Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Over the Tightrope

PS: the book is free to download on kindle on Monday and Tuesday 11-23 and 11-24

Asif Ismaeel's debut novel mixes dystopian science fiction, sufism, politics, humor and Salafist Islam to create a stunning and unexpected joy-ride through post-apocalyptic (or is it pre-apocalypse?) Pakistan in 2050. Of course it is now called Al-Bakistan, since the blessed Arabic language does not have the letter P, and it is ruled by a Khalifa who established law and order after the proletariat rose in revolt and decapitated the ruling elite in a paroxysm of rioting and holy war a few years earlier.

When our hero flies back after 12 years to see his father, the Latvian air hostess asks if he wants to sign a Shia contract for sex during the flight or will he be flying Sunni, no paperwork needed? Naturally he replies "lets fly Sunni". From the beard-length check at the airport to watching a murderous game of cricket between the karbala cats and the wahab squad, everything is familiar but surreal; as his driver says "not the original Western style game meant for sissies..".

Gangs of enforcers (Commaqadis, from Commando and Qadi) patrol the streets with portable hand choppers, cats attack dogs (who are almost extinct in the Islamic state, as expected) and the hospital has a sign saying "death will come at the appointed hour". Moved by mysterious forces (and perhaps by mind-altering substances) our hero goes to meet Pir Pul Siraat, bicycles over hell on a thin wire stretching to infinity, meets the fallen angel Fukraeel and visits paradise. As his mission unfolds he finally reaches Islamabad and attends a most unusual Friday prayer at the Faisal mosque that ends with the world's most life-saving application of phototherapy and the redemptive power of the Quran. The book never flags and the ending, while somewhat expected, is not without its Sufic twist.

Readers familiar with Pakistan and Islam will get many of the inside jokes (from Bihishti Tea Corner in paradise to the Intiqaal lounge and the arrival of the Ababeels), but any intelligent reader can expect to laugh out loud at the most unexpected places. This is not serious literature and "complex characters and plot development" are not what it sets out to present. But what it does promise (and deliver) is a smart satire of literalist Islam and the vision of a dystopian future that is not as far from reality as we may wish. A worthy debut!

If I survive this life without dying, I’ll be surprised.


"...Without saying a word, he opened his glove box and took out a round, palm-sized object. It was a clasped knife. He pressed its one end and an evil looking blade sprung out. I could tell it was razor sharp and the thing must have been as long as my forearm. I jerked back in my seat, eyes bugging wide open.
Wali turned toward me and grabbed a hold of my collar. His eyes bulged; two angry pools of black fire. Without a word he pressed the sharp cold steel against my sweating throat. I tried hard not to swallow.
“Wali, what’s wrong?” I sputtered. “What’s happened to you? Take it easy buddy, relax,” I pleaded. The whole thing was way too freaky and had happened so fast I barely had time to register the shock.
“You have uttered the name of You Know Who without the saluta- tions; and, and—this is a terrible crime that’s punishable by death,” he groaned, pressing the blade harder against my throat.
“Wali, come back to your senses man!” I barked. “What’s wrong? Come on; let’s get going, look, the light’s green. Let’s go, please. We can talk about this over a cup of tea in the Fortress Stadium. I can explain.” I hoped to have sounded convincing and unfazed by his sudden outburst but, inside, I was tasting my first dose of real fear since I landed.
Sweat poured from my forehead as I recalled my father’s words: ‘You’ll be safe with Wali. He’s the only one I trust who can deliver you safely to my house.’” I also recalled his warning me not to speak with Wali about religion under any circumstances.
“I’ve beheaded four idiots like you,” he bellowed. “I did it   right here where you sit on your stupid butt; and you will be my fifth,” he said. The traffic light had turned red again.
“Aren’t you done then? I mean, four’s a pretty decent number. Come on, Wali, be cool buddy,” I said, hoping this nightmare would end soon. “My father’s not going to like it if you kill me.”
“Mufti Sahib says, if I can personally behead seven kafirs in total, my place will be assured in the highest Heaven,” he said, his eyes glazed and his face flushed with exultation. He wasn’t the same Wali who’d picked me a few minutes ago at the airport. He started looking crazier by the minute.
“It’s been getting more and more difficult to encounter enemies of faith like you,” he continued, not even looking at me in the eyes. “As far as your father is concerned, he’d be glad to see you killed after what you’ve done. He wouldn’t even attend your funeral.”
“Wali—please! Have mercy. I’ll do anything you say. Remember that old hag?” I said, suddenly recalling something that might break his concentration.
“That old woman who used to throw trash on You Know Who’s
head every time he’d pass by her house.”
Without a word Wali withdrew the knife from my neck and laid it in his lap though he continued to hold his face close to mine and looked into my eyes. The terrifying fury that seconds before distorted his face had melted like ice.
“So you know the story?” he asked, his voice normal and composed. “Then you damn well know that the story of the hag cost me the seventh Heaven!” he roared with renewed fury.
“Fifth, Wali, fifth,” I corrected him.
“You gotta get to fifth before getting to the seventh.”

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