Helen took Nargis to the bazaar to buy new linens for the summer.
‘We won’t buy anything with a vivid pattern,’ Helen said. ‘You didn’t get anything last year either. What you have on is looking quite worn out.’
There were more than a dozen fabric sellers that they visited at various times of the year. They were known to the sellers, and as soon as they entered a shop they were brought tea or cold drinks. The shops were of various sizes, and fabrics were unwound from bolts in great lengths before them. Two and a half yards of material were required for a kameez. Two and a half yards for a shalwar. The dupattas were bought white and taken to dyers, who were given a swatch of the shalwar-kameez fabric, which they would attach with a safety pin to the dupatta. In a week they would have created a colour that matched the swatch, using tiny spoons to mix pigments, sodas, salts and other chemicals, and would have coloured the dupatta with it.
‘This is the second time I have brought back this veil,’ a customer was saying to the dyer’s apprentice when Helen and Nargis arrived. ‘It still doesn’t match.’
‘I’ll do it right this time,’ said the uneven-toothed teenager. ‘Leave it to me.’
‘Are you saying it’ll be done right this time?’
‘Is that a yes or a no?’
‘It’s an inshallah,’ he said, making sure his employer wasn’t nearby to witness the insolence.
The customer sighed. ‘It’s not even mine, it’s my aunt’s.’
‘Tell her to come herself,’ he suggested, waving a blue hand her way.
‘She is eighty years old.’
‘She cares a lot about colours for someone that age.’
The radio was on. It was one o’clock, and the news told them that the mother of one of the motorcyclists who were shot by the American man had died. The battery acid she had ingested as a protest against the American’s probable release had finally killed her.
Nargis and Helen handed their dupattas to the dyer and walked back to Nargis’s car. After Nargis drove away Helen went towards Urdu Bazaar, and as she walked she was aware of examining the backs of certain young men, wondering if they might be Imran, something in the hair or some aspect of the physique reminding her of him. Once she even slowed down at the thought that she had glimpsed him in a shop on the other side of the bazaar. She thought about crossing over – perhaps some hint of his true identity would be revealed if she watched him – but then she dismissed the thought and continued towards her appointment.
At the age of eight, Helen had begun to publish Badami Bagh’s only newspaper. The Daily Monthly. It came out once a month and consisted of four 11 x 7 inch sheets in full colour. The ideas for the stories, the reporting and the writing of them, and the accompanying photographs, were her responsibility. Her editors were Nargis and Massud, who also did the typing, layout and printing.
Now, once every two or three weeks, she visited the offices of one of Zamana’s current affairs magazines – the monthly Tilla Jogian. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen she had contributed thirty short sketches to its children’s section. And six months ago she had begun to write for its adult book pages.
Sitting in his plastic chair beside the glass door, the guard recognised her and nodded. The magazine had received threats regarding some of its content, and his AK-47 was resting across his lap.
‘I love this country.’ A girl Helen knew came down a staircase with a sheet of paper in her hands. She held it up for Helen to see. ‘This advertisement just came in, for next month’s issue.’
It was for a department store and was made to look like a Missing Persons notice, carrying the photograph of a handsome young man.
Our Dearest Romeo – Please return home.
We, your loving family, have decided to accept both your demands.
You can marry Juliet.
And your wedding clothes will be purchased from The Samarqand Department Store.
Helen and the girl held each other’s eye for a moment, gave a smile, and in unison uttered the two sentences that had been repeated so many times over the years:
‘There is no lack of talent in this country. All we lack is decent leaders.’
Monkeys dressed in satin frocks dancing to Hindi film songs; twelve people sharing a car; a backwoods teenager attaining one of the highest grades in an international university entrance exam; poems that made the reader feel the poet had sent his soul into the world through his pen – the two sentences could be employed on any number of diverse occasions.
The girl asked Helen if she knew where she might have passport photographs taken, and she told her there was a place next to McDonald’s in Soldiers’ Bazaar, ten minutes away.
When Helen entered the main office, it was a quarter to two. Black and white portraits of Wamaq Saleem and Fyodor Dostoevsky were thumb-tacked to the wall above the literary editor’s desk. The cubicles were emptying because the magazine’s editorial meeting was about to begin, fourteen staff members slowly making their way towards a door at the back – carrying cups of tea and notebooks, balancing open laptops, pens gripped between teeth – and Helen agreed when she was asked if she would like to sit in. Ten minutes later the guard at the door was overpowered by six hooded men. They forced him to go through the glass entrance at gunpoint and there one of them shot him in the stomach and proceeded to decapitate him while he was still alive.
The men and women in the meeting room heard the shots but they thought it was a firecracker.
When the gunmen walked into the meeting, one of them was carrying the severed head of the guard. Helen was not there: just a few moments earlier she had entered the adjoining utility room to prepare a cup of tea for herself.
After the initial screams had died down, Helen heard a voice call out the name of the magazine’s editor, asking him to identify himself. The door between the two rooms was ajar and the only way out was through the meeting room; she was trapped. She stood still as she listened, not knowing how many intruders there were. Hearing just the voices.
‘So you are the editor?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘You are responsible for everything that is published in this magazine, am I right?’
‘Ultimately it is you who decides whether an article will or will not appear in the pages? Am I correct? Nothing can be published in the magazine without your being aware of it?’
‘Yes, you are right.’
‘Do you see all the letters and messages the magazine receives from readers?’
‘If they are important they are shown to me.’
‘If they are important?’
‘Would a letter about the true and false nourishments of the soul, as outlined by the verses of the Holy Koran, be considered important enough to be shown to you?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, but I imagine it would be.’
‘You don’t know what I mean when I refer to the verses of the Holy Koran?’
‘That’s not what I said.’
‘OK. I’ll be precise. Would a letter asking you to print a strongly worded editorial in condemnation of the disgraceful French and Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, be considered important enough to be seen by you?’
‘Yes, it would.’
‘Do you remember receiving such a letter seven months ago?’
‘I think I do.’
‘Good. A man must know the precise reasons for his death. And do you remember turning down a paid advertisement from a group of religiously concerned persons that condemned those blasphemous cartoons? That was three months ago. After you refused to act on the first letter, and several others that followed it, it was decided that we could buy a page in your magazine to express our grief and outrage at the cartoons.’
‘I turned down that advertisement. Because it didn’t match the overall nature of our magazine.’
‘What does match the overall nature of your magazine? You can print pictures of near-naked women, print lessons on lust and greed. You can write that history has to be understood as a result of human actions rather than the will of God. You can print an advertisement from a phone company before Mother’s Day that reads, “Because God couldn’t be everywhere, He created mothers,” without realising how shockingly disrespectful it is to suggest that God is not omnipotent. All because a phone company wants to generate more money for its foreign owners. Tell me, did you know that it was in France in the year 1095 that the First Crusade was declared by Pope Urban II?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘Good. You see, I am not one of those uneducated Muslims you have to share this country with, and who you can look down on with ease and pride. Have you ever been to France?’
‘Well, I have. I lived as an immigrant in a number of Western countries. You have no idea how your beloved secular world treats our fellow Muslims. My wife was spat on by men on three separate occasions because she wore a burqa. We are treated like scum all across the Western countries, worse than dogs, and when we complain we are told we are inventing grievances, that what we have is scars without wounds.’
‘What exactly is the meaning of all this? What do you want?’
‘You don’t know what we want?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Every time a true Muslim carries out a revenge attack against the injustices done to him and his fellow Muslims, half the world throws up its hands and asks, “Why are they doing it?” The attackers leave handwritten messages, they record statements in front of video cameras, outlining their precise reasons. And yet the world insists on saying, “We don’t know why they are doing it, we don’t understand why they are doing it.” Do you know what such people are really asking?’
‘They are asking, “Why aren’t they ignoring the injustices done to those they love?” They are asking, “Why aren’t they ignoring – the way we are – the fact that this world has become a Hell for everyone who lives here?” That is what they are really asking.
‘Our magnificent brother in Boston lay wounded in a boat after carrying out the marathon bombing, while the American policemen searched for him everywhere, and he wrote messages on the walls of the boat with blood – his own blood. Get out of Iraq, he wrote. Get out of Afghanistan. All this will stop when you stop killing and humiliating Muslims. But what did America and the world say afterwards? “If only we knew why he did it!” They say they can insult our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, because they have the right to say what they want. But their right to drink wine does not mean I have to let them empty their bladders on me an hour later. Does it?’
‘No, it doesn’t.’
‘What is this thing called freedom of speech? Can anyone call the queen of England a filthy name? If the president of France was standing there with his mother one day and I walked up and called her a disgusting name, once, twice, three times – again and again – would the president get angry? Would he be justified in hitting me?’
‘Yes he absolutely would be justified! He should rip out my tongue. You would say he is a civilised man, that as a civilised man he would just ignore me. Really? If I followed him and his mother and abused her constantly, for a day, two days, three days, a year, two years, a decade, two decades, a century – how long would his civility last? Would he eventually turn around and hit me? Then why is it all right to constantly abuse our Prophet, peace be upon him, whom we love more than our mothers and fathers, more than life itself?’
‘If you followed someone around for two decades, abusing them, that would make you a madman.’
‘There you go! See? See? You are not stupid after all. They are mad. They are mad. You are absolutely right. Power and privilege have made them mad – they think they can abuse us without consequence.’
‘I still don’t see what you want from us.’
‘I want you to tell me what your magazine’s cover story is this month.’
‘It’s a story about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.’
‘It’s a story about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and how you think they should be repealed.’
‘The laws are being misused. You can go to a police station and say I heard my neighbour say something rude about God or Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the police arrest the neighbour and you can move into his house. Innocent people are dead or in jail because of that law. Entire Christian neighbourhoods have been reduced to ashes by mobs accusing Christians of blasphemy. Just last week a Christian couple was thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln by a mob, for blasphemy.’
‘That has nothing to do with the blasphemy law.’
‘Yes, it does. People think they have the support of the state, they feel emboldened.’
In the next room Helen made herself take the first step towards her phone. She was trying hard to remember how far away the nearest police station was.
‘It doesn’t mean that the blasphemy law should be repealed, that you can call it “a black law”. That just means people who misuse the law should be held accountable. Now, I will test your intelligence and knowledge with a simple question before showing you and the rest of the people in this room what we want. Tell me, do you know the name Amir Abdur Rehman Cheema?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘I thought so. Amir Abdur Rehman Cheema, may God grant him entry into Paradise, was born on 4 December 1977 and died twenty-eight years later on 3 May 2006. His death anniversary will be next month. May God grant him entry into Paradise, as I said. He went to study textile engineering in Germany, and one day he walked into the offices of the German newspaper Die Welt with a large knife and attempted to murder one of the editors, Roger Köppel, for reprinting the blasphemous Norwegian cartoons of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. He was arrested and, on 3 May 2006, while awaiting trial, he was found dead in his prison cell. The Germans said they found a suicide note but there should be no doubt in any true Muslim heart that he was tortured to death. Initially Germany refused to hand over his body but when there was outrage from the people of Pakistan the body was returned to us.’
‘I do remember the incident now, yes, I had just forgotten his precise name. We wrote about it.’
‘What did you write?’
For the next few moments there was silence. Helen had sent a text message to the girl who had gone to Soldiers’ Bazaar and was waiting for her reply.
‘What did you write? Would I be right in thinking that you condemned Amir Abdur Rehman Cheema’s actions?’
‘I don’t see what you hope to accomplish by any of this.’
‘Would I be right in thinking that you condemned Amir Abdur Rehman Cheema’s actions, you son of a dog? First of all, the fact that you didn’t immediately know who he was says something about you. One hundred thousand Pakistanis attended his funeral in fifty-degree heat, but I am absolutely sure that every single person in this room looked down on those hundred thousand people, calling them morons or terrorist-sympathisers – they who each had a living conscience. You belittled him in your pages, don’t think I don’t know. Some months later his parents were invited onto a television show, and you ridiculed the hostess for breaking into tears and kissing their hands and seeking their blessings, lauding them for being the parents of such a great man. The fact that you can print interviews with Indian actors and actresses without caring how India brutalises our Kashmiri brothers and sisters, without caring how India and Israel plotted to bomb Pakistan’s nuclear assets in the 1980s – that says something about you. The fact that you can ridicule the idea of djinns, when djinns are in fact mentioned unequivocally in the Holy Koran as one of God’s creations – that says something about you. And it’s something I don’t like. Now say your prayers and die, you infidel.’
In the stillness that followed the gunfire and the screams Helen heard sobbing and laboured breathing.
‘Tell me, who finances your atheism?’
‘We are not atheists.’
‘Of course, you are not atheists. You’d call yourselves “moderate Muslims”, I’m sure. Well, let me tell you something, you revolting Godless bastard, we are not the kind of ridiculous Muslims who say Islam is compatible with the modern world. No. There is only one place where Islam and the modern world can meet – and that’s the battlefield. The modern world forces women to behave like prostitutes and forces men into avarice, into unreasonable acts. Look around you – there is no justice in Pakistan, no food for our people, no clean water, no medicine. Is it Islam’s fault? No, it’s the fault of the modern world, and the corrupt swine who preside over it, both here and in the West. Under Islam everyone will be fed, everyone will be provided for, everyone will have protection. So when Islam says thieves must have their hands cut off, Islam is right, because under Islam no one will have any real need to become a thief. Only the wicked will turn to theft – and they will be taught a lesson.’
The girl had texted back to say that she had contacted the police, just as Helen heard gunfire from the room again. The cries of fear were much more subdued now – they were those of people who had accepted their fate, gone into deep shock. Or perhaps there were too few people left.
‘This unjust and cruel world calls Muhammad, peace be upon him, a bad man, he who said, “A labourer must be paid his wages before the sweat on his body has evaporated.” Does that sound like a bad man to you, a man unworthy of respect?’
‘Ali, the glorious companion of our Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “If a hungry man steals, do not cut off his hand – cut off the hand of the ruler of his country.” Does that sound like a bad thing to you?’
‘Who wrote the cover story?’
‘We have nothing but our God and our Prophet, peace be upon him, and you want to take that away from us too? Which accursed wretch came up with the term “A black law”?’
‘Who . . .’
The man stopped speaking and for the next few moments there was absolute silence, and then Helen saw the door to her room slowly begin to open wider. She saw the barrel of the rifle that was being used to push it. The man holding the rifle took a few steps and came into view. His eyes were downcast – Helen looked and saw the trickle of blood advancing slowly along the floor. It had come out of the other room and had been passing through the door towards her without her knowing. Finally drawing their attention to the room. She and the man raised their eyes at the same time and stood looking at each other, the phone clutched in her hands. Though only his eyes were visible, he seemed possessed.
The above is an excerpt from Nadeem Aslam’s The Golden Legend, available now from Faber & Faber.
Photograph © Usman Malik