If you don’t understand violence, he realized with a shudder that went through him like ague, then you have no business talking about religion.
The juniper smoke was rising all around him, but he still couldn’t see. It was seeping into him somehow. His nostrils must be working. Either that, or the smoke was penetrating his body through its pores.
A phrase came to him in his smoked-out stupor. Funny words. Lyrics to a song, maybe. Or the punch line to a dirty joke.
Toodle-do akhbar. Oodles of akhbar. No.
Oh, God, no. He heard his voice as if it was booming from a boombox based in the Bronx. In the Baghdad section of the Bronx. In the Bronx neighborhood of Baghdad. Jalalabad. Asadabad. Islamabad. My bad.
Someone was screaming. Screaming this insane phrase! Someone was
It was him.
He vomited, and passed out.
A little while later, he came to. Someone had poured water over his head and clothes. Cold water. Ice cold river water from the Kunar River. How did he know that? But it was still dark, pitch dark. He shivered from the cold and tried to warm himself with his hands, but they wouldn’t move. He tried again. He heard a sound. Steel. Steel on steel.
He was shackled to something. To something metallic and cold behind him.
He heard voices. He passed out again.
They undid his shackles. They lifted him up by the arms. They half- dragged him to another room.
They pulled the black woolen hood off his head so he could see. He blinked in the light of the room, which was dimly lit by candles and a kerosene lamp.
He looked around and saw an old wooden bookcase against a white- washed wall. In the bookcase were a number of gold-embossed Qur’ans, bound in leather, a few volumes on shari’a, and some computer and technical manuals.
The unreality of all of it made Angell believe he was still stoned, still high on something, tripping on some Kafiri kif, some Nuristani narcotic. Some Afghan horse, not the polo kind, extracted from the only crop that made Afghanistan any money at all: opium. Was that it? Was he on the nod? A Nuristani nod, courtesy of the Katra of Kamdesh?
He couldn’t keep the alliterations out of his head. They were like song lyrics he couldn’t shake to a tune he couldn’t hear.
He just wanted to sleep.
There was a commotion outside, and three or four men wandered into the room and took up positions in the corners. They were all Afghans, wearing the baggy white trousers, the white tunic that went to their knees, the dark vests, and the strange, flattened beret or turban that was their
signature hat. They all had long, black beards and carried AK-47s. The smell of their gun oil was heavy on the air. A fly buzzed into the room, making the only sound, and then it abruptly stopped. There was silence.
Into the room walked another man, rather tall and ascetic-looking beneath his turban and behind his full, black beard. His cheeks were sunken and hollow, but his eyes burned with intelligence and conviction. He sat down on the floor across from Angell and the room, if possible, became even quieter.
He spoke in English that had traces of an Oxford accent.
“You will be pleased to learn that your comrades are still alive and well. Their disposition will depend entirely on the outcome of this meeting. That is, on your cooperation.”
“Where are they?” Angell managed to croak. “They are safe.”
“Who are you? Are you Taliban? Al-Qaeda?”
“My name is Omar Mansour. And that is the last question you will ask me. Your job is to answer them. First, what do you seek? Why are you here?”
“My name is …”
“We know who you are, Doctor Angell. We have been tracking you for some time. We know about your famous uncle, as well. We know how he died. Murdered, wasn’t he?”
Baffled, Angell could only nod.
“Close to the ocean … in New England, I believe.” “It was a long time ago.”
“Yes. Almost eighty years. But you have not answered my question.
What are you doing here?” “I am looking for a book.”
Angell noticed the sound of shuffling behind him. Hushed voices. But only for a moment. His interlocutor watched him briefly, as if assessing him, and then replied: “A book? All this for a book? What book?” He gestured behind him at the bookcase before Angell could answer. “We have books. Many books. But the only book that really matters is al-Qur’an. Is that what you are looking for?” He smiled. “There are many Qur’ans in New York, where you live. You can buy them in Barnes and Noble, even
order them on Amazon. There is no need to come to this place to find a Qur’an.”
He leaned towards him.
“But perhaps the book you are looking for is something haram?
Something unclean? Forbidden? Like that filthy text of the Yezid?” Angell swallowed.
“It is not the Black Book of the Yezidi that I seek.”
“Then why were you seen visiting their village? Asking questions of its elders? Observing that obscenity at Kutha?”
He didn’t know how much they knew, or how much he could safely divulge. Angell was surrounded by armed men of what was probably an Al-Qaeda or Taliban cell deep in Nuristan. How had they known about his visit to the Yezidi in the refugee camp on the Turkish border, or the ritual at Tell Ibrahim in Iraq? Had he told them about all of that when he was stoned and chained to a pillar? Or was it an Al-Qaeda leader he was speaking with, someone with a network of informants throughout the East and especially here in Afghanistan?
If he was still in Afghanistan.
Hanging on the wall above the bookcase were swords. Two of them. Crossed. Curved scimitars. A familiar image from propaganda videos and decapitations.
Angell suddenly had a desperate urge to use the toilet. But he calmed myself, and placed a hand over his roiling bowels, to settle them. He knew he could not afford to show too much weakness now, even though he was their prisoner.
“I am looking for another book. I had information that perhaps the Yezidi knew of it, knew where it was.”
“What is this book? What is the title? Perhaps we have it in our library?” The last was said with a sneer, and it elicited some amused sounds from the armed men around me.
“It is called Kitab al-Azif.”
The silence that greeted that statement was absolute. Even outdoor sounds were suddenly absent, as if every jeep, every crying child, every braying goat, had been shushed by some cosmic power. It was a silence that had a life of its own. Angell couldn’t even hear his own breath.
His questioner spoke the next words slowly, even softly.
“That is a strange name for a book. Do you know what it means?” He nodded.
“Something to do with the sound insects make.”
“The howling of insects, you might say, although insects do not howl. Not normally, at any rate. Why do you seek this book? What value does it have for you?”
This could be his last day on earth. His last hour. If he answered falsely, and they knew it, he would die. Perhaps slowly, his head severed from his shoulders by inexperienced executioners with rusty blades. All those horrific video images ran through his mind of hostages beheaded by fanatics. He had no doubt that the man in front of him was just such a murderer.
If he answered truthfully he might still die at the hands of these fanatics. He had the same to lose no matter which way he answered, but he thought his chances were marginally better if he was truthful. And, by staying alive, that meant he still had a chance to find the book and stop the imminent bloodbath from happening.
In less than a second, Angell had made up my mind.
“The book is important. To a lot of people. To Sunnis. To Shi’a. To the Kurds. To the Iranians. To the Saudis. Yes, even to the Americans. And to you. The book is about evil, and how to stop evil. A worse evil than any of us can imagine. I know I can imagine a great many evil deeds. This surpasses any of them. It is a book written by a man who had seen this evil and who knew how to stop it.”
The interrogator named Omar stroked his beard as Angell spoke to him, never once dropping his gaze from his eyes.
“Do you have this book?”
“No. Of course not. I have been searching for it the past week, from Turkey to Iraq, to Iran, and now to Kamdesh.”
The interrogator nodded. “We also want this book.”
Angell returned his gaze as steadily as he could. “What would you do with it?”
“This book is haram. It is forbidden for any Muslim to read it. But there are many Islamic scholars who have permission to read these books, if
only to determine the contents in order to condemn them more … credibly.”
“And to use the information contained, in order to become more powerful?”
It was a drastic statement, very bold under the circumstances, but Angell couldn’t stop himself.
Omar Mansour smiled.
“As I said, it is haram. However, it is also powerful. The idea of it is powerful. True power comes only from Allah. I believe we must keep it out of the hands of our enemies. That is also your belief, is it not?”
“But why should I trust you? Why should I trust the American government?”
“I believe the feeling is mutual.”
He gestured to a man standing behind his prisoner. Angell cringed, awaiting the blade, or worse.
“Some tea,” he said.
And everyone in the room relaxed. Except the professor of religious studies.
As a well-armed waiter brought them a brass tray containing a teapot and some cracked cups, he thought over his options. The situation was obviously very fluid. There was no reason why they should let him go. He had seen them, seen their faces. Angell didn’t know exactly where he was: the hood over his head had taken care of that. He could not give up their location, or the identities of the mujahedeen who had snatched him. Did they need him alive? He hoped so.
“I hope you were not too inconvenienced by the drug we administered to you and to your colleagues. It was necessary that you be incapacitated for awhile.”
“What was it?”
“It grows locally here. The shamans use it in their profane rituals. But it is valuable as an interrogation device. Like a … a truth serum.”
“I see. Did you get what you wanted?”
Instead, the terrorist leader changed the subject.
“Do you know how these Nuristani devils perform their rituals? No? I will tell you. They have shamans who contact the spirits of the dead and the spirits of their gods. Yes, it is all very shirk. The shaman will sit in a special room that has pillars carved in the shapes of their gods, who are not really gods of course but jinn. You know jinn?”
“And then they burn juniper branches.” “Juniper?”
“Yes, in order to disorient the senses so they may see through this world and to the next. They make communication with their jinn that way, and they learn many fabulous things.”
So that was what had happened to Angell. They had treated him like some kind of Kafiri shaman. Why? What was the point of that?
“Their gods communicate with them in dreams, they say. Many Afghans believe this, but nowhere as much as in Nuristan. We should destroy all of them, of course. All the Nuristanis. They are not true Muslims. We should burn their villages to the ground and kill every one. We should sell their women and children into slavery in Pakistan. Have you seen their women? No? They have blonde hair and blue eyes. They are a very strange people, Doctor Angell. But we keep them alive and allow them to live in their arsehole of a country because they are useful to us. They sit between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and their loyalties shift with the wind. Today, Taliban. Tomorrow, Al-Qaeda. The next day, the Afghan National Army. But everyday we move across the border in Nuristan and back, with no problems. We could move an army across the river, and the kafirs would say nothing about it as long as we paid them more than they were getting from the Afghans. They know they are vulnerable, you see. They are surrounded by Muslims, and they are kafirs. They can lose everything in an instant.”
“Yet they were the first to fight the Russians. And they are still fighting you.”
Omar smiled. “You know your Afghan history, Doctor Angell. Yes, they are good fighters and fiercely loyal to their own people. They believe they are descended from soldiers of Alexander the Great. If they lived in any other part of Afghanistan they would have been wiped out completely by now. Their terrain protects them, but not for long.”
“Why don’t you just leave them alone? They are no threat to you.” “Have you seen their shrines? Their idols? We have tolerated their
existence for far too long. As well as your precious Yezidis. The time has
come to eliminate these kafirs from the face of the Earth.” He said this calmly, with a half smile on his face, as if discussing a recalcitrant child or a troublesome tax collector. This was in May, 2014.
In December of that same year Omar Mansour, leader of a Taliban subgroup known as Tariq Gidar, would attack a school in Peshawar, killing 148 people, among them 132 children. He himself would be killed in a drone strike in July, 2016.
“Doctor Angell, we would like very much to see this book. Unfortunately, we do not have many people on our … staff … with the kind of expertise needed to locate it and then to verify that it is truly Al Azif. Only someone with your background … I mean, with access to your grand-uncle’s work, his files, his journals … would be able to tell if any book was truly the one we seek.”
Angell considered a moment before breaking the bad news.
“His file, the one on this book, is missing. It was stolen many years ago.
I believe it no longer exists.”
“Then … I don’t understand. How do you even know to look for the book if you have not seen the file?”
“You should know the answer to that. It is no secret that this book is being discussed all over the world right now, and especially among dissident Islamic sects from the Middle East to China. There have been revolts, rebellions, massacres, even cultic activity involving human sacrifice, all over North Africa, the Levant, Iran, and elsewhere. Sunni, Shi’a, Sufis, Alawis, Druze … the whole Muslim world is excited over the prospect of this … scripture … being revealed in the next days or weeks. And not only the Muslim world, but sects as far away as Mongolia, Haiti, Nigeria … and even in the United States. You want this book because everyone else wants it—either to use it, to keep their enemies from using it, or to destroy it—which is how we heard of it in the first place. Which is why I was recruited to help find it.”