In August of the year 2—, as a freelance journalist, I was granted unprecedented access to a brigade of Islamic fighters in northern ————. Why they took me in I do not know. It was effectively suicidal, and I had resigned myself to death, or at best, severe psychological and bodily injury. During my five day assignment, they treated me as they would a leper, keeping their distance though it was clear they disdained me. Their reluctant acceptance was in part due to the individual under whose care I was placed: a unique man by the name of Farid Adhuka Al-Amit, an Arab who spoke fluent English in a common, yet awkward American accent. He was a high ranking officer in the ———— province of the organization which calls itself ————. Although other fighters threatened and harassed me, Adhuka Al-Amit insulated me from their advances. He was a tall man, thin and sinewy with a sharp featured and ambiguous face: not quite male, nor quite human. He was bald with a long beard that stretched to the top of his chest, upon which he wore a black shirt and a khaki ammunition pouch, four pockets abreast. Clipped to the pouch was a long blade of Damascus steel with which he frequently pared his fingernails. His hands were never calloused and were very clean. He wore camouflaged pants and heavy military boots. I never saw him dressed any other way, day or night.
In the following account, I relate as nearly as I can remember the words of Al-Amit as he lie dying from multiple gunshot wounds to the abdomen received while fighting ———— on the final day of my assignment. Following his death, I immediately left the mujahideen, for fear that without the protection of Al-Amit, some misfortune would befall me.
In his last minutes, during which he was in a semi-delirious, yet highly lucid state, he recounted the supposed events of an unknown morning now lost to us. I had no reason to disbelieve any of the information he stated. But since, I have become highly skeptical for reasons I will share in time. Therefore I relate this story not as journalism, but as novelty—or perhaps as something more like a confession.
The following has been compiled with the help of short hand notes taken during the interview as I was unable to access any recording equipment during the firefight. What follows are, to the extent of my ability to recall and comprehend them, the final earthly words of Adhuka Al-Amit:
Perhaps you should like me to tell you how I grew up? How I once ran happy through the streets in a Western city, enjoyed school and friends. How I had a good family, how we had tea every afternoon together around an old pine table. And then I am sure you should like to know how I find myself dying here?
But none of that concerns us directly. That story is of no significance in this present moment—the moment in which we exist together. So I shall tell you about a morning that occurs for me every moment. On this morning, I met a man named Father Timothy Erent, and I, Farid Adhuka Al-Amit, killed him.
I and the mujahideen of my brigade walked into the village of Al-Bonby as the sun rose over the dunes. I went alone into Father Erent’s room. The desert winds blew like needles through the open windows. A cross carved into the earthen wall was painted red by the morning light. I peeled my eyes from the cross and I saw him then: he slept atop a table—simple in its structure, circular, beaten and worn. He seemed to be suspended above it, for I could see the table’s circumference in its entirety: its unfinished edges, its blotchy and stained surface where he ate, slept, and lived.
People shouted on the streets, and I was broken from my meditation upon the table. The shouts turned into the sliding of steel bolts in steel chambers, the harsh crack of unloaded rounds. Father Erent awoke and the winds stopped. I stood within Father Erent. The red morning light encircled us: a vaporous warmth that pulled at my insides.
“Rise Father,” I said to him in English, for I knew that he would understand that language. “ Come with me. We have much to do today.”
The winds wiped away the margins of my being, spreading them across the land, mixing them with the dissolving margins of Erent beside me. And all was dragged to an eternal point beyond my mind.
We walked. The priest wore only thin linen pants and shirt. Beyond the last street of the village, in the dunes of the desert, a black flag was planted.
Father Erent still had not said a word. I halted him, and squared myself to him. He looked up at me, and I looked deeply into his eyes then, but I received nothing. It was as though he could see something through me. I hesitated before stealing a glance behind me, expecting to find something there, either man or jinn. But there was nothing. I did not like to think of what he saw, so I put the butt of his rifle into his face, just above the lip, sending shards of teeth and trickles of blood down his front.
“We have much to do my friend,” I said again, for I felt uneasy in his presence.
We continued walking. The mujahideen, masked and fatigued, pushed along women, children, men old and young. Every few moments, a burst of gunfire split the air and the concussions would carry over the rising and falling dunes. Some were dragged by their collars or legs, some were knocked unconscious, then dragged, others were humiliated and struck until they walked upon their own feet.
I, Adhuka Al-Amit, placed the priest upon the end of the line which was made up of some thirty takfir in all. A young girl was beside him. He knew her. She was a woman of poor reputation, and it was said that she had feelings for the priest. I placed her there to torture Erent. She cried. I hated her as well.
Before the villagers was a ditch—shallow, some two feet wide and two feet deep. They all kneeled before their grave. I, Adhuka Al-Amit, walked to the far end of the line, away from the priest, and commanded the onset of the killing.
“Make sure they are all dead,” I said. “Do not be afraid to use the ammunition. Allah will provide,” I said.
I walked several paces down the line and stood before an old man who spat curses at us over a drooped and aged shoulder. I leveled my firearm, sending two rounds into his head, two into his limp back. In the sand, a swooping arc of bone showed at the front of his face. Blood, like poured water, pooled about his head, flowing from an eternal source within him. It came from his eyes, the ragged holes in his body, his nostrils.
I returned to the priest. “Why don’t you pray priest? Will your Christ save you here?”
I wanted to humiliate him. I wanted to show him the worthlessness of his godman.
A tooth fell from his mouth. He spit it into the pit with a glob of blooded saliva. He leaned forward and looked down the firing line. The bodies fell weakly, more force behind them than in front. Limbs, feet, heads, torsos hung awkwardly out of the pit. The mujahideen kicked them in.
“I do pray, though my eyes are not closed, though the body does not bow, though my hands are not clasped. I do pray.”
I, Adhuka Al-Amit, called him a fool, kicked him squarely in the ribs, seeking his kidney. I wanted it to burst. I wanted for his insides to bleed, so that when I shot him in his torso, the blood would come out like falling water.
“I need not bow in order to pray,” he continued. “God does not mind the position of my body. I need not close my eyes. The sands are just as beautiful as the pink of my eyelids. I pray in all that I do my friend. And Christ will not save me from this body’s death, I know. So I need not ask for divine intervention. The divinity already intervenes within each moment. How could we exist otherwise? All things of the world—the bullets, the blood, the tears and pain among them—are in God’s hands. What more could I pray for?”
I delivered a sharp blow to his kidney again. I wanted so badly to burst an organ within him. The sands seemed to slip sideways then, and I grabbed hold of Erent’s shoulder to steady myself. I looked at the sun, which had not moved since I entered Al-Bonby, and the twisting memory of an old black and white television feature flashed in my mind. I pushed it away, and pulled my hand from his shoulder, embarrassed at its presence upon him.
“All is in God’s hands?” I said, returning to the torture at hand. “You fool. The world is unfit for reverence—the bullets, the blood, the tears, and the pain—all unfit for reverence. There are those like you who would destroy the laws of the Prophet, who would blaspheme the divine name of Allah himself by giving filth a sacred name.”
I drew my knife at this time. There was something under my fingernail that disturbed me.
I continued, “But there are those who fight for what is pure. I am a perfect agent: a faithful servant of Allah. I feel within me what Allah asks of me. If it is death, then so be it. If it is killing, then so be it. If it is life, then so be it. I am a divine instrument that acts according to the will of Allah.”
“No. You are no agent.” This is what he said. “No. You are no agent,” he said.
I pared my nails, and from under one of them, I pulled what looked like a fragment of bone.
“Then what am I?” I asked, for I was truly interested in what he would label me: terrorist, ignoramus, a lost soul in need of salvation? But I did not let him answer. My need to humiliate him rose up. “You, priest, are a fool. Your Christ has wasted the once pristine face of the earth. Yours is fool’s wisdom that worships at dung piles and destroys the lives of the true believers of Allah.”
He said nothing. I replaced my knife in its scabbard and again experienced the sliding of the sands and the glimpse of the old black and white images. The girl beside him prayed. I told her to pray to the Prophet. She did. I told Erent that the girl is more faithful than he, that she submits to Allah as one should. I said it simply and spitefully: as though Allah had marked my words with a kiss in Paradise. He spit into the pit again, and the darkened spot held his gaze. His teeth were stained a reddish brown from the sacramental wine. Then he smiled, an innocent smile despite the bloody fragments within his split mouth.
“You are no agent—you do not act on behalf of the Divinity,” Erent said. “You are much more than that. You are a pure Manifestation of the Divine: a Fragment of the Universe: a Mask which God wears,” he said. He looked again at his bloody excretion, a glob of red and foamy white the size of a coin, heaped up in a small disc upon the sands. He gazed deeply at it, as though it would come alive and bless him and free him from me. And I realized why he looked so lovingly at a putrid ball of spittle. He believed it to be of the same stuff that he saw me of: matter invested with spirit, perceived by mind.
I recoiled at this dishonor, and my hand once more lowered to his shoulder. I stood confused. I lifted my rifle and turned into him with all of the rage that I could confer upon him, hoping to kill him by blunt force. The rifle butt tore downward into his skull, just above the ear. He keeled over sideways as though dead for a moment, then rose softly back to his knees before bowing forward and awkwardly propping himself up and off of his heels, as though suspended from his shoulders by strings. His hand lifted with a twitch toward the flap of flesh that hung from the side of his head. His fingertips grazed what remained of his ear, then he dropped his hand to his side. The blood swam from the wound in dividing flows, weaving tiny diamonds of flesh across his forehead. The flows came together between his eyes and streamed thickly down the bridge of his nose before falling to the thirsty sand before him.
“This is my blood,” I heard him whisper softly.
“A mask?” I asked indignantly. “You fail to understand me priest. I am an agent of Allah, perfect in my submission to him, perfect in my understanding of my role, perfect in my execution of it.”
The sunlight slid the sands beneath me. I felt something like fear. I sought to absolve myself of the charge he had placed upon me.
“You are the masked fool: the court jester who entertains the ghost of a man who claims to live despite death. You are the liar. You claim celibacy while eyeing the breasts of the girl beside you. You claim chastity while reddening your teeth with the sacramental wine. And you are a fool. You claim brotherhood while preaching hate to my people.”
I paused, in the hopes that the sands would not slide out from beneath me, that my words were enough to remove the mask which Erent had placed upon me. I needed to deny Erent his value in order to reclaim mine, but the swimming memories of the black and white show found their way into my consciousness.
“The Three Stooges. You are like them: pitiful fools parading around a false world, speaking false words, using false tools, striking out against everyone around you, botching every opportunity, playing to an audience which laughs at your foolishness. You blaspheme Allah with every word, every action, every moment of your failed existence.”
I scoffed at him then, and offered him a drink of water, knowing he would refuse. I kicked him on the side of his head. He keeled slightly, then returned to his rigid, suspended position. At this moment, a mujahideen brought a young man from the village. The young man had fought valiantly and had killed one man in the struggle. The mujahideen placed him at the end of the line, after the priest.
“Do not put him at the end,” I said. “I want the priest to be the last.”
I picked up the young man and forced him to the other side of the ditch, across from Erent.
“Keep your eyes open Father,” I said.
I drew my knife and placed it to the young man’s throat. I cut through the sinews, severing skin and muscle before finding difficulty in his vertebrae. I could not find a way through. I shoved his twitching body forward into the pit. His head spun savagely and fell against the chest of the priest, leaving a stain of darkness down his front. From the ditch, the young man’s partially severed head looked upward, straight into Father Erent’s eyes. I had hoped the spectacle would annihilate him, that he would break apart before me, pleading for his life. Instead, he watched with a distance that shook me.
He continued to stare at the lifeless matter before him. I felt a twisting in the thing that encircled us all. The frozen morning light fell upon the white sands. I looked down at the man I had just killed and my gaze was held. A spirit still hung about the foggy irises, the steaming blood, the confused death’s mask. The spirit flowed outward from the corpse, pervasive within each fragment of matter, each grain of sand, each shell casing, each stitch of the black flag. I tried to drop to my knees and bow in prayer, but I could not.
“You disturb me priest,” I confessed to him. “You remind me of that one stooge, the Jew. He is just like you. What was his name?” I asked.
“Larry,” he said. “Fine.”
“Yes. He looked as though he knew something important. He seemed to be outside of each scene, or beyond it, as though he were seeing things in a different way. You have that same look now priest. I do not like it.”
The distance fell out of his eyes then. It was the first time that I felt as though he were looking at what was in front of him.
“There is something about fools you fail to see,” he said. “When the fool knows he is a fool, he becomes something more. He becomes both actor and audience. He becomes both fool and sage, stooge and scholar, sinner and sacred, alive and dead, existent and non-existent. Have you not felt the sands below you and above? The sunlight spreading over the horizon and frozen in time?”
The frozen sun arched across the sky, and the sands slid below me and rose at the horizon. And he spoke again.
“The same faith I have in the spirit of the cosmos, I have in the flesh of the world. Eternity is merely a moment, worthy of all that is possible within it: pain and bliss, joy and hate, life and death. No matter your choices Al-Amit, you cannot mar the divinity. Though you hate in this eternity, you will also love.”
The sky was black by this point, covered by the sands that climbed in thick pillars around me, defying gravity, challenging the laws of reality. And the sun burned fiercely in the blackness, a burning circular orb with margins blurring outward, burning the rising sands to glass.
And through this chaos, the firing line came closer. A mujahideen fired a single shot into the head of the girl beside the priest. Her blood spray went into my mouth. It was very warm. She was beautiful. I felt sorry that she was dead. I looked at her corpse in the pit. The shot had folded her skull in upon itself, forming a grotesque scalp that made her look like Moe Howard, and I choked upon a pitiful laugh.
“Farewell Father Erent,” I said.
I felt as if I pulled the trigger for a million years. But only three bullets went into his head. The warmth in my insides swam upward and the sandy sphere that encircled the world collapsed upon itself, leaving only the edges of the sun that now burned with a fiery blackness. And the desert, the flag, the blood, the violence fell away into that darkened hole of my mind, through which I could follow the path of the three projectiles that killed Father Timothy Erent.
And then I sat at the round table which had four seats arranged about it. The table’s edges were rough, the square legs straight, and the stained top imperfect. Across from me sat Father Timothy Erent. To my left was the girl who once kneeled beside him. To my right was an individual whose face was covered by a mask of red and white harlequin diamonds. We sat quietly for some moments with joined hands. Erent asked if he might say a blessing. I accepted gratefully.
“O Thou, who art the Thinker, Maker, and Creator of the universe, build with Thine ownself the Existence, for Thine divine message of love, harmony, and beauty. Amen.”
In through the door walked the stooge, Larry Fein. He entered without surprise, a broad and childish smile across his face. He stepped to me, leaned down, and kissed me upon the cheek. I looked upon the table, full in its circumference, and Father Erent laid atop it as though he were sleeping. Larry Fein took Erent’s seat. The fourth remained unoccupied.
It was then that I became unsure of what is happening. I do not know whether I stand in a room, lost in meditation upon a round table with square legs—or if I sleep in peace upon the same table. I do not know whether I rouse a man who I will kill in the desert under a black flag—or if I am killed by him. I do not know who I am: Farid Adhuka Al-Amit or Father Timothy Erent, or the beautiful girl or the masked jester. Perhaps I am another, and another is me.
He struggled through this last memory, then Adhuka Al-Amit died. My only protector had perished, and I realized my vulnerability among the mujahideen. I gathered my things and just a few hours after his death, I departed the battle lines, sneaking out of the country by bribery and secrecy.
Upon my return home, I set to work to substantiate the story told to me by Adhuka Al-Amit. But I have been unable to determine the veracity of the story despite my best efforts. Thinking back on my days with Adhuka Al-Amit, the events tend to swim through my mind: memories, dreams, and thoughts folded together, over and over like the Damascus steel of his knife.
I have not been able to verify the location of the village called Al-Bonby. No record of this name exists in government records, nor in any contemporary or historical records. I have not even been able to verify the identity of the individual called Father Timothy Erent. No such name exists in the records of any aide organization or religious group, nor in any local or regional records. I did discover one document dating to 1956 which discusses the role of a certain Jesuit priest by the name of Tim Erent who helped to open a home for orphaned boys and was later accused of molestation by a number of the boys he vowed to protect. I believe there is no connection to Al-Amit’s Father Timothy Erent however.
Lastly, I have, in the months following my return home, dared to contact several fighters who were with me the day Adhuka Al-Amit died. All but one of them refused to talk with me. The one individual who spoke to me, tersely and without kindness, does not recall a man by the name of Farid Adhuka Al-Amit, nor does he recall any tall, ambiguous faced individuals who carried a blade of Damascus steel.
Not only do I now doubt the existence of Father Erent and the village of Al-Bonby, but I also doubt the existence of Adhuka Al-Amit. I find it difficult to place myself within the events I have recorded above. They swim in a vertiginous orb of metaphysical experience. And now, reluctantly, I turn over a new thought within this mind, and I find myself contemplating the same questions as Farid Adhuka Al-Amit. I am unsure of who I am: perhaps I am another, and another is me.
Originally published in Sand Hills, the literary journal of Augusta University.