Fiction by Steve Jaeger.
The last thing Salim Khan saw in his brief life was a millisecond of a blinding flash of light and a loud bang as he detonated the four pounds of plastique in his backpack. He was riding on a Long Island Railroad train under the Hudson River when he pressed the trigger causing massive carnage and damage that would take months to repair to the long tunnel under the river. He had boarded the train at Penn Station as he had done every day for months. He took the same train every afternoon, got off in Little Neck and had a cup of tea from the small carry-out and then boarded the westbound train back to the city. His commander told him he should become a familiar face to the daily commuters and police riding the train to keep from arousing suspicion. Salim had shaved his beard of which he was very proud and cut his hair in a western style and had even put in blond highlights. He wore a faded NYU sweatshirt , designer jeans and expensive basketball shoes.
Salim had been born in Rockville, Maryland in 1989. He and everyone else thought him a typical American kid. His parents were both from Pakistan and had come to American looking for a better and safer life. His father had worked his way up from dishwasher to banquet chef at a Country Club in Bethesda and his mother was an office manager for a large medical practice in downtown DC. He was raised as a Muslim but his parents were not particularly devout. For Salim, things began to change in the wake of the terror attacks in 2001. Overnight he went from a happy and popular middle schooler to withdrawn and hostile after being repeatedly attacked and bullied as a “dirty rag head”. His parents went to his school and begged an assistant principal and Salim’s guidance counselor to protect him but Mr. Scanlon, the assistant principal was a Fox News devotee and had a neighbor who worked at the Pentagon on September 11th. The neighbor was unhurt in the attacks but Mr. Scanlon took it personally and told Mr. Khan that the Muslims had brought it on themselves and if he wanted to complain he should call Osama Bin Laden. Mr. Khan complained to the public school administrator and Mr. Scanlon issued a half hearted apology but Salim continued to be harassed. Salim’s father told him to be strong, God would have his say with his tormentors and also the maniacs who had brought such scorn and hatred on the Muslim people with their insane attacks. Salim did not see them as maniacs, he thought them righteous warriors avenging the wrongs done to Islam by the Jews and Crusaders.
After the invasion of Iraq, Salim went from day dreaming about playing for the Washington Redskins to joining the Taliban and instead of charging down the field in burgundy and gold he rode into battle in the bed of a Toyota HiLux wearing camouflage and clutching an AK-47. He began riding his bike to a local mosque where he fell under the influence of the Imam, a fellow Pakistani who told Salim it was his duty to rise up against the Crusaders who were bent on destroying Islam. For the first time since 2001 Salim began to feel whole again and filled with purpose. On a trip to Pakistan in 2007 to visit family he slipped away to a mosque the Imam told him to attend. He felt more at home there than anyplace he had been in America. He returned with instructions to contact a man in New York, when they met in a small coffee shop in Long Island City, Salim was given a forged student ID for NYU and instructed to attend a mosque in East New York. There he met with an Imam and a small group of young men including a fair skinned American who had converted to the faith. They were being prepared for the ultimate honor, martyrdom in the name of Allah! They were to be rewarded with a seat at the banquet of honor and their seventy -two virgins would await them all in Paradise.
On the morning of his great honor, Salim woke before dawn. He purified himself, donned his Western clothes and put on the backpack a silent man had delivered the night before. He made sure the trigger device was ready and started off for the station where he joined the throng of early morning commuters heading in to Manhattan. He made his way to the center of the crowded car and stood in the aisle next to a young Muslim sister who looked beautiful in her hajib. Perhaps, Salim thought, you sister will be part of my reward. As the train moved into the tunnel under the river, Salim leaned over and said to the girl, rejoice sister you and I shall soon be in Paradise. The girl looked at him and with a terrified scream said, NO!” and a split second later all was beautiful white light.
Salim slowly became aware that he was laying on his back and he was very cold. He opened his eyes and everything around him was grey. He sat up and realized that he was whole but he did not recognize where he was. He knew he was not in the world where he had just been. He was alone, he was not on a train and there was no sound. He pushed himself to his feet and was horrified to see he was naked, he was filled with great shame but above all he was cold. He could see a light off in the distance and he started to walk towards it. There were no other people, no animals, no trees or plants of any kind. Just a flat grey expanse devoid of any signs of life. Salim thought to himself, I will go to the light because that is surely my destination, Paradise. There I will be clothed and fed and my virgins will be there to greet me. He tried to walk faster to make himself warmer but no matter what he was still cold. He kept walking without stop and yet the light still seemed far off in the distance. He walked for what seemed days although there was never a sunrise or sunset, just grey. He was so cold and he was thirsty yet there was no water anywhere to be seen. Salim sat down and tried to pray but he could not remember his prayers. He screamed, MY GOD, I DID MY DUTY, WHERE IS MY REWARD?
He suddenly saw that the light was closer and he ran towards it. He began to see rich color in front of him and could even feel a glimmer of warmth off in the distance. He could hear laughter and smell rich foods. He thought he saw a bird flying above. He screamed, PARADISE, TAKE ME I AM HERE FOR MY PROMISED REWARD! And suddenly he stopped. He was standing at the edge of a vast chasm. Where he stood it was cold and grey and devoid of life but just on the other side was color and happiness and all that he was promised. He could see scores of beautiful women all in white. There were beautiful streams of cool clear water and he could smell his mother’s own cooking yet he could not reach it, he was trapped. He considered trying to jump but he could tell that the other side was tantalizingly close but just too far away to make it. He peered all the harder and then he saw the beautiful young Muslim sister who had been on the train. She took no notice of Salim but he could tell she looked at peace. He saw the old woman who rode the train every night, she was no longer clutching the large hand bag she kept in her lap for the entire trip. He saw the young man, a Jew, still wearing his yarmulke who Salim knew he would enjoy killing. He saw his grandmother who always stank of curry. She was not the same old woman he remembered, she was beautiful and carried a large flat basket of naan that Salim could smell.
Salim looked to his left and was startled to see the fair haired Western boy who had been part of his brigade. The young man was naked and Salim could barely see him through the grey mist but the boy was staring across the chasm with a blank, longing stare. He saw other naked men who he did not know but they all stood at the edge staring blankly across the divide. With great clarity Salim suddenly understood that this was his reward. He knew down to the depths of his soul that the light on the other side was coming from the face of God and He was just beyond the people Salim could see and that for all eternity he would never gaze on the face of God.
Photo: Keoni101 / flickr