The blown sand heaps on me, that none may learn
Where I am laid for whom my children grieve . . .
O wings that beat at dawning, ye return
Out of the desert to your young at eve!
– Rudyard Kipling –
She looks literally dead, Anna thought as she followed Karen into her son’s room. The day before, on a day as white as a winter horizon when the first snow falls, Karen got heavily drunk in her kitchen, alone, in the dead of night. Anna, her neighbour, a fit and caring middle-aged woman, heard her throwing up on her doorstep. She came to help her, took her up into her bedroom, where she shouted – “I don’t want to sleep here I want to be in Martin’s room!” – and she noticed an empty bottle of Akvavit and a Stonehenge of Carlsberg cans around her bedside.
“Don’t leave me alone, Anna, please.”
“I’ll sleep over.”
The next morning Karen was ready to confess everything. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew her story but no one had heard Karen’s confessions.
Anna, a lawyer whose grandfather had been a Nazi sympathiser during Germany’s WWII occupation, believed in a postmodern Christianity – she was a hugely charitable woman but was impressively un-judgemental.
Over a warm tea that morning, Karen began her confessions:
“Martin left me three years ago today.” Karen spoke as she looked at herself in the kitchen mirror – her copper hair, curly like a sad beach full of algae, hung dirty and loose over her shoulder. What would Martin think if he saw me now, she thought? I’m so unnatural, it’s all so unnatural. “As you know, Anna, Martin was slightly autistic – Asperger’s, it’s called, you see. It made him very secretive. Even as a boy he always hid his toys from me, obsessively, and never told me anything. And he was so, so sensitive, you wouldn’t believe. I remember, once, he saw a cat dead on the road, flattened, you know. He made me stop the car and he got out, cool as you like, picked up the roadkill and placed it, gently, gently, on the side of the road – ‘so no one squishes it’. The rest of the day he walked around with this icy rage etched all across his face. He was only eight, then. That was always so touching, and he was so helpful, too, my little helper, even after his father died, he would not leave me alone – my six-foot shadow, I called him – and whatever he did, whether it was taking out the trash or helping me cooked, when he was done he would come to hug me and kiss my cheeks.”
Anna noticed a light, delicate tear fall down her cheek. The day was brighter than yesterday, the clouds had parted and the light of the sun rained down on Karen’s modern, softly-lit kitchen. Outside blackbirds were alighting on Karen’s denuded trees. Anna hated all the light; especially the way it shone on Karen’s pale face, as if her suffering had made her divine – fuck divinity, Anna thought. She doesn’t deserve this.
Karen took Anna up to Martin’s room – still preserved like a mummified memory – where the light pierced like snow, and showed her all his games; his PlayStation, his Lego’s, his football’s and Denmark shirts, one of them signed by Martin Laursen – and she forced out, like a tearful yawn, an: “he was just a normal boy.”
Then she sat down on the bed like a yellow flower in a wheat field, and picked up a soft-toy from the bed, clutching it to her womb, and she began to speak through a vale of tears: “A year or so after he left I sent him a message. We had been communicating on WhatsApp. I told him, I said: I wish you were still with me, I need you here, I’m so helpless without my man, won’t you come home? A few days later I get a reply: if you still need a man, I’ll come over. Who was this, I thought, who had taken Martin’s phone? I was terrified but I stayed calm and played the game. Of course, baby, but mama needs her son with her.
After a few agonising hours, I get a reply: but mama, your son is in bits.”
“For god’s sake.” Anna gasped with as much horror as if she could actually see Martin Knudsen, the autistic neighbour, scattered in bits somewhere in Syria.
Karen collapsed weeping into Anna’s ghostly embrace. Anna, the granddaughter of Herr Christian Poulsen, a pusher of OPROP! leaflets who tried to get fellow Danes to surrender to the German forces, now felt herself overwhelmed by vignettes of hatred.
I hate Islam. It’s no better than fascism. It’s barbaric. We’re fighting a one-sided war with the bombs all on one side, the side obsessed with martyrdom. We are victims of our own success. Freedom and democracy are too good for us. Who’s ready to die for them? Who’s a willing martyr to democracy? No one. We are cowards. Pussies. And it’s women like Karen who suffer. Such a good woman. A good son, too. But he was poisoned. He was always simple, gullible, malleable; and he fell into the hands of bullies who gave him what he always wanted: power.
I remember his anger tantrums. His bouts of stupid swearing. His tirades and how he used to hit out at his mother. But Karen always controlled it. With love, love! Then Daesh come along and they undo all that love. Islam is a religion of hatred. Of undoing. Of destruction. I hope, I really do, that for every Muhammad Abu Khalif – nee Martin Knudsen – there are a hundred of us ready to die for love.
“I can’t understand it.” Karen wailed. “He kept so many things from me as a boy. But how could he keep this from me? What have I done, why did he have to run away from me, to get himself blown to pieces – and all those people he killed, is it my fault? Oh Martin,” her white eyes looked skyward, “I still need you, mama needs her son, please, come back, I need you so much, mama’s proud of you, just say you’ll come back.”
Islamism may have taken his body, she thought to herself, but I’ll be damned if it take his soul – mama’s boy is spending his afterlife with me!
In a bar just off the Puerta del Sol, with the lights as dim as winter, and the noise muted save for the shriek of clinking glasses, Fernando drank vermouth with his friends late at night. They talked about the Clasico, and traitorously admitted Real Madrid would lose to Messi and company, they talked of Rajoy and his crippling economy, Fernando brought up the longed-for subject of Republicanism; and when they had finished their third round of vermouth, a dry silence fell between them, one that was filled by the television’s announcement of the latest terror attack, this time in London.
For Fernando, the terminology was all too familiar; the rampant cars, the shooting, the stabbing, the wounded, the dead, and the scene was engraved in his memory, of broken cars, sunken bodies, women shivering near a fleet of ambulances, men with bandaged heads nursed by young paramedics and a skeletal silence collapsing over the once-bustling city. Fernando watched it all with indifferent passion.
“Alejandro, you coming down to Malaga this year for the feria? El Fandi is fighting there.”
“I don’t know, man, depends on work, I get paid on the hours I do, if I do enough I come, if not, fuck it man, El Fandi can wait.”
“Don’t start about fucking bullfights, hombres.”
A laughter that soon began devouring itself rolled across the table like a sandstorm.
“You’re just a pussy, man, admit it! Save us the politics and the ethics and the bullshit, you just scared of it.”
“I am, fuck yes, the thought of seeing a man die, gored, for the sake of sport and tradition, it’s scary, yes, and stupid. You know how many people, in hospital, want to live, but can’t, because of cancer or Aids, and here are these aristocratic bastards ready to throw their lives away on the horns of a fucking bull!”
“My daughter loved the bullfights.” Fernando spoke suddenly, his eyes still fixed, like nails on the hands of Christ, onto the television. He spoke as if he were alone in the room – alone in the world. “She always begged me to take her, even if it’s just for a novillada. Amaia, she, she was obsessed by two things: love and bullfighting. She loved with a heart as big as a guitar, she hugged everyone, played games with them, kissed them; with me, I remember, she would refuse to go to bed unless I gave her a piggy-back ride.
In the morning she would do her gymnastics, using me as a beam, she laughed so much, like the sea, just like the sea. When she kissed you you felt like all life was worthwhile. You forgot you had no job, no money, no future; you were just in love.”
Alejandro ordered another vermouth as Fernando talked. He listened with the hatred of the ghetto and the devotion of a parishioner. ISIS aren’t a new thing. Not by far. Before them there was fascism, there was the Inquisition, there was Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. But I thought we were over that. I can accept not having fixed work, but why should I be drinking, in 21st century Spain, and having to hear about how a man’s daughter decided to go fight and die for a fucking caliphate? This is worse than the Civil War; this isn’t a war between two opposing sides, this is a war on the inside, a cancer, tearing apart families, cities, countries. Maybe progress is just a myth and this is as good as it gets.
“I was always mesmerised by her passion for blood-letting. Any other girl would look away when the matador thrust the sword into the bull’s neck. Not Amaia. She watched, mouth agape, fixated – even when they have to plunge the knife into the collapsed bull, she applauded so her hands turned red like the rust-coloured sand.
I swear, if she had seen her photo of herself lying dead, as I saw it, she would have loved it.” Fernando smirked, still trapped by the television’s urgency.
Isaac, who was the only one drinking sherry, put his fingers in his mouth and began to chew his nails, and if he didn’t need to stop to take a sip of sherry, he would have eaten his own hand. Fernando is the most loving father I know. He’s obsessed by his daughter in a way none of us are. She was his entire raison d’etre. Whilst I live for my work, Alejandro lives for his wife and Paco, the man lives to fuck, Fernando he lived for his Amaia. We, the rest of us, could lose our job, lose our wives and our sex-drive, but we’d migrate onto something else. When Fernando lost Amaia, his life just came to a halt. I’ve never seen a murdered man before. But Fernando… even a simple man like him can be destroyed by that hateful ideology. What’s left of us, now, what?
“The man who recruited her showed me the photo. When he first called me I refused to believe him. He was saying your daughter’s dead your daughter’s dead – I said prove it. We met in the Lavapies, one dark night, and he showed me a picture of Amaia, with a bullet through her head, and her eye-ball popped out of her socket. Ole!” Fernando laughed without smiling and whispered again. “Ole!” He didn’t even notice the tear running down his cheek. Didn’t notice it; he was still studying the television.
“Wajdi was a great, beaming rebel. Ever since he was small he was attracted to anyone that looked daring and Bohemian; Che Guevara, James Dean, Muhammad Ali, anyone. Che Guevara was the scary one. Wajdi, who had been growing a beard like him and started smoking cigars like him – I used to get him good Cubans from the market – he was becoming very defensive about Che’s violent tactics. And I was haunted, one day, when he hung up a picture of Che’s dead, mutilated body over his bed.
‘Why do you defend him so, Wajdi, when you know what he’s done?’
‘What has he done, mama, that the Yanquis haven’t done? They brought down governments all over Latin America, imposed dictators that killed millions, and in Vietnam and Iraq, well, you know it already, mama.’
‘But to retaliate like they did is to be no better than them.’
‘The world is a corrupt place, mama. In this life you have to choose between the lesser of the evils. Che Guevara knew that, accepted it, and for me, he was the lesser of the evils.’
‘What about those who fought back with poetry, words, demonstrations, aren’t they an even lesser evil?’
‘No. Because they achieve nothing and are helpless against the bigger evil.’
And then Bob Marley came along. What Wajdi loved most about him was his death. ‘Bob Marley knew that his time was up, he had fulfilled his Fate, made his music, had children and wives, and he wasn’t scared of death. A true man is never afraid of death.’
‘But the man died from a stupid cancer under his toe, it could have been removed, he didn’t have to die of it!’
‘He didn’t believe in removing parts of his body – it was against his faith. Better for a man to die true to his principles than to stay on and fight like a vegetable.’
‘But life, Wajdi, is so precious.’
‘Yes, mama, but death is more powerful.’
I didn’t know what he meant by that, then. But I know now. I didn’t know it then but Wajdi was slowly building the terrible jigsaw that would make him into a terrorist. The worship of violence, the awe of death, the anti-Western rhetoric. My son, he, he was ripe for Al Mehdi. The ISIS recruiter who posted more videos on Youtube than Miley Cyrus posted naked selfies. I don’t know. I really don’t, but, Al Mehdi, for Wajdi, was yet another rebel. A man he could relate to. A Tunisian-born Belgian migrant, like him, he talked of the soldiers of Allah and how they were inflicting brutal blow after blow on the barbarous empires of the West.
Wajdi, my son, was drawn to terrorism the way Che Guevara was. He saw video upon video of ISIS propaganda. In one, called there is no life without jihad, a group of fighters, young, fit and wearing military gear, spoke to the camera, a heartfelt plea for fellow Muslims to join in the fight, to take up arms, to hear the call of Allah; Wajdi was hooked on it. He showed it to me the way a child shows his mother what they did in school, and all I could say was, ‘since when are you so religious?’
Wajdi wasn’t religious. But he was faithful. Hell, he was a teenager. All teenagers are unbalanced. He couldn’t resist. He imagined himself with an AK47 in his arms, spreading terror, being part of a movement that sought to be as powerful as the caliphates of old, something pure, uncorrupted, unchanging.
The day I got the call that my son had killed himself in a suicide attack, killing twelve people in Syria, I felt, away from the stabbing pain, a sense of pride. Not pride in what he did or who he had become. But I was proud that I understood my son the way no one else, not even his father could. I wasn’t surprised by his death. For me he died the day he left for Syria. When I got the news I mourned him close to my chest. I knew, then, what he was all about.
He wanted to show me that, in his own way, he was as brave as I was – or as brave as he thought I was. And not just me, but my brother, the man who set himself on fire in Tunisia, sparking the Arab Spring, my brother, Allah give him rest, and I, how was I brave? I didn’t fight, I didn’t set myself on fire. I merely took to the streets and nearly got shot a couple of times.
But Wajdi was annoyed, infuriated: a fighting spirit like his found itself in cushy, pampered climes. We came to Belgium precisely because of that. We wanted peace, and we wanted our children to grow up away from war and strife. And that was our biggest mistake. Wajdi, his rebellious spirit, his vicious bravado – he hated peace. He was always looking for a fight, looking to do his part. And the cause of ISIS was tailor-made for him. It was the call to arms he had been looking for his whole life. My son found the death he had always been looking for.
And to say I’m proud of him would be to justify his cause, to tell him it’s all ok. I can’t do that – but my God, he really was my son!”