Free Excerpt. The Soldier and the Berber. Chapter 10

Before it had been good, but then the young guys started to go to Peshawar[1] to fight in the holy Jihad, and after everything began to change. I only know that they made us kill. We didn’t know who we were killing, and they weren’t soldiers, but we were crazy, and the battle was happening, and the blood was in our heads and Allah! Allah! Forgive me. And then one of the Berbers returned and sat with him through a night and into a day until evening was upon them again, and the warrior returned from the little-death that exhaustion brings.

“How many children do you have? I have three, and I want that they survive these evil times. My friends, they think that because we live up here, we are safe from the evil ways of the cities, but I… I know that if Allah is not with us, then we are lost.”

He saw the gleam in the moonlight as the Berber drew it out from his robes, another bigoted killer he thought as he silently drew up his knees to kick out at the man when he made his strike. Then he realised he was going to free him, to cut the cords binding him.

“I will guide you for the duration of the night to a place from which your journey to wherever you are headed will be less hazardous, where they are not searching, outside of this Wilaya.”

“Why will you do this? I am nothing to you.”

“For the glory of Allah, who is all-seeing and all-merciful, whom I humbly serve.”

“Morocco? Tissemsilt, then Saida, then…”

The Berber shook his head at the musings of the exhausted soldier. “Nonsense. You must head for the sea, the Mediterranean, find a small fishing boat. We will find a chilaba for you, and you must leave your weapons here with me.”

So they settle to await the setting of the sun, but the soldier does not trust the Berber. “Why should I trust you?”

“Because you have no choice and because I do it in the name of Allah, to help you because, otherwise, they will kill you. If you kill me now then you will be in danger again; anyway, if I bring anything down on you, I will do it onto myself also.”

Then the soldier tells him the story of the lion, the scorpion, and the river, and how when they are halfway across, the scorpion stings the lion, and they both perish. “Why have you done it? Now we are both lost” The scorpion said, “Because it’s my nature, I am a scorpion.”

When darkness falls, they set off into the night: one man surefooted as a mountain goat and the other finding his way and his step as his training has taught him to. There are sounds and unknown dark objects as they go, but the Berber leads the way unerringly to safety or the soldier’s doom.

 They are walking downhill through pine trees over a floor carpeted in needles. The night air is scented with pine and the rosemary and thyme from the multitude of wild bushes covering the hillside. Occasionally, a shaft of reluctant moonlight penetrates the woodland, illuminating a solitary hanging bough or a soaring fir, a ghostlike beam infiltrating the gloom that hangs heavy around them as if it were a tangible physical thing.

 The soldier’s ears pick up a sound, just the faintest of rustlings, not so far behind them; he knows it does not fit, it is alien, a human sound. Other night trivia alert his ever-vigilant primitive instinct. Betrayal! Just one of many before, but he did not choose this Berber. It was the will of Allah that he had no choice but to trust him. But the beast in him heeds not what he must believe and trust in, he fears, he knows that the other is evil or perhaps just a weak man led by fear for himself and his family. As the truth comes to him, he increases his silent pace and moves forward until some unknown clairvoyance between killer and victim alerts the Berber, who starts to turn. But too late as the highly trained assassin leaps upon the other, knife poised to tear across the unshaven stubbly throat, the smell of sweat and musky all-pervading goat odour is overpowering, and mixed in now is the rank smell of the man’s fear. “Bismillaahil-lathi la yadorro,” the guide screams imploring Allah to keep him safe from evil spirits. The soldier knows it is one of the Dua-a’s for protection against the devil. An intense dread pervades his spirit. “I am the scorpion, and this is the moment of truth. It was never the guide, all along, the stinging insect with the fatal touch in its tail, all along it was me, I am the Djinn[2].” He silences him with a blow to the throat as the knife falls from his own nerveless fingers. It is not for me to kill this man; perhaps he is touched, marked by Allah.

 As if wraiths emerging from the night they come. But then he sees the green night vision lights, and knows fleetingly, as if in a dream in which time stands still for a moment. And then it all happens, save that you cannot move, that his own have arrived to take him back and the soldier in the brief spell, before he is overcome, utters the words “Allahu Akbar[3]” as if acknowledging his creator’s wisdom in stopping his knife hand and protecting the innocent Berber.

When he recovers consciousness his mind is blurred, a terrible sense of foreboding hangs over him, and he instinctively appeals to his creator, to him whose law he has always abided by apart from the many slips and the one big night of evil sinning. He is in a cell, alone. He showers and lavishly scoops the oily soap out of the bucket; scrubbing himself and trying to believe that his spirit also is being cleansed. But I am the Djinn, I would have killed him but for the hand of Allah, but perhaps Allah gave me a choice, and I have chosen.

 Now I will go to my death. Chenouali will drop me into the desert, and I will die screaming, naked. Then he sees his boy and his woman, the tears mingle, and he sees the others: Khalil, Sami, and Meriem. They are all a part of him, of his very flesh. The boy Farid, named for his father, is the true child of his love for Hafida; he shares her skin and the very pitch of her honeyed voice. He will die of love, but he rambles on in his thoughts. Yet I did right by the Berber, inshallah, I must trust in God. He slaps himself violently on the face several times and falls to his knees to be one with his creator.

[1] Peshawar, Pakistan´s oldest city, on the border with Afghanistan, and the rallying point for foreign freedom fighters in the war against Russia.

[2] Djinn, evil spirit, devil.

[3] God is Great.