Playing with the Clouds by Iraqi writer Ali Bader

Ali Bader Arabic Literature Today
Ali Bader

Chapter from the novel
Translated by Ikram Masmoudi

1

In the evening, Nabil got in touch with his father to inform him of his decision to leave the country by night, tonight, with the help of one of the smugglers. The father did not spare any effort to discourage him of this dangerous idea, telling him that he wouldn’t be able to find happiness in exile. He reminded him of the case of one of his relatives who lived in America for a long time, became a car dealer at the famous Buick dealership, and after the American occupation of the country and despite the many risks returned home, back to Iraq. He opened a shop for Yves Saint Laurent products and other French perfumes, only to shut it down soon after that, when he saw that the merchandise was not selling at all after the war. The man tried one or two stores in two different places, selling women luxury handbags—Hermes, Luis Vitton, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, Celine, Michael Cors, and other brands pervading the feminine world since the nineteethn century. But things did not work out as he expected. And after he realized that people had completely turned away from these luxury items, he opened another big store in Karrada Street, selling expensive Iranian prayer rugs.
“What do you mean by this?” Nabil asked his father.
“What I mean, to put it simply, is you won’t find comfort there.”
“Why do you think like this?”
“ I know that you will take risks; then you will get tired and come back.”
“That won’t happen.”
“In the begining, everyone says the same thing.”
“Why?”
“In simple words, you won’t find a good life there.”
“How do you know?”
“All those who left came back.”
“They came back . . . ha ha ha,” Nabil said, laughing.
After a short silence, his father pursued with a confident tone: “If you are going to come back why would you leave in the first place?”
“ I won’t come back.”
“Listen to my advice.”
“What’s your advice?”
“You won’t find there the life you dream of!”
“Where do you think I will find it? Here?” he asked sarcastically .
“At least here you know the conditions. You know the people well, the character, the language, life.”
“Life?”
“Yes! Life.”
“What does life mean to you? I don’t find any kind of life here.”
“What do you mean by saying you don’t find any life here?”
“I cannot convince you, and I doubt we share the same idea about life.”
“I don’t think we will disagree about life’s meaning.”
“We do disagree!”
“What do you mean?”
“ I mean . . . ”
“Tell me what you mean.”
“I don’t mean anything! I am leaving today. That’s it!”
***
He hung up the phone feeling a little bit saddened. He finished gathering the stuff he was going to take with him, in particular his music sheets and two important books—one on harmony and a popular book about the relation between the Beatles and postmodern theory.
Nabil’s father, who had witnessed the golden era of the sixties and seventies, was unable to understand his changing character. His uncle, who had studied in Russia during the heyday of the relationship between Iraq and the Soviet Union, showed him more understanding. He was a lively person who was addicted to drinking Vodka, smoked cigars, and wore a hat like the one Lenin used to wear. Too bad he passed away two years ago after the Islamic forces grabbed power.
“That was the right thing, too,” Nabil thought to himself.
His uncle’s fancy and luxurious life was in stark contrast to the primitive tendencies of the Islamic forces, who prohibited all the joys of life.
“How was he going to get the Vodka, the cigars, the caviar?”
Even though his uncle died of cancer, Nabil thought that his death was some kind of protest against the existence of these creatures who wanted to enforce the rule of Sharia law.
***
He gathered in a small suitcase all the important things that he needed to take with him. In any case, it wasn’t a lot of stuff, but the music sheets were on the top of his list. Then he lay down on the sofa in his living room to wait for the smuggler’s phone call. A few minutes later he felt hungry. He grabbed a piece of pizza Margareta from the fridge and poured himself a Coke. He paced in the room, put the pizza in the oven, and sat at the table waiting for it to be heated. He thought about what his father said about the disadvantages of exile and the story of his relative who returned from America and started warning others against leaving the country and going abroad.
This story reminded him of a parable that the sixteenth-century Persian poet Saeb al-Tabrizi recounted to one of his friends. He told him that a donkey was mistreated by his owner in a village that was known for its ill treatment and hatred of donkeys. One day the donkey ran away to a neighboring village, and there he was astonished to see how they respected donkeys. And so he lived there for a long time and enjoyed respect and good food and forgot about all the humiliations he had suffered in his previous village. But one day he was overwhelmed with nostalgia for his original village. So he left. On his way to his village, he ran into a fellow donkey from his original village. That donkey looked terrified and was looking back as he fled the village. So he approached him:
“What are you doing?”
The other donkey said: “By God, I decided to flee this village that humiliates donkeys. I’ve had enough of this humiliation and degrading treatment, and I want to go anywhere except this place.”
So he said to him in a voice full of sadness: “Please listen to me. Go back to your village. You won’t feel you are a donkey except there!”

II

The oven alarm went off. Nabil went to get his pizza from the oven and put it on a plate. The smell of hot cheese was good. He put the plate on the table and started eating the pizza while it was hot, without using silverwear: he enjoyed touching his food with his fingers when he ate.
Soon after finishing the pizza, he turned on the TV to a porn channel to kill time. The only thing available in this country was porn channels, and there was a store just around the corner that would give you access to any channel for a little bit of money. Most of the owner’s customers were among the Islamists who had issued a fatwa that looking at non-Muslim women was OK.
With his remote control, he browsed through the porn channels available at that time and settled on a channel showing sex movies outdoors, in the open. He usually chose this channel, but this time around the movie was perhaps one of the best ever.
A handsome, dark-skinned man with a light beard, Arab looking, perhaps an Egyptian, with a slender body, strong muscles, and a large chest appeared with a blond, beautiful girl, a European for sure. She boasted long legs, big boobs, and a slim waist, and her ass looked nicely rounded. They were swimming in the sea and laughing. The girl took off, running and laughing; she sat on a chair in the shade of a colorful umbrella. The young man followed her and fell on top of her. He kissed her neck and ran his hands on her thighs and breast.
Nabil was fascinated by the girl’s total surrender as she slowly and leisurely stripped off her underwear. In the background, the beach looked beautiful, lit by the golden sunrays. It was sex in the open air: a sandy beach, a parasol, a bottle of wine, while the waves quietly died on the sand.
Nabil was completely absorbed by the scene. This was his favorite porn movie. He felt so free watching this scene, which slowly culminated as the wet body of the girl shone under the sun, and a few grains of sand stuck to the hair of her blond pubis. He stretched his hand as if he wanted to be inside the television. He was out of breath, and his mouth dried. He observed the man as the man encircled the body of his friend, adjusting their position to a strange and loud music.
It didn’t take too long, and before the scene came to an end, his mobile rang. It was the smuggler asking him to come down. He was waiting for him downstairs.
“Oh, is this when you come?!” he thought, feeling frustrated to miss the end of the scene. Then he convinced himself that all porn movies have the same ending. Sex has always had the same movements, the same sounds, the same ending. What made the difference in this scene was perhaps the place: the sea, the sun, and the freedom of the open air.

III
He was both excited and confused to be leaving this place. He carried his suitcase, turned off the television, and turned around to have a last look at his room. Then he hurried downstairs. The car was awaiting him at the door. It was an old model by Honda, which one he didn’t know exactly, perhaps one from the 1970s. His grandfather used to have one like that; he had seen it in the family photo album.
He came close to the car. It was a blue car and seemed to have been recently repaired on the right side. He took a seat next to the driver.
“Hi,” he said without looking at the driver; then he closed the door. After he fastened his seat belt, he looked in front of him, waiting for the driver to hit the road.
“Hi,” said the driver, who stared at Nabil curiously.
“Have we met before?” he asked Nabil in a lowered voice before he set off.
“I don’t know,” replied Nabil, then turned to the driver and asked him: “Where do you live?”
“Here, in the neighborhood.”
“So you must have seen me here.”
“Sure!”
Since Nabil lived here, he was used to this kind of remark in the neighborhood. It’s like when your neighbor asks you in a stupid way, “Where have I seen you before?”
And you answer him, “In the neighborhood.”
To which he replies, “Of course, we are neighbors!”—all the while not feeling stupid at all.
***
He was sitting next to the driver. He thought that for many people chatter had no other function except to chat. Someone might ask you a question and not worry at all whether you answer or care at all about what you say. Once he said to his father: “People here want to talk about anything, in any way, especially after the war. They just want to chew words. Don’t you think so? The merchandise of useless chatter is common currency here in an unprecedented way. It is the only thing that they can do and never tire of doing even if they repeated it to you a thousand times.”
His father laughed. He never took him seriously and always considered that his son exaggerated a lot when it came to talking about people or their manners.
“Believe me, it’s common for people to ask you each time they see you: ‘Where did I meet you before?’
“And you tell him: ‘Hey, I am the next door neighbor.’
“To which he will reply: ‘That’s true. I remember you telling me this before!’
“In truth you have told him this a thousand times.”
***
Nabil scanned the driver from top to bottom. He was in his sixties. He had the look of a rural person. His hair was gray, and his moustache was a dark black, as if touched up with a cheap dye for shoes. He wore cheap made-in-China trousers and a locally made shirt too young for his age. He looked like an actor in an Egyptian film, always playing the postman. In vain, Nabil tried to remember his name. So he opted to sit next to him and not pay attention to him.
As soon as the car set out on the street, he started worrying if this man who looked more like a postman than a smuggler were really the guy who was supposed to smuggle him to Europe and if he were going to do it with this old car that looked like a pizza-delivery car.
He threw a last look at the neighborhood:
An electricity pillar at the corner and two crumbling houses, the store of a Christian lady, now shut down since its owner left for Detroit. As for the building where he lived, it was the only one that was lit with a small generator, while the whole neighborhood was plunged in darkness due to a power blackout.

IV
Sitting next to the smuggler he felt happy to leave this neighborhood that had humiliated and irritated him. He was a cello player. He specialized in this instrument at the school of music and ballet in al-Mansour neighborhood, and he worked at the National Symphony Orchestra as a classical music player.
It’s not an easy job to be a classical music player in the Middle East. Once he said to his professor that not only is it difficult, but it is also tragic and at the same time can be a comic and horrible thing. It is like bringing an animal from the North Pole to make it live in an area where the temperature reaches one hundred degrees in the summer.
At first, he thought this was going to be easy, that he would figure it out according to the mood because it related to his personal will in any case, his music will. He even thought that through this “will” he might impose what he sees fit on others. He thought that through music he could change life, give meaning to people’s trivial lives and transform its emptiness into a luxurious theater or a rich hotel.
“Do I not have willpower?” he once asked his mom when she was busy knitting him a pullover because he had stopped wearing ready-made clothes available in the market, cheap clothes with flashy colors imported from China and Turkey by stupid merchants and mushroomed everywhere after the war.
“Listen, I can change the circumstances surrounding me.”
His mother laughed at him without lifting her head from her knitting.
“If I gave you this instrument, the sounds would come out obscure since you don’t know how to play it, but if you trained and practiced, you would extract exquisite meanings out of it.”
“People are not an instrument” his mother said, without paying him any attention.
He started walking up and down the room.
Nabil thought that through his determination he was able to dominate the musical instrument to change obscure sounds into meaningful feelings. He thought that through music he could change the world. He could reach the essence of life and communicate with people of all walks of life through sounds. Through sounds, he could free their souls from their dark sides, reveal the hidden meanings, and influence people. This is how he conceived of his life.
But suddenly he was powerless and unable to make the language of music take the place of the old language. Music has no place amongst the clamor and noise of popular voices in the streets.
“What can I do?” he asked. He put one hand on his forehead and with the other squeezed the sofa cushion in desperation. As his mother put it, people are not a machine that he can change and play around with. Things are more complicated than the theory he conceived about life and music.
***
The first opposition he met was from his neighbors. One day he was taken aback when a number of them gathered in front of the building and asked him to stop annoying them with his music; they were unable to sleep because of this stupid sound.
He was in shock given the quantity of all kinds of sounds they dealt with every day and from all sides in this miserable neighborhood, which used to be a nice place before the mob invaded it right after the war: there were car honks, the voices of popular singers coming from the recorders carried by adolescents roaming the streets, the hammers of three blacksmiths, the cries of carriers in the streets, the sounds of guns firing for any reason, and the cries of children. All of this didn’t bother them, only the cello did when he played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
“What can I do?” he first asked the group of women and men assembled in front of the gate of the building. They all were speaking at the same time.
“What can you do for us? We asked you to stop this nonsense that you expose us to every day against our will.”
“How? What do you mean?” he argued desperately.
“We don’t want to hear the sound of this disgusting instrument.”
He did not have a grip on this disproportionate argument in which fifteen people spoke at the same time.
“This is my profession.”
The last card he played to this mob who, when they spoke, uttered all guttural sounds at once.
“It’s a dirty job, and it is forbidden. Did you not hear the sheikh of the mosque?”
“Leave me alone with my god. He knows if it’s forbidden or permitted. What do you want from me?”
“We don’t care about you; and it’s you who’s bothering us. And we don’t want you to subject us to what’s forbidden against our will.”
“What can I do? Where should I play? In the toilets?”
“Why not, it is the best place for your shitty instrument,” said a bold man who used to be a pickpocket in the past before he became a clergyman.
***
He slammed the door and entered the house angry and desperate. He tried to sit but was unable to. He started walking up and down the room. With anger and pain, he was witnessing the descent of the country into a scary chaos. But it hadn’t started today; it had started a long time ago. He fell silent, but inside he was screaming. His anger was building up like a tree growing in a forbidden field. The words no longer came out of his mouth like gunpowder from a gun. He did not know what to say. Inside him, there were many things that he wasn’t able to say because words are preserved for the insane and the idiots. Artists are kindly asked to leave their bodies hung on a peg. He shouldn’t object to the youngest idiot in the street; he shouldn’t disrupt people’s lives with his elegant clothes or his beautiful manners.
“Nowadays, people hate everything beautiful and refined.”
This is what he thought when he walked in the streets. He felt as if people wanted him to do what they wanted, even if it was his own skin that itched; he had to scratch it with the nails of those who shared a complacent coexistence and exchanged cultural codes among themselves. As for him and his music instrument—they were out of place. Everybody wished him to vanish; nobody wanted him or his instrument to be seen because he simply damaged the landscape and broke its harmony. At the same time, the faithful would pray for him to be cured from the disease of music.
He whined as he sat on the sofa and placed his hand on his forehead.
They are the ones with power. The ignorant possess power, whether religious, social, or political. And they all want to subdue and subject him. Nabil felt that every day they trained him to swallow more stupidities; they trained him relentlessly, and they all wanted him to speak with their mouths.
“If only people spoke in the language of music and not with their mouths.”

V
Nabil looked out the window as the car leaved the neighborhood. He felt an even stronger desire to leave this city where he had lived all his life and where he had his family, his friends, and his first lover. They were part of the clichés that all those he knew usually talked about.
“Oh, I cannot leave my country. How can I live in another place?”
Or something like: “Despite its many problems, my country cannot compare to the biggest paradise on earth!”
Bullshit!
In the past, he had been completely imbued with the idea that he could not live outside of his country. He used to think like all people who never tried anything else: that the sky, the air, and the beauty of his country are indisputable. But this was a stupid thought, and he even started mocking and abandoned it in full. He felt that in the past he had been entangled with many rigid ideas about life, the city, obligations, memories, and the ups and downs as if the world of feelings obeyed the same laws that made this city beautiful and that sea stunning.
Right now he felt there was a secret feeling, a coincidence that was taking him to a faraway city, making him change his initial position toward this place where he had spent all his life. Life is subject to change, and nothing is stable on this earth, and he was unable to go back to his departure point. The car had set out, and there was no return to this country.
He started counting all the edifices that had collapsed in his life or those that were threatening to crumble.
He did not have any friends, there were no more bars, beer had disappeared. He did not have any future as a cello player in this country. Even his relationship with his parents was just formal, without essence, without life, without feelings, and without substance. It was just rituals and the necessary words that he had to utter whenever he saw them, like those of a person who was hallucinating, as if he had taken enough drugs to make him fantasize spontaneously about family love and true affection.
All his relationships with everybody were affected. They were far removed from the truth. It was all just faked, like acting in a miserable play. It was the acting of a dense text without an echo in dark silence. It was just nonsense in the darkness of an empty theater.
He was pleased with this last comparison and smiled.
***
Through the smuggler’s car window, he threw a last glance at the neighborhood as he was leaving it for good, for the last time. And before it vanished from his sight, he took a deep breath and said with regret: “Curse the mob!”
He wasn’t at peace when he was thinking and using this expression the mob; he felt resentful and painful. He always used this phrase when he explained his grievances with the world. He even insisted that Marx used it in his book The German Ideology so that he wouldn’t be accused of aloofness, even though many intellectuals in Baghdad didn’t shy away from using the word to describe the crowds, the people living in slums, the thieves and gangsters, and all those who recently invaded residential neighborhoods. Nabil made further use of this phrase in his satire, as Marx himself ridiculed the mob because of their opportunism and treason during political upheavals. And this was how Nabil saw them too.
“They used to be militias working for Saddam; now they have morphed into religious militias.”
How many times had he suffered the humiliations of the mob! The last time was the most painful, when an Islamic group had attacked him on his way back home, carrying his cello in its big black box. They had tossed him next to an electricity pillar on a hot day as he made his way home. He was tired and sweating, trying to make it home as quickly as possible. He had some fresh water. The leader of the group was their youngest member, with a beardless face, looking like the ass of a goat. He asked Nabil what he was carrying.
“A cello.”
“Ah! What does that mean?”
“It’s a music instrument.”
“Ah, a music instrument and a strange one!”
“World music.”
“You want to lecture me or what?”
“ No . . . but . . . ”
“Don’t you know that acting like the infidels is a blasphemy and that music in Islam is forbidden?”
And before Nabil could say anything, the armed gang hammered his instrument. They broke its strings and hit it on the ground and kicked it with their feet until they completely destroyed it while they were laughing. He looked silently at the scene in front of him while the inhabitants of the neighborhood gathered and joined in the laughter with the armed gang. The leader of the group walked to Nabil; he grabbed him by his necktie and slapped him on the face, making his gold-framed glasses fly in the air and fall on the sidewalk amid a storm of laughter. Then he slapped him on the other side of his face. Nabil wavered and fell to the ground. But as soon as he stood again, this guy grabbed him by his Ralph Lauren white shirt, which Nabil liked a lot, and started tearing it with rage and anger as if he hated this kind of shirt or the color white. The whole neighborhood was laughing hysterically.
***
Nabil felt a deep humiliation and went up to his room, breathing heavily. He headed to the fridge and grabbed a cool bottle of water and drank it in full. He looked at the mirror and inspected his bruised face. He removed his torn shirt and put it on a chair, then went to the window to take a look at his instrument. It had been reduced to pieces and scattered in the hands of children, who were running around laughing and trying to play it.
He sat on the sofa.
How was he supposed to walk again in the street after the humiliation he had faced?
In the past, he had been despised in the neighborhood, but he had been respected; everyone had respected him and known who he was. A silent person, wearing medical glasses—a sign of his intelligence—well dressed, using obscure expressions, he hadn’t looked like the masses in the street, carrying a strange music instrument, walking strait and with determination. His daily program had been clear: every day in the morning he left home and came back in the evening.
The questions he asked at that moment were, How would people look at him, and how would he look them in the face after his slapping, his humiliation, the breaking of his instrument, and the destruction of his prestige? What had happened to him today was really horrible. He felt completely crushed, and his humanity was wiped out in full as if he were transformed from a human being into a mop to clean the floor.
This incident reminded him of what had happened to one of his professors in the elementary school. His name was Professor Jamal. He was a dignified person, tall, silent always well dressed and elegant. He usually wore a hat and carried a leather satchel. When he walked in, all the school students fell silent. He was by far the most respected of all the professors because of his dignified person. One day he walked across the street from the school, just when all the students had been let out; they stopped in front of the big gate, and at that moment a ferocious dog attacked him. The professor screamed with all his voice, and he started running away, and the dog followed him. His hat flew, and out of fear he let go of his satchel while a storm of satanic laughter seized all the kids. Because of this scene, he lost all his dignity and his prestige. Nobody respected him anymore, and students started rebelling against him and mocking him.
So Nabil wondered how was he going to walk again in the street after that humiliation. How could he look up people in the eye? And how were they going to look at him?
He turned the TV to a porn channel and stretched out on the sofa.
***
The next day he couldn’t focus his attention on anything. He was scattered. In the morning, his ideas were foggy, and his body was tired; he was confused, as though he were hallucinating. He didn’t know what to do or how to regain his inner peace. He felt more angry than sad and more tense than depressed. He didn’t pity himself; he just felt very angry.
When he felt clueless and powerless, he started letting out strange cries while he was still in bed, closing his fist tightly, then releasing it, cursing and uttering strange insults, repeated and stupid insults. But this made him angry with himself. He wanted to come up with a new language for himself so that he could insult them or perhaps insult them with all the languages, including the ones he didn’t know: “Fuck off, merde, fils de putain . . . ,” but this was in vain.
What could he do?
He was losing it; he was losing his mind.
“Music is the queen of all things,” he thought to himself. Through its sounds, he could name anything that occurred to his mind. Through its harmony, he could dive into the surrounding daily life, delve to the bottom of it, explore what lies at its depths. There was nothing that he could not name or identify through music, whereas with the Arabic language that he spoke fluently he felt completely unable to understand the many things that mushroomed and multiplied in the surrounding chaos because he couldn’t find the right words to refer to it.
He stopped talking. In his bed, he stopped doing anything. He felt as if he were paralyzed. After his humiliation, he felt unable to respond. Everything surrounding him lost its meaning. The world was a stupid magma, without intelligence, without imagination. The world was obscure to him. He didn’t want to name it or to snatch at it. He couldn’t tell the difference anymore between a living being, an animal, and a stone!
Because he couldn’t respond to the mob last night—worse, couldn’t even confront them—he felt that he had to answer them while he lay in his bed.
***
He remained in bed until morning without even thinking anything. And little by little, he regained his spirits. But thinking about the issue made him fall into a strange sadness, and he didn’t like to lie in bed sad and depressed.
The first question he asked himself was, What to do now in bed?
The only way to recover his dignity was to humiliate them in his imagination. He invoked the scene one more time in his mind, but he imagined it differently. Instead of them hitting and humiliating him, he attacked and humiliated them.
He first imagined that inside him was an incredible natural strength; he didn’t know where it came from. So that when they moved on him, he did not freak out. They freaked out. He advanced toward them quietly and calmly. And after the first strike, they turned into a mop in his hands. They were shaking before him. He confiscated their weapons and destroyed them immediately before he threw them on the ground. The children picked up the pieces as they had with the remnants of his instrument. He even tore their clothes as they had torn his Ralph Lauren shirt. After that, he slapped them many times, none of them was able to return the slaps. They were begging him while the mob was laughing and mocking them.
***
He left his bed. He felt happy. Hitting them and taking revenge somehow appeased and pacified him. He temporarily forgotten what had happened to him the night before at the hands of the armed gang.
He hurried up and put on his clothes. But when he wanted to leave the house. he hesitated. He didn’t want to see anyone from the neighborhood. He was ashamed about what had happened to him, feeling humiliated because of the gang.
He peered over the balcony. The street seemed empty. He left quickly, without running into anyone. But on his way back, at noon, he came face to face with the same Islamic armed group. He was confused. And when he approached, the leader of the gang smiled at him and asked him politely to stop. So he stopped, his heart racing. The leader asked him: “You are the one we corrected yesterday, aren’t you?”
“ . . . ”
“What happened to you? Why don’t you speak?” said the gang leader, who walked around in an arrogant way. “Are you dumb?”
Nabil was shaking; then he said in a soft voice: “What do you want me to say?”
“Say anything you like.”
“Nothing . . . I have nothing to say.”
“We cannot let you go without saying anything.”
The armed guys surrounding him were seized by laughter. They were five of them, all in their twenties, wearing strange clothes, like the clothes for a religious drama portraying Muslims fourteen hundred years ago. They had long beards, and each one of them carried a Kalashnikov. Next to them there was a four-by-four modern Toyota.
“Are we bothering you?!” said the president of the group.
“No, not at all . . . to the contrary, I am happy.”
“So you are not bothered by us, is that right?”
“No, I am not. Why would I?” Nabil said and clearly looked annoyed.
“What we did yesterday was for your own good. We saved you from God’s anger.”
“Thank you. Now let me go home.”
“We will let you go home. But we have something else for you.”
“What is it?” he inquired.
“Listen, we forgave you your violation of Islamic rule.”
“I thank you for that.”
“Yes, you have to understand that music is forbidden. We forgave you for the past because you were ignorant. We punished you and educated you, and now you have to do expiation so that Allah may forgive you. You have to pay a certain amount of money to help build a mosque in the neighborhood.” And he continued: “As you well know, most of the people in this neighborhood were wealthy, but, despite that, they did not build a single mosque here. Thank God we got rid of them. The new inhabitants want to build a mosque, and we are now collecting donations. You have to make a contribution. What do you say?”
“Can you give me some time to think?”
“Think about what?”
“Think about this question.”
“What question?”
“The mosque.”
“Does this need thinking?”
“I just needed time to see . . .”
“To see what?”
“To see whether I can make a donation or not.”
“Will you donate or not?”
“I didn’t mean that I will not make a donation. Why are you so touchy?”
“You’re getting on my nerves. Do you think building a mosque is a bad thing?”
“No, by God, that’s not what I said, but . . . ”
“But what?”
“Do I not have the right to think?”
“You can think when the question implies something bad, not when it implies the good.”
“I just wanted to think.”
“The mosque means the good, and you want to think. This means you are either against doing the good or against Allah.”
“No, no.”
“This means you are an atheist, a secular.”
“No, no.”
“So why do you need to think?”
“I just wanted to see how I can secure the money for you.”
The leader of the group smiled and said to him: “Ah, OK, that’s good. That means you are not against the idea, right?”
“Yes, yes, sure.”
“That’s good,” said the leader and looked at the group, who were smiling.
“Can I go now?”
“Why are you always in a hurry?”
“I need to go to start thinking how I can secure the money . . . ”
“How much time do you need to find the money?”
“Give me just two days.”
The leader of the gang smiled, and so did the other gang members, and they all relaxed.
“We will give you a week. Is that enough?”
“Yes, that’s enough.”
“So that they can’t say we are extremists and unforgiving.”
“You are very tolerant.”
“Yes, some people accuse us of being intolerant. We could have killed you yesterday because you violated the rules of Islam, and we could have come to your house right now and taken all your money. Instead we gave you a week so that you can make a donation to help build the mosque.”
“I agree with you.”
“We also helped you before God. He will forgive your horrible deed, using musical instruments instead of praying.
“I agree with you.”
“Despite all that, the mob still calls us extremists. With this leniency, they still call us extremists. Those infidels who behave like Westerners and Christians, they call us extremists.”
“I agree with you.”
“May God curse them.”
“I agree with you.”
“Well, now go home, and we will come to see you in a week. If you don’t have the money, you need to prepare your coffin.”
“OK, thanks for the advice.”

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