[“A Final and Lasting Solitude” is a novel-in-progress]
PART I: AUGUST
Montreal. Winter waits in the distance and when it comes it will be harsh. For now, it is hot and this place has a ripeness to it. Young people teem about in gangs. They parade noisily, drunkenly down avenues and boulevards, through cobblestone streets. They pass places of worship and do not pause or quell their voices in reverence. They speak in French and English and in something called franglais, a perverse blend of the two. Many of them wear their Christian cross, and little else. Women, indeed, show much of themselves, without shame. They walk bare-bellied in the streets, their bosoms hanging out like bunched fruit, eyes skittering about uncontrollably when men pass. I have watched them as they ogle each other, these women and those men, the ones proud of their bare, pink chests and the clothes they have and choose not to wear.
It should not surprise me, this immodesty. I have seen it everywhere outside the confines of my home. I have seen it inside my home, seeping into the minds of the young, their impure thoughts propagating like vermin. For this reason, I willingly subject myself to these sights and to the presence of these people. There are many sacrifices to Allah, I understand, and toiling for Him here is but one. Besides, it will not be for long. A dawn approaches and I have been called upon. Humbly, I will do my part to see its rise.
I work in a bookshop here. It is a simple job. The most demanding chore I have is to retrieve the heavy textbooks placed stupidly on top of the tall bookcases. They are not popular books by any means, but the bookshop is just two blocks from a university and already I have had requests from a dozen students (all young, underdressed women) for these volumes. Each time, I have had to come around the counter, turning my back on the cash register and the merchandise near it. I then walk to the faulty, wooden ladder that has tiny wheels running along a track near the top of the wall. This gives the ladder the freedom to traverse the length of the bookshop’s shelves. With a harsh push, I roll the ladder into place then rattle it with both hands to make sure it is balanced and not collapsible in my fingers. The ladder creaks and the third rung up bends when I press weight on it.
When I reach the top today, I do not stop for a breath. I simply grab the textbook — “Essentials of Early Childhood Education” — and hustle down, stretching from rung Number Four to Number Two before hopping down. Usually, there is a loud thud when I do this and it causes the female customers to turn and ask if I am okay. I always assure them I am, but I have wondered what these women might do if I was not in fine health. If I had twisted an ankle or broken a leg or thrown out my back. What would they do? Would they actually help a dark, brown man with an accent and no spending money and a verse from the Qur’an always playing in his head? I wonder.
In any case, the ladder is my folly. Once down it, I hand whomever it is her book, ring her up, as they say, accept her money and wish her a good day. Then I sit and study while I mind the store. The store is small, trafficking almost exclusively in English books. That is not a prudent thing in a city where language is an issue, where storefront signs in English must also have the French translation, and the French words have to appear dominant. However, in some cases, it is easy to skirt the issue. For example, the name of my workplace is “Le Book Shop”. French, English, franglais. It is legal, it is cheaper than having two signs, it is good business.
The owner, my boss, is a Jew. It was not planned this way. My instructions were to establish a presence within the Muslim community and to begin recruiting immediately. Through correspondence I had met a man named Habib, who was working on an assignment of his own. He said he had a position at his Halal market waiting for me. When I arrived, though, Habib and his butcher shop had vanished. This will happen. When our ability to be surreptitious is threatened or when we feel a plan’s fruition is imminent, we disappear deeper into the shadows. In Habib’s case, I did not know why he left, although I am optimistic and eager to see the result of his efforts.
Without him, however, I needed to find a job. The money I came here with is solely for the operation. Room and food and other essentials are my responsibility. Admittedly, I should have looked for a position among my brotherhood. Time remains precious, though, and it does not matter where I receive funds, just that I do. By the grace of my superiors, I have the necessary papers to obtain a job anywhere in this country. When I saw the “Emploi Valable/Help Wanted” sign in the window of Le Book Shop, I proceeded as necessary.
“I am looking for a job,” I said.
“Well, I have one,” the shopkeeper replied.
“Yes, I know. I read your sign.”
The man looked at me carefully and I looked at him. I could not tell immediately that he was a Jew. He is a Westerner in every way. On this day, his pants were denim and his shirt was short-sleeved and glossed with a silky sheen. I noticed immediately the chains and watches and rings that adorn him as if he was a chosen calf. This man’s name is Lawrence Schneider. He is rich, young and secular.
“I don’t pay well,” he said. “Only about eight dollars an hour. I usually hire university students who don’t mind making that little.”
“That is not too small for me, either,” I said, while still looking at his green eyes.
His pupils widened, before he took his stare away from me and turned his back, as well. I did not leave, although I felt I should have. When Lawrence Schneider faced me again, he stood with a pen in one hand and a sheet of paper in the other. He slid the paper toward me and placed the pen on top of it. “I need you to fill out this application,” he informed.
I complied without hesitation; such forms are meaningless. After encountering several of them, I have yet to see their purpose. A man scribbles down every detail of his life but nowhere does it ask him to reveal what’s in his heart, what his dearest wish is, or what rages in his bosom. Were there such a comment box, then Lawrence Schneider and I would not have seen each other again, let alone worked side by side.
I slid the completed form back to him.
“Mohammad,” he said, glancing up at me as he read.
“Yes. Mohammad Yousef.”
“I see you have retail experience.”
“That is correct.”
“And you speak French.”
“Good. But you won’t need it in this store.” His pointy index finger was scrolling down the sheet. “And you won’t need German, Arabic or Italian, either.” He then looked at me in bewilderment and asked, “You speak five languages?”
“You really could be doing better than a bookshop.”
“I have just arrived and I do need something for the moment.” I told him I was a teacher in Algiers, but that my education does not yet meet the university requirements here. That is why I am taking courses, it is why I needed a job. It was a lie, yes, but done for the benefit of our cause, which is the cause of almighty God himself, so the lie will be forgiven in the end.
Lawrence Schneider raised his eyebrows and twisted his neck before facing me with what appeared to be a new reverence. With a quick thrust of his arm, his open palm was placed in front of my chest. “Welcome to Canada,” he said.
I shook his hand, using a forceful grip that he surprisingly matched. Our shake did not last more than a moment.
“I’ll have to check these references, but it looks fine,” he added.
I nodded, and was unconcerned. The references were accustomed to receiving these calls about men like me: brothers whom they had never met or heard of, but whose existence, I’m sure, was a great relief and hope to them.
“Can you start next week?” Lawrence Schneider asked. “Is nine dollars an hour okay?”
Typical, I thought. To lie and tell me eight then offer me a dollar more to win my favor. I smiled and said his offer was one I would not pass up. He chuckled and told me he would show me about the store on my first day and added he was willing to aid me in other ways. As he came around his counter to lead me out, he said, “If you need help finding your way about the city, let me know. It’s more cosmopolitan than you might think. There are many Middle Eastern restaurants on Rue Jean-Talon and there are several mosques in the city, if you are looking for one.”
He smiled and I smiled back, and replied, “Oh, I’m not a very religious man. Thank you.”
He chuckled again, for some reason, then opened the door and patted me on the back as I walked out of Le Book Shop.
That meeting occurred on my third day in Montreal. At that point, I had yet to see the city’s core, where the immoral minds and wicked hearts of these people flourish, where God is made a fool of, where everything coalesces obscenely like bodies, producing an unnameable mixture. It is what they call nihilism and it exists on a crude, decaying foundation; one so base and transparent, I imagine it sinking under my feet like sand, sifting through my clenched fist like the grains of dust that it is.
On Rue Ste. Catherine, I walked. It is a long street that is a minefield of sin and avarice. Actually, a “minefield” is not the appropriate word, because mines are most often hidden. Here, the danger is in open view, for all to see, and still people tread. Men and women and children. It is how they are, or how they are taught to be.
Neon signs hang from above, their bulbs shaped into the figures of naked women, making plain that the real thing is just steps away. They are consumer items, these women, like everything else. Sex is for sale, just as pork is in the eatery next door or as fun is in the arcade down the block, where children learn to drive fast and shoot straight. Storefronts display women’s undergarments and jewelry so expensive its buyer could, for the same price, feed a child in my land for years, even decades. Only in a world such as this could a bauble for a single finger equal an entire life. Laughter, frivolous and happy, pours in all about.
I returned to my apartment quickly that day. I live in a cubbyhole near the university called McGill. Despite the apartment’s size, I am able to fit everything I need: a laptop computer, a small desk, a bed, books and an altar for prayer. And pray is what I most often do. Beyond bowing toward Mecca at the five holy intervals of the day, I am also compelled to kneel before Allah from the moment I escape into my own little hovel, free, briefly, from this city’s streets.
I sit on my heels then capitulate, lowering my head to the floor and keeping it there for a moment. I take a breath and can smell the staleness of urine and vomit from someone before me. I rise up, my eyes closed and my lips moving in prayer. Then I bow again and when my head hits the floor I breathe, and I smell the stench of alcohol and the odor of lust and the whiff of paper money.
For an instant, I pity Allah. He must exist in all places, no matter how insulting. Then I realize I am the one who has brought insult for such a condescending thought. I bow again, and remind myself that I am but a humble servant before Allah. And serve Him, I shall.
The university is central for me. Montreal, for all its French-English tumult, has an enclave of nearly 80,000 Muslims. Some are apostates, to be sure; people who call on Allah in one breath and curse his existence, or rue it, or denigrate it altogether, in another. These apostates are neither young nor old. They are mostly women, but not only. Their aim in life is to fit in here. They all but beg for acceptance and cherish any hint of it they might receive. Never mind afternoon prayer. They will laugh. Never mind the hijab. They will stare. Never mind Allah. Never mind Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him. Never mind Palestine and Persia and all the tortured ones crying for justice.
This is Canada, their slogans declare. And I am Canadian.
I have no intention of attempting to emancipate them from this train of thought. The others are whom I am concerned with. The bright minds who understand that Satan’s greatest ally is temptation and his favorite trick is to pretend he is good and just. Even if they once saw with their own eyes a gang of Jews shred a Palestine with American bullets shot from rifles with English names, they have been instructed here that such things do not happen. Only in self-defense, maybe, and even then . . .
For years, many have been made to harbor the truth. But ignorance is not a life sentence. Muslim children here age. A fortunate few grow wise with doubt. And some of them make their way to university.
I have enrolled, too. My studies include two courses. One is in computer programming. Although I know the subject fairly well, it is good to learn the nuances and slang and different methods used to accomplish the same task. The other subject is Canadian history, of all things. It is a prerequisite for attaining teaching credentials. I have no intention of finishing the class.
Of imminent importance is finding camaraderie on the campus. From what I have seen, even during the light summer schedule, a great deal of it exists, on athletic fields and in the halls and meeting places. The kind I am interested in, though, needs to be cultivated like land. It takes time. Thankfully, I can recognize the potential of a heart just as a farmer can any plot of territory.
There is one here in whom I see a great yield. His name is Ali Haseem, and he is twenty-one and Lebanese, and is quite aware of what America did to his homeland. Most importantly and most admirably, he is not afraid to speak of it. Ali is the president of the Middle Eastern Students’ Association of McGill. Tall and thin, with hard, serious eyes that smolder with passion when he speaks. His skin is the color of gold before it is mined, handled and dunked in water. Despite his raw intensity, he has a charm about him. A smile comes easily when he recognizes a face and he moves with a slow, measured gait like a cocksure thoroughbred before a race. Together, his traits give him the commanding presence of a leader. It also helps that he is handsome.
No one feature on his face stands out of proportion from the rest. His teeth are straight. His nose is small. His skin smooth. Like me, he does not where a turban or a beard, and I sense it is for the same reason: To not reveal the depths of our love and commitment, to not bare our souls for it would become an obstacle for us. Without this holy dress, though, we are naked to the world and all its judgments. In this manner, Ali and I are clearly very different. I am eight years older and more muscular. A severe underbite has left me with a chin that juts out like a ship’s hull, my ears protrude unattractively and there is a slight scar — the remnant of a gash incurred in training — near my left ear. Ali has no scars; none that are visible, at least.
“We will begin where we left off,” he stated at the beginning of a meeting held a few evenings ago. “For those of you who weren’t here, the discussion last time was whether we should march as a group during the Commencement Day parade instead of with the students in our individual programs. My position was and still is that we definitely should show solidarity.” He paused to look around at the fifteen faces before him. “We may have seen the pictures and read the accounts of the conflicts in the Holy Land this summer, but not everyone on this campus has. This is one way to make them aware of what’s happening over there.”
The meeting was held in a conference room in the student activities office. Four members stood while Ali and eleven others, including myself, sat at the large oval table. Before Ali, a set of posters sprawled featuring the infamous photograph: a young boy from Palestine cowering in a corner, his knees to his chest and his face frozen in a horrific scream as bullets and debris fly around him. He is an angel now, this little boy. The Zionist Kafirs saw to that. Ali has seen to it that the boy did not die in vain. He is a martyr to our cause, his face showing the blunt truth; Ali’s words — “ISRAEL: STOP KILLING CHILDREN” — echoing it. On the poster, the words, in stark, bold letters, appear next to the boy’s face as if speaking for him. The work is beautiful, its message precise and powerful.
“Isn’t there a better time?” asked a young man named George. He was wearing short pants and a gray T-shirt that read: “Property of the Montreal Canadiens.” “I mean, Commencement is when we all look forward to getting back with the classmates we haven’t seen during summer. Plus, it’s a bit of a party atmosphere. I think this would fly in the face of that.”
“I believe that’s the point,” Ali retorted, dismissing George’s statement for the petulant notion it was. “This is exactly when we should make our statement. Everyone is going to wonder why we are demonstrating. Some will say we are ruining a good time. That’s fine. My guess is those are the ones who will never go out of their way to listen to our message anyway. So let’s fly in the face of them. That’s fine with me.”
Ali reached forward, lifted one of the posters slightly then set it back down. George watched the poster ripple to rest and frowned. Meanwhile, I had clenched a fist and started to bang on the poster-laden table. The dull thud of my rapping caused eyes to shift. “Here. Here,” I said when they looked.
Ali smiled while he skimmed his eyes over the rest of the group. “For everyone who doesn’t know, this is Mohammad,” he said. “This is his second time with us. He’s just arrived in Canada from Rome, via Algeria, and is taking some history and computer courses, correct?”
“That’s true,” I said.
“I think he’s going to be a very fine addition to our club.”
He smiled again and I nodded, in grateful acknowledgement. George stood to shake my hand and so did several others whom I had not been introduced to the last time. To remember names, I pay attention to the faces first then associate the names with people or places I already know.
George was simple. I wanted to know his name after his foolish remark. His hair was black with tinges of red and he had a scar above his left eyebrow (“Hockey,” he would tell me later). There was also a short, stocky man with glasses who held a serious countenance but spoke only once, when he introduced himself to me. “Hi, Ragheb Nashani. Welcome.” Ragheb, Ragheb, I repeated to myself. Ragheb Nashashibi, the mayor of Jerusalem for much of the British Mandate.
Saeed was a fat chap who reminded me of an uncle back home, but his name was that of an old, long dead friend from my youth and that is how I would associate him. Imran stood tall and was even built like the cricketer named Khan. There were two women also. One, Liljah, wore a hijab that curled properly around her face and neck, the other, who went by the good Muslim name of Amy, did not. She wore a skirt that showed her knees when she sat and a shirt that clung to her breasts like a man’s hands and she spent most of the evening giggling at anything George said.
Other students were introduced, but I do not need to recount their names. These half-dozen — George, Ragheb, Saeed, Imran, Liljah and Amy — struck me as the most material to the group, for various reasons, not all of which were good. And of all the members of the Middle Eastern Students’ Association of McGill whom I had met, only Ali had potential, I felt.
“We will meet one more time before we come to a final decision,” he said, reiterating his main point at the close of the meeting. “By then, most of our other members will be back in town and we can ask their opinion. Not everyone will agree to join us, which is okay. We don’t want to force anyone into doing something they are truly uncomfortable with, but let’s urge them, if we can. That’s it. Meeting adjourned.”
“Let’s drink,” George pronounced and stood quickly. He found agreement from Imran and Saeed.
“Mohammad, you coming?” George asked.
Sincerity was in his voice, if not in his face. It is called manners, inviting a stranger along even if you don’t really want him to come. Saying one thing, meaning another.
“Yes, Mohammad. Come on. I can tell you some more about the Muslim community here.” This was Ali speaking. Was he part of this lifestyle, too? The thought disappointed me, until I remembered he could not be a leader if he stood apart.
I looked at him, the word “No” on my lips, ready to be delivered to George. An eagerness was on Ali’s face, and it gently coerced me to change my mind.
[For updates on the progress of “A Final and Lasting Solitude”, send an email requesting more information.]