The Sword of God

a Mahboob Chaudri story


In the neighborhood where Mahboob Chaudri grew to manhood, where his beloved wife and children still lived, in the Defense Housing Society a safe distance to the southeast of the incessant clamor of central Karachi, Westerners were an infrequent sight. Oh, dearie me, yes, occasional tourists passed through on their way to the Tuba Mosque, in horsedrawn Victorias hired for a hundred rupees a day with driver, but otherwise the pale-skinned foreigners were scarce.

Here in Bahrain, though, Chaudri had lived among them for six years, and he had developed an amused tolerance of their curious ways. From time to time, of course, they still were able to surprise him. Take this remarkable game of theirs, this — this golf, they called it.

There stood Senator William Adam Harding, an eminent statesman, tall and athletic and attractively graying, one of the highest-ranking members of the American government ever to visit the emirate. Chaudri could not recall which of the 40 or 50 states the Senator represented, but it was one of the larger ones, that much he knew, one of the more powerful ones, one of the ones with oil and cowboys.

It was oil which had brought the Senator to Bahrain, where he had spent most of the last three days touring the Sitrah refinery and meeting with executives of BAPCO, the Bahrain Petroleum Company.

Yet there he stood, that distinguished gentleman, hunched over a pockmarked orange ball on a square of artificial grass in the middle of the fiery desert, waggling a long metal stick foolishly in his thick hands and fully intending to smite the little ball with the stick, to smash it away into the sand, only in order to chase after it and place his bit of plastic sward beneath it and hit it away from him once more, again and again until at last he succeeded in tapping it into a metal cup with a flag on a pole sticking out of it, the flag now barely visible through the shimmer of heat which rose from the desert surface several hundred yards away.

This was obviously not recreation for the body, Chaudri mused, as beads of itchy sweat trickled within the blouse of his olive-green uniform. Nor, in its pointlessness, could he conceive of it as recreation for anything but the most limited of minds.

Why, then, did they bother with it, the Senator and his deferential young aide and the two exuberant BAPCO executives? Why were they still hard at it after well over an hour, with the thermometer reading in three figures and the merciless sun overhead and their idiotic balls already tapped into a dozen or more of their idiotic cups?

And how much longer would they go on before returning to the bliss of an enclosed and airconditioned space?

And why, Chaudri marveled, why in the name of the Prophet must they attire themselves in those outrageous costumes? The Senator, whom he had previously only seen in sedate charcoal-gray suits and rich silk ties, now wore a pair of lime-green trousers, an open-necked canary-yellow shirt with a crocodile at the breast, a peaked mechanic’s cap and white shoes with leather tassels flapping at every step and – incredibly – nails extending downward from their soles!

Chaudri shook his head sadly. He would never really understand these foreigners, never. They lived in another world; their values were hopelessly other than his own.

Which of them was right? The thought disturbed him. In his heart, he knew that neither culture was right, neither wrong. Each was what it was, neither more nor less, and perhaps this golf seemed as normal to the Senator as it seemed normal to Mahboob Chaudri that he should live and work and be lonely in Bahrain while his dearest ones stayed behind in Pakistan and lived in vastly greater comfort off the money he was able to send them from his monthly pay packet than they could possibly have enjoyed had he chosen to remain with them and earn perhaps a tenth as much at home.

Though these thoughts occupied his mind, Chaudri was still the first of them to notice the swirl of sand and the faint rumble of an engine in the distance.

It was a dusty Land Rover with four-wheel drive, and as it approached them the Pakistani recognized its driver as a minor functionary at the American embassy, where he had accompanied the Senator to a brief and apparently purely ceremonial meeting with the ambassador two days earlier. Ostensibly, Chaudri had been assigned to provide the Senator with personal security for the length of his stay, but – given the general peacefulness of the emirate since Saddam Hussein’s forces had been pushed back out of Kuwait at the beginning of the ‘90s – he considered himself more of a uniformed guide than a bodyguard.

The Land Rover’s rear tires swung wildly and threw up a curtain of sand as the vehicle slewed to a stop. The gentlemen from BAPCO seemed scandalized by the interruption, the Senator’s aide continued to look as if he were waiting to be switched on, the Senator himself wore suit-and-tie solemnity over his ridiculous golfing garb.

"Sorry, sir," the boy from the embassy blurted, jumping from the hot Land Rover to fumble in his pockets before them. "The ambassador thought you’d want to know. The Suq-al-Khamis Mosque, sir, and four Americans. They’re going crazy back there!"

The Senator stepped forward and put out a soothing hand. "Slow down, there, son," he said, his deep voice a velvet command. "What’s this about four Americans?"

"Hostages!" the young man gasped. "Some group of terrorists has moved into the Suq-al-Khamis Mosque, and they’re holding four Americans hostage, a doctor and three nurses from the American Mission Hospital." He pulled at last a sheet of yellow flimsy from a pocket and unfolded it triumphantly. "They sent this message to Radio Bahrain and both of the national newspapers."

The Land Rover’s engine ticked its disapproval and settled into silence. For a long moment, the only sound was the whisper of the heat. Then Senator Harding snatched the slip of paper and his aide handed him a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He hooked them over his ears and read the note aloud in the stillness of the desert afternoon.

"The decadent era of Western dominance is at an end," it said. "The Great Satan will be driven far beyond Bahrain’s borders. We will re-establish a true Islamic society and return the land to its former glory as the 14th province of Iran. It is written in the Book of Books: ‘As for the unbelievers, their works are as a mirage in a spacious plain which the man athirst supposes to be water, till, when he comes to it, he finds it is nothing; there indeed he finds God, and He pays him his account in full; and God is swift at the reckoning.’ Saifoullah."

The Senator looked up. "The Great Satan," he scowled. "That’s supposed to mean the U.S. of A., I reckon. But who the hell’s this Saifoullah character? One of them damn ayatullahs, is that the idea?"

"Saifoullah is a what, sir," said Mahboob Chaudri, "not a who. I have heard of them before. They have been writing inflammatory letters to the Arabic media, but this is to my knowledge the first time they have been committing an act of political aggression. We are knowing very little about them, but from their demands it would seem that they are Iranians, or at least that they are sponsored by Tehran. Bahrain, you see, was a part of the Persian Empire for almost two centuries previous to 1782, when the first of the al-Khalifas was driving the invaders back to Persia. Whatever else they may be, Saifoullah are Shi’ite fundamentalists, and if they – "

"Whatever the hell else they may be," the Senator snarled, "Saifoullah are a pack of kidnapping terrorist dogs, and if they think they can get away with holdin’ four Americans hostage they damn well better think again."

"Saifoullah." The younger of the gentlemen from BAPCO said the word slowly, tasting it. "You know what it means, officer? I’ve only been here four months; my Arabic doesn’t go much beyond please and thank you."

Mahboob Chaudri nodded. His nut-brown face was drawn with lines of concern. "Saifoullah is meaning ‘the Sword of God,’" he said.

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