excerpted from the novel Osama Van Halen forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in July
I made up “Amazing Ayyub” after reading al-Jazuli’s “Ten Attributes of the Dog.” Within the dog, al-Jazuli had found ten praiseworthy attributes for seekers to imitate:
1. He sleeps only a little at night; this is a sign of the lovers of God (muhibbin).
2. He complains of neither heat nor cold; this is a sign of the patient (sabirin).
3. When he dies, he leaves nothing behind which can be inherited from him; this is a sign of the ascetics (zahidin).
4. He is neither angry nor hateful; this is a sign of the faithful (mu’minin).
5. He is not sorrowful at the loss of a close relative, nor does he accept assistance; this is a sign of the secure (muqinin).
6. If he is given something, he consumes it and is content; this is a sign of the contented (qani’in).
7. He has no known place of refuge; this is a sign of the wanderers (sa’ihin).
8. He sleeps in any place that he finds; this is a sign of the satisfied (radiyin).
9. Once he knows his master, he never hates him, even if he beats or starves him; this is a sign of the knowers (’arifin).
10. He is always hungry; this is a sign of the virtuous (salihin).
Sometimes I’ll be a fictional character and also the faceless narrator, then step back and speak of myself in the first person, like this, as the human writer. Writers are always putting themselves in their stories and having conceited dialogues with their imaginary friends. In fact, it’s very Christian to think of yourself as the god of your diegesis and then manifest yourself among its little men. It’s embarrassing; an Islamically grounded author ought to keep the wall up.
I never really wrote Muhammad Entering from the Rear, but in the winter of 2002 I did write a novel about taqwacores—lunatic Muslim punk rockers—and starting out I really did make copies at Kinko’s and hand them out for free. The spiral-bound taqwacore fantasy was supposed to be my farewell to Islam, a vomiting-up of all my religious failures with an added sliver of hope that someday it’d be all right, but then the book introduced me to some real-life Muslim misfits and I found a place for myself. Eventually it looked like we really could make a whole new scene of believers, half believers, and ex-believers calling ourselves and each other Muslims and starting punk bands. There was this Iranian shroom-head kid out in San Antonio who thought that the novel was a true story, so he emailed me asking if I could put him in touch with Amazing Ayyub and Rabeya the niqabi riot grrrl. The kid ended up starting his own band, Vote Hezbollah, named after a band from the book.
In Lowell, Massachusetts, there was Basim Usmani, who I had dreamed of long before ever knowing that he was real, that the world actually had mohawked Muslim punk singers. I dreamed of him praying the way Muslims pray but using a spread-out, dirty American flag for his prayer rug, and I dreamt of the tall spikes in his mohawk forming Arabic letters to spell “Allah”: alif lam lam ha . . .
The real Basim was a goth/death-rock punk, while my dream Basim was a ’77 Oi! punk named Jehangir who starred as the hero of my taqwacore novel. The fictional Jehangir had died in a mosh pit, and it looked like the real Basim might, too—a brown kid who went to white-power shows with the Pakistani flag painted on his leather jacket was just looking for trouble.
When the singer of Riff Raff (a “bald fat kid with a Henry Rollins complex,” as Basim put it) jumped off the stage and started pushing people, microphone in hand, Basim was right there in front, and when the bald fat kid pushed him, he pushed back. Then the singer’s brother yelled, “YOU LITTLE BITCH!” and punched Basim in the head. He fell behind a merchandise table and later regained consciousness to the taps and nudges of half a dozen boots. Someone yelled the old skinhead battle cry as Basim pulled himself up; he noticed that his left arm was flapping and held it to his chest. He staggered out and drove home, still not sure what had happened.
The assholes that night weren’t Nazi but straightedge, which left Basim with an odd concept to explain to his mom: gangs of infidels who’d stomp a Muslim because they were opposed to drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex. “They kept me from desecrating my body,” he explained.
First time I drove to Lowell and met Basim, he still had his arm in a sling, but I helped him to a vial of Hamza Yusuf’s sweat that I had purchased at the last ISNA convention. Formerly Mark Hanson, Hamza Yusuf had left the fitna of surfing to become a shaykh and spread Allah’s Nur across the world from his headquarters in Hayward, California. Shaykh Hamza can heal you, I told Basim, Shaykh Hamza can cure you, Shaykh Hamza can save you, and all we have to do is open up our hearts and our minds and let him in. After making proper niyya with a bismillah and throwing back the vial like a shot, Basim pulled off his sling to perform twenty-five push-ups and then a cartwheel.
Basim was in the process of starting a new band, a taqwacore project called the Kominas, with this kid Shahjehan Khan who played on a guitar given to him by Salman Ahmad of Junoon, the biggest rock band in Asia. Shahjehan told me how for one show in Bangladesh with an audience of something like a hundred thousand people, Junoon was helicoptered down to a Hummer that drove the band to the stage, where they performed four or five songs before getting helicoptered away. Shahjehan was also good friends with Bilal Musharraf, whose father, Parvez, had become president of Pakistan in a 1999 military coup. Without approaching the right or wrong of overthrowing a government, I had to respect the balls it’d take to roll your dice like that. Made me wonder how Bilal had turned out, anyway. Sometimes we get our courage from our fathers because they give us shit to prove. My dad had never seized control of a third-world country, but he did manage to sleep with a woman while married to her daughter. Again, morals aside, at least respect the balls.
Shahjehan took us over to Bilal’s condo; he ended up being just a really nice guy with a wife and a kid. His toddler, Hamza, ran around the house and sometimes looked at the Kominas and me as if we were aliens. I spotted President/General Parvez in family portraits on the wall, just a proud grandfather holding baby Hamza, no military uniform or anything. While hanging with Bilal, we never mentioned his dad or got into politics. We did talk about Pakistan, but our discussion revolved mainly around geography. I told him about the places I had been to when I was a seventeen-year-old running around with the Tablighis.
After recording their first song, “Rumi Was a Homo (Wahhaj You’re a Fag),” an attack on homophobic imam Siraj Wahhaj, the Kominas wanted to hit up a new mosque in Wayland that was still under construction, so we piled into the car. Singing along to whatever tapes he played, Basim redid Social Distortion’s “Prison Bound” as “Jehennam Bound” and Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” as “Pray to Allah” in his best Rob Halford, and I laughed so hard it hurt. I could have heard that all night: Pray to Allah, pray to Allah! Pray to Allah, pray to Allah!
The masjid was more or less just a huge wooden frame with no character yet, but once I was inside, I spotted the plywood mihrab showing the direction of Mecca. Otherwise, there was nothing that said “mosque.” No pretty plaques, no wall hangings, no copies of the ISNA mag lying around, but we did have buckets of spackle and aluminum ladders. Off to the side, I saw what might be the sisters’ entrance, Allah willing. We took a brief jaunt upstairs and walked past the beginnings of classrooms or offices. Shahjehan was smoking equality the whole time, but stayed respectful enough to step outside to dispose of it. Then the idea hit him to offer the first rakats in the history of the place. We looked around for something to pray on. There were sheets of plywood and one that had KEEP OUT! spray-painted on it, but Shahjehan found a big roll of insulation and unfurled it across the concrete. Basim went to take off his boots, but I told him it wasn’t necessary, that it was a tradition with no basis in anything. Shahj gave the adhan. I think it was Basim who wanted to pray without a leader, just the three of us going in unison. Sounded all right, but we each waited for someone else to start so we could synch up. Shahjehan took the initiative, said, “Allahu Akbar,” and ended up as the de facto imam. I wasn’t sure what prayer we were making; it was somewhere in the gray area between Isha time and Fajr. Could have gone either way, but Shahjehan stopped at two rakats, greeted the angels, and then spouted off some Arabic supplication that I had never heard before. I didn’t know what he was saying, and maybe our weeded imam didn’t know either, but it was about as sincere a prayer as I can get these days.
We took our final looks around, and Basim snatched up a handful of washers to make a necklace. Then we walked back through the mud and weeds to Basim’s car. Basim drove me back to the T.J. Maxx where my Buick was parked, and I left him in his fearless taqwa-punk story: to live Jehennam-bound, start fights at shows, get drunk, and defend Islam against the sober. He’s likely to die someday in a pit under the Doc Martens of one gang or another, and I think he knows it. Whatever the pen wrote, it wrote; there’s not much else you can do.
The fiction now showed up on the nonfiction plane. Jehangir was fiction, but he put on a suit of flesh and now lived on as nonfiction Basim. Shahjehan was like a nonfiction version of my Yusef Ali character, the good kid who looked normal but didn’t belong anywhere. Rabeya, probably the true hero of The Taqwacores, was inspired by a real girl I know. The real girl disappears from my life for months or even a year at a time, returns briefly, makes it emotionally intense, and then goes again, and I think it will be like that forever. She told me that someday she’ll want a kid and pick me for the sperm donor, and I’ll get to donate in the best way, and then she’ll run off to raise the child in some women’s commune in Afghanistan, and when the kid’s fifteen or so, I’ll be around to explain who I am.
After reading my punk novel, she told me that I was too passionate about my characters.
“You write like you’re desperate to have these people remembered,” she said, “and you don’t have to; they’re good characters. But once you’ve already described them, you describe them again. And you just push and push so hard to make them mean to the reader whatever they already mean to you.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just know that you don’t have to be afraid for them. They’ll survive on their own.”
Some of the characters were ugly. I wondered what kind of critique I’d get on pieces like my terrible “Shi’a Girl,” in which a white convert punk hooks up with a desi girl and they have an argument because she doesn’t think it’s funny when Amazing Ayyub urinates into the drop box at a video store. The white convert punk was Michael Muhammad Knight, but I still wore the hijab of fiction, calling myself Ben Majnun. In another story I made Ben Majnun the author of Muhammad Entering from the Rear, which he wrote by inserting a pen in his urethra and moving his lun across the page. “This of course requires an incredible amount of strength in that area,” he’d tell girls at his readings; “I control muscles there that most men don’t even know that they have.”
Recite! And your Lord is most bountiful. He who teaches by the Pen, teaches man that which he knows not.
Ben’s pen was his penis, and he could break it down: My pen is my penis. My penis, my pen is. See? Allah gives signs to those with understanding.
He had a whole process to it, beginning with a stainless-steel medical sound all KY’d up. First he’d use a thin sound, then one a little wider. After the third-level sound, he’d be ready for a pen. He bought his sounds from a medical-fetish website that also offered stethoscopes, latex gloves, sundry jars, hospital gowns, nurses’ uniforms, straitjackets, stretchers, forceps, and enema equipment.
Ben’s gift made him the male equivalent of a woman with no gag reflex, or a contortionist who could stick her feet behind her head—girls wondered what they could do with him. Imagine a real guy with a real piece who could move inside you in all the crazy ways sex-shop ticklers and battery-operated monsters did. A common misconception was that Ben’s writing technique afforded him sexual pleasure; apparently, some guys did insert things in their dicks for fun. All kinds of perverts approached Ben at readings and book signings, asking him how wide a sound he could fit and how many inches he went in. Ben would tell them to fuck off, as he found the whole thing incredibly painful. One guy assumed that Ben’s urethra was always wide enough to accommodate a pen and asked if he could look inside it, “to see what’s up there.” For some, Ben Majnun’s penis was a gateway to self-knowledge.
As a literary talent, however, his lun was only so-so. It couldn’t produce what you’d call a plot-driven story. You might expect a better sense of the narrative triangle: initial conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, return to equilibrium, and so on; but in reality, it just pounded away until the payoff.
I can’t even read the Ben Majnun stories anymore, they’re so bad, but this was how “The Shi’a Girl” ended:
He later called Sumayya and told her that after all his fits and starts of Gutter Sufism and full-blown apostasy, he was beginning to identify as a Shi’a.
“That’s great! You need to make taqlid.”
“And you need to follow a qualified jurist.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“And you need to find someone living to follow.”
“I suggest either Ayatollah Sayyed Seestani or Ayatollah Bayyed Ali Khamenaie.”
“The both of them can eat it.”
“But if you’re Shi’a, you need a guide.”
“Do these fuckfaces guide you to spill Bacardi all over yourself and grind up on guys in the club?”
“Fuck you!” she cried. She hung up, and that was it for her.
Back to Amazing Ayyub, who I’ve now placed in California:
Amazing Ayyub the Iranian Shiite Skinhead couldn’t have weighed more than a buck fifty, but he had the wiry survival strength of an animal that’s always hungry but still has to run and fight and keep its eyes open and never sleep. No fat on his body, and no inch of his skin without detail—poor Ayyub was all scars, veins, bones, and KARBALA tattoo. No shirt, and he drove his van like that same crazed animal, squeezing hard on the wheel, elbows locked, pulling insane but controlled swerves across lanes. He had his Sham 69 coming in loud from the one working speaker and he had those streets owned, and riding in back he had Rabeya the punk niqabi sitting on a stolen amp and pointing an AK-47 in the direction of a tied-up Matt Damon. Behind Damon hung a Saudi flag with a red anarchy sign spray-painted on the Kalimah. These were the taqwacores who passed the frontiers of all reasonable religion, serving Islam in exile, trying to realize the imams of their inner being while saying “fuck all” to the rest of it.
Holding the AK with one hand, ninja-looking Rabeya reached with the other into the folds of her black cloak and pulled out her phone. “Turn the radio down,” she told Ayyub; she had demands to make.
“Listen up,” she told someone on the other end. “We have Matt Damon and we’re gonna blow his head off unless you fulfill our demands!
“What we demand is for Hollywood to give a positive depiction of Muslims, just one movie where we’re not these two-dimensional al-Qaeda stereotypes! No more of this Delta Force bullshit, you hear me?”
“And no more Sum of All Fears!” shrieked Ayyub from the front. “Tom Clancy can suck my cock!”
“No more True Lies,” continued Rabeya, “no more Siege, no more fucking Executive Decision or Rules of Engagement. No more Not Without My Daughter—I mean, the story was valid, but what if it was the other way around and showed this asshole American guy with an Iranian wife . . . why can’t we tell that story? But anyway, listen! One decent movie in which Muslims are reasonable human beings, or we kill Matt Damon!” She hung up and let them think about it.
“So you guys are Muslim, I imagine,” said Damon, perfectly calm.
“That’s right,” replied Rabeya. “Nothing personal against you, you know—you’re just a way to get these guys’ attention.”
“In that case, as-salam alaikum.”
“Wa alaikum as-salam,” she answered.
“I’ve gotta tell you,” said Matt Damon, “I’m worried about you guys falling into your own cliché stereotype here.”
“FUCK YOU, MATT DAMON!” screamed Amazing Ayyub. “TAKBIR!”
“Allahu Akbar,” said Rabeya.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Damon. “I completely sympathize with your grievance. Hollywood’s depiction of Muslims has been erroneous and utterly shameful. I’m just afraid that by taking a hostage, you’re playing into that same terrorist paradigm and furthering a neoconservative perception of Islam.”
“What’s a neoconservative?” asked Ayyub.
“Not to mention,” Damon continued, “there’s no basis in the Qur’an, nor the Sunnah, for you to take an innocent person hostage.”
“Fuck it,” said Rabeya, lowering the gun. “I think Matt Damon’s right.”
“Now, Amazing Ayyub,” said Damon, “I noticed that your tattoo says KARBALA. Are you Shi’a?”
“So you adhere to the infallible example set by the Twelve Holy Imams.”
“Then you must be aware that the Fifth and Sixth Holy Imams both opposed armed rebellion.”
With all the rusty, dusty mystique of a Mad Max archetype, haggard and worn after driving all the way from his postbellum nightmare, Amazing Ayyub pulled into the Mobil station and hopped out to pump gas. Still shirtless, he went in to pay, leaving Matt Damon, Rabeya, and her AK-47 in the van. The van had gone nine thousand miles with him and had been through enough to become a character in the story, too. It was in this van that Ayyub carted taqwacore bands like the Mutaweens, Vote Hezbollah, and Osama Van Halen on their tours. The stolen amp was revenge after that show in Oakland when the club owner had stiffed the Gandoos out of their money. Those bands were genuine taqwa-punks and did it only for the taqwa, nothing else.
No sign of the clerk anywhere, so Ayyub ripped open a Twix and smashed both bars into his mouth. Before even swallowing, he did it again with a 3 Musketeers, then attacked a Reese’s. He smeared the mess of chocolate, peanut butter, and saliva on his face onto his bare forearm and left the wrappers on the floor. He looked at the magazines, tearing open the plastic sheath on a Penthouse. Then he picked up the glossy music mag Punk Press, and it drilled him like a Shawn Michaels superkick to the chin: On the front cover were four pretty, clean desi boys with piercings and sleeve tattoos, one wearing a VOTE HEZBOLLAH T-shirt for underground cred. Off to the side, it read: “Shah 79: Godfathers of Muslim Punk.”
“Are you fuckin’ kidding?” scoffed Ayyub, loud enough for anyone in the place to hear, but there was still nobody there. “Look at this slick shit,” he mumbled, flipping the pages until he found those douchebags again. They had a whole spread, with more cool poses and a rundown of who in the group got wasted and who didn’t (“Javed has never had a beer in his life, but Omar will party his tits off”), and what a hard time they’d had recording their new album (“I wanted the song to be this intricate Sufi allegory, you know, but Omar thought it was about a girl”). One of the pussies had a line about aiming for the moon because if you missed, you’d land among the stars. Another showed off the BISMILLAH inked around his neck and said, “Like my tattoos, my heart hurts for Allah.” Amazing Ayyub had never heard of them, and they didn’t look like anything that would have cruised around in his terrible van—their magazine faces were too soft and well rested to have ever suffered a real taqwa road war with Ayyub behind the wheel. The taqwacores were Gutter Sufi heroes; these kids were a new breed, weak and grafted from the original.
Could it be?
Taqwacore . . . pop-punk?
Ayyub threw down the rag and still couldn’t find a clerk, so he just walked back out, cursing Shah 79 and shouting that Rabeya wouldn’t believe that shit . . .
But the van was gone.
Ayyub looked in every direction and made a quick lap around the Mobil, then ran up the street and turned to look the other way. He figured that he had probably taken too long in there looking at magazines and stealing candy, causing Rabeya to get scared and bust out of there for the good of the mission. Or maybe Matt Damon had pulled some Hollywood heroics, gotten himself loose, and overpowered her—but fuck no, Rabeya had had that AK on him and wouldn’t have had any doubts about pulling the trigger. But Ayyub hadn’t heard the gun. Only other thing he could think of was that the cops had shown up and Rabeya had peeled out. They could be chasing her down the freeway right then, with helicopters overhead and everything. Walking back toward the Mobil, Amazing Ayyub had nowhere to go, but he knew that in such a scenario he had to at least leave the scene. He stood over the fresh oil-leak puddle where the van had just been, thanked Allah that Rabeya at least had a free tank of gas on her side, said a quick al-Fatiha for her sake, and then strolled down the sidewalk—no sprint, no panic.
Less than a mile down the street, he went behind a bowling alley and sat down with his back against the wall. He wondered what the odds might have been that Rabeya was driving up I-5 with a bloody Matt Damon corpse, and joked to himself about its coming alive. Zombie Matt Damon, ha ha. Then he thought about Shah 79 again. Godfathers of Muslim punk? “More like cocksuckers of Muslim Punk,” he said out loud, wishing that someone were around to laugh at it.
Fuckin’ Shah 79, cocksuckers of Muslim Punk—look at those guys with their skateboarding T-shirts; you know they’re biting the pillows for somebody . . .
What was happening? Had Muslim cool taken over? Was Shah 79 showing up on TRL with green taqwa laces in their Docs? Ayyub didn’t have anything to say, beyond “fuck ’em.” After just sitting behind the bowling alley for a while, he got up and walked to the Greyhound station, bought a ticket to Santa Cruz, and gave his last quarter to the Galaga machine.
When he got off the bus, he slumped down behind a Dumpster and knocked out for a while. When he woke up, his eyes felt like they were sealed shut, but he rubbed them hard and opened them up to the sun, and the first thought in his head was Shah 79, those fuckers—the great betrayal. He got up and scouted around the parking lot for proper materials to pull off a curse. To do Hakim Bey’s Malay Black Djinn Curse, he’d need a hard-boiled egg, along with three iron pins and an iron nail to stick in it, a dried scorpion, a lizard and/or beetles, a small chamois bag of cemetery dirt, magnetized iron fillings, asafoetida, and sulfur. He’d sew the charm into yellow silk and place everything in a bottle, then cork it and seal it with wax. Hakim Bey claimed that the curse was useful for dealing with evil institutions.
While Amazing Ayyub was hunting for magical items in a Santa Cruz parking lot, Michael Muhammad Knight was in Buffalo, wanting to warn him that the energy in western New York was bad, and that he’d better not come back. The Buffalo news reported that an unidentified man in his late teens to mid-twenties had been found dead by the railroad tracks. If you know a guy like Amazing Ayyub, you get scared at every story like that, because it could so easily be him. Even with Ayyub in California, Michael still called the Buffalo Police Department to see if the body wore KARBALA on its chest. Poor Amazing Ayyub, kullu ardh’n Karbala; Michael Muhammad Knight wanted to give him a ring like the one worn by his Sixth Holy Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq, reading: ALLAH IS MY MASTER AND MY DEFENSE FROM HIS CREATION. There was so much evil around Ayyub, and he didn’t even know yet . . . and even with the ring, the Sixth Imam was killed off with poisoned grapes.
Ayyub discovered the news of a taqwacore after venturing beyond the parking lot and reading the flyer on a telephone pole. It could have meant a chance to find places to crash or maybe a ride somewhere. He ripped the flyer off the pole and kept walking.
The sad and terrible fact of taqwacore was that it put Muslim kids in kafr bars, but Hafiz said that the time for judging sober and drunk and far and near has passed, and the Sixth Holy Imam said that you cannot expect your children to do things as you did, takbir takbir takbir. The first band that night was classic California taqwa-punk, Muhammad Muzammad, which looked less like a band than like a gang—just three brown kids wearing their mohawks the same way, like the broom atop a Roman gladiator’s helmet, thousands of Aqua Netted bristles giving the illusion of a single, solid ornament upon the scalp. The guitarist’s was pink, the bass player’s was green, and the drummer’s was yellow. The guitar and bass players hopped and moved the same way. At one point the guitar player and the singer said something along the lines of “Fuck Shah 79, fuck that bullshit!” and Ayyub screamed his approval with the cool kids. It didn’t even hit Ayyub that the cool kids were really kids and he wasn’t, that he was living on borrowed time when it came to anything that could be called youth culture.
Second band was the Zaytuna Rejects: four more brown boys, heroin-skinny, with sleeveless shirts and spiked bracelets loose on their wrists, the singer holding his drink and spilling beer as he slouched behind the microphone, working this detached, crooner-punk style like he was too cool to care either way. When he really got going, though, he got good, entering into crazy fits as if he were fighting three invisible cops. Sometimes it looked like the cops were winning, but then he’d fight his way through them. For most of his songs, the kids in the crowd stood still with their hands in their pockets, but by the time he whipped out his sing-along anthem, he had them bouncing around with their arms around each other. “Fuckin’ A!” yelled Ayyub. A lone Mohican from Muhammad Muzammad, the back of his vest covered in thousands of even-columned spikes, stood on the outer edge of the audience and nodded from his authority.
The band that followed the Zaytuna Rejects wasn’t even punk as such; it was more death metal than anything, but the taqwacores still loved it; they started pits and climbed onstage to jump back off into the waiting chaos. The band sported classic metal hair, wore all black, and even had a metal-sounding name: Zulfikar, after the mythical sword of the Prophet. The meaning of Zulfikar was read as “the one who distinguishes between right and wrong” or, alternately, “cleaver of the spine,” for legend said that a single blow from the blade would split a person right down the middle, clean in half. The Prophet had first picked up Zulfikar as booty from the Battle of Badr. He’d bequeathed the sword to Imam Ali, who in turn had left it to his son Husain, who’d died with it in his hands on the terrible battlefield of Karbala. Despite Zulfikar’s metal pretenses, Amazing Ayyub liked it best out of all the bands because it was so openly Shi’acore and bellowed death-rock songs about the final battle between Mahdi and Dajjal. The entire band looked buff enough to be on steroids, and the singer’s torso resembled an upside-down pyramid: massive shoulders, massive lats, and no waist at all. On his bare chest, he wore a tattoo of the sword Zulfikar. Spread across his broad back was a lion composed of elaborate Arabic calligraphy. The lion was an elegant manipulation of words, most likely holy words, words praising Allah or His Prophet or the Prophet’s House. The singer’s long hair was dyed blond, but he kept his thick beard black.
Like the other bands, Zulfikar reassimilated into the audience after its set. Amazing Ayyub found his way over to the singer, and they simultaneously noticed each other’s chests: the Zulfikar singer with his long curvy Ali sword, Amazing Ayyub with his old-English KARBALA. Without any words beyond smiling salams, they embraced, automatic brothers.
“What’s that lion say on your back?” asked Ayyub, turning the singer around so he could see it again.
“La fata illa Ali, la saif illa Zulfikar,” answered the singer. “There is no hero except Ali, no sword except Zulfikar.”
“That’s tits, bro,” said Ayyub. “You don’t see a lot of Shi’a taqwa-punk bands out here. There was this one I saw in L.A.—I don’t even remember their names but the dudes were fuckin’ slicing their arms up with razor blades and crying and going nuts.”
“There are different ways to manifest your love for the Ahlul-Bayt,” replied the singer, coming off almost as a professor. Ayyub looked at the guy’s forehead and spotted those deep old scars, even in the darkness. The singer saw the same razor-blade road map on Ayyub. They caught each other looking. “We’re serious on our shit,” said the singer. Ayyub nodded.
Later, it was Ayyub and the singer sitting on the curb outside the bar, each of them with a brown bottle, the show still going on inside.
“D’you hear about these Shah 79 fags?” asked Ayyub.
“Yeah,” replied the singer. “It’s all about selling a watered-down deen to the kafirun.”
“Fuck ’em,” said Ayyub.
“They’re changing Islam to make it soft and safe. They’re cutting our balls off.”
“I don’t know who these fuckers are.”
“You should,” said the singer. “That’s your scene.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Shah 79? They’re from your neck of the woods, y’akhi. Buffalo.”
“Those cocksuckers are from Buffalo?” The singer realized the weight of Ayyub’s discovery and kept his mouth shut. Ayyub stood up, unsure of what choice he could make with his body at that moment, wishing there was a movement right then and there that he could offer to destroy Shah 79, but all he could do was grip his bottle by the neck and whip it into the air. The bottle sailed in a high arc and went far enough for its crash to make almost a gentle sound. “That’s some bullshit,” Ayyub said. He repeated himself a few times. “Fuckin’ . . . how did that happen, bro?”
“They weren’t always Shah 79,” said the singer, still sitting on the curb. “They used to call themselves the Black Box Khatibs.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know what a black box is, like on a plane? So they were the khatibs, giving khutbahs into a black box. Think about it, bro.”
“Jesus,” said Amazing Ayyub.
“I don’t agree with the reference, personally. Rasullullah sallallaho alayhe wa salam did not teach the taking of innocent lives. But those kids, at least they had the balls to do their shit and really mean it. Now they’re just pussies.”
“Buffalo—I can’t believe it. Buffalo was no joke when I was there. Shit . . .”
“It’s a joke now.”
“I’m going back. These Walden Galleria punks don’t know how it used to be! I can set ’em straight; I’m like a fuckin’ legend out there. They’ll know who I am. I can tell them about the old days and, shit, I don’t know, turn it around.”
“If you need to go east,” said the singer, “you can ride with us. We’re playing shows all the way to the coast. You can drive the van and work our merch table.”
“A-plus, bro. I’m the fastest driver in the whole history of taqwacore.”
So when the show ended and the kids poured out of the bar, Amazing Ayyub and the singer reunited with the rest of Zulfikar, and Ayyub introduced himself as their new roadie. They seemed like emotionally intense guys. Ayyub helped them load their amps and stuff into the van and volunteered to drive. They all piled in; the singer rode shotgun.
All they had in the way of tapes was death metal, and Ayyub grew tired of it, turning off the music once the whole band was asleep. He floored it through the night, making hundreds of miles and getting them all the way from the coast to the state line and into Nevada. At one point, the singer woke up and told Ayyub that the First Imam, Ali bin Abu Talib, knew what awaited him, so he said that his future assassin should be killed only with a stroke equal to what he himself had suffered. And the First Imam forbade the mutilation of dead bodies, as he had heard the Prophet say, “Mutilate not even a dead dog.”
“That’s for real,” said Ayyub.
“That’s the kind of thing we need to remember, brother.”
“Brother, we have to remember it when that yahooda bitch kills the Mahdi.”
“She’s already out there. Didn’t you hear about that? A few years back, Ayatollah Behjat’s giving a lecture, and out of nowhere he just starts weeping. So the students ask him what’s wrong, and he says he just had a vision: He saw the yahooda girl being born in Isfahan who’s gonna grow up and martyr Mahdi.”
“Are you serious?”
“I shit you not, brother. The Twelfth Imam’s killer is already here. You think we lift weights to look good onstage? It’s going down soon enough.” With that, the singer closed his eyes again, leaving Ayyub alone to think about it.
The next morning in Buffalo, Michael Muhammad Knight woke up and went to the abandoned car in the backyard. Instead of a sleeping Amazing Ayyub, all he found in the passenger seat was a mess of spit-out date pits. Michael Muhammad Knight thought of a quote to sum up Amazing Ayyub, lowest of the low:
Do you want to be a pilgrim on the path of love? The first step is making yourself as humble as ashes.
—Ansari of Herat
And for himself:
You don’t realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
The doghouse in the backyard was unpainted, still only the color of ugly, plain wood, and the author had filled it with old wrestling dolls, the classic 1980s LJN line: Hulk Hogan; Big John Studd; George “The Animal” Steele, with his green tongue sticking out; Superfly Snuka, from the Fiji Islands, in leopard-print trunks; Junkyard Dog, with THUMP emblazoned across his ass; the Iron Sheik, with his sinister, curly-toed boots; Hillbilly Jim, with that big bushy beard that could make him a Taliban if you covered his blue overalls with a jalab; Kamala the Ugandan Giant, with bare feet and a moon on his belly; Corporal Kirschner, the camouflaged and dog-tagged semijobber; the devious Mr. Fuji, in tuxedo and bowler hat . . . the author had them all standing together in rows reaching to the back of the doghouse. He looked at what he had done, how the dolls stood with each other, brother by brother, in straight and even rows.
The figurines needed an imam. Andre the Giant seemed the safest choice; he was far and away the greatest man among them, and a hafiz in Michael’s imagination. The way Andre’s figure was posed with his hands up by his head looked the closest to prayer position, anyway. Allahu Akbar—too bad the rubber figures weren’t posable and had to make salat in fixed bicep poses and grappling stances. Who prayed like that? Maybe the Druzes. At least Tito Santana had his arms at his sides, his hands open like a Shi’a’s, but he was naked, save for his skimpy purple trunks and knee-high wrestling boots.
Michael Muhammad Knight half hoped for some Indian in the Cupboard–type magic. Perhaps he’d come back the next morning and find a halaqa going on, Hulk Hogan discussing the Qiyama as though hyping a Saturday Night’s Main Event show: “WELL, YA KNOW SOMETHING, BROTHER,” he’d bellow, gruff and amped, with Mean Gene holding the microphone to his face, “WHAT ALLAH’S TRYING TO SAY HERE IS, WHATCHA GONNA DO WHEN THE EARTH SPILLS FORTH WHAT IT CONTAINS? AND WHATCHA GONNA DO WHEN THE MOUNTAINS CRUMBLE? AND WHATCHA GONNA DO WHEN THE QIYAMA RUNS WILD OVER YOU?” Michael Muhammad Knight, unaware that Ayyub now roamed with an apocolyptic Shi’a metal band that was busy preparing for such things, wondered what Amazing Ayyub would do when the mountains became like carded wool and Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj were let loose to rush headlong down the hills.
Ayyub was a barbarian champ anyway, hunting his food in Buffalo winter year after year. One night he’d stolen a bag of shrimp from the nontraditional students’ lounge at Buffalo State College. At Herman Street he’d cooked the goods in Michael Muhammad Knight’s microwave and served them in hot dog rolls with ketchup. It was just about the most depressing meal the author had ever had, especially when Ayyub went off on his brilliant money schemes. The first was to save up a sizable chunk of cash, a couple thousand dollars or so, and then drive with it across the bridge to Niagara Falls, where he’d exchange it for Canadian quarters. He’d take the quarters all rolled up to someplace far from the border like Colorado and then trade them for bills. The bank teller, assuming that the rolled quarters are American, will give you American bills. Depending on the exchange rate when you did it, you could make a good profit.
With that money, Ayyub announced, they’d bring a whore over and make her fuck herself with a wine bottle while they all masturbated to it. The author almost choked on his shrimp sandwich.
Ayyub’s other big caper involved collecting those free credit cards that college-age people got in the mail all the time. Ayyub said he’d sign up for every last one and slowly build credit by buying little things like soda and magazines. Eventually, he’d get a mass of thirty to forty credit cards, and then he’d go down to New York and buy gold everywhere you could. When the bill collectors eventually came after him, he’d just declare bankruptcy and forget about them. They wouldn’t be able to do anything to him because he’d have no money, just a secret trunk of gold buried in his backyard. He’d take all those necklaces he bought and melt ’em, and then he’d be rich. According to Ayyub, he could then hire a woman to fuck herself with a cucumber while he masturbated to it.
Michael Muhammad Knight did not masturbate to whores with cucumbers or wine bottles, but at the last ISNA convention he’d picked up the brochure from a shalwar kameez manufacturer and made repeated istimna to it in the bathroom. There were beautiful girls in that brochure with dark wet hair and long lashes, modeling silks with patterns that he thought he had seen on the outer walls of mosques in Isfahan. He kept the catalog as a memento of the convention, but felt creepier as it accumulated creases over time.