confusion and anguish, Amir stood up and re-sheathed his sword. “Sorry 'bout that,” he said. “But it's not every day a regular Jo – or, in my case, Mo – finds himself saving a damsel in distress and scaring some thugs.”

“Are you saying that you just happened to be dressed like a mujahideen,or something, and driving along the freeway when you saw me?”

Mujahid – there's only one of me. And that's exactly what I was doing.”

“You ain't planning to kill some heathens or blow up one of our monuments?” she asked. “I know how much you people hate our freedom and its symbols.”

“No,” Amir smiled patiently, letting her slight pass, deciding that this was not the time or place to get into a political discussion. “My original plan was to go home and nurse my hangover. But I was afraid your attackers would make sure I was the one needing the nursing. You know, they might've taken The Cure's invitation to kill an Arab literally and overlook their later suggestion to kiss one.”

“You're weird,” Naira said, taking a couple more steps away from him, intrigued by and strangely drawn to, despite her better judgement, this bizarre Freeway Fundi with a hangover.

“That's what my friends keep telling me,” Amir said, recalling the college party he had been at earlier that night. To mock the unflattering stereotypes and to impress his new girlfriend, he'd pummelled, in his turban and gown, to the latest hip-hop grooves, eliciting general mirth and delight from the other revellers who started shouting out “Sheikh it, baby.” But the showstopper was when the DJ, who was also in Amir's first year biochemistry class, surprised everyone by putting on a bellydancing number. “This is for the hot Shi'ite in da house,” he said over the speakers. He and Hind, his girlfriend, who was also an Iraqi exile – a sunni – he had met on campus, broke into an impromptu hip-swivelling routine, he with his cane, she with a silk scarf tied around her waist. 

Naira noticed his distractedness. She stood up and began to take slow steps away from him, pulling her torn blouse around her wet torso. He snapped out of his half-delirious reminiscences and remembered the situation at hand. “How are you holding up?” he asked as he moved towards her.

“Are you going to hurt me?” she asked him, shaking with fear and the cold.

“No, I'm here to help you,” he said gently, his soft smile lighting up his friendly face against the surrounding darkness and rain.

Grateful to be in the company of a soothing countenance, she dropped her guard a little. Unable to find words to express her distress, all she could manage was a simple, almost whispered “Thank you”. Then, she stared again in dismay at her rescuer. What was this strange Arab doing in, of all places, Washington DC, and on the ring road, her dazed mind wondered. Did he fly in on his magic carpet to save her like some sort of Arabian Nights' superhero? At that moment of exhilarated relief, Captain Arabia, Superman or Robin Hood would all be equally welcome.

“Did they manage… you know… to… to hurt you?” Amir stuttered, embarrassed.

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“No, thank God,” she said, laughing and crying at the same time. “You came just in time… Are you some sort of caped crusader?” she said, trying to lighten the mood with a nervous smile.

“I'm caped all right,” he agreed. “Not sure about the crusader bit, though.”

“My… my car, that old piece of shit,” she recalled with sudden anger, “broke down and they stopped to offer help. And then…” She tapered off as her mind tried to wash away the horror in a burst of fresh tears.

“It's okay… It's gonna be just fine. I'll give you a ride home,” Amir offered. “You're shivering,” he said, taking off his disdasha and handing it to her, while standing at arm's length, worried that he might scare her after her ordeal. But she stood where she was and continued to shiver, while staring blankly into the darkness, the falling rainwater running off her face like torrential tears. He approached her slowly and delicately wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. Sensing its warmth, she pulled it around herself.

Standing a half-pace behind her, Amir led her to his car with one hand placed just shy of her back. “I'm not much of an auto mechanic, so we'll have to leave yours here for the night,” he said, driven more by the need to make reassuring noises than any belief that the young woman actually cared about the fate of her vehicle at that moment. He helped her into the car, then opened the boot, placing the sword there.

Inside, his vintage VW Beetle, which he'd lovingly had revamped, took a couple of attempts with the ignition before it started. “I just had a new engine put in. It's going to take some time to get it up to speed,” he explained, almost apologetically, as if she'd even noticed. “But if it weren't for my crawling bug, I wouldn't have been going slow enough to see you, so I guess it was lucky.”

The stranger stared at the road in complete silence. Amir glanced, for the first time, at her face. ‘Brooding' was the description that came to mind. Below the smeared mud and the detachment of the traumatised, he could see a practiced, deeper darkness, a sombre sadness buried not far beneath. And Amir was well equipped to detect that undercurrent, expert as he was at hiding his own gloom and doom under a ready smile which rarely allowed a ripple to disturb his almost unlined brow. Amir's cheeriness was a necessary tool in his family, being, as he was, the rock on which his parents leaned for support whenever their minds drifted back to the mess consuming their beloved Basra.

The silence, broken only by the characteristic tchk-tchking of the Beetle, was getting too heavy for Amir. “Some music,” he suggested, attempting to lighten the mood. When he got no answer, he switched on the stereo anyway. The fleet-footed tones of the ‘bare-foot diva' Cesária Évora hopped out of the speakers. “Angola, Angola,” she sang out.

Although he did not understand a word of Creole or its parent tongue Portuguese, he enjoyed immersing himself in the old diva's soulful renditions of morna – which some say might be derived from the English word ‘to mourn' – perhaps in reference to the mourning of all those slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic from Cape Verde. His evolving love of Portuguese fado had led him to its cousin morna. The Angolan Lament so beloved of morna artists reminded him of the Arab mawal.

The music seemed to strike a chord with his passenger, who hummed along melancholically, fresh tears appearing in he eyes. He switched off the CD and tried to place her ethnicity.

“Where do you live?” he asked the still form staring out of the window beside him. “Miss, are you from DC?” he tried again.

“Okay, I'll just keep driving around until you're ready to talk.”

A few silent minutes later, the empathiser in him, who found it hard to tolerate other people's suffering, tried, once more, to alleviate his passenger's woes by luring her out of her shell-shocked shell. “My name is Amir. Do you mind my asking yours?”

“Naira,” she said in a barely audible whisper.

“Nura?” he confirmed. “What a beautiful name. Did you know it means ‘light' in Arabic?”

“No, Naira,” she corrected. “It's native American, Quechua, actually – I'm part Inca,” she said, her pride in her heritage distracting her from her ordeal. Just as suddenly as she'd lit up, her ardour dimmed again. Then, she was overcome with a sneezing fit. Seeing a diner up ahead, Amir said: “I know just the medicine.” Pulling up outside, he ran round to the passenger seat and, braving the even heavier downpour, they dashed into the café's glowing interior.

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At that hour, the only people in the silent diner were road-weary, long-distance travellers: truckers, travelling sales reps, errant teenagers and probable runaways, as well as the rogue's assortment of drunks. As they entered, Amir was conscious that the silence enveloping the place had somehow been heightened by their outlandish entry.  He could see a mix of bored curiosity, casual confusion and barely suppressed hostility in the punters' gazes as he accompanied the oblivious Naira to a free table in a dark corner. One child sitting with his father stared at them with the kind of reverential wonder one would reserve for mythical characters who had swooped in on the back of a flying rok.

“How about some nice, warm soup?” Amir suggested.

“Sure,” Naira shrugged impassively, her stomach beginning to rumble in anticipation.

Amir now had a clearer view of his accidental companion. Although her pretty features looked quite ‘African', she was as pale as a Siberian snow queen, with the slightly unhealthy-looking complexion of those who do not see enough sunlight and eat a little too much convenience food.

Two tired uniformed police officers – one, an obese African-American, the other, a spindly white American – who had just finished the night beat were standing at the bar, looking suspiciously at Amir while they sipped on their lattés. As the defrocked Jihadi and his damsel-no-longer-in-distress slurped their soup and each, in their own way, reflected on the night's confusing events, Naira began to sob silently, her big eyes narrowing to slits, her large lips quivering like a tuning fork at a pitch inaudible to human ears. A dog barked outside the diner. Overcome with emotion, she cried out and swept her bowl clean off the table. “The filthy bastards!” she swore.

Amir rushed to the other side of the table to comfort Naira. “Get your dirty Arab paws off of her, you piece of camel shit,” Amir heard someone growl over his shoulder. He turned around to see the bear-like probable trucker – who had shot looks of disdain at him like a marine firing graffitied scud missiles at Baghdad – holding up a threatening fist. Amir looked to the two police officers for help. Like rushed waiters, they refused to meet his eyes and turned to face the bartender to order another round of drinks.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and . Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual . Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English- blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and . He grew up in and the , and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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