Jesse Hilson 日 30/06/2024 · admin No comments


Excerpt from the novel Fear Is a Hollow Verb

Khuftullah flies to Timbuktu, Mali, then takes a ride to the Ribāt Al-Tanzīh camp. The Jeep smells of pistachio farts. There’s the driver, and two other passengers, and Khuftullah. Khuftullah recognizes none of them. They pass around bottles of Nestle water. It’s afternoon and the sun is murderous in Mali. They pass goatherders on foot, the men and goats are made of dust.

It’s about thirty minutes into the ride when the African guy in the passenger seat says to Khuftullah, in English, “We were told to blindfold you.”

“I’ve been to the camp before, I’ve seen everything.”

“We were still told. By the Emir.”

“Do you know who I am? You must be new.”

“I know who you are,” the front passenger says, looking back into the Jeep. “Your name is Maz Khan. We know this. But what’s your war name?”


Laughter breaks out in the stinky Jeep, among the two brothers, driver and passenger.

“We heard about you,” the passenger up front says. “Your name means ‘I feared God.’ Why did you stop? What happened?”

“It’s past tense. You need to work on your tongue,” says the driver.

“You don’t still fear God. Why don’t you still fear God?”

“You should still fear God. It’s an ongoing thing, so an ongoing verb.” The driver is a tall dark guy with an Adam’s apple like a lump of coal under his scraggly beard.

“I read your pamphlet you wrote about the movies,” the man sitting next to Khuftullah says. His first words. He has gold eyes. He didn’t laugh at Khuftullah’s clumsy name—this makes him more menacing somehow. “Stifin Sbilburgh. The Third Vision of Islam, with the Jewish astronaut avoiding the Crusader government’s military, he penetrates their secret camp, and is carried off to Paradise by the angels. Then Indiana Jones.” He’s smiling. “I disapprove of Dr. Jones for he is an idolater. Islamic treasures have no worth to him. He rescues the magic coffin of the Jews, a Hindu pebble, and the goblet of Jesus. Where are the treasures of Islam? The only value a Muslim has is as slave labor for excavating or for him to shoot in the souk.”

“There’s Sallah,” the front passenger says.

“I spit on Sallah. He’s a collaborationist pig,” the golden-eyed man says, eyeing Khuftullah for a reaction. “Islam has no idols for America to plunder. Bin Laden will behead Dr. Jones if he tries to steal the Ka’aba.”

The front passenger is excited. “I heard Indiana Jones 4 is about Indy finding a book that undermines all Islamic belief, specifically a book saying all our Hadith are forgeries.”

“Where did you read that?” The golden-eye man’s voice is full of contempt.

“I read it on a website. They said Sbilburgh will do it.”

Khuftullah speaks up. “Do you believe everything you read on those websites?” It’s a risk to join the flow of the debate, but it pays off. The golden-eyed man laughs.

“My name is Razi,” the front passenger says. “This is Dawood,” indicating the driver. Then he points to the golden-eyed man, saying, “This is Dr. Faraj Al-Misri.”

“No relation to the Faraj who offed Sadat,” Faraj says. “These aren’t our real names, but you knew that.”

Razi says, “You like movies. You want to see a movie? Better than Stifin Sbilburgh?” Razi leans back into the Jeep, holding a new RIM BlackBerry Pearl. The phone’s small screen shows Khuftullah a video of a dusty black minivan  driving into a distant marketplace in what must be a city in Iraq. The marketplace is busy. The video is short—the driver detonates a bomb which rocks the camera recording it. The camera operator yells “God is great” in Arabic and Razi repeats it. “Basra. Scores of Shi’ite devils sent to Hell.” Razi is grinning. The screen of the phone is tiny but to Khuftullah it’s panoramic vision.

Razi notices Khuftullah admiring the technology. “TFT LCD. Thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal display.” It’s like a magic spell coming off of Razi’s tongue. “That’s 240 by 260 pixels. We in the tanzim are what they call on tech websites ‘Lighthouse customers.’”

“What’s a pixel?” Khuftullah asks.

“Pixels are what you have none of. Let’s see your phone,” Razi says, gesturing to Khuftullah, who hands over his Nokia.

Razi holds it up like a piece of shit, saying, “My grandmother has a better phone.”

They laugh. Khuftullah is an engineer and he knows what a pixel is, he’s just playing up to them.

“Fail. Epic fail,” Dawood says.

Razi hands back the Nokia. “We’re giving you a better phone. New orders from on high.”

Dawood gloats. “The Emir has an LG Prada. It has a touchscreen. Eight megabytes.”

“What’s a touchscreen?” Khuftullah asks. He really hasn’t heard of this.

“Ask Steve Jubz a year from now,” Faraj Al-Misri says.

Razi digs through a bag by his feet, comes up with a red RIM BlackBerry Pearl like his own. “Your new phone. Latest model.” Razi, Khuftullah and al-Misri have a conversation comparing mobiles and smartphones that reminds him of that scene in The American Psycho (Khuftullah concealed from his wife Rula that he saw it in Paris in 2002) where Christian Bayl “Batman” and the guys compare business cards.

“2006 will be the year of the QWERTY keyboard,” Razi says, no doubt quoting a tech website. “BlackBerry has encrypted email capabilities, that’s why we bought a shitload of them in Pakistan.”

Khuftullah catches the reflection of his eyebrows in the screen of his gleaming BlackBerry Pearl 8100. Like being given a new sword by the Emir. He runs his thumbs over the keyboard, the stout keys like studs on a piece of armor.

“QWERTY keyboard,” Faraj Al-Misri says, as if showing off a Lamborghini Countache in a Dubai auto dealer’s yard. “Can you read English better than you know Arabic?”

Razi settles back in his seat and says, “RIM BlackBerry is nicknamed ‘CrackBerry,’ do you get that? Do you understand?”

“CrackBerry,” Dawood says. “Epic fail.”




Khuftullah, excited to explore his new phone, arrives at the camp at night. They  blindfold him for a while and when they get to their destination and he gets his vision back, there is a minimum of light. No buildings lit up, all windows blacked out with sheets of black plastic. It is dark to beat the satellites, no one knows how much the American eye in the sky can see, and they can only pray that by relocating to the Sahel, Ribāt al-Tanzīh has outrun the many heads of the world’s intelligence apparatus.

The first thing Khuftullah does is hand over his SD cards carrying messages from the outside jihad front to Faraj al-Misri. The communication will be processed by the Ribāt’s war council. Of particular interest, Khuftullah knows, are the messages concerning money. Where it will come from, what alleys it will slither down to find the Ribāt’s people. Outgoing messages, among other things, contain proposals for projects. Future operations around the globe. The periphery pitches plans for attacks to the center of gravity, the leadership at AQ Central, the investors, where instructions and money comes from. Many pitches are coming from Iraq, and meeting with green lights from the old men, and it is hard for undeveloped battlegrounds like Africa to compete. Many messages from South Asia are telling African branches to hold tight. Lots of ideological messages that Abol Khaseb will digest and talk over with his people, including Khuftullah.

The messages have come through the hands of the mysterious contact in Tunisia named LaFleur. Khuftullah is nagged with questions: should he report the contact’s behavior to somebody? There is a sodomite in the chain of transmission. But telling the Emir or Abol Khaseb might lead to an investigation that would somehow ultimately ensnare Khuftullah. He considers that taking the initiative to exterminate LaFleur on his own and hoping the chain would reformulate itself without the uncleanliness is one possible tactic. He has to think about how to get rid of dirt without getting any on himself. Khuftullah has done nothing. He’d just witnessed the men in the restaurant in Tunis LaFleur took him to dressing up as women; he could plead ignorance as he was deceived. His issues are within himself and God knows his heart.

He asks a guard where Maryam is. He is told she is with the other women. He asks that she be brought to his room, which is full of fighters sitting on chairs and talking, and has to be cleared now that he is there. He wishes that Razi, Dawood, and al-Misri could witness this flurry of activity to see just how important he is to the operation, but they had with haste dispersed when they arrived at the camp.

He looks around his room after they close the door behind him. He is important but they never let him forget that while he is there in Mali, he is at their disposal. At least they will let him see his wife before he is debriefed tomorrow.

When she arrives, Maryam is cordial. Younger than Rula and simpler, his Ribāt wife lacks the emotional turbulence that seems to fill his other life in that apartment in Tunis. She never goes on about movies or TV or fashion; Khuftullah prefers that Maryam be far away from all that, pure from the garbage of the world.

“You came,” Maryam says. “Somehow I didn’t think you would this time.” Her hijab is red, one he has not seen before, and she wears dusty tight pants, like she had been out scrabbling in the dirt filling sandbags before he arrived.

“Why do you say that?” Khuftullah sits on the austere bed.

“I don’t know. I thought they might have had you graduate to bigger things.”

“I would never graduate from you, from coming back here.”

“Some wives here never see their husbands for years. Some never see them again.”

“Maybe that’s why I like you to be here. If you’re in the company of the Emir I know I will always be on my way back to seeing you.”

She smiles, standing in the doorway. Shy. He gestures to her to come and sit down.

She behaves unlike Rula. She is very stiff and formal. She had been like this even after their wedding. It seems to be a job to her. Her father in Egypt has been stiff too. He had been impressed with Khuftullah’s engineering degree: mohendis. Khuftullah lavished gifts on Maryam and her family. They had asked questions about his role in the fighting the polytheist Indian army in Kashmir and he told them the truth and it didn’t seem to scare them off.

She sits down on the bed next to him. Demure. They are like strangers getting to know each other. It was always like so. He realizes he has forgotten to bring her a gift. He had brought a gift for the Qadi but not his wife.

He puts his hand on her hand. It is rough. She’s been working. Making herself useful around the camp. Maryam.

“Take off your cover,” he says.

She pulls back her hand.

“Don’t withdraw so much. I want to see you, my love.”

She looks down. Hesitant.

“I came all this way to see you.”

She half-laughs at this, a hint of bitterness. Like a teenager learning about the world, imitating someone else, a portrayal of just being jaded enough. Has she been watching movies?

“You’re not going to like it,” she says.

“Like what? I love you.”

She gives him a look like she knows. The gaps in that sentence he spoke. Her eyes are like a much older person’s eyes. She is far younger than him but she has a fierce wisdom there—another imitation? Maybe it is him, he has been out in the world under cover for too long, so their gazes don’t match anymore.

Her fingers go to her red hijab, her smile growing in bitterness and something pleading. She takes off the headscarf and reveals it. Her haircut. She has cut off all her hair.

“What is this?” he asks.

She doesn’t answer.

“Did you do something wrong? Why did you cut it all off?”

Her frown returns. She looks down again, unable to meet his eyes. She is about to cry.

“I wanted to. No. That’s not all of it. They wanted me to. It was a mutual decision.”

“They wanted you to? What about me, what about what I want? I’m your husband!”

“They’ll tell you about it tomorrow, I’m sure.”

“What business have they got in shearing your hair off?”

She looks to Khuftullah like a teenaged boy.

“It’s called a… a pixie cut,” Maryam says. She is standing up, following him after he darts away from her. “Netali Portman has it. The movie star. Princess Amidala.”

“I know who she is.”

“I saw her in a magazine and said, ‘That’s what I want.’”

“Put your scarf back on, I don’t want to see it.”

“You’re horrible to me,” she says. “They told me to look in a magazine and find a new way to look. Do you understand?”


“From higher up. You know?” She has her back turned to him and is wrapping her head with the red fabric.

“Because why? Just say it.”

“I thought I heard that Netali Portman was a radical. V for Vendetta?

“I forbid you to watch those movies.”

“I didn’t! I didn’t see it. I just read about it, what’s the harm in that?”

“Why do you need a pixie haircut like a movie star?”

“Zohra Drif,” she says after a long pause.

“What does that mean?”

“You know Algeria. The war. In the ‘50s. Zohra Drif bombed the Milk Cafe with all the French teenagers. But she needed to look French to get by the security checkpoints. You see?”

“They’re sending you to bomb teenagers.”

“No. I don’t know. They’ve been talking about sending me abroad. Maybe not to do anything violent. Maybe just reconnaissance of targets.”

“I don’t want this for you!” He looms up over her, grabbing her shoulders. She looks up at him with terror in her eyes.

“The Emir wants it,” she says. “Abol Khaseb said so too. They said I’d be perfect. I know French. They found a spot for me.”

“You’d get lost in Europe.”

“I wouldn’t be alone. Maybe… you could go with me?”

“It doesn’t sound all that worked out. The haircut and the European trashy clothes should be the last part of the preparations not the first.”

“Talk to Abol Khaseb tomorrow.”

“Zohra Drif. What if you get caught?”

“I won’t. I’ve been training.”

“You’ll have sex with other men.”

“Never. You’re my husband.”

He sits down on the bed. Head in his hands.

She stands apart from him. “You know when the Emir says it, it has to be.”

“What will your parents think? About us? How would they think I approve of you going to Europe?”

“They don’t have to know. They don’t know where I am right now. Truthfully, they’d be proud. I’ll be a fighter in the eyes of God. I want to do my part.”

He grabs a pillow and hurls it against a wall. He is aware of something inside himself, something driving his actions that isn’t quite honest. He is playing a role, at bottom, the role of the husband picked up from watching Egyptian soap operas back in Tunis, the man forbidding his wife to do anything outside his approval. As if there are hidden cameras watching them. Which there very well might be.

“I’m tired,” he says. “I’ve had a long day. I’ll have a long day tomorrow. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

She stands by the door. “Should I go, husband?”

He looks at her, directly. The acting part of him holds on for five seconds, crumbles like he’s seen actors do, and he says, “No. You can stay.”

She hesitates.

“Pixie,” he says, holding out a hand to her.

“I’m sorry.” She begins to cry. Maybe everybody is an actor. She rushes to him and he holds her. Maybe the only reality, the only real thing they can do, is to follow the orders of the Emir. It is the Emir’s TV show. Everything else is an act.

Later, in bed, with the lights out, he can’t. He runs his fingers through her newly shorn black hair. He liked it when her hair was longer. It felt more like control. There is nothing to hold onto now during sex. This is too confusing. It brings up LaFleur, who he hates, hates thinking of the man while he is in bed with his wife. If she had not mangled her beauty, to look like a pixie actress, a Jew no less, he would have found a way to be aroused.




In Mali, Khuftullah wakes up next to Maryam, asks himself what day it is. All days, people, thoughts seem to have run together and he doesn’t know when it is, where he is, who he is, if he is. He soaks up his surroundings of the bedroom converted to storage with its crates and dented file cabinets and cameras for the propaganda videos, and he recognizes her—he lives apart from her most days so now there is a gap between them, their bodies are not in tune anymore and when he looks at her with bleary eyes there bursts a time-release delay of poor recognition—once that happens, he sees that Maryam looks so small in the narrow bed next to him. His wife looks so deeply unhappy in her sleep. He wants to be away from her, wishes to himself that he never met her. But she’s part of the war package now.

Khuftullah is minutes later on a laptop that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone at the training camp, down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. He points and clicks on the link for Mahmudiya but the hyperlink always at the last millisecond jumps, the screen refreshes in a position several centimeters above or below, the link escapes his cursor and he clicks on something else entirely, never able to read the article. Something, some living force motivated from inside the computer, doesn’t want him to read about the American war crime. It’s the people who run Wikipedia, it’s George Bush, it’s some patriot in Silicon Valley, it’s the CIA, conspiring against anybody reading about how in March 2006 a group of American soldiers from the 502nd Infantry Regiment entered a house in Mahmudiya, Iraq, killed the man of the house and his wife, took the 14-year old daughter Abeer Qassim Hamza Al-Janabi, gangraped her, did bukkake all over her terrified face (Khuftullah has heard from others at the Ribāt al-Tanzīh there are pictures on the world wide web of her wild rolling desperate eyes, she’s down on her knees inside a circle of camouflaged American boys photographed from the waist down with their dicks shooting semen on her, he’s looked but can’t find it, really wants to see that). They shot her 6-year-old sister when she was making too much noise. Then when they got done playing with the 14-year-old girl, the leader—Private Green—took her in another room and shot her between the eyes. The soldiers were angry because one of theirs had been killed a few days before, so this was revenge and letting off a little steam. They set fire to the scene to cover it up and later told Iraqi soldiers that Sunni extremists did it.

Khuftullah had heard the story but wanted to read about it on Wikipedia. He wanted the official western confirmation that only the Internet could give him. He wanted to see if in the span of three or four months it had percolated up to that layer of reality, that online authority which could be accessed by those who paid the taxes supporting these evildoers, in their safe homes in America. Their mouse cursors perhaps jumped around like crickets too, preventing the curious eyes from ever seeing the Wikipedia entries on war crimes. Some glitch interfered with the safe comfortable ones ever reading about what was happening in their name, and if it wasn’t a glitch in the computer it was a Glitch Upstairs that won’t allow Hiroshima or Dresden in, that blurs My Lai into pixels, muffles decades of cries from Palestine, and short circuits televisions the week of Abu Ghraib, the feed in the American head that would otherwise carry the painful truth of responsibility is interrupted with natural endorphins blocking pain receptors—commercials, alcohol, sex, Hollywood. The only way to break through the haze of dulled American nerves would be to deliver a blow, a reminder, a sharp dagger pinning their American hands to the keyboard, the remote control, the gas pump. Somewhere they couldn’t squirm away from it.

How real does the story need to be to launch operations avenging the young girl Abeer? It’s real alright. Khuftullah knows. He knows. The theater in Iraq is set to enter a new phase of war with new violence in her name that won’t end until there are lakes of US blood in the streets.

None of the hyperlinks are working today. Maryam is still asleep. For safety Khuftullah looks over at her snoozing, it’s just him in this room on his laptop. A phenomenon Khuftullah has noticed, as he zooms through the portals and galleries built up in the world wide web, returning to the harems of the porn world, is that sometimes a shift happens where you get liking a pornstar, not Jenna JamesonBriana Banks or Tera Patrick or any of the other big names of 2005-2006, but somebody way down the food chain, and through the course of your thorough knowledge of the landscape her links decay or go inactive or are bought up by another’s, some behind-the-scenes power struggle over LINKS occurs, an unfortunate porn star’s hyperlinks get eaten up and absorbed by a dominant one, while keeping the loser pornstar’s name on the surface so when you click on her name expecting to see her you get the one who mastered her and took over all her traffic… erasing her and all the men who fucked her, names that are even more elusive. Portraits in a gallery at war with each other, replacing each other with replicas of themselves.

Abol Khaseb, Khuftullah’s spiritual mentor and guide for the entire Ribāt al-Tanzīh who will be speaking to the camp in an hour, would not be able to keep a record of everywhere Khuftullah has been. The man is smart but he does not have eyes everywhere. Looking at the undeleted search history of a laptop at the Ribāt al-Tanzīh shows everything about the priorities of the men there. Every hyperlink Khuftullah clicks on—or anyone indeed—Wikipedia, porn, or in between is recorded, etched on a gold plate that Allah keeps on his person until Judgment Day when every act of man will be brought into the light for him to explain.


Jesse Hilson lives in the Catskills in New York State. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in X-R-A-Y, Hobart, Apocalypse Confidential, Expat Press, Exacting Clam, Excuse Me Mag, and many other publications. He has published two novels, Blood Trip and The Tattletales, and the poetry collection Handcuffing the Venus De Milo. A short story collection, The Calendar Factory, is forthcoming from Anxiety Press in 2024. He can be found on X and Instagram at @platelet60.