“Godshow.com”—a short story by Ahmed Naji

15 June, 2022,
Reading Time :27 minutes
A Muslim family man and an exile from Egypt searches for the right mosque in which to pray in Las Vegas.

 

Ahmed Naji

Translated from the Arabic by Rana Asfour

 

 

1.

Las Vegas was brimming with mosques. As soon as I’d typed “mosque near me” into the Google Maps search, myriad red dots displayed themselves all at once on my screen.

The Al-Hamada mosque, one of the first Las Vegas mosques founded in the Seventies, and winner of a five-star rating, boasted a review claiming that its writer had “felt at peace” as soon as he’d crossed over the threshold. Another described how its congregation had helped “during the family’s short stay in Las Vegas” and that “God is Great.” A perusal of the mosque’s online images seemed to indicate that the building itself occupied a tight space, with no dome or minaret. Most of its visitors appeared to be dark-skinned, which meant the congregation were most likely followers of the Nation of Islam.

I scratched it off my list.

I had no plans to attend an American Salafi mosque. I hadn’t left the shortened robes, the miswak, the scent of musk and the bushy beards in Egypt, only to come here for much of the same. At times, I’d come across them in West Las Vegas as they approached cars stopped at the traffic light, hawking their literature for $10 my brother. One of them honed in on me while I was in my car. Cornered, I lied that I had no cash. No problem, brother, he replied, undeterred as he presented me with a card reader attached to his mobile phone. After I’d paid, I browsed the magazine and found that it mostly contained news of the leaders of the brotherhood.

I quickly moved on to click the link to the second mosque on the list. There, on their website (in the third line to be exact), was a message explicitly indicating that they were open to all races, nationalities, and sects. The recurrent usage of words like “race” and “color” seemed to imply that they did not belong to the Nation of Islam. It appeared that they belonged to the Las Vegas Islamic Center, which was founded in the Eighties.

A further online search came up with the Al Omariya, a mosque as well as an Islamic school. The images portrayed girls as young as ten in their hijab. This website was loaded with proselytization on sound education, proper morals, and the preservation of the nascent Muslim youth. Off the list it came. All I had wanted was to visit a mosque, not send my children to an Islamic brainwashing laundromat. Yet another mosque’s website displayed a picture with a caption titled Bless you, Oh Hussain! declaring its Shiite affiliation. Al-Hikma, on the other hand, had received comments regarding the quality of the food.

Just then, as the waitress came round to clear my now empty beer bottle and to ask if I wanted a second one, Jose Al—– appeared. I stood up to shake his hand and he hugged me and took a seat across from me. He asked me the usual questions about work and family and I answered, albeit distracted, and then proceeded to mechanically ask him much of the same. Once I had a new frothy beer at the table in front of me, I duly announced my plans to visit a mosque.

Don’t you have a mosque you go to already? he asked.

No, I replied.

With seven years between us, Jose was still in his twenties. Sleepy-eyed and huge, his large, impressive, and tightly wound muscular bulk was covered in tattoos. He was a bartender at the same hotel where I worked as a purchasing director, in charge of quality control and food storage. But that was before we were both laid off. We met by chance at a work gathering that brought together employees from the various departments to listen to the “motivational” spiel of their managers. In that first encounter, he brought up poetry, and I let on that I not only read it but wrote some myself. Immediately, he extended his hand for me to shake and introduced himself as a poet. And so, we became friends. But we didn’t really talk much about poetry, as his interest and expertise centered mainly on American poetry and a little Mexican, while I read exclusively in Arabic. I confess that I hadn’t read a single poem in English before I’d met him. As one who claimed to write for immigrants like himself, his English poetry was duly peppered with Spanish. Southern poetry. It’s all about fiery, passionate words my friend. Do you get what I’m saying? he’d ask.

When Covid-19 struck, Jose was among the first batch to be laid off. For a while, he scraped by on unemployment benefits and food delivery gigs in his old Kia, until he managed to find work at a large warehouse that imported cheap goods and auto parts from China that were resold in the U.S.

I fail to recall now how Jose met Phil, whom he brought to our second meeting. Since then, he’s become the third in our triumvirate that communes weekly for beer drinking. I remember, back then, how he’d plunked his solemn, imposing self down, asked for his beer and once it had arrived, remained silent the entire time, listening as I explained to Jose the difference between Friday prayers and Sunday church service.

I confessed to Jose that I hadn’t once been to Friday prayers since I’d arrived in the United States. At that, he reached into his pocket and retrieved a black hair tie, gathered his hair between his fingers, and launched into an extensive monologue about the importance of going to the mosque and to Friday service. Even if I wasn’t particularly religious, it was the best way for me to get to know my community, especially since an immigrant could, at any given day, find himself in need of help or support. Generally speaking, he extrapolated, religious people, regardless of their faith, were always eager to help, believing this would bring them closer to God.

I conceded that I hadn’t considered any of this. All I’d been searching for was a clean mosque that I could attend for the afternoon prayers where the ceiling fan dials would be turned to the fastest speed. Preferably, an empty mosque with very few — one or maybe even two — worshipers, reading the Qur’an in a barely audible voice. I wanted to reclaim the time when, as a child, I’d visit the mosque to lay down on its carpeted floor, close my eyes, and let all my worries and troubles spirit themselves away.

Phil piped in that he understood me completely, and that although he himself was an atheist, he could still understand how places of worship could be repositories of energy, able to evoke and withhold soothing communal memories for their congregants. It was a cave in the Valley of Fire State Park that did it for Phil — a place where early inhabitants of the valley had worshiped and prayed. On every visit, without fail, he felt the energy coursing through the place, despite the centuries that had passed.

Phil was five years older than me. I’ve never understood exactly what he does. All I knew was that he was born in Las Vegas, had a big family, and owned a house and a car. Phil, who worked in the deserts of Vegas and Arizona, looked upon his work — shooting documentaries for PBS — as something closer to a hobby in which he went on long expeditions exploring nature, delving into the history of the deserts’ inhabitants, and unearthing extinct civilizations. His theory was that life in the Vegas Valley went through expansive cycles every four or five centuries, during which the valley would flourish, attracting people to settle down and build. Two to four centuries later, depending on the extent of that civilization’s depletion of nature, another drought would strike the valley, forcing its residents to abandon their parched lands, leaving the dust from the heels of their forced exodus to wipe away the urbanization they left behind.

I don’t get where the problem is, said Phil, interrupting my thoughts. Aren’t there any mosques in Vegas?

I unlocked my phone and showed him my screen displaying the last mosque I’d been researching on my browser.

On the contrary, I said. I’m spoilt for choice at the number of mosques here. But, I’m at a loss over which one to choose.

 

2.

I hadn’t yet made up my mind regarding the mosque situation. That is, until I picked up a woman and her two children. She asked me if I was from Turkey because of my name, and when I said I wasn’t, she asked me if I was Muslim. After a quick glance at the children, and a few more seconds of hesitation, I replied.

Sometimes.

She smiled.

— Why not always? she asked.

I smiled back at her through the rearview mirror before I turned my eyes to the road without saying anything more. As we drove to their destination we passed the Al-Isra Mosque, and my three passengers disembarked two blocks later. I switched off my GPS, turned around, and drove back to the mosque with half an hour to spare before the noon prayers.

Al-Isra Mosque is adorned with a minaret and a dome painted in bright yellow. It was plain to see that its architects had ambitiously hoped to replicate Jerusalem’s venerable Dome of the Rock, only to fall well below their aspirations. The entrance to the mosque was crowded with signs written in English, Arabic, and Urdu, as well as a donation poster for an organization caring for Muslim orphans in East Asia, and another for digging wells in Africa. Below these were stacked FBI-produced leaflets with their messages bold and clear, printed with the customary grammatical and linguistic typos; If you see something, report something or I live in this society, inform and protect our society.

I refuse to believe that the American government and its agencies are devoid in their entirety of people who can speak and write proper Arabic. I believe, rather, that it is a special  form of communication that arrogantly displays its mistakes as a sign of  their utter disregard for any need to camouflage themselves among “authentic” Arabs, seeing them as part of an insurgent plan to establish autonomy and identity withinز A form of westernized Arabic, if you will, perfected by the supposedly omniscient  FBI, which  resists the need to comprehend Arabic,  and the Arabs alike.

I became aware of a man in a fluorescent yellow jacket, standing just outside the mosque, devouring a green apple with his gaze entirely fixated on my every move. I took off my shoes, placed them on the allotted shelf, and entered the mosque. The prayer hall was spacious with green thick-carpeted floors and a high ceiling. The names of God were inscribed in gold on green ribbon that ran along the walls of the hall.

Soon, worshippers began to trickle in and I was relieved to note, mainly from how they were dressed, that they were of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. As it was still midday prayers, many had come in their work clothes. I noted a few construction workers, nurses, one HVAC worker, and a Pakistani dressed in a shalwar kameez.

As soon as I entered the bathroom, I was assaulted by the familiar smell of sodium hypochlorite, the requisite odor of all mosque bathrooms it seems, regardless of their location. I was delighted to note that they had bidets in there too. I urinated, and completed my ablutions before catching up with the prayers. Finishing two Sunnah Rak’ahs I remained in place while the majority of the worshipers started to retreat back to where they had come from. I closed my eyes, trying to evoke the expectant grace that washes over one in moments of serenity. But, none of that shit happened. All that ran through my mind was how, as an Uber driver, I had wasted so much time that could have been better used to lock in two or three more rides.

Immediately after I’d stepped out of the mosque gates, the man in the yellow jacket came up to me. He had a wide mouth, green eyes, dripping wet shoulder-length hair, and nails that were long but clean. He addressed me in a language foreign to my ears.

I must have looked askance because he switched to English to let me know that Asr  prayers were for the weary, even though he didn’t pray himself. I thanked him, after which he advised that should I ever be in need of anything, I am to consult with Dr. Burhan, the man who had built the mosque as well as the adjacent Islamic Center. A good man, he called him, who helped the likes of him, even though he was a non-Muslim because, he added for good measure, God loves us all.

Who are you? I interrupted before he could go on.

He straightened himself up to his full height, spread the palm of one hand on his chest, while pointing with the other to a camera hanging above the mosque’s gate.

Security.

He then launched into a full-on monologue that began with praising the neighbors and the neighborhood. How “bad” guys were everywhere; the drunk and the angry who created trouble. How although the mosque sometimes received bomb threats or other violent threats, the police were there to protect them by sending two cars for Friday prayers and during Eid holiday prayers.

He was now well into his speech, moving his hands in every which direction assuring me that he’d always be there to make sure everyone was safe. As he went on, I took in my surroundings, and saw, at the opposite side of the street, behind a low wall, a row of run-down homes. It was only after I finally thanked the man, and walked away, that I remembered that I had forgotten to ask his name.

On the way to the car, I noticed that behind the mosque was a junkyard, filled mostly with broken yachts and boats of various sizes; they all looked sad and dead. Another “only in Vegas” site: a yacht graveyard in the middle of the desert. They were most likely brought in at one point by owners to sail on Lake Mead. Now instead they lay on their sides like giant boulders that even God had forgotten about. In fact, the lake’s water level had begun to decrease, heralding a new wave of climate change scaremongers, who felt that the disgruntled climate would wipe out Las Vegas within the next fifty years. But at that moment, all I could see on the horizon was the clear blue Vegas skies and the mountains that surrounded our valley.

 

3.

I returned home after midnight to find the bedroom door locked, which meant that my wife  and the two boys had finally gone to sleep. The mess of toys and other debris was scattered everywhere and plates were piled high in the kitchen sink. I checked the mouse traps distributed in the house. All clear, no mice — today.

We moved into this house a month ago, the third since our relocation to America. At first, we rejoiced at the extra space, as we both held on to high hopes that we were headed towards a new chapter, one in which we could reclaim our love and zest for life. Now we are Henderson residents, part of the upper-middle class echelon of Las Vegas.

My wife and I first met seven years ago in Dubai. She was working in an advertising and marketing firm ,and I was managing a grand hotel. Over there, we lived our years immersed in fleeting pleasures, working hard and spending all what we’d earned on leisure and travel. We eventually got married, giving the idea of children not the slightest thought. But everything changed the day she came to me with a hesitant smile and a positive pregnancy test. I was so happy. We hugged and danced. That evening, she told me that we should plan to have the child in America so that it would have a shot at a real passport, just like her nephew. We both knew that up until then we’d been living a life of false stability, for without the guarantee of a path to citizenship, we’d have no choice but to return to Egypt.

A former colleague of mine worked at one of the big hotels in Vegas, and he suggested that we come check it out. Samira loved Vegas, and found the city similar to Dubai — déjà vu at every corner. With the help of this colleague, I landed my first job with a substantially bigger salary than the one I’d been earning in Dubai, and with far better working conditions that did not include excessive censorship and the constant dread of deportation hanging over my head.

Instead of one child, we had twins. We entered an inferno that we have yet to come out of. The stress hit us hard. Samira and I turned from lovers to parents burdened with responsibilities, exploding in each other’s faces because we knew no one whom we could offload on in the city. We thought about going back to Dubai, but the pandemic decimated our exit plans. Airports and borders closed down. The hotel I worked in reduced my wages before I was eventually laid off in the second wave, and we had to move to a house that was hardly bigger than the tiniest room.

That year, our life became a living nightmare in which we struggled day after day to lift our heads off the pillow just to meet the needs of our two boys. My colleague, the only Arab I knew in town, had up and left for Florida, while we remained stuck in the city that the pandemic had forced into darkness, the howls of solitary slot machines pining for players echoing through its deserted streets as they bounced off the walls of abandoned luxury hotels.

I hear a sound coming from the kitchen, so I get up and look around, wondering if it’s a mouse or simply my imagination.

After the vaccination campaigns, the city began to recover, and I was able to secure an administrative job at a famous restaurant in addition to my work as an Uber driver as food delivery gigs. We moved to this larger house with a back garden and two rooms and I spotted a mouse making a run for it behind the kitchen fridge. I bought a bunch of mousetraps to distribute around the house after I made sure to smear a lick of peanut butter onto each one.

We caught the mouse the next day. But it was Jose who told me that one mouse in the house meant there were two, and that two meant a family of them and that we should expect them to appear one by one. There are times, during the night when we can hear them and on more than two occasions, I’ve found traces of their feces in the corners of the house.

I open the bedroom door, and in the glow of the pale light seeping in from the hallway, I see Samira’s body sandwiched in between the two boys. I lift each one to his bed then brush my teeth, undress and lie down in bed in my boxers and an old T-shirt. Samira turns around and, for the briefest moment, she opens her eyes and closes them again, pulls the covers tighter around herself and turns around, giving me her back.

We still love one another, but where has the desire gone? When will the exhaustion and endless worry end?

A few months ago, I passed a family of three near a public park. The father, mother, and child were living in their car. I didn’t tell Samira about what I saw but since then, all I see is our family sliding down that slope, eventually ending without a home. Such fears are no longer the stuff of nightmares, but a reality that thousands face each and every day. For a time, we too had perched on the brink of the tipping point.

Lately, I’ve been failing to recognize my own feelings. My heart has started to beat to the rhythms of stress and anxiety. I’ve realized that I no longer laugh. I try to watch my favorite comedies. I just can’t find the time. I bought a joint and smoked it with Samira. By the end we hugged and passed out on the sofa. In the past, one puff was all it took for us to drown in a sea of hysterical laughter.

I still love Samira, but love isn’t everything when even in its presence I turn my back to her. I shed the covers and sleep naked. After pregnancy and childbirth, Samira’s body has transformed into a new, alien one, that I don’t recognize. She, too, has become ashamed of it, refusing to let me get into the bath with her, and asking me to turn off the lights if, by chance, every two months we decide to strip naked and go for it.

Sleep refuses to come, and I think about jerking off out of despair and boredom, but I imagine, for a fleeting moment, that I hear something in our darkened room. I sit up straight and wonder, could there be a mouse in the room?

 

4.

I returned to the Isra mosque for another visit. This time I arrived just in time for the last Rak’ah of the Maghrib prayers. Again, after completing my prayer, I remained in place until most of the worshipers had departed. I stretched out my legs in front of me, and in the stillness, I closed my eyes and tried searching for what had gone missing inside me. I was pulled out of my meditation when a hand patted my shoulder. A man with white hair and brown skin, wearing brown cotton trousers and a summer shirt, asked if I was okay. He didn’t leave even when I confirmed that I was and instead sat down, extended his arm out to me, and introduced himself.

Your brother, Dr. Burhan.

Ahlan Wa Sahlan.

I shook his hand, and he asked again about my condition. He said that he hadn’t intended to interrupt my devotion, but had merely wanted to introduce himself, and to get to know me seeing it was the first time he’d seen me around.

I was cagey in my initial dealings with him, and opted to withhold giving too much away, including my name. Instead, I nodded as he was describing the lovely community they have here and told me  I was welcome to reach out to him or anyone in the mosque’s administration if ever I was in need. For every problem God has created, there is a solution.

I thanked him for his love and assured him I would take him up on his offer, should the need arise. I left the prayer hall and stood at the mosque entrance, where the worshipers’ shoes were stacked. An advertisement for a center offering psychological and counseling services tailored to Muslims caught my eye. You’re certainly looking for a psychological expert who understands your cultural background and the nature of your local community… There was that word again, I thought. Community.

I photographed the ad and smiled as I imagined Samira’s reaction if I suggested that she book an appointment or that we do so together. Maybe our salvation lay there.

In complete contrast to me, Samira had nothing positive to associate with Islam. And I don’t blame her. She lived in Egypt with a father who insisted on interfering in her life — even after he divorced her mother on the pretext of religion — and what he considered halal or haram. She hadn’t been able to break free until she’d moved to Dubai.

The security guard was waiting for me when I stepped out of the mosque gates. I greeted him from afar and headed to my car, but he ran towards me and asked if I had spoken with Dr. Burhan.

Yes. Thank you, I replied.

He explained that he’d told Dr. Burhan about me. In amazement I enquired what he’d had to say, seeing he knew nothing about me. He’d worried that I might’ve been a Islamist fundamentalist.

An extremist? Is that what you’re accusing me of?

Yes, he said.  I watched you examining the mosque from the inside and out and staying long after the worshipers had left. Don’t blame me but the country’s in peril with whites killing Blacks and the Latinos collecting and storing weapons. America is going to hell and a civil war is brewing! Would you believe it if I told you that just last year a group of Iraqis — Shiites — came looking for trouble because Dr. Burhan agreed to host a betrothal ceremony between a young Sunni man and a Shiite woman from their community? Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not even Muslim. I’m a Christian Turk. I haven’t been to Turkey in years, nor to church for that matter. Dr. Burhan offered me this job and the community is helping me out…

There was that word again, I thought. Community.

 

5.

Then Phil asked me if I’d found what I was looking for in the mosques of Las Vegas. I told him that what I was looking for was most likely not found at the mosque, and that nonetheless I’d been to the Isra mosque. I offered up the address when he asked me and he explained that this neighborhood had previously been an industrial site crammed with workshops and factories. I described the boat cemetery behind the mosque, and he confirmed my hunch and told me that although it may seem strange now, there was a time when a thriving Las Vegas was famous for manufacturing boats and yachts, and that Lake Mead had not only been a booming nautical tourism destination, but a sought-after place for business meetings, remotely tucked away, far from the prying surveillance of security services.

What language are the prayers and the Imam’s preachings conducted in? he reiterated.

I’ve not been to Friday prayer there, but I do know that the sermon’s in English while the prayers are in Arabic.

With his usual hesitancy, Phil asked timidly, if he could one day accompany me to Friday service.

Why?

I’ve never been inside a mosque before.

I made a quick mental rundown of all the topics that could come up in a Friday sermon. In Egypt, for example, part of every Friday sermon is dedicated to prayers damning the infidels — those who have strayed from the faith.

A quick sweep of the Al-Isra website on my cell phone revealed that the upcoming Friday prayer would be followed by a celebration to commemorate the Isra and Miraj, with free sweets for the children. I figured the sermon would surely be dedicated to retelling the story of the night Prophet Muhammed journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven. An entertaining story full of adventures with, Alhamdulillah, no place for hate speech or contempt for other groups.

— Next Friday should be fine, I informed Phil.

That Friday afternoon was promising to be another scorcher of a Las Vegas day when I drove to pick up Phil. He was dressed appropriately, in blue jeans and a white and blue checkered shirt. On the way there, he questioned me about the meaning behind the name of the mosque.

— It means “night journey”

I proceeded with a brief explanation, peppered with my own scientific twist to the tale, about how the name dates back to a legendary journey undertaken by the Prophet Muhammad called al-Isra wal Miraj. The Prophet’s tribe, or what we would now refer to as “community,” I pointedly explained to Phil, in a show of power besieged him for daring to step outside their traditions and the norms of the commune. Things became tough after his first wife and uncle-cum-guardian passed away in the same year. He was sad, frustrated, and probably depressed. To cheer him up God sent Buraq, a heavenly creature with wings, smaller than a horse but larger than a donkey, who flew Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he met and prayed with all the prophets who had come before him. Then, the angel Gabriel — with whom Phil indicated he was familiar  — took him to the farthest reaches of the seventh heaven, to Sidra Al-Muntaha or the lote tree, where he received his instructions from God to pray five times a day. In a flash, he was back in his bed in Mecca, before the mattress had gone even slightly cold.

Whoa. What a story. Was the Buraq an animal or an angel

A mythical animal. But Muslims believe in its existence. I explained to Phil that, for Muslims, this was in no way a fictional tale. Each Muslim was obligated to believe that this journey was an actual miracle bestowed on the Prophet in which time and place succumbed to God’s command and will, making the journey possible. Very much like that movie Interstellar, you know?

I parked in the mosque’s parking lot, and no sooner had we started walking towards the building than the security guard ran towards us, with a disconcerting smile and an enthusiasm that seemed slightly out of the ordinary.

 You’re late, he said. Everyone’s finished the prayer and gone to the show. Come here, follow me.

The mosque door was closed, so Phil and I followed the guard towards the yacht graveyard.  He pointed to the corner at what appeared to be a large storage shed and said:

Everyone is there. Hurry or you’ll miss the miracle.

Phil and I crossed the dusty, unpaved yard until we reached the half-open door. Inside we saw a stage, half a meter high, in front of which rows of chairs were occupied by women, men and children, some of whom were enjoying unicorn-shaped candy. Phil and I chose two chairs in the back row.

It was clear we’d arrived in the middle of the show because, above the stage a screen was already playing panoramic views of the Nevada desert. We had no clue what was going on when suddenly out of the right corner of the stage, a Black child emerged, wearing a long robe, leaning on a walking stick, and speaking through a headset. He spoke in English.

Finally, the Night Journey ended, and the Prophet Muhammad, May God Bless Him and Grant Him Peace, returned, with a gift for all Muslims. The five daily prayers.

A small chorus of children and teenagers appeared behind him on the stage and broke out into a short song about the rituals of prayer. Phil looked at me in confusion, so I leaned in and whispered.

I’m not really sure what’s going on either. This is certainly not Friday prayer, which I think we must’ve missed. This is a celebration marking the Isra and Miraj.

The choir wrapped up their performance and diligently withdrew from the stage, while the child in the robe remained. He opened his arms wide and addressed the audience.

But, Brothers and Sisters, what happened to the Buraq after that trip?

We certainly don’t know, Omar, that’s for sure.

It was Dr. Burhan, who had suddenly appeared on the left side of the stage and was making his way towards its center. There, he turned to face the audience.

However, we are truly fortunate because, here in the blessed land of Nevada, where all signs indicate that the Buraq’s blessed hooves once trod, is proof that the message of our Prophet, the message of Islam, was able to reach every place on earth.

Dr. Burhan broke off into Arabic to quote a verse from the Qur’an — We sent Thee as good tidings — before continuing in English.

The Buraq dynasty inhabited the valleys of Nevada and were known to the indigenous people of the land, who adopted their principled morals. But sadly, they were chased away, persecuted, and finally exterminated by the settlers. Today, in memory of this miraculous journey, we are proud to host the last of the surviving Buraqs.

A montage of images of caves in the Vegas mountains popped up on the screen. Some scenes portrayed hunting creatures with multiple arms and legs. At that moment, Dr. Burhan’s voice rose dramatically as he shouted,

Ladies and gentlemen, feast your eyes on …

The room went dark save for the flickering light emanating from the screen, which now displayed an image of an abstract drawing on a cave wall of what appeared to be a winged animal with four legs. Suddenly the screen came crashing down and as the lights gradually returned, there before us stood what appeared to be a beast that was longer than a donkey, wider than a horse, with a silver tail and mane. On its head lay a crown studded with red jewels. The thing was draped in a red cape adorned with golden stripes, its eyes as wide as a bull’s.

Complete silence reigned in the room, before, as if all at once, it shattered into a million voices calling out, Allahu Akbar and Glory Be to God.

The Buraq spread its silver wings, shook its head, and snorted. And then with a gentle flap of its wings, it lifted itself off the ground to hover over the stage.

The room erupted with further takbeers and ululations. The children were visibly stunned, the mothers and fathers moved to tears.

The Buraq continued its ascent upward until it reached the roof of the storehouse, its wings fully spread out, the silver feathers turning to gold. The Buraq glowed like a celestial planet lit up by the blessed tree from the heavens.

I turned to Phil and he was stunned, his mouth hanging open. When he could finally speak, he was breathless.

Bro! What a show, I’ve never seen a unicorn in my life.

I admit, I was not only taken aback by what we had just witnessed, but felt something akin to a communal familiarity, despite the strangeness all around me. A pride I couldn’t restrain had crept into my tone as I answered Phil.

Not a unicorn. See, no horn. It’s Buraq.

I reveled in the look of bewilderment on his face as he pretended to grasp what I was saying, all while Buraq flapped its radiant wings, as golden as if they’d been spun from the sun itself. A heady scent of musk and jasmine infused the room. I tried to make sense of what was happening in front of me, applying logic and reason to explain it all. But my mind refused to see it as anything but a miracle. A sign of future good tidings.

The Buraq folded in its wings and began its descent as the voice of Egyptian singer Hisham Abbas chanting the revered 99 names of God rose from the speakers. I smiled, but soon found that I was struggling to suppress bubbling laughter that was threatening to burst forth and disturb the revered peace that was now reigning over the room with the Buraq’s majestic descent.

It had all been going very well for me and I’d been willing to eat it all up, but Hisham Abbas’s song managed to topple down the dream, pulling the mask away from this farcical charade and exposing it for what it was — a joke.

Lodged in my memory is that same chant, usually played as an opening number at weddings or parties to let invitees know that the real party was about to begin with its sashaying, grinding revelers and belly dancers, flowing beer, rolled up joints and shishas dipped in hashish. In that context, the euphoric magnanimity of the moment was lost on me despite being surrounded by a theater packed with a captivated audience swaying to the hymns of Hisham Abbas. When the singer chanted “the Manifest, the Hidden, the Exalted” the audience raced towards the Buraq to be blessed.

Chaos ensued, and Dr. Burhan’s voice could be heard bellowing at the crowd to return to their seats. Leaving Phil behind, I took the opportunity to head outside, with my hand still over my mouth, hoping to suppress my laughter until I was at least out the door. Standing in the boat cemetery, I experienced a joy I hadn’t felt in years. I took out my cellphone to call Samira and to share with her what I’d just witnessed. Before I could do that, a Jesus-like figure with loose hair down to his shoulders and a long white robe approached me holding a set of what looked to be promotional cards in his hand.

Did you enjoy the show?

It was magnificent. Out of this world.

At that, he handed me one of the cards.

I’m pleased to hear that. Our company specializes in religious and educational entertainment shows. We cover five religions and have package deals that you can view on our website, the Godshow dot com.

No sooner had I grabbed the card than I was seized by another fit of laughter. Undeterred, he continued, explaining that they were a local business with plans to build a theater in Blue Diamond, a small town about a twenty-minute drive from Vegas in the heart of the Red Rock Mountains. Although he agreed that the location might be remote for some, he also felt it worked best given the nature of the shows they offered.

Besides, most ancient religions first appeared in the desert and the mountains. We have us here magnificent nature we can use to support religious tourism in Vegas, don’t you agree? he asked.

Wonderful my man. Really wonderful, I nodded.

My laughing had escalated to include an embarrassing snort, for which I quickly tried to apologize.

Please excuse me, but the show has me under some kind of spiritual spell, in which my whole body is brimming with joy and laughter. I haven’t laughed this much in so long. I can’t begin to explain how happy I am right now.

That’s exactly the sort of thing we hope to bring to our audiences. I’ll have to go now to help my colleagues shut down and pack up the drones in the unicorn’s body. I hope to catch you at other shows.

He left. I stood there, alone in the boat cemetery, laughing and chortling, under the glare of the relentless Vegas sun.

 

Ahmed Naji is a bilingual writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, and official criminal from Egypt. His novels are Rogers (2007), Using Life (2014), And Tigers to My Room (2020), Happy Endings (2023), and most recently, a memoir, Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (McSweeney’s, 2023), which was a Finalist at the National Book Critic Circle. Presently he is exiled in Las Vegas, Nevada. More about his work: ahmednaji.net

Rana Asfour is the Managing Editor at The Markaz Review, as well as a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.

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