Sûrah XXV
THE CRITERION (OF RIGHT AND WRONG)
"Satan was ever man's deserter in the hour of need."

25
PREREQUISITE

The beach having proven too cold, the sand too hard, the lurking surf too sinister with its fitful ebb-and-flow hiss, Z has left the shore, retraced her steps, and taken refuge in a cypress grove at the edge of Golden Gate Park... where she now sleeps... on a pallet of foliage, arm for a pillow,  jacket for a blanket (though thin as a sheet), curled up like a mollusk bereft of its shell—albeit shielded from the wind and unwanted scrutiny.

She wakes... uncoils... stretches limbs... arches vertebrae... then shivers as the morning sun slants shafts of light through tree trunks, warmed by the honeyed infusion, dappled where she sprawls, aromas, at large, risen from the loam bestirring reminiscence.

1. Like home is this fragrance.

2. The soil, Nature's matrix, gives birth to abundance we fail to conserve.

3. Why covet? Why plunder the earth for its riches, consume them to excess, exploit then discard?

4. The concept of 'fair share' is lost in the West.

5. In the East, it is found sparsely; greed knows no bounds.

6. Disgusting, this refuse.

Z sits amidst garbage. An assortment of crushed polystyrene abounds.

7. Fast-food debris from fast-food mentalities. This "progress," so-called, begets waste, is unholy. Instead of adapting, Man strives to impose, as if Allah's Creation were lacking.

8. Did Man make these seed cones, command them to prosper, to gestate, take root, sprout and grow into trees, which in turn reproduce, bloom, then wither and die that their corpses return what is taken? Of course not!

9. We humans are of this world, not simply in it, subject to all of its natural laws. Cycles are Sûrahs: to learn them is noble, to heed them respectful, to love them divine.

10. For how better serve Him whose breath is the wind, whose tears are the oceans, whose moods are the skies, than to tend here on earth Allah's Eden?

Discreetly, Z scoops out a hole in the leaf-litter, straddles it, wrestles her pants to her knees, squats and pees, then empties her bowels, wipes with grass, shifts to bury it, re-dons her clothing—all managed adroitly, performed like some au fait routine.

Bird song with traffic noise, foreground and background form treble and base of the chorus Z hears:

  • the cackle of a blue jay

  • a black raven's caw

  • rat-a-tat-tats from a red-headed woodpecker

under which vehicles, grumblingly distant, mingle their voices like a monotone choir, a dull roar that strikes Z as ominous—evoking, as it does, her Chastiser.

11. Often, in war games at camp, he would find me.

12. No matter my efforts to hide or evade, the man who was chosen to mentor me hounded me. Snooped on my privacy. Laid bare my weaknesses. Punished my failings with an excess of gall. And praised my successes begrudgingly.

Z scans the copse.

13. Even here is unsafe. He is practiced, part animal. Stealth is his specialty. Once Ahmed captured a ground squirrel, mid-leap—so close had he crept undetected—then killed it, dashed its small head on a rock.

14. True, he shared. We ate it together, while out on maneuvers. He taught me how game must be skinned and prepared.

15. He taught me much more, hence his reason for hating me. Mutinous pupils, by their Masters, are scourged; mine having just cause to smite me.

Remorseful, Z calls to mind cliff faces, treacherous; rugged and bleak is the shrub-sparse terrain. In fatigues foul and sweat-soaked from a forced march since sunup, she follows her escort, exhausted yet fit. It is H-hour, graduation. Her physique has been toned, her round forms made angular, hands and feet toughened, flab turned to muscle, skin tempered, nerves combed, and thus she has proven her worthiness. Ahmed precedes her, Ahmed, the camp's most revered hashasheen, assigned to conduct her—this lowly recruit—through the final transition to Blessed One.

AHMED

Climb!

His order is barked with an ill-concealed malice. He, too, is weary; their pace has been fierce—compounded by heat, thirst, and Ramadan's fasting (regardless exertions, there are none ruled exempt; baseeji are privileged to suffer).

Z climbs, intent on her goal to keep Ahmed in sight, step only where he steps, rest only when he rests, her onerous panting, to his, keeping time, her dogged pursuit his annoyance.

Why him? Of all who had passed their supreme test with honor, he had been tasked to be Rahnavard's guide, a duty distasteful to one who protested recruitment of women; fedayeen should wear beards. Incensed, Ahmed inwardly balked, yet complied. He would castigate later—provided she passed, an outcome he deems highly doubtful.

The switchbacks get steeper, too steep; Ahmed halts. It is dusk (al-maghrib). Z, her back to an outcrop, has spotted a lizard, strikes, swipes with her fist, then bites off its head, spits, and wolfs down the body, suppressing her gags while detaching the tail—observed, with a seemingly dour disposition, by him who approvingly nods.

Z, conflicted, proud to have won this uncommon acknowledgment, nonetheless worries. Is she now too like him?

Misgivings are not to be brooked; both resume, continue their painstaking trek to the top. Having tackled it differently, skirted the base camp, spurned the expedient route via road, only now does Z recognize "Suicide Summit," so named by those peers who were trained to rappel down its sheer, no-net-slung-below precipice.

Anxiety mounting, Z crests (behind Ahmed). The mountain slopes upward for a few dozen meters then ends. Sky and more sky defines all beyond, no peaks in the distance, no plains, no horizon; the incline is such that it blocks land from sight, its slant like a ramp to oblivion.

What next?

At Ahmed's punctilious signal, Z freezes—resenting his gruffness, ashamed of her angst. They have climbed here deliberately. Kismet awaits her. The height, Ahmed's rancor, intense apprehension, conspire to provoke indecision. Z rails, embittered at having been paired with this sexist, obliged to obey him, adjured to accede. Why send off trainees with such hostile conductors to usher commencement of an undisclosed kind? Not one word was spoken by those who passed muster to those who still faced their climactic ordeal. Nor had all who left, on their fateful induction, returned. Meaning what? Meaning death if one faltered? And what was the test, beyond that of endurance? Could more be required of an aspirant's strength? The trial must be mental. Or a question of dogma, some proof to expel disbelievers.

AHMED

RUN, JUMP! DO NOT HESITATE! ALLAH PROTECTS YOU!

Unless life ends now? Are her limbs truly paralyzed, panic prevailing? Have doubts guaranteed she has already failed? For to jump is irrational. Who, then, is running? Who is abandoning Reason for Faith?

Z leaps... wild with ecstasy, laced with adrenalin, bassamat al-farah (smile of joy) on her face, as she plummets, unfazed by a predestined impact, immune to compunction, unafraid, numb to pain, falling head-over-heels in a bliss-filled descent—to the cheers of her comrades, to Ahmed's disgruntlement, to the tensile embrace of her Merciful Lord (and a net rigged to rescue the faithful).

16. I could have been killed. True, the net was a large one. But many miles down—not in distance; in Time. From the moment my feet took me over the edge to the moment my fall at last stopped,  t i m e  p a s s e d  s l o w l y.

17. Ahmed's expression, for instance, seemed fixed—a mixture of hatred, chagrin, and surprise. He might have misled me, or yelled something different. Although what he said had been strictly prescribed.

18. And had I not heeded?

19. I would have been slain. By Ahmed, who hoped I would whimper and cry as he thinks befitting my gender.

20. Indeed, I rejoiced in exposing that lie!

21. By example, not lip service. Brave, too, are women.

22. "Actions speak louder than words," you say here. This maxim is truthful. What matters are deeds. Submit to Allah and be rescued.

23. For surely He saved me from Ahmed.

24. Till afterward.

25. Spared me a premature sentence of doom.

26. Though doom I have since come to earn.

The present resurges, immersing Z's conscience in whirlpools and riptides of un-redressed sin; a wave of contrition, a guilt-ridden undertow, scuttles her spirit. She turns toward the sea—obstructed by windbreak but no less apparent; its rhythmic percussion-like pulse fills her ears. She weaves through the cypress and filigreed bracken that borders the park with its cordon of green, traverses the Great Highway, then runs like a lemming, full-tilt, to the ocean's broad brink.