Qasida for the Sacred Mosque

ML Kejera

“The date was the First of Muharram of Islam’s year 1400 – which in calendars kept by infidel Westerners corresponded to November 20, 1979.” – Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca

Sakinah smelled brimstone on Juhayman al-Otaybi and his men as they limped into the mosque’s tangled underground rooms. They wore unwashed white kaftans, open in the front, that stopped at their calves. Their sons and captive young boys tended to their wounds and washed blood from their unkempt beards with cloth dipped in holy water from Hagar’s bottomless well. She didn’t see their pale-skinned, honey-eyed Mahdi – their redeemer – among them.

Up above, Muhammad Abdullah al-Qahtani – Mahdi-claimant of the new century – lay strewn on the marble courtyard of the Sacred Mosque, under the cloudless Meccan sky. Embedded in a garden of fiery smoke and the mutilated faces of his many martyrs, his entrails cooled in the rhomboid shadow of the Kaaba

Sakinah didn’t have time to grieve the dead nor lament with the living; it was the hour of the morning prayer. She went off to find the stairway that led to the Kaaba’s interior. The blank gaze of Muhammad Faisal Muhammad, the oldest of Juhayman’s rebels, followed her.

With her flashlight, she walked through dozens of interconnected chambers, avoiding the ones the rebels used as latrines. The ever-present stench of shit disoriented her.

Six days ago, as the new year’s first month dawned, the rebels had unveiled their guns from draped coffins. With shots, they halted the circumambulation of the sacrosanct cuboid. In the bodily chaos that surged towards the gates, Sakinah had been unable to find a scion of Shaiba – keyholders to the golden door that barred entry into the Kaaba.

Refusing dejection, her heart had grasped at words from the Qur’an. A verse from Surah Al Imran filled her with hope: “It is He who has sent down to you the Book; in it are verses precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others nebulous.” Since God’s words were an endless, inky sea of mysteries, she concluded that The Hidden’s House must be replete with them as well.

For hours, Sakinah had combed the underground maze for a way up into the shrouded heart of the mosque. She finally found the stairway underneath the area where the muffled gunfire had been loudest.

She was the widow of one of Juhayman’s followers who had shot himself while practising drills. With her college education, she had helped her husband pass his exams at the Islamic University where Abdul Aziz bin Baz (who was blind but still decried the presence of women on television) had lectured Juhayman and the other future rebels.

A few months into his studies at the university, her husband had brought home an exegesis of the hadith. Reading the hadith of Gabriel revealed the shaky ground on which she’d built her faith. Abu Huraira had witnessed, and recorded, the meeting between Gabriel and the Prophet wherein the archangel tested the Prophet on the three core components of his religion. Mouthing the words of the hadith, Sakinah had been inundated with doubt.

She was, she had realised, only two-thirds of a dutiful Muslim. Yes, she upheld the five pillars and accepted the six metaphysical articles, but she could not convince herself to see God even though she knew that The All-Seeing saw her. All her life, she had lived in a country with mosques on every corner, where the birds flew to the vibrations of the call to prayer, and whoever conquered the Kaaba was king. Yet, she could not see God anywhere she looked – not even in the mirror. God had filled Sakinah with an incomprehensible dearth of true faith.

Sakinah was incapable of abandoning God and unwilling to yield to His apparent abandonment of her. Prayer, she had often repeated to reassure herself, would solve her problem. And where better to pray than within Mecca’s mosque? Had not the Prophet told his companion, Jabir bin Sumrah, that: “One prayer in the Sacred Mosque is better than one hundred thousand prayers elsewhere”? She went on numerous pilgrimages to the mosque – kissing the Kaaba’s black stone till her lips bled – and begged God to suffuse her void soul with His unimaginable presence.

She had thrown herself to the multitudes who circumnavigated the Kaaba in order to, through some process of spiritual osmosis, soak up the faith of those who truly believed. Yet, encircled by the din of a million souls unified in perfect belief, God had still allotted her emptiness.

Sakinah had resolved to penetrate, and pray in the Kaaba to maximise her prayer in God’s gaze, regardless of the cost. Was it not the most sacred edifice in Islam? First built by Adam and Eve based on structures they remembered from the Garden. Rebuilt over millennia; once by Abraham and Ishmael, and after a flood, by Qurayshi men – the young, velvet hands of the Prophet among them.

Sakinah felt conflicted.

The rebels had transgressed the sanctity of the mosque by bringing in weapons. At times, she wanted all of their heads, but she was grateful to them for giving her access to the Kaaba.

Juhayman and his men had laid siege to the mosque to ignite the apocalypse. These international descendants of Ibn al-Wahab, chief theologian of the first Saudi state, were disgusted with the modernisation of Saudi Arabia. They wrote and consumed polemics against the presence of women in the workforce, schools, and on television. They censured the Saudi princes’ lax attitude towards alcohol. They blacked out portraits of King Khaled on all their money. The Sauds were so profane, the rebels believed, that The Avenger would surely enact the final hour known only to Him.

Sakinah cared little for their gripes with the changing times. She was proud of her degree from the Riyadh College of Education. Still, to place Juhayman within her debt, she had secretly penned the ‘Seven Epistles’ in his name. With the knowledge she gained from her husband’s texts, she had cited the proper Qur’anic verses and hadiths to lay bare the Saud’s indignities against the faith. When Juhayman informed her that only men would partake in the siege, she threatened to tell his followers who had penned his epistolary condemnations.

On the day of the siege, cloaked by her black abaya and veil, she had whispered the classical Arabic proclamations to Sayyid, their Mahdi’s brother, who belted them into the prayer leader’s microphone for all Mecca to hear. He declared that all faithful Muslims must swear allegiance to his pale brother who, indeed, had the prophesied birthmark on the left side of his face. Now he and his army would await the legions of the one-eyed Dajjal, the false Messiah, for the final battle. Instead, they were met by hesitant National Guardsmen, most of them members of Qahtani’s clan.

Calculating the exact figures of devotional amplification that praying in the centre of the Kaaba would grant her, Sakinah tripped on the first step of the marble stairway. It was the step where the Saudi Binladin Group renovators had dared go no further, discovering that it led to the Kaaba’s innards.

Faisal Muhammad Faisal emerged from the darkness to help her up, gathering her compass, world map, prayer mat, and flashlight from the floor. The cone of light emanating from it lit up the rest of the crumbling, clay steps that zigzagged through numerous floors. On the climb up, the aged Faisal – always a few steps behind her – kept running out of breath. Sakinah lifted the marble slab by herself.

Inside the Kaaba, Sakinah and Faisal were overcome by the musky smell of perfume. Twice a year, with the aid of the royal family, the Kaaba’s caretakers masked the miasma of their ancestors’ 360 bygone stone gods who had lived within the Kaaba with oud oil, holy water, and Taif rose essence.

Her flashlight bored holes into the darkness, revealing shimmering Turkish chandeliers and maroon pillars with gold bands. The walls were separated into upper sections of jade cloth patterned with Qur’anic verses and lower ones of white marble and limestone. As she had done since first gaining entry into the Kaaba, Sakinah – flashlight pointed at her compass – twirled around the fifty-two-and-a-half by forty foot cuboid.

Before the siege, she had made Juhayman and Qahtani swear that they would include compasses with the supplies and weapons.

“But, Sakinah, why?” Juhayman had asked.

“To know which way to pray, of course.”

“But the Kaaba will be right there.”

“I’ll need them to discover the best direction in which to pray when I’m inside the Kaaba.”

“No, that’s too much,” Qahtani had said. “We’re already bringing weapons into the mosque and now this? You will not enter the Kaaba.”

“The Sauds pray in there for their dead and they’ve done nothing for the faith. Your words come from my tongue. My husband was your first martyr. You’ll allow me this.”

Sakinah had no intention of wasting her prayers on her husband, whose bullet-ridden face she had forgotten as the funeral prayer ended. She prayed for God to orient her in the proper direction because, wherever she prayed towards, that familiar emptiness awaited her.

On the third day of the siege, she had faced the Dome of the Rock. The original qibla before The Steadfast had turned the Prophet – mid-prayer – to face the Kaaba. God, as always, responded to her queries with the fathomless silence of the world. Her heart grew murkier, as if The Unattainable had placed an additional veil before the 70,000 already between her and Him.

Today, her head still spinning, she turned towards the mosque of Uqba in Kairouan.

Sakinah finished the morning prayer’s two prostrations. Turning her head left and right, she said, “May the peace and mercy of God be with you,” to all Muslims, the angels, and Faisal, who was not praying.

*

“You know, we aren’t the first to attempt an attack on the mosque,” said Faisal when he finally caught his breath.

“Truly?” said Sakinah, feigning ignorance. Her legs were still tucked under her.

“Yes, we are the latest in a long line of fools. In the year the Prophet was born, peace be upon him, an Abyssinian viceroy with an army of elephants came hurtling towards Mecca to raze the Kaaba to dust. Though the Quraysh worshipped their pagan idols inside His house, God sent down a cloud of birds from the gates of heaven. Carrying in their beaks tiny black stones, they bombarded the army of elephants – smashing them into mangled straw – and spread disease amongst the Abyssinians.

“When we surfaced from the crowd, I looked up to the sky, expecting punishment, expecting to see black wings canopy the horizon once more. When nothing happened, when our fellow Muslims swore themselves not to our cause but to our guns, Sakinah, I wept. Juhayman and his dazzling words fooled us all.

“In my heart, I believed that The All-Knowing would stop us. Then all Muslims would know to fear Him again. How could He allow His house to be desecrated at the dawn of His new century?

“Oh, I have killed in His house, Sakinah. I have riddled men young enough to be my sons with bullets, while the Kaaba stared down at me. The Qur’an says that to kill one man is to kill all men. Then tell me, Sakinah, tell me, who has lost count of the boys who cursed my gun with their last breath, how many iterations of mankind I have slain? How many future generations lie bloody at my hands?”

“Surat al-Ma’ida makes clear that God allows you to dispense death when you are fighting corruption. And you had the Mahdi at your side, Faisal.”

“Don’t you spew that nonsense at me,” he screamed, sending a booming echo through the dark cuboid. “I’m not one of Juhayman’s hot-blooded boys. You never believed that Qahtani was the Mahdi. Yes, he was pale. But so are many Arabs. Yes, he had some tenuous connection to the Prophet’s family. But so does every Muslim smart enough to embellish their family history. Yes, he was named Muhammad. But almost all our sons are named Muhammad. So what if he had a red spot on his cheek?

“Thousands have claimed to be the Mahdi. A thousand more will claim after we’re all dead. Not even Qahtani believed, at first. Doubt blackened his eyes as he walked down the human sea we parted with our guns.

“No, belief only entered him when the gunfire started. Whenever the soldiers threw a grenade, Qahtani rushed to pick it up and lob it back. With bullets gliding past him, he thought himself impervious. I won’t lie to you, I almost believed he was the Mahdi. But when he reached down to grab the final grenade, it went off. His legs, his penis, his knees – all tendrils. The sight of him made me vomit.

“And Juhayman, do you know what that dog told the boys? ‘He’s not dead. You know as well as I that the Mahdi can’t die. He’s only been injured.’ He said this even though we had all seen the frayed carpet that remained of Qahtani. Juhayman then gave us a speech, calling us cowards. He said we were free to surrender if we wanted but he would fight Goliath to the death.”

“Earlier,” Sakinah said, ending the old man’s story, “you said that we were not the mosque’s first would-be conquerors. Did any of them pray in the Kaaba? Do you know in which direction?”

“I’m not sure,” Faisal said, defeated.

“Did you come up here to pray?” she asked, reapplying her ablution with the Kaaba’s marble.

“Do you mind the company?”

“Of course not. In which direction?”

“God knows.”

*

Three days later Sakinah oriented herself towards French Polynesia, where the antipode of the Kaaba was located. In the morning, the Saudi troops had thrown down gas canisters hoping to smoke the rebels out of the clay and granite underworld. Tear gas still stung her eyes.

Muhammad, one of two Black Americans with the rebels, was familiar with the particular burn. It was the same gas his government had refused to sell to the Shah of Iran but used on their own protesters.

“You gotta wrap a cloth dipped in water around your head and inhale through that,” he communicated in English, sparse Arabic, and wide gestures.

He used the word ‘zamzam’, having forgotten the Arabic for water, so the other rebels assumed that it was the healing power of the holy spring that allowed them to breathe through the gas. Was it not the same spring, they asked themselves, that had sprung into being for a desperate Hagar when Abraham had abandoned her and Ishmael between two hills?

With the knowledge garnered from their comrade, the rebels repelled the troops. The Saudi soldiers fell into retreat, eyes stung by their own tear gas as their beards made it impossible to properly wear their masks.

Sakinah lifted her forehead from the Kaaba’s marble and found Muhammad repeatedly asking her, “Zamzam, sister, zamzam?”

“Zamzam?” asked a dazed Sakinah in slurred English. “Well not here.”

“You speak English?”

“Small, small. Television. Million Dollar Man.”

“I see. Look, maybe you can help me out. I wanna pray but I got lost looking for some water.”

“La, wash with stone. Me show you,” Sakinah said and demonstrated to the shocked man how to ablute with the grey-veined marble.

“Now, I never knew you could do that,” said Muhammad. Having no soul to talk to since his compatriot – and translator – was unconscious, he gushed when he realised Sakinah understood English better than she spoke it. “Would’ve come in handy when they shut the water off. Not that I was much of a praying man back then. Didn’t really understand Islam. See, my mama’s from The G and her family’s been Muslim forever but she wanted me to choose my own faith. My daddy was a Christian. He converted after Brother Malcolm came back from Mecca talking about ‘people of all colours and races here in this ancient Holy Land’.

“But me, I wasn’t really ready for faith until my mama died. Cop shot her full of holes for selling smokes on the street. Funny thing is she didn’t smoke herself. But she’d hustle and tell anyone who’d listen what the best brands were. That’s why I respect your man, Juhayman. Way I hear it – though he’s not a smoking man himself – he used to sling cheap squares from Kuwait.”

“Squares?” asked Sakinah.

“Cigarettes.”

She giggled, allowing the Black man to distract her from praying.

“See, any good leader’s gotta know how to hustle. Shit, Brother Malcolm was a no-good thief before he converted, right? Even Brother Wallace waited for his daddy to die before taking the reins and moving us away from that Nation shit.

“Anyway, after I got out, Brother Wallace helped set me up. I kept having dreams where I was walking around this big cube that was blacker than me. Brother Wallace said that was Allah’s way of telling me to go to Mecca. And here I am,” he smiled.

“Here you are,” she said. “Good dream come from Allah.”

“Damn right. Them others down there, ever since that Katani guy died, they lost hope. You though, you’re like me, I can tell,” he said, peering deep into the oval window that showed Sakinah’s eyes. “You’ll only lose hope when you die. Way I see it, with the Mahdi gone, the Messiah can’t be far behind. Isn’t that how the scripture goes? See, Allah’s been sending me another dream. Down there, I can’t tell whether it’s day or night but, when I close my eyes, I see my Muslim brothers and sisters shooting lightning from their guns. Jesus Christ – blacker than me and my mama – is by my side and we are mowing down a sea of white men on the streets of Chicago.”

Sakinah, confronted with a cloudy mirror of her own delusion, decided she had heard enough of Muhammad’s story.

“Bilal Black too,” she said.

“Wasn’t he the Prophet’s slave? Never quite could wrap my head around that being okay.”

“La, not slave. Abu Bakr make free. Prophet Muhammad friend. First climb Kaaba and do adhan,” she said, mimicking the call to prayer by repeatedly raising her hands to her ears.

“No, I know what the adhan is.”

“Good.”

Sakinah oriented herself towards the Stone of Ishmael for the second afternoon prayer.

“Pray with Sister Sakinah, Brother Muhammad?”

“Oh, damn. Never really learned how to lead a prayer.”

Sakinah chuckled. Her veil billowed in the flashlight’s light like black smoke in the wind.

“In here,” she said, “pray way you like.”

*

Time passed. Dawn’s white thread merged with the black of night. Sakinah lost track of what events occurred before and after. In the timeline she mulled over while eating her daily meal of two dates and holy water, she knew to place their capture of the mosque at the beginning. But when had Qahtani’s legs been shredded?

Having lost track of time, she chose to perform supererogatory prayers. Those who were lost in the colossal disorientation of the siege found their way to her. Some prayed with her. Others, such as the captured Lieutenant Qudheibi, interrupted her prayer.

Lieutenant Qudheibi had crawled up the stairway searching for an escape out of the maze. He wore a cream single-breasted suit with trousers. A muted red bandolier hung off his chest, matching the bloodstains that covered his uniform, giving him the appearance of a wilting flower. With bullets still in his legs, he conversed with the first rebel he came across without a rifle.

“What are you even doing with these men, sister? They want to make women slaves, you know. Or has your husband forced you here?”

“No, I’m a widow,” Sakinah laughed.

“God willing, I’m the one who killed your husband.”

“You’re too late, I’m afraid. He shot himself months ago.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“Would you like some?” Sakinah said, unwrapping a dried date from her rank abaya. “I doubt they’re feeding you down there.”

“Yes.”

“Were you trying to escape?” she asked as she fed him half her date.

“Well, what do you think? I was carrying another soldier, but one of those bastards got him with a dagger. Weapons, weapons in Mecca. God forgive me.”

“It is a regretful shame.”

“It’s a little too late for regrets, don’t you think? You have driven the world mad with your transgressions.”

“Oh, do tell. I have no idea what’s going on outside. The rebels don’t like radios.”

“The Shia are rioting in Qatif. They think your Juhayman is on their side. Everyone is sure that the Americans or the Iranians or the Jews – or maybe all three – are behind the siege. They’ve evacuated Mecca. The Iranians still have those Americans hostage. Muslims in Pakistan, Libya, Bangladesh, and all over the world are rioting. Oh, and there’s a decree calling for every able-bodied Muslim to free the mosque from you dogs.”

“A decree, really?”

“The scholars took their time, mostly because they were squeezing the princes to meet all of their demands. No more women on TV. Women can’t teach boys anymore. No more alcohol. No more cinemas. And our money will be faceless. But, eventually, they said we were allowed to kill all of you.”

“Even bin Baz?”

“It was his voice on the radio.”

“That, I didn’t expect.”

“This new year has been full of surprises. This is actually my first time in this mosque, you know.”

“Congratulations. It was God’s will. ”

“And now that I’m finally here, I might die because of you jackasses.”

“Where better to die than here?”

“Sister – ignoring the decree – if I do die here, do you think the fire awaits me because I have killed in the mosque or the seventh heaven because I defended God’s house?”

“Good question. I’m not too sure. Just to be safe, you should pray for forgiveness. You’re in the best place for it.”

“And where is that, exactly?”

“The Kaaba, of course.”

“By God, you people truly are evil. God forgive me.”

“Why? Twice a year, the Sauds pray in here. What’s so different between them and me?”

“There’s the smell for one,” said Lieutenant Qudheibi, before he limped to the staircase.

*

On the 10th day, the Shia riots in Qatif were decapitated. The protests around the world continued. In Mecca, Juhayman al-Otaybi ascended the staircase into the Kaaba. He found Sakinah completing the evening prayer, her front illuminated by a stuttering monolith of yellow light from the dying flashlight.

“I got you batteries,” he said. “For your flashlight.”

“Food would have been better – manna and quail, ideally.”

“Then pick up a gun.”

“Keep talking and I might.”

“You’re crankier than usual. Still haven’t figured out which way to pray?”

“What do you think? And you, did your speech go well or have they all abandoned your cause?”

“That was days ago. But, yes, you were right. Calling them cowards really did the trick. Not one of them will surrender. And that verse from Surah Al-Baqarah really lit up their eyes.”

“And so you have fuel for your little war, even without your Mahdi. It’s a shame about Qahtani, though.”

“Qurayshi, you mean.”

“He’s dead, Juhayman. We can stop lying about him being a descendant of the Prophet.”

“Or he’s just injured and dying.”

“Either way, you can drop the pretences.”

“You never believed in him, did you? Not even after dozens of people dreamt of him standing in front of the Kaaba. Not even after some of the hostages said they dreamt of him too.”

“But you did not have that dream. You only used the opportunity to let your followers know that good dreams come from God.”

“Yes. But it was you who told me what the Prophet said about dreams – according to Abu Huraira, no?”

“Abu Qatada and Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, actually. What would your followers think of your ignorance?”

“I don’t think it would matter. Not anymore. All they care about is our fight, our vengeance. Our fathers and grandfathers rode with Abdulaziz, conquering Mecca and the rest of this damn desert for him. He and his sons turned on us when we aimed our guns towards Iraq and Kuwait. They let the British bomb us, for God’s sake. They abandoned the teachings of Ibn al-Wahab. They brought disbelievers here. All else is just glamour weighed against our revenge.”

“Yes, I’ve heard the speech before. But you were the one who brought weapons into God’s House.”

“We, Sakinah, we brought weapons here. You’re just as much a part of this as me. But at least I care about our cause. Qurayshi and I used to talk about you. About why you’re here. Why you stuck around after your husband died. We could never figure out why but we knew you didn’t care about our fight.”

“I already told you. I am here to pray for my dear husband.”

“You think it’s wise to lie in God’s House? Tell me, what are you really begging Him for?”

“Faith,” she said, revealing the truth. “I am incapable of true belief, Juhayman. I fear that The Arbitrator has hardened my heart against Him, like He did with Pharaoh. If He doesn’t save me here, I’ll know.”

“Apostate!” barked Juhayman. “I should kill you.”

“Could you wait until after I’ve learnt the best direction? I’ll be more than happy to return to God then. Besides, aren’t you tired of having the blood of allies on your hands?”

“Do you really grieve for them, Sakinah? Or do you just wish to torture me? While you spin on your heels, I am out there, fighting with them. I hold them as they die. I cut their rotting faces so the Sauds don’t punish their families. No matter how I wash it, my beard still reeks of their blood.”

“Yes, but how did you win them to your side?”

“With your help, you mean?”

“No, before that, when you were a missionary. You took poor boys to the desert and had your subordinates sing your praises. You starved them on stale bread and vinegar while preaching endlessly about the evils of the Sauds.”

“So you and your husband talked about more than books then?”

“Then you sent them wandering through the desert. Like Hassan as-Sabbah, you had a miniature heaven waiting for them spread out on Solomon’s carpet – perfectly spiced lamb, saffron rice, the coolest yoghurt, and a can of Coke.”

“Now you compare me to a Shia? And it was Pepsi, by the way. We don’t drink Coke. If you flip the can, the name reads, ‘No Muhammad, no Mecca.’ And they sell it in Israel, too.”

“What? You don’t think Pepsi is sold in Israel? By God, you’re an idiot.”

“I won’t fight you, Sakinah. Not today. We’re friends. We’re tired. And we’re hungry.”

“No, I’m hungry. You’ve been eating.”

“I suppose. Believe it or not, I actually came up here to share a funny story with you. Do you remember the shopkeeper who was born and bred in Mecca? His shop was three minutes away from the mosque? He never stepped foot in the mosque because he didn’t trust his sons to run his shop?”

“Yes. What about him?”

“He’s down below. One of our hostages. Isn’t that funny? I gave him an extra date.”

“Do you intend to pray up here or will you leave me in peace?”

“Pray for me, Sakinah – and our cause,” he said, crawling towards the stairway. “I haven’t prayed once since we went underground. You can’t really pray upwards, can you?”

*

Over the next two days, Sakinah twirled and prayed in a darkness that matched the Kaaba’s pall – Juhayman’s batteries having malfunctioned. She only completed the required prayers in succession, no longer knowing when to pray any of them.

She decided to perform the night prayer.

Whenever her forehead touched the cold marble, she heard the thunder of the ultimate battle happening beneath her and outside the Kaaba. With screams, explosions, trilling gunshots, and dying coughs, she wove together the carpet of the massacre. Pakistani and Turkish civilian workers drilled holes into the courtyard floor, right above the underground rooms. Juhayman and his followers shot through them as soon as the drilling machines stopped, causing blood to pool around the holes.

Crimson rain seeped into the catacombs.

The Saudi troops hurtled gas canisters down the holes, soon followed by grenades. In retaliation, the rebels burnt tires to produce disorienting smoke. They were gunned down as descending troops shot blindly into the acrid subsurface air. In the fiery whirlwind, neither side aimed away from the hostages or baskets of dried dates.

Her compass was useless in the darkness. Sakinah forgot what was north, south, east, and west. She had recited every verse in the Qur’an but the words lost their meaning on her tongue.

About to give up, her body suddenly refused to turn from the direction in which it was pointing. It had come to her, the best direction in which to pray when one is in the Kaaba.

She asked God – her prayer amplified a million times by her reckoning – if in His infinite mercy, The Merciful would flood her with His light and reveal His face to her.

He responded.

Unbothered by the stench of blood, shit, brimstone, and tear gas,  of new and old death, Sakinah, eyes blacker than the Kaaba, descended the bullet-chipped steps of the stairway into the maze. Ignoring the awestruck gaze of the captive Juhayman, she walked up to the nearest rifle-wielding soldier she saw.

“Brother, by God,” she said, speaking, really, to the hollow in the gun’s smoking muzzle, “if you have any mercy within you, you will cut me off from life this instant.”

ML Kejera is an Illinois-based writer from The Gambia. His work has previously been published in Strange Horizons, adda, Cafe Irreal, The Outline, Pangyrus, and The Nation. He was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing. He is at work on a novel about the fictional nation of The G, for which he is seeking representation. Please tweet him images of your favourite pizza @KejeraL.

 

*Image by Nikesh Kumar B K on Unsplash