Ahmed Naji: “Godshow.com”

15 June, 2022,
 M’Beingue, “Al-Buraq,” 34.3 x 48.9 cm, 2004, (cour­tesy Brook­lyn Muse­um).

 

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.

 

BuraqDubaiEgyptimmigrantsIslamLas VegasMohammedmosque

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist (b. Mansoura, 1985) and criminal. Naji has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), The Use of Life (2014), and Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He was recently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. Follow him on Twitter @AhmedNajiTW

Rana Asfour is 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 blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.