In Amman, at the principal mosque of Wihdat Palestinian refugee camp, there is a man named Tarek Yousuf Al-Muhari. He is the imam, meaning holy man, who leads the Friday prayers. Tareq is widely read and deeply educated. He's even been to school in America, where he read all the assigned texts—even the ones that were haram, unclean—but was not unduly influenced by them. Which is to say, he didn't sin.
The people, Tarek imagines, are no longer as devout as they once were. He thinks about the Puritans, whose philosophy he had studied with great interest in America. In the time of Jonathan Edwards, the people, having become too secular, were persuaded back into the fold by sermons filled with threat and exhortation. The Great Awakening. In 1799 the president of Yale University, Timothy Dwight, found only a handful of students who professed a belief in God. His fiery homilies led to the Second Great Awakening, when frontier camp meetings brought evangelical religion to the violent rustic backcountry.
My people have also become too worldly, he thinks. Their lives are filled with commerce, lust, entertainment. We need an Awakening. Tarek wonders if his own words might have the power to spread piety across the impoverished backcountry of Jordan. Inshallah. God willing.
Tarek smiles in anticipation, but stops himself. He feels vanity spreading like fire in the desert brush. He sips Nescafe, a delicacy from America. Should I be enjoying this? he wonders. Holy men, and all God's children, are compelled to mortify the flesh, to fight off the transient needs of the body.
Tarek decides to think about something else. He picks up the Shihan weekly. Protests, demonstrations, Holy War in Palestine. He shakes his head. Dispirited, he puts the paper down.
At seventy-two, Tarek has never seen the world look so bad. His beard is long and white, but he has not found the wisdom to accept the world's imperfection. Feeling guilty, for sitting idly in a café, Tarek stands, leaves a few dinars on the edge of his saucer, and walks out. While moving toward the door, he snorts ambiguously at a young Arab reading The Jordan News, an English-language newspaper.
Being imam used to mean something, he sulks, remembering a time when he was treated with respect and Islam was more than a label for people to wear, like Armani or DKNY. He wonders if this is true, his memory, or if it's just the pessimism of an old man.
Tarek walks down the narrow winding streets of the city, where stone buildings have been cajoled into a bleached white by the domineering sun. Women in black abayas float quickly past, eyes to themselves, faces hidden behind artless burqas. There are momentary thoughts that disturb Tarek, who is surprised that time, or prayer, has not subdued his desire.
At the corner of Al Jazeera and a secondary street that has never been named, Tarek, quickening his step, moves down the tight dark alleyways where the sun cannot reach. Oily polluted water spills out from the tiny grocery stores and falafel stands. The smell is horrid and the building walls seem implausibly high. These are his people, Tarek thinks, his flock: sweaty Pakistani workers, barefoot, asleep in dilapidated vegetable carts; thin dubious men smoking in doorways, squalor etched into the dark furrows of their faces. He's never felt close to these people, never. This is something Tarek only reluctantly admits to himself. He wishes he did feel something paternal, affectionate, but he doesn't.
The imam used to lead armies into battle, into Jihad, a word that means cleansing. It comes from the Shiites, who were referring to the descendents of Ali. What do I do? Tarek asks himself. Where do I lead my people?
Turning the last corner of the alleyway, Tarek emerges into an empty square. He promises to take the longer way, avoiding the darker precincts, next time. He sees the plump Iranian mosque, painted indigo and white, the only building in the neighborhood without the harsh corners or right angles of the tenements, cafés and municipal offices. He looks up at the minaret, a pale thin arm reaching for the hand of God. Call-to-prayer—azzan—has begun. The shrill bark leaps, from tiny speakers mounted high on the minaret, then crawls through every street in the city. Tarek will soon lead his people in prayer.
Fewer men are responding to the call, and something in their eyes has changed. More of them are in Western clothes, Tarek thinks, which gives him pause. Is this a bad sign? Or is it like the European novels I read in college, which haven't hurt me? During prayer, Tarek is all but lost in these fears. He sees the men bent in two on their thin haggard mats. Later, outside the mosque, he sees hundreds of shoes arranged in neat pairs, pressed solemnly to the ground like their owners.
Men congregate on the sidewalk after the noontime prayer. The sun, at the height of his power, draws gray splotches of sweat on their backs and under their arms. They're cluttered in small earnest circles, arms waving frantically, dialogue overlapping. Tarek remembers, from childhood, heated arguments about theology and politics, dozens of men gathered in the small cramped store above which the family lived. His father Yousuf and his uncle Mahmoud would hold court several nights a week. The women made tea and prepared sheesha pipes for the men. Tarek never suspected that anything stronger was served. The men laughed and argued. They had long gray beards and serious faces. These men, today, seem younger and less experienced. Again, Tarek has some doubt regarding his memory.
"Assalam 'alaikoom, Imam Tarek."
Peace be upon you. Peace go with you, too. Tarek never forgets the literal meaning of this exchange, which is often mistranslated by foreigners—or misremembered by Arabs—as simply hello. God and peace, he constantly remembers, push themselves into most of our word and phrases. He wonders if other languages are like this. English, he knows, is not. Oh my God carries no spiritual resonance, not in America.
It takes several minutes for Tarek to understand what the screeching is about. Three sad-looking men had walked into the Palestine refugee camp, approaching the mosque. No one had seen the direction from which they came. They are now just a few meters away, standing under the branches of a fig tree. Tarek looks across the road and sees the men, sheepishly watching the ground beneath their feet. The men had been carrying a coffin, which is now draped in a red sheet. A relative died, these men explained. It was the dead man's final wish to have all his debts paid off before the burial. The men were too poor to fulfill the relative's wish, so they asked the worshippers to reach into their hearts for charity. The men were in evident pain as they asked for the money, 3000 dinars.
"What can we do?" one man asked, rhetorically. "He is not our relative. They are not our people, even. We have our own problems. God will help them."
"Inshallah." This was said by several men at the same time. It means "God willing" or, in the worldly sense, "maybe." God is summoned again, Tarek notices. But for what purpose? To accept responsibility for our actions, that's why. Even at his age, Tarek had worries about the Arabic language. God was summoned in every phrase. He can't decide whether it's reassuring or impertinent to evoke his name so often. So mechanically.
After ten minutes of quick angry speeches, which are almost entirely unconvincing, even to the speakers, it is decided that no money will be collected for the three sad-looking men. Someone adds, by way of emphatic punctuation, that one of the men looks like a shady character. The others agree.
Tarek is understandably forlorn. His people, the faithful, have turned from God's way and, Tarek admits, he may be partially to blame. Perhaps this is my time, he thinks, my opportunity to help the people and do God's work. Perhaps through the eloquence and fervor of my words, the worshippers will help these unfortunate men. Tarek recalls the grandiloquent sermons—jeremiads—of Puritan writers, who were able to mold the souls, and direct the actions, of entire communities. Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, Charles Grandison Finney. He remembers the names even if their writings are no more than vague shadows on his memory, faint stains that will never completely wash out. He also forgets the Puritans who were not converted, saved, persuaded: the ones banished into the New England wilderness for heresy or disobedience.
Tarek silences the crowd, which has grown to several dozen men. He straightens his robe and screws his face into a more formidable scowl. As he begins to speak, persuading the good people to help their fellow Muslims, Tarek steps outside of himself and observes the man who is speaking. His words are indeed godlike, which makes him smile. He's much older than Tarek would have guessed. He thinks of The Double, a short Russian novel he was once asked to read. The main character runs into himself on the streets of Petersburg and is ashamed of his second self. It's entirely different for Tarek. He looks better to himself than he ever would have imagined.
These glowing reviews of his own eloquence encourage Tarek's vanity, which unsettles him. In fact, he feels almost glad that a man has died because it gives Tarek the chance to save his flock. This raises a number of subtle juridical concerns. Tarek intends to consult Abdulazziz Faisal in Damascus, an expert on Islamic jurisprudence.
By the end of his speech—He has no idea how long he's been speaking. Ten Minutes? Twenty? Forty?—Tarek is lightheaded, trembling. He's not certain what he just said. The faithful are quite enthusiastic, however, and greet Tarek with applause and robust handshakes. Within moments, a small leather bag is passed from hand to hand. They collect 4000 dinars, which is more than enough. Everyone has become deeply moved by the sudden reversal in feeling, by their own virtue and the relief of a moral tragedy that has been narrowly averted. The three sad-looking men are called over, a prayer is led by Imam Tarek, and the money is offered. The three men look as though they've seen a ghost, eyes flitting uncertainly across the crowd.
Later, during the evening prayer, Tarek is still thinking about the dramatic events of the afternoon and, in particular, his own role in them. There was one course that he truly loved at the American university. Classical Theater and Poetics. They had studied Greek tragedy and its structure for three months, spending many weeks on Oedipus. Tarek still remembers the word peripeteia, from Aristotle, who refers to a sudden reversal of situation.
Outside the mosque, Tarek lingers a bit longer than usual, perhaps half-consciously waiting for more kind words about his speech. Or maybe he only wants to sustain this new intimacy with the people, something he's never felt. He walks confidently toward a small group of men, who then greet him with respect and admiration. They are discussing the three sad-looking men, who seem to have disappeared. Their relative's coffin is still lounging beneath the fig tree, a fact that Tarek verifies with a casual glance.
What should be done? The burial services must begin. The men look to Tarek for answers. Perhaps it is his silence, or maybe something he betrays with a gesture, but the men grow increasingly suspicious. Three young men with thick dark beards rush across the road and tear the lid from the coffin. Inarticulate shouts tell the imam that something is wrong. There's no body: a large tree trunk reclines in the coffin.
Tarek thinks of another word, also from Aristotle: anagnorisis. The word means recognition, signifying a change from ignorance to knowledge. The most subtle and effective kind of recognition comes with a reversal as well. Oedipus would be the prime example. After recognizing that he is the very murderer he has been seeking, Oedipus scratches out his eyes and stops looking for the guilty man. He finds the guilty man in himself, his unknown double.
The men turn, with almost perfect choreography, toward their imam. There is a fire, a hatred, in their eyes that Tarek has never seen. He remembers a local man, five years ago, who discovered that his wife had been sleeping with someone else. The husband gathered a dozen of his closest friends and beat the other man to death with clubs and rocks. Tarek squints, blocking the sun which has grown more intolerable as it sets behind the mosque, then turns his eyes to the ground.
©2003 by Andrew Madigan
Andrew Madigan has been working his way around the world for the last few years -- Korea, Tokyo, Okinawa, UAE, exotic Northwest Ohio. He's published fiction and poetry in The North America Review and other journals, and serves as poetry editor of The Arabia Review. He's currently seeking representation for his novel, Khawla's Wall, which is about culture, power, and identity in Dubai.