Burning Swarm of Ali by Steve Noyes
Twilight had come and passed over his shoulders and bent head, like a crow.
Ali stood on the promontory watching his house burn down, a terrestrial crown of flame within the dark blue heavens.
He had often imagined a flash of ignition against the ocean, his headlights sweeping the bay’s curve, and then a razor of flame twisted into rising smoke, but this time he had missed it. The fire was already advancing. He pulled up and watched it burn, calculating.
The firetrucks had not yet arrived; the sirens were coming; the fire had not yet reached the den.
Ali madly ran through the back door. It was warm inside, and a warped, buckled crick-crack was coming through the walls. He snatched two things: a ten-gram brass weight and a teardrop earring. He got out fast, tripping at the back door and regained his vantage point on the road, hands on his knees, panting.
In the matter of houses burning down and Islam, Ali had only one reference point, an interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball star. Many years ago, when Ali’s wife Jamilla was still alive, she was rolling the sofa with a lint-remover as Ali surfed the channels. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s house had also burned down, a great big place in the Hollywood Hills. His huge hands were smoothing the viewer over to his faith: ‘Sometimes Allah teaches us that things are not so important,’ said Kareem, and then there was a clip of him shooting his famous sky-hook.
The roof bellowed its collapse, and sent a great huff of circling sparks out into the cold night. He held the brass weight in his palm, dense polished brass; he held it as if it were the only ruby in a world of jade. The earring he left in his pocket.
From the transparent rage of flickering, enwrapping and licking flame, the jinn crept out and perched on the charcoal rafters, unbothered by the fire, as they were made of smokeless fire themselves. He had the feeling they wanted to listen. He knew he could not really see al-ghayb1, but he wanted to talk to the jinn. He felt he had the right; after all, his house was burning.
He supposed he had better begin with Katheeja Mubarikta and her family, who were prominent at the mosque when Ali was still a growing teenager, his sleeves rode up inches from his wrists. The community was mostly from India and Pakistan, although recently more and more Arab students were attending Friday prayers, bringing with them their almost competitive piety. Already an Arab student had disrespectfully commented on the women’s dress at community functions and the most disgusting Western habit of applauding after speeches. Katheeja’s brother Khaled, because of his superior knowledge of the Qur’an, quickly became a negotiator between the two groups. Ali’s family had tried to stay out of it.
Ali had long imagined Katheeja’s family escaping from Swahilia. This would have been when Katheeja, and he, were three. He had done some reading, and for the harder-to-imagine parts he had relied on remembered passages from V S Naipaul. His Swahilia therefore has a certain Trinidadian cast, not entirely inapposite, as colonies are always forming and reforming on the surface of the earth. Naipaul’s people, too, were indentured labourers brought from India, but the Empires were different: Swahilia relied on the labour of Indians from Gujarat, brought in to supply the services and crafts for the slave-trade by the Arabs. But the Arabs had long since gone. News of them only came from the rare old person who trickled back from the hajj.
The Mubarikta family were halal butchers in a small town about a day’s drive from Swahilia’s capital, Darjoon. They lived in a bungalow in a large clearing with rickety fences over which Katheeja could see the hanging sides of meat, and the flayed hides drying in raw, warped cowl-shapes, but she was forbidden to go past those fences. They kept chickens. She chased cane-rats, another thing she was forbidden. She was allowed to beat on the sides of the funnel they drove the cattle through on inoculation days.
Her parents were often arguing, and Daddy was always listening to the big tube radio in the room where he kept his Qur’an and his pipe. His friends came over to talk with him. He stayed in his room with them a long time. The next day, Mommy and Daddy were rushing around, picking things up, putting them down, and piling clothes and food by the front door: Katheeja and her brother Khaled got sent to bed early, and were hurriedly bundled into the car before the dawn prayers. Daddy touched the roof once before he started the car and said, ‘Inna nahnu billahi wa billahi raja:un’2. She didn’t know what that meant, but knew it was Arabic. He always said that when he drove. They drove for a couple of hours away from the rising sun. ‘Are we there yet?’ said Katheeja. ‘It is a long way,’ said Mommy. It was already very hot. They passed plots of cassava and yams in clearings, where there were black men squatting by fires, whose eyes followed them. Daddy rolled down the window and Katheeja heard the chatter of macaws. Mommy and Daddy weren’t talking. ‘Are we there yet?’ said Katheeja. ‘I need to go.’ Reluctantly, Daddy pulled over and took her hand as she peed in the red earth. She was full of pee. A black man with no shirt swinging a gun strolled out on the road. ‘La khawfa illa billah’3, she heard Daddy mutter. They got back in the car. The man was poking his gun through the window at Daddy. ‘Mommy!’ Said Katheeja. ‘Sssh,’ said Khaled behind her. ‘Hush, honey, hush, okay, okay, honey,’ said Mommy, and held her close. Daddy got out of the car, and the man hit him in the face with his gun-butt.
Mommy clapped a hand over Katheeja’s eyes and pushed her down, and spoke harshly to Khaled. The man was shouting in Swahili. The car door opened, and Daddy got behind the wheel. The man hit the car roof hard with his gun. The motor started and they were moving again; Mommy’s hand relaxed. Katheeja eventually sat up. Mommy was busy daubing Daddy’s face with a Kleenex she kept spitting on as he drove. They passed a burned-out car on the shoulder, and a cracked, dry lake bed with gleaming salt-flats; on the horizon a few plane-trees, and a thin blue line of mountains. Daddy stopped the car and got out, and Katheeja twisted around and watched Daddy throw up. ‘Daddy is sick,’ said Katheeja. ‘Are we there yet?’
Ali believed that he had richly and faithfully imagined this, but he had no way of knowing that in Katheeja’s bag her mother had packed for their long journey out of Swahilia there was a tube of Darkie toothpaste, common in the Levant, with a black sambo face in a top hat with a piano-key grin. It had come overland to Swahilia from Tunisia by stages in dusty jeeps. The black face made Katheeja giggle. The Swahilian government had banned this toothpaste. It is still available in Turkey and parts of Syria.
The Muslim year, being lunar, moves its festival dates backwards through the Gregorian calendar at the rate of nine days per year; Ramadan was in July and August the year that Katheeja turned away from Ali’s path in life, and now the Holy Month fell again in the heat of summer, after forty years. He remembered the long, parched days of the Ramadan fast. He fell in love with Katheeja that summer, at the weak ends of the day, at the mosque, in the dusk, her hands around a dish cloaked in a tea-towel. She was a slight girl, whose hejab, knotted under her chin like a kerchief, at least lent her face some weight; she wore kohl and had slender olive-coloured hands. Ali had just turned eighteen. He also noticed Katheeja at the madrasa, which was still co-ed. Her attempts to pronounce the Arabic letter ع were comic. You might say she had a fear of ع. He tried to talk to her after class and found her shy, and interesting. After Ramadan, Ali looked forward to Fridays when the Mubariktas arrived at the mosque for jum’a prayers, and he got a glimpse of Katheeja gliding through the lobby into the back-room where the women prayed.
Khaled, Katheeja’s older brother, used to recite the Qur’an at Friday prayers and when he came to a part he couldn’t remember, he stopped, and waited until his father mumbled the next word from behind the rows of standing worshippers, before he continued, in the taratilla4 manner, a measured unrolling of the word of Allah. He recited beautifully. The whole community agreed on that.
Ali’s father told him quickly, perfunctorily, categorically, that Mr Mubarikta did not accept Ali’s inquiry regarding marriage to his daughter Katheeja. Ali’s father explained that Mr Mubarikta had just spent a great deal of money to send Khaled to Saudi Arabia for a proper religious education, and could not at present afford a wedding; besides, Katheeja was far too young.
‘But didn’t he talk to her? What did Katheeja say?’
‘I don’t know,’ said his father.
‘Can’t we ask again, when she’s older?’
And Ali knew better to bring it up again.
At first, among the shadows of the Great Mosque’s outer walls and the crowd-control features of Mecca, the rails and lines where people were always lining up to gain entrance to the Kaba’a, Khaled had felt lonely, but his studies absorbed him, and his teachers were demanding. He had the tongue for Arabic, and he recited the Qur’an like someone much older, with a greater sonority and majesty that marked him as an unusual student. The other standout student, seldom seen in the city without an entourage, was an Omani prince, always in a traditional jellaba. One evening, as Khaled was swallowing kebab and licking his fingers, the prince sat next to him and waved his followers away. ‘You are from Canada, ikhwani,’5 he said. ‘You are all alone here.’
‘Thanks to Allah, I am fine.’
‘Canada. You have a valid passport?’ Ali nodded. ‘Come have coffee with me,’ said the prince.
The prince, despite his regularly voiced pieties, did not seem to Khaled particularly devout, but he invited Khaled to his study-group, and when Khaled showed up, the prince was absent. They listened to the imam fulminate about the conditions of the Arabs, the oil companies, the CIA, and about the possibility of training. The next week, the location of the group changed, and it was a longer bus-ride out to the suburbs where the lights were farther apart and Khaled could see the stars. The group moved to another location, and there was a sense of selection, being nudged into a smaller, and yet more remote circle of prayer-partners.
Then one evening the imam invited them to take part in military training that summer in the mountains of Yemen. The landscape was craggy, strewn with boulders, and bushes of something smelling like sage. They practiced artillery skills with old Kalashnikovs, but there was not enough space in the narrow valleys and their irregular slopes for long-range work, and so they dragged along but did not fire the mortars. They broke regularly for prayer, all their materiel piled behind them as they unrolled their carpets and prostrated.
The afternoons after mid-day prayers were lax and hot and many nodded off after their supper, airplane trays wrapped in foil and heated in the burning branches. Old and young faces around the fires, sprigs of fresh qat. By maghrib prayers, the men were either sleeping or talking about their hometowns, their cousins and children. It became clear to Khaled that this training was at best provisional; no great aim had been stated; indeed, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis viewed it as a holiday, and entertained each other with rugged male imitations of distant songstresses as the sun set and the stars came out and the constellations formed, and Khaled felt comforted by this simpler world among men, and under the wheeling stars and the dusky contours of the hills often reminded himself, from his Qur’anic learning, that all on the earth would eventually vanish, and that men would be like scattered moths one day, the mountains themselves like carded wool.
Khaled did not take it very seriously, though he did learn how to fire an automatic weapon. He viewed it as military service, not unlike what European countries demanded of their youth.
It was quite some time before he learned the code-word black rock.
Once again, Ali, distracted by shouts, men in high boots running past and hoses dragging in the dirt, thought he had faithfully and truthfully imagined this Khaled sequence, but he had no idea, and, indeed, with the heat of the flame playing over his face, it seemed that his ideas were just another substance the fire could feed on.
One of the jinn, his form a roving crimson puzzle, laughed and hoisted another jinn onto its back, and hopped along a crackling rafter. Yes, thought Ali, there is always a horrible moment, and for him it was when he rounded a street-corner, carrying his three-year-old piggy-back, and nearly ran into Katheeja, also with her child on her shoulders, her hands under his armpits. They nodded and stepped around each other. And what was so horrible for Ali? — because you might say that these were the ingredients of a not unhappy ending. He thought he saw in Katheeja’s eyes the slight shadow of a shame that their attraction had ever happened in the first place.
And so the years of difficulty began. The years of choked-up sorrow in his throat when he ran across her, by chance. In grocery stores. In a baby-clothes boutique. In Staples buying school supplies. He had no reason to feel so strongly; his father had found him a perfectly good girl to marry; but there was Katheeja, in radiant good health, and obviously enjoying being a wife, a mother. Her eyes looked away; her finger twinkled. When they met in a bank queue, he offered the customary greeting, Salaam ‘aleykum, and she, eyes on her hands, replied, Wa ‘aleykum as-salaam.
Yet those words would destroy his next couple of days. He took off from his accountancy firm and drove out to Cattle Point and looked at the ocean and summoned the memory of her voice, and it was in such a stew of feeling that Ali realized he had not performed his prayers for several days. He rectified that.
When his child Turgay was five and Ali was leading him by the hand towards the playground water-jets in Beacon Hill Park, he saw Katheeja with another baby in diapers; Katheeja right up behind the child, her fingers in the back of its diaper and nose down, sniffing for mess, and Ali turned around suddenly, and had to bear Turgay’s tears, ‘I want to play in the water, Daddy,’ and swept Turgay up and practically ran towards the slides and swings of the playground on Cook Street, where Turgay forgot all about the water-jets.
The first jinn listened and when Ali had finished smiled his little lizardness of a smile and said, Yes, but what about the brass-weight? The other jinn all started cackling in unison as the embers pulsed, and a cotillion of tiny red hands, the hands of Fatima, fluttering, flaked upwards into the night. Ali rubbed his eyes.
Ali’s father, before he came to Canada in 1958, had sold nuts outside the public baths in Bodrum, Turkey for twenty years. He used the Armenian-made set of brass weights to exactly fill the paper cones with pistachios and filberts. In Canada he cleaned the local airport for twenty more years. Upon retirement, he swore that he would have nothing further to do with pistachios or vacuums. He died a year later. After the funeral, Ali noticed an uncertainty, a secret fear in his wife’s regard for him; they had not been getting along, and the old man’s death, she may have realized, had removed a stricture of obedience from her husband, so she would fall into silence when they argued, let her point drop. But nothing dire happened; Ali did not separate from Jamilla; instead, he worried out loud to her more and more about his mother’s health. The years passed, and they continued to be husband and wife to each other, just like Katheeja and her husband. They had not done such a bad job, Ali thought.
They had bought the house when Ali retired, and it reminded him of the big Turkish summer-homes that looked onto the Golden Horn, where he and his wife had vacationed. And then his wife had died, of breast cancer, and he was alone in it.
And the ships that furl upon the wavy lanes of the sea at His pleasure, can they not see upon this promontory my house, burning?
Ali was oblivious to the firemen as they dragged their ganglia of hoses around.
The house was settling in the tonnage of water that rained down, barking a few last shards, hissing, spitting.
A hand on his shoulder, ‘You’re all right?’
‘I’m okay,’ said Ali, ‘It’s just that my house is burning.’
In the Muslim year 1400, a group of well-trained commandos under the leadership of the eldest son of a pious Sunni family hijacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it for nearly three weeks. They claimed the ruling Saudi family was corrupt and unworthy of their role as steward of the Holy Places. Violence was not originally intended, but things went badly, and a guard was shot. The Saudi police surrounded the Grand Mosque and waited. They proved inadequate to their task, and a French elite SWAT team was brought in; the Saudis hurriedly proclaimed a fatwa allowing bloodshed in the sacred precincts, which was unprecedented, and in a special ceremony the French assassins were converted to Islam en masse. The French flooded the Grand Mosque and electrocuted the hijackers.
There was a farther enclave in the flame, an opening shaped like a peaked seed, and within the seed a volitional area, and Katheeja was right in front of him, just as she had appeared forty years ago, after his failed proposal, outside the mosque, in the most recondite corner of the flower-garden, her hair down, looking at the rhododendrons. You’ve got to be bold, he thought. He walked up to her.
She returned the greeting and lowered her eyes.
‘I respect your father’s decision,’ he said, and faltered, and went on, ‘but I love you, Katheeja. I love you. Do you love me?’
She said something quietly and to the rhododendron.
‘Then, please, please, let us talk to him. Perhaps the three of us could have coffee together…’
‘Inshallah,’ she said.
Later that summer, there was a special meeting of the Muslim community, organized by the Mubarikta family and the Arab students. It was staged. The Mubariktas appeared and installed themselves in the front row; an imam they’d invited from Vancouver led them in prayer, and delivered a righteous khutba about certain matters of propriety. There was an angry babble among the congregation, seated in rows on fresh sheets: Imagine an outsider showing up and telling us what Allah’s will is. The man is no imam. His card says he is a professional engineer. This is a liberal community. This is no Wahhabi gathering. Ali felt sick inside all the voices.
Katheeja gathered up the sheets, and was herself whisked through the door by her father and the other Mubariktas. Ali watched her go. He waited but a second; Ali crossed the carpet and, with the swift drop of a raptor, picked up the teardrop earring.
Since Khaled was in Mecca studying, someone else recited the Qur’an at the mosque; in fact, there were many reciters, and spirited arguments drawing on hadith to determine the rank in expertise of recitation; but Mr Mubarikta no longer supplied the next word if the reciter happened to forget. The pauses just became longer. Often the reciter would back up, recite the previous, intact verse, say Allahu akbar, and begin the bending, the prostrations. Mr Mubarikta did not say much to anyone. He slumped in a chair off to the side. He eventually stopped coming, and so did Katheeja.
The jinn ran swiftly up the studs, rafters and trusses on a roof no longer there, brilliant crimson notes and rests perched do-re-mi on an invisible staff.
Ali kneeled and beheld before him, suspended between blades of crabgrass, a wet and evanescent spider-web. The spider’s house is the flimsiest of houses, Ali recited, if ye but knew.
The spider vanished.
A year after Katheeja had said Inshallah to him, and Ali saw her from afar on campus, and ran and caught up to her. Her eyes were angry.
‘Where’s Khaled? Why doesn’t he come to visit anymore?’
But Katheeja kept on walking, past the fountain, into the crowd near the library doors, as if she didn’t see him, intent, in fact, on getting away from Ali.
A pressurized, rushing, explosive hiss from his burning house startled Ali, and his chest constricted in terror.
Khaled would have heard the faint drumming and trickling of the water, and, as it infiltrated and found the lower levels of the Great Mosque, he would have seen the wavy interplaying of lines of refraction on the ceiling, like nashkhi calligraphy, and mesmerized to insight by the beauty of the light, white, watery reflections, would have realized what was going to happen, and panicked, tried to escape, to get to higher ground.
You don’t know that, thought Ali.
Ali was walking in a small, loose circle in the driveway as the sun came up.
A car slowed, uncertain, and pulled in.
Katheeja got out, nodded once, and helped her father out of the back seat. He was old now, and walked heavily on his cane; his stubble was grey as his nubbly kalpak. She lifted a bulging Thrifty’s bag from the trunk and brought it to Ali.
‘News travels fast. We thought you might need these,’ she said.
He turned the shirts and pants over in his hands. He knew they were Khaled’s.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘It is our pleasure. We are Muslims,’ Katheeja said. ‘We believe in the unseen. We establish regular worship. We spend out of our Lord’s bestowal. I brought coffee.’
They stood before the lightly steaming, blackened ikhlas6 of Ali’s house and drank the coffee. Ali upturned a milk-crate for Katheeja’s father so he could sit.
1. The Unseen
2. ‘We come from Allah, and to Allah we shall return.’
3. ‘Fear naught but Allah’
4. Cf. Sura Al-Muzamilu, ‘Aw ziid alayhu wa ratil al-Qur’an taratilla’, ‘Or add to it a little and recite the Qur’an in a measured manner.’
5. My Brother
6. The Arabic word ikhlas refers to the dross produced in smelting metal, the essence, the irreducible; it is the name of the short, and closing, surah in the Qur’an that proclaims God’s unity.
Steve Noyes comes from Winnipeg, Canada, and is now living near Canterbury, where he is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. His current project, The Astral Plane, is about an early New Age religion and a famous Canadian UFO experience, among other things. His two previous novels are It is just that your house is so far away (Signature Editions, 2010) and November’s Radio (Oolichan Books, 2015).