The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue

Adeel’s Journey

Julien Columeau’s stories belong to the genre of biographical fiction. He avers that every story is based upon a real-life person. His writing practice is in keeping with the example of the French writer Pierre Michon who is famous for his fictional biographies of famous artists, anonymous figures, and imaginary artists. Julien, as he goes by his first name as a nom de plume in Urdu, cites as well the influence of Marcel Schwob (1867–1905) and the method of psychobiography for which Dominique Fernandez (b. 1929) is known.

Biographical fiction is an uncommon genre, and its literary effects deserve a word or two. Readers have to stop to inspect their expectations and desires. When fiction veers toward reality, paradoxes are produced. Part of its interest comes in the mental gymnastics that ensue for the reader who has to jump back and forth over the line dividing fiction and reality. A question of fidelity arises in those cases when knowledgeable readers will be able to identify the famous artist upon whose life the story is based. The biography rises to the forefront of expectations, and departures from biography can be felt as betrayals, unjustified interpretations, and inexplicable excesses. His stories force readers to ask themselves where their own desire to have fiction be “true” comes from. In the case of fictional biography, what reticence prevents a reader from accepting a story as a story and not a document of reality—a documentary? a biography?

Part of the social importance of the stories comes from their fictional depictions of individual persons and types of people within Pakistani society. The fact that they depict characters that are uncommon in mainstream fiction is important, and the attributes of the uncommon characters are significant, as well. Few Pakistani stories, for instance, have a famous modern Pakistani artist, musician, or writer for their main characters—let alone a Muslim missionary, or a religion-crazed killer.

The stories also address a subtle but consequential point about contemporary Pakistani life and a facet of contemporary political life seemingly on the uptick everywhere: the urge to sanctify or to vilify. Julien’s stories are portraits of humans, portraits of society. The portraits are as full of blemishes as they are of virtues. His stories penetrate the veneer of excessive civility and excessive recrimination that is part of the makeup of contemporary Pakistan—the mood swings of a young country still finding its way, trying to balance ambitions to compete economically with Western countries with fidelity to its founding mission as an Islamic state.

  —M. R.

It was ten in the morning. Adeel had just left Pirwadhai Station on the bus to Lahore. An hour earlier, Dr. Zafar ul-Haq had phoned Adeel to invite him to an important meeting in Lahore. Adeel had immediately left to go see his murshad.

Now Adeel was looking out the bus window at the countryside. The bus was passing through the outskirts of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, and the open highway lay before them. Many questions were rushing through Adeel’s mind … What was so important about this meeting? What was it about? What was Dr. Zafar ul-Haq planning for him? And why did Adeel feel as though today’s meeting would determine his future—as though the meeting would change the course of his life? When was the last time his life had changed course? … Four years ago …

Four years ago, Adeel had bid farewell to the mountains of Kashmir and entered the Muslim University in Islamabad. There he had met members of the Jamaat-e Muslimeen, who accepted him warmly into their group. Without asking him anything about his past, they had tied a turban around his head, adopted him as their spiritual brother, and swore an oath of eternal solidarity. Then, they had gone on a proselytizing mission together. On the trip, they had gone absolutely everywhere in the country. The missionaries had walked on and on, through one desert after another, one remote hilly region after another. For months on end, they had marched through burning heat and through cold that had frozen them to the core. Evil spirits, poisonous snakes, floods, and plagues had stood in their path. But their purpose had given them resolve, and their trip had gone on. While they marched through the wilderness, Adeel had surprised the others by how easily he converted droves of atheists, pagans, and spirit worshippers. Afterwards, due to the mission’s success, Adeel had gained respect and admiration in the group.

Since a tender age, Adeel had had a hard life, but he never let anyone know what he was going through. Yet, these hardships had left their mark on his thinking. In time, an unusual sort of insanity came to afflict him. After nightfall, he would see strange beings on the campus’s deserted lanes: a woman carrying a lantern wandering around with four kids at her side, or an old man on crutches hurriedly fleeing from an Indian Army Jatt Regiment patrol. Seeing these visions, Adeel would go hide in his room. Then, after three or four days, some of his friends in the hostel would go pull him out of his room and take him to the bathroom. They would wash his face with cold water. Then they would take him the university’s tea stall to serve him tea along with a sandwich. Then life would return to him. When he seemed back to normal, the boys would take him back to his room. Adeel seemed to suffer a sort of amnesia. Because, afterwards, he wouldn’t remember what had happened, not a single thing. And it was Adeel’s good fortune that no one called him crazy. In fact, the reverse was true: everyone at the university thought he was most likely one of those saintly souls who pass through this world on a trip through the seven heavens. Adeel’s spiritual gifts were well known. Students greeted him with a sense of reverence, and teachers were very fond of him. And, especially, members of Jamaat-e Muslimeen mentioned his name with great respect. Having seen his unusual powers, they pushed him to meet the Supreme Leader Dr. Zafar ul-Haq. The two had met in Lahore at the doctor’s impressive house in Defence. Dr. ul-Haq had been so moved by Adeel’s uprightness and sincerity that he accepted him right then and there as his own son. Now, in several hours, Adeel was going to see his new, beloved father for the second time.

Adeel arrived in Lahore. He made his way through the chaotic traffic on Band Road to Defence. When he stepped into Dr. ul-Haq’s living room, three other members of the movement were there, men whom Adeel didn’t know. Dr. ul-Haq hugged Adeel and kissed him on each cheek. Then he introduced his guests. The first guest was Sabir Mehmood, a former soldier in the army who had a garment business in Lahore. The second was Yaseen Khan, an Arabic teacher in a madrasa in Bannu. The third was Sajid Gilani, a landlord from Rahim Yar Khan. The three men were in their forties. Dr. ul-Haq said they were among the most important members of Jamaat-e Muslimeen, had participated in countless national and international missions, and had good and steady characters. Dr. ul-Haq told Adeel that the meeting had been called to discuss a special mission, an international mission, and that Adeel was to work with these three men. He thought that the four together might produce some interesting results: Adeel could benefit from the broad experience of the three men, and they could stand to gain from his passion and dedication.

Adeel considered the offer for a moment. He thanked Dr. ul-Haq for having honored him with the invitation to participate in this special trip. Then he asked for more details. Dr. ul-Haq placed an envelope in his hand that would make everything clear. The stamps on the envelope were from Brazil.

Adeel opened the envelope.

Most Respected Dr. Zafar ul-Haq,

As I mentioned to you in my last letter, I have for some time been engaged in research on the customs and manners of the Metyktire tribe in Upper Xingu.

Civilization reached the Metyktire just two years ago. But they continue to live as they did before. They still live in the rainforest. Their men hunt, and their women gather honey, fruit, and edible and medicinal plants. And yet you will be surprised to learn that after my lengthy observations, I have reached the conclusion that they’re naturally inclined toward our faith. Every morning, when I recite from the Quran, every member of the tribe comes to sit around me and shaking their heads from side to side silently listen to the beautiful words of the Quran. From the start, they were fascinated with my prayer beads. To have a closer look at them, they take them from my bed stand, kiss them then put them back. They have come to like my namaz more than anything else, to the extent that they have doing ruku and sajdah in my presence. All these things attest to their readiness to accept Allah!

The Metyktire remain unspoiled by civilization. They have never left their part of the rainforest. Apart from airplanes, they have never seen any of the machines of our day and age. They know nothing of the manufacturing and technology of modern times. But their questions about the outside world never end, so much so that some of them have expressed interest in seeing the world for themselves, and the upshot is that very soon they will learn all the ills, all the obscenities, of our times. So that they can be saved, we believers must bring them within the ambit of Allah. For the time being, the Metyktire have met only researchers. But I’ve heard that missionaries have been trying to get in for a long time. Perhaps in the coming weeks they’ll get permission to come.

We should move quickly. The Metyktire are only 87 people, all in all. This means that there are 87 people hungry to know the tauheed, 87 people whose eyes are searching for Allah, 87 people ready and waiting to accept the one true faith. To bring them along the path to Allah, I need your help. Please send me your best missionaries!

Sincerely yours,

Majid Akhtar

On the back of the letter, there was a map of Upper Xingu. On the map, Majid Akhtar had traced a route in red. This was the route to take to the Metyktire. They would have to take a plane to Santarem then travel upriver five days by boat. Then, reaching the rainforest, they would have to travel eight days on foot.

“Who’s Majid Akhtar?” Adeel asked Dr. ul-Haq.

“A former student,” the doctor answered. “He’s been studying anthropology for several years at Harvard. He’s gone to Brazil to do his fieldwork. He’s very smart and very committed. Reading the letter, you must have been able to tell.”

Adeel thought for a moment, then asked, “When do we leave?”

“As soon as you get your visas. That will take at least a week.”

Eight days later, Sabir, Yaseen, Sajid and Adeel met at the Islamabad Airport to begin their long trip to São Paolo. Sabir was the team leader. He had learned Portuguese during his stint with the Pakistani Army in Angola. He was the perfect person to be the team’s interpreter and guide.

The trip was long. The team had to transfer at several airports, and, each time, airport security looked at their faces and turbans with suspicion. They were thoroughly searched. Security repeatedly x-rayed their satchels and turbans and subjected each team member to an interview. Adeel endured the long and upsetting security process with great difficulty. But his fellow travellers bore it with a smile on their faces; they had been subjected to hardships on previous missions that made these ones seem childish and inane: Sabir had been kidnapped by Somali pirates; Yaseen had been beaten by Nigerian gangsters high on opium; and Sajid had been chased to sea by the black-hearted natives of the Solomon Islands. What could worry these three battle-worn men? But Adeel, whose experience was limited and whose disposition was inclined to madness, suffered greatly from the journey’s endless ordeals and the ill treatment from security. The patience of his co-travelers was impressive. Without their example, he might not have been able to hold himself together. But his self-control couldn’t last forever. How long could he keep strong?

After twenty-eight hours, the missionaries arrived at São Paolo Airport. They got their bags from the baggage carousel and started off for the TAM counter to purchase tickets for Santarem. But the TAM counter was very far from baggage claim, and, carrying their luggage, they had to pass through very hot and humid corridors. The voyage had already weakened Adeel. In the oppressively hot and humid conditions, Adeel lost his strength. He fainted on the floor of a corridor. His friends picked him up and carried him to the airport’s health clinic. The black nurse working there laid Adeel down, took his pulse, gave him a check-up, and said he was suffering from heat stroke. He was raving. He was recounting the disturbing scenes that were playing through his mind. He was speaking of a dense whose trees were decorated with decapitated heads, and of a muddy river with decapitated bodies floating in the current here and there. Along the river, young children were crying. Crocodiles and snakes were staring at them with hungry looks. Adeel kept interrupting his narrative by saying, “Our empty bodies are destined for their end!” The black health clinic nurse gave him a shot, and he immediately fell quiet. When he came to, he heard the nurse speaking to his friends, saying in broken English that Adeel needed uninterrupted rest. His three traveling companions hypocritically nodded their heads in agreement, because they were in a hurry and there was no time to rest. So, as soon as he was up, they took him away. Soon they were on the plane to Santarem.

The plane took off. Adeel was seated next to the window. He immediately fell asleep. After a half hour, when he woke, he glanced out the window and saw an enormous forest that extended from one end of the horizon to the other where countless golden rivers crossed over one another in zigzagging lines. Sunset was quickly coming on. As the darkness spread, the forest was turning black. Wisps of smoke rose from inside this black, sorrowful canopy. As the smoke reached the sky, it dispersed, and, as it did so, bits and pieces swirled together to form hundreds of tiny clouds. Wherever there was smoke, there was sure to be people, and yet Adeel was shocked to think that god’s children lived in such wilderness!

The team reached Santarem that night. They spent the night in a cheap, mosquito-infested hotel. Then at dawn, they went down to docks to get a boat going to Upper Xingu. They got on board. They were in a real hurry. The Christian missionaries might already be en route; they had to beat them there. They wouldn’t be able to stop along the way, or have any delay. Once on board, the team felt relieved for a moment. Their destination was a little bit closer. But quickly their peace of mind dissolved when they thought that perhaps the Christian missionaries were already fifty or a hundred kilometers ahead of them.

The boat was on the river for five days. Santarem’s port was soon far behind them, and the fishing settlements were thinning out. Civilization was gradually ending. The forest was the ruler here, swallowing the river, which grew smaller and smaller beneath this pressure of the forest’s embrace.

The thick branches of the forest reached out to touch the boat. Crocodiles, weasels, snakes, monkeys, forest pigs, tapirs, and colorful birds flourished in the dense weave of the forest. Everything was green and healthy. Plants and animals lived here in harmony. Each creature seemed to have left behind its given form to become one size bigger. The mosquitos were like spiders, snakes were dragons, and songbirds were as large as falcons and phoenixes! And all of these animals sang and called out in a melody that made the team feel like travelers on the path to god and yet wholly terrified at the same time! The travelers were overwhelmed by the strange sights and sounds. They realized that god had chosen to coat the earth with this forest in order to show his endless creative powers. This forest was a temple of god, and their visit was nothing less than an act of worship. A feeling of deep spiritual connection overcame the team. They started to pray and to read from the Quran.

And yet, Adeel didn’t participate. He ignored their prayers. He stepped away. Hallucinations were wrecking havoc on him. For him, the forest was not a temple of god but a hell realm. The forest was full of spirits. Here, spirits had taken on different shapes and sizes. They could even impersonate boatmen. Whenever a boat came up beside theirs, Adeel went to hide in the engine room, telling his friends that danger was lurking nearby, and it was necessary to hide. God alone knew if the passing boatmen were real men or spirits! Adeel took the high tree branches to be their lookouts. From their lookouts, the spirits saw the boat, then, taking on the appearance of birds, the spirits flew to their ringleader to announce the arrival of the team. The ringleader was waiting at the confluence of the rivers, and, in preparation for the coming attack, he was sharpening his claws and teeth!

Then, their boat dropped anchor in the harbor of an abandoned river town. They planned to rest there for several hours. Adeel’s friends wanted to see the town, but Adeel refused. He told them that it was a safe haven for spirits. One hundred years earlier, the spirits had attacked, pushing the humans back. The town had come under the control of the spirits, which had taken on the form of giant trees and wiped out all traces of human civilization. These tree-shaped spirits used their enormous branches to destroy houses, churches, schools, and statues, and they scarred the ground with their enormous roots. Countless ravines appeared where floors, gardens, courtyards, and streets had been. Explorers had fallen into these ravines, where they were forced to spend the rest of their lives. These tree-shaped spirits were horrible. They hid snakes, spiders, and fire ants in their branches. To his friends, Adeel listed out the town’s every danger. But his friends were stubborn. They left the boat, but when they returned, they said that everything about the town that Adeel had said had proven all too true.

Then, their boat reached the borders of Upper Xingu. There was a worker settlement there: muddy alleys, earthen houses, and an electrical current so weak that they had to use candles and lanterns around whose flames thousands of moths, mosquitos, and other insects gathered.

As soon as the travelers arrived, storm clouds unleashed a torrential downpour. Clouds blotted out the sun. The sky was pitch black, and, because of the rain, each step required laborious effort. They sought shelter from the elements. They entered a building that looked from the outside like a restaurant but that was in fact a hell on earth—a bar where dozens of cursed and forsaken men were drinking liquor. Most were gold diggers—the courageous men who for years had been looking for gold in the wild interior. Having lived there for years, they were riddled with constant fear, and their pistols never left their pockets. Their backs were stooped, and their faces had lost any color. They looked like effigies. Some tribals were drinking there as well. These were the wretched souls who had made the mistake of leaving the warm embrace of the forest for the empty, merciless desert of human civilization, and once having made this regretful error, they came to this bar to drink in order to forget their sadness. In the various corners of the bar, there were some small dogs lapping at beer left in their metal bowls. These sorts of cheap bowls were very useful here. In their greed for bowls like these, the natives left their forests to become workers, porters, and servants. But when these men became acculturated and realized these bowls were so easy to come by, they left them for the dogs.

The team stood by the door of the bar and stared at the sinners gathered there. They didn’t have the courage to step forward. It was a temple dedicated to Ummul Khibais, the Mother of All Evils, Liquor! But Sabir was fearless and wise. He knew they would need a guide for to complete the last leg of their trip. So he stepped bravely forward into the drunken crowd and began to search for a guide. After speaking to two or three men, he found a suitable man. He returned to his friends with this man. The guide was named Mario. He was a tribal who knew the forest as well as the drunks knew the bar. His eyes were extremely scary. They were like the eyes of a tribal demon whose gaze no one dare meet. Mario said it would take at least eight days to walk to the Metyktire and that they would have to travel through the territory of an extremely primitive tribe. But he said that they had no reason to fear because, in fact, these tribals were timid and avoided explorers and gold diggers. Mario would bring three porters from his tribe. It was impossible to depart before the end of the spring rain. That meant waiting for ten days. In the meantime, Mario would find them a place to stay.

Mario outlined his plan for the journey that lay ahead of them, which Sabir and the rest of the team immediately accepted. It seemed like the meeting had ended, but Mario wasn’t ready to move on. He continued to stare at the men with his demon-like eyes. He was thinking about who these foreigners were, where they had come from, and what they wanted.

Mario suddenly asked Sabir, “Why do you want to go to the Metkytire? Are you looking for gold?”

Sabir replied deftly, “No, we’re sharing gold.”

“What? Where’s your gold?” Mario asked.

This question sent Sabir into ecstasy. He opened his bag and took out a copy of the Holy Book. He showed it to Mario and said with a triumphant smile, “Here! In this book!”

The team had to stay in a warehouse for twelve days. Mario had secured this location for the team. Despite the lack of facilities there, the team was at peace. Any haste was unnecessary because Mario told them the Christian missionaries hadn’t arrived yet, and it would be impossible for them to travel in such bad weather.

The warehouse had no walls. Heavy rusted iron beams held up the roof. Hammocks were attached to the beams. The team lay in the hammocks day and night, listening to the rain and drifting off to sleep. From time to time, they left the hammocks, washed in the rainwater and prayed together. Once every two hours, an onlooker would come to stand at a distance in the rain and stare at them. The onlookers would usually be gold prospectors. They fingered their pistols in their pockets at they watched. Sometimes one or two tribals came, and, after staring at them for a second or other with their angry eyes, they would leave. This constant coming and going of onlookers upset the team. Everyone was upset with Sabir. It had been him, after all, who had told Mario that the Quran had gold in it. The ignorant and backwards residents of that far-flung town had probably misunderstood him. Now both the lives and the property of the team were in danger. Because of Sabir, a sword dangled above their heads.

Waiting in the warehouse for their departure was very difficult for Adeel. The wait seemed to spur on his madness. He tossed and turned in his hammock, speaking without interruption. He couldn’t tell the difference between the past and the present. He addressed friends and loved ones from the past. He complained to his mother, “Why did you take my brothers and sisters across the border? Why did you forget me?” He scolded his old father, “When you made sure that my brothers and sisters reached Mendhar, why did you go to Bhimber Gali? Didn’t you know that the Jatt Regiment was guarding it? You were sure to come under fire. You should have known they’d shoot you.” Then he beseeched a jihadi, “Sufi Sahib, please let me into your organization! I have to get revenge on the Hindus for my father!” Then he addressed a man named “Shahji”: “Today I need forty grams. It’s too much, I know, but your tobacco is good solace for a friendless soul! And don’t mix anything in it, and, also, this time, in exchange, I’m not going to do anything with you.” Hearing all this, the team look at one another in surprise. Adeel was revealing his each and every secret, one after another. Now it was clear that it was entirely unjustified to send this crazy young man on this special mission. Dr. Zafar ul-Haq had made a grave mistake, and the team was about to suffer for it. In the conditions they faced, with gold-hungry prospectors surrounding them on every side, there was no question of removing Adeel from the team. They would have to take Adeel with them.

Then one day the rain stopped. Mario and his three porters came to the team’s warehouse. Hearing the men nearby, Adeel regained his mind. He got out of his hammock and got his rucksack ready. Watching over Adeel, the team packed their bags and handed them over to the porters. Then they tied their turbans on, and following Mario and his porters, they headed one by one into the forest.

As soon as Mario and the porters entered the forest, they regained their ancestral ways. They got rid of their useless clothes in preference of loincloths. They squeezed the nectar of the forest flowers onto their muscular chests and decorated their chests with horizontal lines. Then they tied quivers around their decorated chests, picked up clubs to carry, and renounced human language to speak to one another in the language of birds. While walking, if one of the four men suddenly made a bird-like sound, the four all drew arrows and shot in the same direction. Then a weasel, a tapir, or a monkey would fall wounded to the ground. Mario and his porters would approach the fallen prey and club it to death. They would strap the dead animal to their back, and, then at that night’s resting spot, they cooked it on a fire.

For Mario and his companions, the forest was a funhouse full of toys and playthings. But for the missionaries, the forest was a testing ground. Their patience and courage was constantly tested by various traps. The trees surrounded them and pressed against them. And how dangerous they were! Their roots were covered with fire ants. Their trunks were covered in snakes. Spiders hung in webs suspended from the branches. And when Mario and his porters saved the team from one trap, others arose. Trees would suddenly collapse. With a loud boom, they would fall to earth, blocking the team’s path. The team would have to cut through the trunks with the small axes they carried before moving on. And time was wasted. Night would fall, and the team was forced to make camp in between the suicidal trees. Seeing that the caravan had escaped, the forest would launch a third type of attack. The canopy of the trees grew so dense that no light came through. Wherever you looked, it was pitch black. This darkness bred mirages. The travelers grew suddenly paranoid that they had entered a magician’s realm in which each traveler would turn into stone. Or they thought they were circling beneath the ancient dome of a dargah and that once their devotionals ended they would be turned into bushes and trees. One or another of the travelers would become locked in these illusions and stop dead in their tracks. Everyone in the caravan else stopped, and, in order to extract their friend from the illusion, they would recite a na‘at. Hearing the name of Muhammad, the traveler would return to his senses, and he would continue on. The caravan moved ahead. The travelers would continue singing the na’at, and their sweet tune would rise from the dark mirages to reach the top of the trees. There they would swirl about then disappear into the sky.

Adeel’s madness was now at its peak. For two days in the forest, Adeel had kept strong, but on the third day he had lost his mind, and he began to tell endless stories ... The travelers had to be on their toes because the natives who lived in the area, the very ones that Mario had called harmless and timid, were the brothers of Hindu Jatts, they were brave and cruel, and they were more cunning than jackals when it came camouflage: right then, they were watching the caravan from a safe distance, and, whenever the first opportunity presented itself, they would shoot poisonous arrows at the travelers, and once they were incapacitated, the natives would come to bash in their skulls with clubs ... Adeel’s companions let all of this pass without comment. In fact, the three of them were deep in meditation. Their lips moved quickly as they mouthed words from the Quran. Their hearts were overflowing with the love of the Muhammad, and their eyes were focused on finding the light of god. Adeel and his wild madness were far from their minds. Finding his companions so far away in spirit, Adeel stopped talking for a moment, then he hung his head and started walking ahead in the silence of a misunderstood prophet. Then, after several minutes, Adeel raised his head and started talking again. But no one listened, and this hurt Adeel. His love for conversation had met with a rebuke from his companions, and so this upset him. He slowly broke away from them and went to join Mario and the porters.

At nightfall, the travellers quickly went to their tents to relax. But he stayed up with Mario and the porters. They sat around the campfire singing tribal songs and playing tribal flutes. Every night, Adeel stayed up with Mario and the porters, listening to the strange music of the tribals and feeling a strange sort of pleasure. Mario was the head of the group, and so he would fill and light a pipe, which he handed around to the men. As soon as the tribals took a drag on the pipe, they would experience a profound change. Anger left their eyes, and weariness left their bodies. Now they were as happy and carefree as children, and they played childish pranks on one another. Adeel was surprised by their rejuvenation, and he soon wanted to smoke their pipe as well. Perhaps the pipe could return his lost innocence and help him relax. Maybe the pipe was the cure for his madness!

It had been years since Adeel had got high. As a boy he had been a drifter. Then he had gotten involved in drugs. Like the tribals, he had become addicted to smoking hash. The duplicitous caretaker of a dargah had got Adeel addicted then started taking advantage of him. But then this give and take had begun to tire Adeel, and he threw his pipe in the Jhelum River. When he got to Islamabad, he never even thought about getting high because his new circle of friends hadn’t been interested in drugs.

Now, seeing the tribal pipe, Adeel felt overcome by desire again, and he couldn’t forget about it for long. Then, one night, falling prey to his longing, Adeel asked Mario for the pipe. At first, Mario refused. Maybe he thought that a foreigner couldn’t handle it. But Adeel was stubborn, and finally the pipe was given to him. Adeel took four drags. A coughing fit overtook him. He gave the pipe back to Mario, and he sat staring at the fire intently. He was expecting that the fire’s flames would transform into spirits! But the flames didn’t change shape. So Adeel looked up, and he saw that nothing in the vicinity had changed shapes. The sky was pitch black. The trees were as silent and still as before, and the cries of the animals in them were as sharp and as frightening as before. Adeel’s senses remained as clear as before. He was so disappointed in the pipe! What’s the point if after smoking you stay entirely the same as before? Now it was time for Mario and the porters to go to bed. They got up, and Mario started to put out the pipe. But Adeel asked for two more drags. Mario lit it again. Adeel took his last drag, and Mario took back the pipe.

Adeel was now sitting around the fire by himself. The fire was slowly dying out, and sleepiness was overtaking Adeel. He needed to go to sleep too. Hw got up, and, as soon as he did, he saw that his limbs had shrunk, his arms and legs were shorter, and his torso and head had shrunk too! He was the size of a child! Witnessing this miracle, Adeel was beside himself. He didn’t trust his senses. In order to confirm this miracle, he went to see his team members. The three were sleeping in their tent. Entering their tent, he found himself suddenly back in his childhood home. In front of him was an old wooden staircase that went up to the attic. There was a sitting area on the left of the stairs, but no one was there. The kitchen was to the right, and a sparkling pot on the stove’s flame. The pot was full of nun tea, and its delicious scent filled the room. But who was it for? The house was entirely empty. Then Adeel felt a hand on his shoulder. A man. Perhaps the salt tea was intended for him, a guest. He turned to see who it was. He was face to face with his elderly father. Adeel was shocked. What was going on? How had the past and the present merged? Was the wheel of time spinning backwards? But Adeel didn’t have any time to steady his mind. Adeel’s father gestured for them to leave, and the two stepped outside. Then the two started off together, with Adeel’s father leading the way.

Outside, how things had changed! The Xingu forest had turned into his childhood’s Haveli Valley. Night was ending. In the dim light of dawn, a hill glistened on the horizon. It was Bhimber Gali, where the Indian army had outpost that was always illuminated. Three miles down the road from Bhimber Gali was the village where twenty years ago Adeel’s father had taken his mother and siblings. Adeel understood then that his father had come from the beyond to make right an old wrong. He had come to take his lost boy, and they were now going to meet his family on the other side of the border. Adeel’s eyes were sparkling with happiness! Soon he would be reunited with his family! His exile would be at an end!

For quite a while, Adeel and his father kept walking in the valley. Dawn has near, and the scene around him was quickly changing. Haveli Valley was fading from view, and Bhimber Gali’s illuminated hill was too. Once again, Adeel was in Xingu forest. The trees were raising their heads to greet the sun. Their shadows were lengthening over the earth. In their thick vegetation, birds were flitting about. Adeel heard songbirds, as though warning the travelers of an upcoming danger. But Adeel and his father were unaware of these warnings. They were focused only on their destination.

The sun rose. Light sprang up. Light flooded through the forest. The trees soaked in the light. The night birds were sleeping in the lower branches, while the morning birds sat on the upper branches and sang their beautiful melodies for all those gathered to hear. Amid the thousands of calls, it seemed as though these colorful birds with their fancy crests were the only species left on earth. Their songs were commands, and while listening to these birdcalls, Adeel broke free from humanity! He couldn’t be bothered to speak to his father—not even to ask when they would reach their destination! And he didn’t bother answering the calls of his friends who far away in the forest were yelling out to him! All human concerns seemed meaningless, trivial! So the day ushered in the reign of the songbirds, and there was just one wingless beast left on earth, just one helpless, worthless human being—Adeel!

Adeel’s rapture grew. He noticed nothing. Where was he? Where was he going? How was he doing? These questions were pointless. Adeel was out of his mind, wandering without destination and without purpose. He was entirely alone, his friends were far behind at the wretched inn of humanity, and his father had already departed for heaven. Seeing the lonely, wandering figure of Adeel, the birds were so sad, and they called out to lead him on a new path. Adeel went on, then he came to an open area. The path of the birds ended at a river.

Adeel stood on the riverbank looking at the other side. A fog covered the scene. Then some figures appeared through the haze. Squinting, Adeel could make out his father, mother, and siblings. He breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks be to god! He had found them! Finally, he could be reunited with his lost tribe! He told the people there to stay where they were. He would cross the river. With long strides, he rushed into the river and started trying to swim. He was up to his chest in the muddy, murky water. The people on the other riverbank saw him coming their way and started screaming. Adeel guessed that his loved ones misunderstood what was happening. But he started swimming across, thinking that once they saw him from up close, they would recognize him and come to embrace him. But this didn’t happen. The people on the riverbank drew their bows, strung their arrows, and started shooting at him. A dozen arrows rained down on Adeel. One struck his chest. Another pierced his throat. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t recite the kalima. He died in the river.

The tribals dragged his body on land. One man gouged Adeel’s eyes out with a spear, and two more men clubbed his skull until it burst into pieces. Then all the tribals got out their knives and skinned him.

When Adeel’s soul reached heaven, he looked down and saw the missionaries. They had gone out looking for him and were heading straight for the slaughter field where the tribals were dragging Adeel’s corpse. Adeel’s corpse was entirely skinned, and now the tribals were hacking off his limbs. The knives, arrows, and clubs of the natives were held at the ready, and the missionaries only had small axes. Adeel wanted to cry out to his friends to warn them! But once his spirit left his body, he couldn’t speak at all. So, he restlessly watched from the heights of heaven while his friends stepped forward to meet their grisly end. The missionaries were about to go somewhere they hadn’t yet planned to go. Because of Adeel, none would accomplish what he had set out to do, and none would ever reach home … And just before disappearing forever, Adeel sighed one last forlorn sigh.


Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck lives in Brooklyn with his family. He's interested in chronicles, translations, reading, promoting the work of Abdlekébir Khatibi and other writers, and poetic forms.

Julien Columeau

The French writer Julien Columeau has published 13 stories and novellas in Urdu. These have been published in numerous books in Pakistan and India.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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