CHAIN OF TRANSMISSION

All Muslims are one body, if you get a cut on your foot your whole temperature rises. — a Tunisian member of ISIS

The Bangladeshi waterworks engineer named Khuftullah Khan has only ever seen one pornographic film in his life: “The Pretty Woman” starring the American Zhuliya Rubirts and the Buddhist extremist polytheist Richard Gīr. Khuftullah had to leave the fetid, dank underground cinema in Lahore where the film was playing when the scratchy, poorly dubbed print got caught inside the projector and seized upon a still of Rubirts laughing in a bathtub. And then the film melted. Khuftullah was traumatized; it was the kind of event in his life which, when compounded together with a host of other personal and spiritual factors too complex to recount, caused him to feel revulsion at Western culture and his own ignorance of Allah.

He was horrified at his sin. He felt Satan lingering everywhere he turned. He felt distant from Allah and knew it had been himself that had moved not Allah Who never moves. He tried to erase the traces of pornography by watching other movies that strengthened and undergirded his new faith in Islam. He felt like he needed to find media from the belly of the Godless dragon to refute the evil with. It was hard to explain even to himself but it wouldn’t do to find cinema from outside the radius of sin drawn by Hollywood in America, he had to find the tools to destroy it from within. He soon found several Western films on DVD that aligned with his spiritual needs, the films of Steven Spielberg, which Khuftullah through some determined film deduction could tell were all about Allah.

The first movie starring Harry Sun-Furd as Indiana Jones, called Curse of the Monotheist, was about how people were trying to capture Allah in a box but He couldn’t be contained. The second movie was about how Indy was trying to find some polytheist stones from the jungle fortress and show the polytheists the errors of their ways even as he returned the stones to the townspeople. The third film, The Cup of Jesus, was about how the Nazis were distracted by worship of Man and couldn’t understand Monotheism and they needed Indy to show them which was the right way. 

Khuftullah branched out and saw other Spielberg movies. Khuftullah’s spiritual leader Abol Khaseb instructed him that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was actually a movie about mysticism, with the dazzling throne from Ezekiel coming down to take Jewish actor Richard Treyfoss away to Allah. Jaws was an allegory about how Allah punishes the Western societies for their shameless nudity by sending a great Leviathan to eat them up.

Khuftullah, whose name was not really Khuftullah, went to school for engineering and was computer literate, and he found himself writing many pieces of film criticism online under the instruction of Abol Khaseb. 

All his opinions were supported by citations from the Quran and the Sunnah. With Abol Khaseb’s guidance and instruction he drew from Sahih al-Bukhari, which is the most important collection of anecdotes about the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him. Khuftullah’s film blogs were connected to a website called Ribat al-Tanzih or “Fortified Monastery of Deanthropomorphism” which under the teachings of Abol Khaseb taught that God has as many Qualities as He has Names but none of them were embodied, in spite of the body parts enumerated in the Holy Quran.  

This was in the time after al-Qaeda had knocked down the two World Trade centers and caused the USA to hunt for them all over the globe. Khuftullah had an urge to go to Afghanistan and then Iraq and fight the crusaders but Abol Khaseb instructed him to be careful and to try to put himself at the disposal of the mujahideen in other ways. He could write pamphlets for the jihad and put them online where only men interested in the fight could find them. Khuftullah followed Abol Khaseb to Kashmir to fight. He learned how to fight but it was always said that the pen was mightier than the sword so he fought with the pen.

He became a courier because he had nothing really on his record and he went from Kashmir to Algeria. He was given no sweat by the authorities, he was undercover from Kashmir to the Caucasus to Turkey to Cairo to Tunis. He carried, by hand, messages on SD cards for the intricate network of jihadi groups that would be otherwise intercepted. He took up a video camera and made videos of jihadis training and Qadis like Abol Khaseb giving their abstruse juridical opinions on the finer points of moral arguments on jihad. Sometimes the opinion videos went on for hours. Abol Khaseb and his ilk were long-winded.

A photo of Khuftullah exists and it was ferreted from deep in the heart of the jihadi-sphere by Western intelligence analysts like INDICIA. In the picture, Khuftullah, like many jihadis of that region and that time period is wearing makeup, mascara, eyeshadow, and blush for the camera. It must have been some Kashmiri fancy magic because they all did it, these were supposed to be noble portraits for after they died, they were beautiful servants of God. It was said in the Kashmir mountains that when a jihadi died you could hear birds singing and smell perfume. 

Khuftullah dressed up that day for the portraits, it filled up his heart with anticipation of death but Khuftullah didn’t die.

***

Khuftullah first met the contact in Tunis at the movie theater. It was his first meeting in the city. He had three SD cards full of sensitive information wrapped up in an envelope in his jacket pocket. He was told to go to a certain coffeehouse and ask to use their phone, he would dial a number he’d been given in the desert, and a man’s voice which was not very suspicious-sounding at all would ask him if he’d want to go to the movies, Khuftullah would say yes, and the man would tell him which theater to go to and what show. He was told to go to see the French movie La Moustache at 7:30 pm, at the French cinema, he was to sit in the back row and wait. A man would come in maybe fifteen minutes late and sit down next to him, and say in Arabic, “One to ten,” meaning, how do you rate this movie? Khuftullah would know to hand over his envelope and get one in return. His mind sparkled at the thought that in one of those incoming cards could be a message for Ribat al-Tanzih from Bin Laden or better yet Zawahiri. A message to hold tight or prepare to strike or send someone to Europe. Things Khuftullah wouldn’t understand. He was sure that some of the messages pertained to money, information on bank accounts and how to get to them. There were also hours of propaganda videos that would end up on the internet to spur the morale of any of the mujahideen who might be watching on the Internet, the so-called “one way street.” He also got the impression that the real messages contained strategy, and ideological discussions of fiqh, things for the Qadi Abol Khaseb to mull over. These were things that couldn’t be talked about openly, couldn’t be sent online, because the eyes and ears of the USA and Britain were always open listening and watching for communication between the tanzim. This was the only way currently to send messages back and forth. Through Khuftullah’s hands.

They met several times like that. Usually the man would leave the theater as soon as the exchange was made, sometimes he’d stick around for some of the movie. In the dark Khuftullah could see it was the same man next to him, the same strong shaven jawline in the dark, and that made him feel a thrilling pulse of danger, they were using the same man each time, the tradecraft meant the same man could be picked up by Tunisian cops and would spill it all. He thought about telling the Emir in Algeria about this but then figured they had their reasons. After all, Khuftullah was always the same man himself.

Once the man had a box of candy and shared it with Khuftullah. It was chocolate-covered almonds which were a luxury after the part-time life in the desert. They were watching The Transporter with Yason Stotham, lots of action. A few silly parts which made Khuftullah’s contact giggle, a loud noise that sounded maybe like Khuftullah’s sister back in Bangladesh. He thought the laughter raised too much awareness but maybe he was just being excessively careful. Something about the contact’s manner and confidence communicated to him that Khuftullah should be like him and relax.

Once, during an Egyptian picture Khuftullah hated, which was riddled with sin, when the actress was crying to her girlfriend over a man, the contact lightly gestured getting Khuftullah’s attention and made a soft noise of commiseration with the crying lady, they knew she’d been wronged. Khuftullah nodded so the contact could see him. Never from the contact was there any disgust and anger over the way the women were dressed, like French sluts.

This most recent time, a few months into this arrangement, the contact waits until the end of the movie and leaves with Khuftullah out into the lights of the promenade at night. Khuftullah sees the contact’s face. He looks like a dumb man, Khuftullah thinks, but he smiles a lot, and in his smile there is a casual message of safety, like Khuftullah can go anywhere with him and they won’t get picked up by the police. The contact has strange eyes, flecks of gold in the irises. Khuftullah becomes very curious about where the man came from but he knows he isn’t supposed to know anything about him should he be arrested and questioned. And yet the contact beckons him down the promenade past all the stores buzzing with nighttime shoppers and lingerers and the buzz of good natured voices arguing. A thousand eyes either watch or they don’t care. A series of thoughts goes through Khuftullah’s head, that he is being brought to meet someone higher up in the organization, or that it is a set up and that he is being arrested… He doesn’t know very much Arabic—he’s just supposed to be a dumb mule picking up an envelope in a theater—so he can’t ask the man where they are going.

The man wears nice clothes for a Tunisian, a touch of Europe. He wears a high-end leather jacket and new shoes that look like they have only felt the concrete of a city, not the clothes and shoes tinged with the desert camp that Khuftullah often wears.

The man gestures with two fingers for Khuftullah to follow him. They go into the unavoidable medina at night, the pressure of the pedestrian crowd behind them is like a trance. Khuftullah uses his tradecraft to see if they are being followed. There’s people and tourists everywhere. Somehow whatever the contact does, whatever energy he gives off seems to forbid that they will ever be caught.

The contact brings Khuftullah to a perfume stall, where the owner goes on and on in loud Arabic and shows off the small carpet on the floor that is woven so that it changes colors when you flip it the other direction. The owner seems to get quite a rise out of showing this to the contact. The contact starts looking through the narrow shelves of perfume bottles, sniffing occasionally. He seems to forget that Khuftullah is standing by the wide open door, watching for undercover police.

Do you speak English? the contact then asks Khuftullah, and a strange sense of relief and excitement comes over Khuftullah, someone to talk to. He speaks English, they spoke it in college in Bangladesh and when he was in Kashmir. 

Call me LaFleur, the contact says. His manner is friendly. He moves his hand in the air fluidly and touches his chest. It’s not my real name, but you don’t need to know that. Smell this.

LaFleur puts a bottle near Khuftullah’s nose. Oud, and cedarwood, he says. It smells like the nighttime, like something animalistic and primal, slightly sour.

The owner is smiling, nodding. LaFleur says something to him in Arabic, Khuftullah catches the word expensive.

The owner makes an affirming begrudging gesture, the two men argue over a price, LaFleur buys the perfume. Then he hands it to Khuftullah, who is at a loss.

I’ll be sure to give it to my wife, Khuftullah says.

Your wife? LaFleur gawks. No, it’s for you. I want you to be wearing it next time I see you. You smell bad, you smell like the Sahara. He laughs, then claps a hand on Khuftullah’s shoulder. Khuftullah blushes and turns away. LaFleur keeps a strong hand on the back of Khuftullah’s neck, steering him out of the store, controlling him.

They go out into the stream of people hurrying by. LaFleur lets his neck go, and Khuftullah sees the man blend into the crowd, he’s looking back and touching his nose, smiling with rascally good cheer. He disappears. Khuftullah doesn’t want to see him go.

***

Khuftullah comes home to his apartment in Tunis to find his second wife Rula watching Hannah and Her Sisters again, with French subtitles. It is her favorite Oudi Allin movie after Annie Hall. She seems to love the stories. It’s an affectation of hers, an imitation of the west. They hardly ever fully argue but Khuftullah sometimes criticizes her taste in movies as westernized and decadent and contrary to Islam. American Jews having affairs, sex. “You should talk, Maz, we’ve seen the entire Star Wars epic four times! You just hate that my movies are about relationships.”

“They’re called motion pictures because there must be motion,” he’d tell her. “Things moving on the screen. Not just people’s faces and endless talking. I don’t want to think when I watch a movie.”

“You don’t want to think. You just want to be with your good friends Yoda and Jabba the Hutt,” she’d say. She’d stormed out of the room for the Princess Leia slave scene when they watched it, Kari Fishhar in a metal bikini. She couldn’t look at it. He went to find her and found her in the apartment stairwell crying and told her he didn’t care about Princess Leia, and to get inside before the neighbors saw.

It was better than watching Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya all day which they often did. News from Iraq dominated their nightly routine. The civil war, Americans having no clue which way was up. Shia death squads rounding up Sunnis. Then Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would blow up 76 Shias in a marketplace and Rula and Khuftullah would look at each other, her eyes seeming to say “Do you know anything about that?” He would try not to smile, although why hide it? Al-Zarqawi would say the Shia were heretical and they were the first group in Iraq that should get the chop.

He hates the thought of fighting with her.

He thinks about showing her the perfume he’d gotten as a gift from LaFleur that evening, that giving it to her might neutralize the curious puzzling feeling of what it meant. He dangles on this for several minutes, finally putting the perfume away, hiding it with his pistol and the new incoming SD cards. He would show her the perfume later. Would he ever put it on in her presence and let her smell it? When had she ever done something like that for him?

Rula is a marriage of cover to a large extent, a reason to travel from the desert camps to Tunis. She dilutes anything Islamist about him so that the Tunisian police will overlook him. She wears a hijab and sunglasses everywhere she goes outside. But she is westernized. Mother-in-law looks like Spielberg’s E.T. She never comes around, it’s not like some guys he knows where half the family moves in with you. hamdulillah. No family to press him. Abol Khaseb picks up the slack of any missing in-laws by always asking when they will have children, Khuftullah with both his wives. Maryam, his first wife in a marriage even more arranged than the one with Rula, lives at the Ribat al-Tanzih camp in the desert and he rarely sees her, there’s just too much to do whenever he’s there.

He thinks about it and grabs Rula and takes her to bed. Goes wild. Venting steam. He’s not gay. But he has some kind of weird energy from his meetings with LaFleur. Just a suspicion. A tiny hinge on a door to push open that had been hidden and closed all Khuftullah’s life it seems. But no. That couldn’t be going on. Something out of his reach but which has always been there is that there are two separate fields: you could be very sexually attracted to women but your heart could suddenly swell with mostly chaste love for a man. Something vibrating higher, or different. Love at first, second, third, and always sight. The thing with men is more sudden and dangerous, like a thunderstorm in the Kashmir mountains, flash flooding and mudslides that wipe away whole villages. You have to scramble to get out of its way.

***

LaFleur takes Khuftullah to a secret location at an apartment in Bizerte. Khuftullah is sure it is related to the secret work they both are doing. LaFleur has to say something at the door and a big man searches everybody. “He’s looking for devices,” LaFleur explains. “Cameras or recording devices.” Khuftullah was told not to come with the SD cards on him and he said of course, they’re at home. There’s other men there at the apartment which is large, mostly young Arabs. Milling around in a living room. He spies drinking and is horrified. What kind of meeting of brothers is this? There’s chairs and sofas around the room and he thinks someone must be about to make a speech. He expects it. LaFleur and Khuftullah sit down on a sofa with another man and Khuftullah is very aware of a gap between himself and LaFleur. He shies away.

The lights are suddenly turned off and other dim lights go on making an impromptu stage in the hallway leading to the living room, with an arch. Somebody puts on a tape of Lebanese pop music and a dramatic woman emerges from a back room and all men’s heads turn and look. She is heavily made-up, lots of smoky darkness around the eyes and lipstick. She’s beautiful, to Khuftullah’s horror. She’s wearing a revealing nightgown, curvy, and also a headscarf, not like Rula’s hijab but more like an old movie star would wear, with a sapphire in it, and right away Khuftullah knows he’s in the wrong place.

The lyrics in Arabic start and the woman starts to sing but she’s not really singing, she’s just mouthing the words, and Khuftullah can’t make out every word but the woman on the tape is singing about “habibi, habibi”: my love. She’s overdoing the passion of singing and although she’s not making the sounds herself, her lips seem to hit every wave and expression of the undulating song, evoking tales of the desert which Khuftullah admits are tugging at his heart. She’s gesturing with her hands in a sinuous way like tent openings in the wind. She seems to be about to cry with the emotion of it, and the song enters an instrumental passage and the lady spins around a few times, showing off the dress 360°. For the finale she beats at her chest as if punishing herself while she’s singing before dropping to the floor, spent. Something about the love she sang about was doomed and Khuftullah finds himself drawn to this although he’s also repulsed by the flagrancy of her appearance.

Khuftullah looks around at the other men and is profoundly puzzled. They’re all staring at the woman or whispering to each other something about her. He can feel the collective lust and desire coming off the men and he is trying to ask himself if he fits into this. He doesn’t. He doesn’t want to. It’s beneath him and against God. And yet. He looks to LaFleur who just raises his eyebrows, like he himself hasn’t made up his mind whether this is okay or not.

Then another less attractive woman in fancy clothes and big exposed hair comes out and starts talking to the men in Arabic. She seems to be asking the men how they are doing and from her body language Khuftullah can tell she’s telling ribald jokes that get the men guffawing. How Godless. He wishes he could understand what she’s saying. The woman is looking around the room commenting on the different men and their appearances, and then her eyes catch on Khuftullah and she pauses for a terrifying second and he thinks she may be about to reveal him. She gestures at him with compassion and looks around the room pleadingly saying something which breaks the audience into raucous laughter at his expense and he blushes. LaFleur punches him in the shoulder and says something like “It’s alright they all love you.”

He still can’t figure out why he’s there but he knows if either the police or somebody with ties to the Salafi group were to come in they’d all be fucked. He starts to piece together that this is a secret society in Tunis that LaFleur’s invited him to, part of some elaborate cover, something like his marriage to Rula is, to hide their conspiracy inside like a Russian doll with many layers.

Another woman comes on, a sub Saharan African, and performs another song on the tape recorder, this one a pop song in French. She is just as demonstrable as the first singer, but more muscular it seems. He doesn’t find this one as attractive as the first singer and the comedienne. It’s like they progressively go downhill as the night continues.

When it’s all over there are more drinks he avoids and the Arab woman telling jokes comes around to all the men with a hat and people put dinars in the hat. She comes around to where LaFleur and Khuftullah are sitting and LaFleur makes a comment in Arabic that seems to praise the woman and yet undercut the whole evening. The funny lady looks at Khuftullah and says in English, “You’re cute,” which fills him with a complex whirlwind of difficult emotions. LaFleur says, “He’s shy,” and the woman says, “He should drink something,” and LaFleur says, “If he drinks then he’s not going home, and I’m sure he wants to go home, don’t you habibi?” LaFleur tosses a handful of cash into the woman’s hat, like he’s done it twenty times before. She’s a prostitute of some kind. Although she didn’t take her clothes off. Which both relieves and disappoints Khuftullah: why is it all so confusing?

Khuftullah is having a strange out-of-body experience trying to keep up with the vast social puzzle he is in the middle of. Nobody can really be meaning what they’re saying. He’s married, he wants to tell her, plus she is clearly a sinful woman. He does want to go home.

He gets up from his seat on the sofa. Men are milling around again. There’s no women except the performers. He sees one of them, the first singer, talking to a man and they go “back stage,” the man lights a cigarette for her and she takes off the headscarf to reveal that she’s bald. The ugly bald woman spots Khuftullah looking at her, sucks some smoke then sprays it out in a horrifying screeching cackle of smoke that fills the hallway’s dim light. The man talking to her looks at Khuftullah and grins and presses the woman into a room and shuts the door.

***

“Those were men,” Khuftullah says to LaFleur out on the sidewalk. The men leak out of the apartment in small clusters, not drawing attention, going off in different directions.

“They were as much women in a way as the ones you see on TV,” LaFleur says.

“Why did you take me there?”

“Come on, don’t you think it’s funny?”

“I think it’s sick.”

“Maybe if you’d understood what they were saying.”

“I saw everything I needed to.”

“It’s not supposed to be understood, actually. Just experienced. It’s art.”

“It’s western and decadent.”

“Go home and think about it.”

“What’s in these messages you give me? They’re tainted. Do your people know you go to these parties?”

“They don’t know. Are you going to tell them? Would you turn me in?” LaFleur is taunting him. They both know this could be a death sentence.

Khuftullah just looks at him. He wanted to think that LaFleur was better than this. It was such a letdown. He’s sullied himself in Khuftullah’s eyes.

He has the opportunity to kill LaFleur and kill the feelings inside himself three times: once when they are by a busy street in Tunis he thinks about shoving the man he loved in front of a bus, once he brings a gun to a meeting at the theater and plans to shoot him once they make the handoff and say the man was robbing him, a third time they are by the ocean and Khuftullah is going to drown the man. But he can’t do it. Of course he knows there will be repercussions from on high. LaFleur as the source of the messages from the greater world occupies a senior position to Khuftullah’s. The Salafis will not understand. Unless he can betray LaFleur somehow and make his killing justified in the eyes of their superiors. 

The real reason to eliminate LaFleur, that he can only admit to himself in his most innermost thoughts, is one he tries to suppress within himself. He repeats inwardly that once the object of lust is destroyed, the lust inshallah will leave him, he will be relieved. This is the last time.

— Jesse Hilson is a freelance newspaper reporter and cartoonist living in the Catskills in New York State. His writing has appeared in AZURE, Maudlin House, Pink Plastic House, The Daily Drunk, Misery Tourism, ExPat Press, DFL Lit, Orchid’s Lantern, and elsewhere. His comics have appeared or will appear in Misery Tourism, Bear Creek Gazette, and Excuse Me Mag. He can be reached on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and via email at platelet60@gmail.com. He also writes a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com