by Saladin Ahmed
“Today we destrrroy Amerrrica.”
Muhammad Mattawa twisted his face into a melange of rage and barbaric triumph. He was rallying a bloodthirsty crowd. He needed to be more forceful. He raised his voice, tried again.
“Today we destrrroy Amerrrica! TODAY WE DESTRRROY AMERRRICA!!” Muhammad shook his fist at the American air, held his conqueror’s scowl for one long moment more. It slipped into a clowning smile when he looked at his friend Ali, who sat on their apartment’s ratty couch, watching Muhammad practice. “Well, what do you think?” he asked Ali in Arabic.
“I think you’ve got it down, dude.” Ali said in English. Smug, American-born Ali with his effortless slang. “I also think,” he began, switching to Arabic, “this is the stupidest fucking movie script ever written. And racist! I mean, the fact that they’re still making stereotypical shit like this…” Ali ran a hand through his spiky black hair. “How many times you going to practice that one line, anyway? Let’s get high.”
Muhammad shrugged in surrender. He hurled the script at his best friend’s head. Ali was right, of course. Desert Rangers II was the worst script Muhammad had ever read, in Arabic or English. The movie certainly qualified as “Public Insult to Islam” — a punishable crime in his homeland. Worse, his role was tiny. But “General Akmed” was the only part he’d landed in the year since he’d played “Terrorist #3” and been shot in the head onscreen by an Austrian body builder-turned-action star. There wasn’t a lot of work out there for Muhammad. In a stroke of luck two years ago, he’d played a Cuban drug dealer’s henchman. Mostly, though, it was sleazy oil sheiks and men who cackled as they blew up children. Then again, Muhammad reflected, the fact that he had shown up to his last two auditions late due to car trouble and reeking due to long nights of hashish and video games probably hadn’t helped his career.
An hour later that same sweet reek filled the apartment, leavened with the fried onion-and-cumin smells of Ali’s cooking. Muhammad’s half-eaten plate sat before him. A video game controller was in his hand.
“Alright, motherfucker,” Ali said in English, “Keep an eye on that score!” Super Mario Brothers © 1986 Nintendo Entertainment Corporation flashed on the screen in white light-letters.
1986. Some part of Muhammad knew it was an arbitrary, European number. According to the Islamic calendar the year was 1406. But living in this country it was hard not to feel that it was 1406 only for old men like his uncle, a hearer-of-voices who had told Muhammad many times that an unseen jinn protected the Mattawa family. This jinn had not saved his uncle from being tortured and crippled by the Internal Security Police back home, though the fact that one of the thugs had suffered a heart attack during his uncle’s public trial had once inspired credulous notions in Muhammad. Still, when he’d crossed the ocean to America, Muhammad thought, he had moved away from such superstition and into the future.
According to the Desert Rangers II script, General Akmed was the terrorists’ supreme commander. But the part had little screen time. Muhammad’s lines consisted mostly of the direction [screams in Arabic]. His main lines in English were “Die, Deserrrt Rrrangerrrs!” and “Today we destrrroy Amerrrica!” The triple “r”s were there in the script. Eric Williams, the director, had explained that Muhammad was to roll his tongue.
Eric was a bony, sadistic man. Back home, Muhammad had often been warned about the Jews of America. But his agent Sol, a mostly-former actor who also had a part in the film, was kind and helpful — almost fatherly. Eric, on the other hand, was neither Jewish nor a kind man. Muhammad wasn’t sure Eric was a man at all. He did not believe in ghuls, but when Muhammad looked at the director he did wonder. Eric was also co-producer and co-writer of the script, in which Lieutenant Snake and his Desert Rangers battle a mad Middle Eastern dictator who’s uncovered an ancient magical artifact.
Muhammad picked his way across the set. Someone tugged at his sleeve.
“Watch out, Mo. Director dickface is in a choice mood today.” Muhammad smiled at egg-bald Sol, who was playing Lieutenant Snake’s hard-nosed commander. Sol could make the huge vein in his forehead throb powerfully on command, and Eric made much use of this talent. Muhammad envied Sol’s role, with its exasperated lines like “If you’re gonna screw me, Snake, you could at least give me a reacharound!”
“Mo! Get over here!” Eric had noticed his arrival.
Muhammad walked over to discuss his scene with Eric.
“Listen up! You’re giving your ‘we’re gonna take over the world’ speech and -”
“Yes, this is what I am wanting to ask you about, Mister Williams.” Eric’s look made Muhammad cringe at his own bad English. “I am saying what in my speech?”
“I told you before, it doesn’t matter! Until we get to the last line, you’re just background noise. Everything’s gonna be focused on Chuck. Just mumble like it’s Arabic. You don’t really have to be saying anything.”
“Goddammit!” Eric snapped, “Just start out calm and then make it angry! Like that Ayatollah asshole.”
“Excuse me, Mister Williams.” Muhammad struggled with his tenses. “That is Iran, what you are talking about. They are not speaking Arabic there, but…”
One of the crew groaned, said “Aw, come on!”
Eric squinted at Muhammad, as if seeing him for the first time. The director lowered his voice. “Do you know what kind of schedule we’re on here? We don’t have time for you to get cute. Or to suddenly develop a fucking attitude. You understand?”
Muhammad didn’t quite understand, but he knew when to grin stupidly and say “Sorry, Mister Williams. No problem!”
Muhammad’s problematic attitude came up again at the end of his weekly English lesson/American breakfast with Ali. From an unseen television somewhere in Johnny’s Hollywood Diner, an announcer roared “IT’S A NEEEEW CAAAR!!!” Ali snapped his fingers in front of Muhammad’s face, and he realized he’d been staring into space.
“What the hell’s wrong with you today, anyhow?” Ali asked.
Muhammad blinked, tried to clear his head. “What is this word, ‘Anyhow’?”
“Not now, dude. Answer my question.”
Ali looked concerned, but Muhammad didn’t quite know what to say. “I… I do not know. Lately, I am feeling that I am in a video game,” he said in English. “In Super Mario Brothers! Every inch of ground I am gaining is a danger, a…”– what was the word? – “a… an obstacle, you understand?” Forks and plates clinked around them and greasy smells filled the air.
“Not understand. Understand. Emphasis on the stand. Enough with the English lessons, anyway.” Ali sipped his coffee and smiled in a bemused way that irritated Muhammad. “So you feel like Super Mario?” his friend asked.
“Yes!” Muhammad half-shouted in Arabic. Since I’ve left home, I’ve made it through obstacle after obstacle. Found new worlds. Overcome monsters and bottomless pits. I think I am going to rescue the princess. But then, without warning, fireballs erupt behind me and I leap without looking into a pool of lava!” Muhammad knew that he was too loud, that he was speaking too quickly, that he must sound crazy. But he found he couldn’t help himself. He’d been holding too much inside. “Yes, I leap into the lava and I’m done for. But then, it’s even worse. I’m not quite done for! Instead I find myself all the way back at the beginning of this tiresome world, facing all those obstacles over again. And I say to myself ‘there’s only so many times I can come back!’ But I can’t check the corner of the screen. How many chances do I have left?” Muhammad pounded the Formica tabletop for emphasis. “How many!?” he shouted. Then, embarrassed at last, he looked around sheepishly and fell silent.
Ali stared for a moment, dumbfounded. Then he cracked a grin, and gave Muhammad a tsk-tsk-tsk. “Have you,” he asked in English, “been dipping into my stash?”
They parted ways after breakfast, and Muhammad begged off when his friend invited him to a party that night in the Valley. There was too much going on in his head for him to try and be social.
For several years now, Muhammad had been dreaming at least partly in English. In his daydreams, too, the language’s strange words and phrases had crowded into his brain. He supposed this was only natural. But lately there had been more to it. He heard and saw certain lines from his life played over and over again in his skull. One moment they were strange and foreign, the next they were disturbingly familiar.
Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle!
Today we destrrroy Amerrrica!
IT’S A NEEEEW CAAAR!!!
And somewhere behind all the blaring English he could still hear the worst sounds from home. The bullying Internal Security Forces with their American-bought uniforms and rifles. The shouted charges against his uncle, who swore before God that he had heard the voice of a jinn mocking the government.
Slander! Blasphemy! Public insult to Islam!
His uncle’s reedy Arabic, whimpering words in the public square.
In the name of God, just kill me!
The sound of his uncle’s bones being broken. The consoling words, like smokeless fire speaking, that had echoed impossibly in Muhammad’s head as he was made to watch his uncle being beaten.
Muhammad woke in the night, sometimes, with all these sounds and words insisting he listen to them, picture them. More and more often he worried that he was losing his mind.
As Muhammad walked toward his rusty Dodge, silently praying to himself that it would start again, he passed a newspaper box and a headline caught his eye.
US BOMBS LIBYA
He scanned the story as best he could through the grate. US warplanes…over 100 dead…baby daughter was slain.
Why had he looked? Muhammad took a breath and did what he always did with the news — tried to pretend he hadn’t read it. He moved on.
An American couple in their twenties was walking by, clearly enjoying the warm April morning. Before coming to the states, Muhammad had worked at kebab stands in Sweden and West Germany. There were big blonde men in those places. But there was a way of being big and blonde that only American men had. A way that somehow reminded Muhammad of a swinging fist. This man had it. He squeezed the woman beside him immodestly, smirked as he called her “Princess.” She was blonde, too. Thin in a way that seemed unhealthy to Muhammad’s eyes. He felt ashamed for being aroused by this unhealthiness, and looked down as they passed.
Though he couldn’t say why, he stopped walking and pretended to look in a store window. Then he discreetly turned to watch the couple for a moment. The pair stood in front of the newspaper box. They didn’t notice Muhammad. They were drunk and in love and he was just one of Los Angeles’ million oily immigrants.
The woman pointed at a headline and said sad-sounding words, but Muhammad couldn’t quite make them out over the street traffic.
The man’s voice was clear. “You ask me, we should just nuke these assholes!”
The woman looked disgusted and thrilled. She swatted the man’s arm and said something Muhammad couldn’t understand.
Muhammad looked on with Eric as Artie the propmaster held up a gaudily painted bronze bowl.
“Wow, Artie, where did you dig that up?” Eric asked, smiling for the first time in days.
Artie scratched at his sizable paunch. “I got it on a lark in Egypt last year. The old-timer who sold it to me said it’d grant me a wish. But it must be all used up — I keep trying this one wish involving Madonna, but no go.” One of the cameramen chuckled obscenely. “Anyway, I had to paint over it to make it show up on camera. A few bucks for a can of gold spray paint and now we got our evil artifact!”
Eric looked genuinely pleased. “Well, Artie, maybe you’re worth half a shit after all. We need to save every fucking penny if we’re going to afford Mister Bigshot Action Star’s goddamned salary!”
“Where is Chuck, anyway?” someone behind Muhammad asked.
Eric made a disgusted noise. “Are you kidding me? We’ve got him for six days next week and that’s it. We’ve got to shoot around him as much as we can.”
Muhammad turned to go practice his getting-shot-nineteen-times-while-Lieutenant-Snake-says-a-one-liner face in the mirror, but Eric grabbed his arm.
“So, General Akmed, here’s your prop. Hey! Maybe you can actually read these damn squiggles.” Eric handed him the bronze bowl.
The metal was like none Muhammad had ever touched before. Somehow warm and cool, smooth and rough all at the same time. Under the cheap gold paint embossed Arabic wreathed the bowl.
But it was an odd Arabic. Old and weirdly vowelled, like the language of the Qu’ran read in a warped mirror. Boyhood religion lessons came back as Muhammad pieced together the strange phrases and read silently.
O believer! Know that this bowl holdeth a servant of Solomon, son of David, God’s prophet, to whom God did grant dominion over winds and birds and jinn.
O believer! Thou hast seen kin-blood spilled. Thou hast crossed the endless western oceans. Thou hast followed the setting sun farther, to a land of disbelievers where the air itself doth choke and the earth itself doth tremble. Thou hast been watched by God and Solomon’s servant.
O believer! As you stand in this land, hold this bowl and recite! Then shall ye reap the knowledge of Solomon! Then shall ye sip from the benevolent cup of Almighty God!
Muhammad’s mind raced with unfathomables. This old engraving was describing L.A.! Inside his mind, the words repeated themselves in a voice not his. A voice not human. The same smokeless fire voice that had spoken to him at his uncle’s trial all those years ago.
Below the weird words was engraved the traditional Islamic declaration of faith, as familiar to Muhammad’s eye as the preceding lines were strange. He gripped the bowl, felt a feverish madness closing in on him. By sheer force of habit he recited the declaration in Arabic.
“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
Muhammad only half-heard Eric’s barked demands for a translation. Something strange — something impossible — was happening, and he stood transfixed.
Clouds of opalescent smoke rolled forth from the bowl and roiled around him. Muhammad let go of the bowl with a yelp, but it just floated there in midair. He thought his heart might beat its way out of his chest. The clouds billowed out to fill the studio and peals of thunder shook the building. To Muhammad it sounded as if the universe were being cracked open like an egg.
Had he finally lost his mind? No… no, Eric and the crew were running around, screaming terrified things!
A fanged face of shimmering smoke began to take shape before Muhammad. A chillingly familiar voice like a thousand harps strummed by sword-blades seemed to scream behind his eyes.
ONE WISH, O SON OF ADAM! SPEAK IT CAREFULLY!
Muhammad’s mind raced with a hundred horrible thoughts. He tried to ignore the inconceivable chaos around him. Tried to control his thinking. What must he do? What must he say?
Video game music, the cruel words of passers-by, old stories of the jinn, his wounded uncle’s whimpers, the sound of warplanes — all of it hammered at his skull as he tried to clear his mind of strange language. In the name of God, just kill me! echoed in his head in Arabic. Smoke billowed and the studio roof rained plaster.
In spite of himself, bits of English slipped from his lips.
A NEEEEW CAAAR!!!
Muhammad wasn’t quite sure which bit had slipped first.