My skin-hair spikes as it does before a premonition. I catch his deep penetrating eyes hunting out from behind the black and white bandana. He boards the train and moves to the opposite end of the carriage. He’s with a skinny man, a mullah in a black dress, who resembles a junkie. A black and white bandana wrapped tight around his tiny head. A cubical ta’wiz – locket containing holy verses – hanging around his short slender neck.
Five more passengers, drenched from the heavy rain, hop on board. Rain and peace barely pour in this god-forsaken city anymore. Rain, like peace, brings hope. But this storm has flooded half the city and the street front of the British-built Quetta Railway Station. The sewerage water stinks like a mass graveyard resurfacing after foundations are compromised.
As the antique train jerks forward, Junkie Mullah marches to the driver-end of the carriage; the man in the black and white bandana faces me.
‘You’re getting off this train with us.’ He lifts his ankle-length white kurta to reveal a 9mm Makarov tucked behind his belt – the words Allah Akbarwrap the gun’s steel grip in Arabic.
Allah Akbar – God is great, even when His name is carved on a pagan invention strapped to a crotch. Fear of God mistaken for love of God. Fear of the steel, however, is enough for the five passengers to collect their luggage and quietly disappear into the next carriage.
The train honks as it slithers slowly through a crossing. Various vehicles are lined up one after another waiting for the train to pass. Men on motorbikes wearing plastic raincoats form the front row. Behind them, a donkey-cart driver smokes a cigarette, perched on top of wheat sacks, and gripping the leash with the other. A skinny, rain-dripping woman carries a scrawny rain-dripping baby in her left arm, holding out her right hand to passengers inside a red and white rickshaw. Fruit-carts closely lined up on either side of the road until eyes can see. Two policemen in bulletproof vests, gun barrels pointing out, tensely observe the crowd from behind sandbag barricades; they can only protect themselves, not the civilians.
The man in bandana has taken a seat opposite mine and keeps staring at me without blinking. He recites some Arabic verses now and then, finishing with Allah Akbar. The train passes by the University of Baluchistan campus. Some students are talking, sipping tea, taking cover from the rain. This reminds me of my college campus in Lahore, about a thousand kilometres away from where I study Fine Arts. Flying to Lahore is the safest and the most convenient means of travelling but also the most expensive. My parents can’t afford to fly me in or out of Quetta city, so I take a train. After every semester, I return home to see my parents, and my sister – my only sibling, who has recently become engaged.
As the train squeaks and muscles out of the city, the abysmal multi-story brick houses lining the tracks appear increasingly hysterical. The whitewashed walls are covered with rain-stained advertisements chalked in black: Ta’wiz to get rid of poverty; make any girl fall in love with you; prevent accidents and keep the ghosts away; contact Baba Black Magic today. Halal medicine for premature ejaculation; holy balm for erectile dysfunction; how-to formulas for infertility, private sessions for women, guaranteed pregnancy: homoeopathic revolution. These bizarre advertisements have always amused me, but today, I’m not sure if I should laugh at them or my ill-fated situation. If only I had paid for a ta’wiz to keep me safe from the ghost in a bandana, and his junkie disfigured friend.
When the man recites Arabic verses again, one end of his bandana comes undone revealing his face but he hurriedly covers without finishing his recital. Goosebumps prevail. Now I know why those penetrating eyes remind me of someone I used to know. But before I speak a word, Junkie Mullah returns. There’s an old misshapen messy looking scar on the right side of his face and the facial hair between his chin and ear is missing. It isn’t a birthmark but he doesn’t bother covering it. Perhaps the scar makes him more intimidating. He moves forward and whispers something in the ear of his companion. They nod. He moves two steps back and stands guard over my shoulder.
The train slows down in the middle of the tracks next to an industrial building. I know the next station is about an hour away. But in this country, god is big business, and everyone wants to buy shares. Including the train driver. They each grab me by the arms and start dragging me towards the exit. I don’t bother shouting for help because I know no one will be coming to my rescue. Once off the train, they rush me through a narrow alley towards a tinted black Hilux waiting about twenty feet away. They open the doors, push me into the backseat, jump in on either side and slam the doors shut. Junkie Mullah blindfolds me before they drive away.
‘We haven’t met since fifth grade.’ I can’t see him but angle my head to where I know he is – the man covering his face.
‘You recognized me?’
‘Your eyes haven’t lost their innocence, Kalam.’
‘Shut up infidel.’ Junkie Mullah slams me with an elbow.
A warm sensation in my nose follows like a short-lived hot spring, trickling until I feel it in my mouth. The second time I’ve tasted my blood. The first time: Sameera bit my lips while we were kissing. In the silence, I think of Sameera, whose dreamy brown eyes keep me awake and focused whenever I feel fatigued and distracted amid all the miseries of my tiresome life. Sameera, whose unfinished portrait lies concealed beneath my bed, waiting for me to finish and present to her when I return home for my next study break. Sameera, whose only presents to me are the kisses I wear underneath my blood-bathed lips.
I think of my cart-pushing-fruit-selling father working seven days a week so I can study at the National College of Art in Lahore to become an art teacher one day. We negotiated and combined our dreams: I compromised on teaching, he conceded on arts.
I think of my mother, who, with declining eyesight, labours at her manual sewing machine day and night, in hot and cold, year after year, to make ends meet. Her dream is to see her son get married one day soon. Mother knows my semester breaks by heart.
I think of my sister who can’t attend college because, as my parents put it, girls are guests. So, at seventeen, she’s already engaged to be married. But I know that’s just an excuse because my parents can’t afford to school us both. Besides, I’m their best shot.
I think of my friends who farewelled me this overcast morning; the ones I farewelled weeks ago because of a twin suicide bombing that killed over fifty people of the Hazara community. This was the third such attack in the space of two months. Quetta used to be one of the most peaceful multi-ethnic, multi-faith Pakistani cities a decade ago. But lately, the city has been engulfed in the fire of religious extremism, ethnic intolerance, and sectarian hatred fuelled by the money of the godless, and sparked in the name of the god of money-less. People who once felt safe in this city, surrounded by dry silvery mountains, now fear their shadows. The mountains have mothered all the people alike whenever outside evils have tried to disturb the peace but this time the devils are living amongst the faithful; the evil has deeper roots. And the death of a nation is imminent when an evil thrives within. That’s when the destruction of a society becomes inevitable. That’s when a nation dies.
Junkie Mullah ties my hands behind my back before taking off the blindfold. As he opens the door to leave, a bright light hits my semi-blind vision like the flash of a heavy-duty torch. I shut my eyes to revive my vision. The air stinks of tobacco and urine. I regain my sight in a messy clay room. There is a tiny ventilator below the timber-supported ceilings that pours some light in this livestock cage. A solitary black ant strolls about the cardboard pieces and cigarette butts scattered across the floor. There’s no toilet or water. I gather they won’t keep me here for long.
Kalam enters the room and Junkie Mullah leaves upon his head-nod. Kalam, his elder brother and I were classmates until he disappeared in fifth grade. He was sent to a madrassa on the outskirts of the city to pursue religious studies, I learned from his brother. One day in the middle of the year, he just stopped coming to school.
I hardly received any pocket money for school but always brought home-made naan for lunch. Kalam often had one or two Rupees that he’d use to buy kocha – a meat and wheat broth and we’d share our meal eating out of the same plate, drinking from the same glass. We’d laugh at the same jokes, playing soccer with a tennis ball during the outdoor recess sessions because our school had no playground. On the days I couldn’t bring naan and Kalam had no coins, he’d drag me along to walk to his home a couple of blocks away from the school. His mother would offer us food and water, and love. She used to call me Salam because I was shy and that’s how I always greeted her. The only greeting word I knew. Salam– peace.
‘Do you remember the three senior boys who tried to bully us? How we stood our ground, got the better of them and laughed about it later. How your mother, while treating our wounds, called us Kalam and Salam – the inseparable brothers. What does she think of you now? What does she think of us?’
‘Oi boy,’ Kalam shouts, ignoring my question.
Junkie Mullah returns.
‘Now,’ Kalam yells.
Junkie Mullah steps forward and kicks me in my abdomen multiple times before untying my hands. He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket.
‘You’ll read this on camera, infidel.’
They disappear behind the rusty iron door.
I’m a Hazara, a Shiite. I study arts and drawing, and paint pictures which are forbidden and un-Islamic. Therefore, I’m ashamed of this infidelity. And whoever follows this pagan practice, the curse of God will befall and they’ll bear the same fate as I with their throats cut.
I stare at the words. The real curse of a god is the fact that a god comes with a curse.
Back in the day in school, Kalam and I used to share pens, pencils and books, ink, and inkpot. We jumped in puddles, got punished for, and teased each other for who cried the loudest when the teacher was caning us. We joked, laughed; fought and made up, brawled with other kids but always defended each other. The thought of how unconcerned about god and uncaring towards religion we were makes me smile, and cry. And I wish we had remained ignorant. Because now that we are “educated” adults who can distinguish vice from virtue, god from evil, and contemplate on the matters of art, science and religion, we’re indifferent to one another. We’ve grown up to become ignorant adults.
Today, this false and fabricated face of faith will decide whether I live or die. I make a fist of the page and throw it on the cardboard alerting the black ant and wish my parents and my sister never find out whatever happens to me today. The light of their lives, their future hope, their only son will never enjoy rain or feel sunlight ever again. My ageing father won't have the strength to push his fruit-cart anymore. His shoulders will give up. His courage will die, so will his dream. And my mother, who always prays on time, will stop believing in God. She’ll keep waiting by the door, counting the days towards my semester break forever. Her dream to see her only son get married will become a lifelong nightmare if she survived long enough after this suffering. My sister will get married, I hope, but her brother, her only childhood friend, won’t be around to walk her down the aisle and farewell her. She’ll become a living dead body.
I’ve already made up my mind when they return. Junkie Mullah walks straight ahead. He re-ties my hands behind my back and kicks me a few times like he’s kicking a sandbag. Then picks up the piece of paper, retreats, and hands it over to Kalam.
The taste of blood on lips reminds me of Sameera and her unfinished portrait. The warmth of her breaths will remain in my senses until my flesh submits. Sameera will never be able to love again even if her parents wed her away. She’ll live but die whenever the word love is spoken. Like her portrait, our love will remain unfinished forever.
Goosebumps strike again. My blood rushes, my heart starts pounding harder and faster.
‘Do you know how his mother identified my friend in the rubbles of your suicidal jihad?’ I stare at him. ‘By his wedding ring. That’s the only part of him they found, in one piece. So I’m not afraid of you Kalam. Because God cannot be as narrow-minded as you are. As you believe God is. He is not your property; neither mine. Tell me, Kalam, does God know that you’re a Sunni or a Shiite? And if I pray with open arms, and you – arms crossed, would he punish me and glorify you?’
Kalam keeps watching in silence as Junkie Mullah turns on the torch, torturing my soul, and blurring my vision.
I close my eyes for a moment, open them, and keep staring at the gang of ants feeding on my blood drops. They’re in for a feast today.
I look up at Kalam: ‘Praying is connecting with God. It’s a virtue. Not a business; or a job. God is everything but ignorant. Before Him, painting and drawing, music and dancing, art and science are identically divine. That’s why He’s the omniscient. But what would you know about god or religion? You’re just another infectious mercenary hiding behind the ignorance of your religious beard and pagan bandana. The Holy Quran quotes if anyone kills one person, it is as though he has killed all mankind. You’re a killer, Kalam. And a killer can never serve a true God. Because God is not on the evil side.’
My skin-hair spikes again when Junkie Mullah throws the torch on the floor to mask his face with his bandana. The scar on the right side of his face, which has partially consumed the hair of his tiny deformed head, is not intimidating anymore. He sets up a camera with the red dot pointing at me. Picks up the torch and Kisses his ta’wiz as he walks towards me. Enraged, burning in the fire of falsehood, he hits me hard with the lit torch, following up with punches and kicks. I fall, face first, on the floor. Blood drops alert the army of ants. A fiesta is on the way. Junkie Mullah puts his left knee on my shoulder blade and pushes his right knee against my neck until the smell of my blood, the stink of urine, and cigarette butts fill up my nostrils. Then out comes the knife.
I use all my might to turn my head to look at Kalam. He's standing by the door. His eyes don't sparkle anymore. He's breathing but essentially been dead for ages. Before I close my eyes, I say, 'Tell your mother how you saved Islam by killing an infidel today. Tell her the infidel said, Salam.’
Sahib Nazari is a Griffith University graduate in Creative Writing and Literature. He was born in Afghanistan and grew up in Pakistan where he lived with his family before moving to Australia in 2005. Sahib voices his words through writing – short stories and occasional poetry. He can speak, read and write in English, Urdu, Persian and Hazaragi languages. In Australia, he’s been published in TEXT Journal, and Talent Implied, the annual anthology of Griffith University creative writing students.