Seven and a half years ago, a girls’ school in Mecca caught ﬁre. Many of the pupils were able to escape the burning building, but unfortunately they ran straight into the hands of the mutaween, Saudi Arabia’s “religious police,” who flayed them for having fled the conflagration without first putting on their head scarves and then drove them back to die in the flames. Fifteen schoolgirls perished—for being “immodestly” dressed. Remember that story? Robert Ferrigno does:
“The upper windows of the madrassa blew out, glass shimmering as it fell through the air. Five girls clustered on the outer balcony, far above the street, raising their arms to the sky, howling, their white night clothes billowing up past their knees . . .
“Three teenagers leaped through a ground-floor window, sprawled on the ground for a moment, bleeding, then ran toward their parents. Jenkins intercepted them, whipped them back, the tips of his beard smoldering, pinpricks of red light surrounding his face as the flail rose and fell. Police joined in, pushing the girls back into the flames.”
Jenkins? That’s right: “Mullah Jenkins.” In his new novel Heart of the Assassin, Robert Ferrigno recreates the Saudi school burning in every particular except one: the madrassa is now in America.
I recall the original report very clearly. It was not long after 9/11, and it was hard not to be struck by the contrast: on the one hand, the brave men of the New York Fire Department pounding up the stairwell of the World Trade Center to save innocent victims from the inferno; on the other, the brave men of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice forcing innocents back into the inferno in order to protect their “honour.” The incident seemed to distill something profound about two cultures, and serve as an implicit rebuke to Edward Said’s insistence that each was too “intertwined” with the other to be able to “draw the line”: the respective authorities’ response to fire evacuation seemed a pretty clear line.
Seven years is a long time for such a vivid image to strike the fancy of a novelist. If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, nowadays that may be a conscious choice: Der Spiegel reported the other day that the Droste publishing house of Düsseldorf had cancelled a new novel about “honour killing” in Germany, pleading the now familiar “safety” concerns.
Ferrigno’s “Assassin” trilogy was his response to a simple question he posed in the early days of the post-9/11 era: “What if it’s a long war?” In a short war, bet on technology—smart bombs and unmanned drones. In a long war, bet on will—or, as the novelist put it, “it’s the spiritual strength of the combatants that matters.” We like to think that those fearless firemen are emblematic, but what if that German publisher is more typical? What then?
For Ferrigno, the answer was North America circa 2040: the United States has split into an Islamic Republic in the north and west, and in the southeast “the Belt”—a Christian Bible belt. The edges are being nibbled off everywhere: a hedonist playground in the Nevada Free State, the Mormon Territories, Nueva Florida, a mighty Mexico reborn as the Aztlán Empire and annexing turf from California to Texas, and (golly) a Dominion of Canada that’s somehow managed to seep south of the 49th parallel and grab great chunks of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Islamic Republic is mostly “moderate”—more Morocco than Yemen—but San Francisco, formerly the land of Milk (Harvey) and Nancy (Pelosi), is paying the price for its past. Renamed New Fallujah, it’s under the control of the Black Robes, a Saudi-style mutaween. Don’t waste your time looking for your favourite gay bar. The fornicators and sodomites have scrammed. And what’s left of those who didn’t can be found on the city’s new landmark: the Bridge of Skulls, formerly the Golden Gate.
Meanwhile, the Belt is less a bastion of republican virtue than an impoverished swamp of garish sentimentality whose national shrines are Waco and Graceland.
It’s an ingenious scenario brilliantly realized, and its detail is persuasive enough to enable Ferrigno to pursue all the traditional thriller conventions, the molls and McGuffins, against a familiar yet utterly transformed landscape. If the final third of the trilogy doesn’t seem entirely to resolve the story of maverick fedayeen Rakkim Epps, perhaps that means that the author will one day return to his Islamic Republic for further dispatches. Meanwhile, there are two aspects of his Islamotopian future I came especially to appreciate as the saga progressed: his villain, a would-be Twelfth Imam known as “the Old One,” is a very literal embodiment of Islam’s pre-modernity and fecundity. The guy is a century and a half old, so he plays a long game: “The world was a vast, multilayered chessboard, and the Old One took years between moves.” His patience is aided by multitudes of children by dozens of wives, “the many seeds planted across the earth, beautiful girls raised among the kaffirs in the Belt and Russia and China, raised among the faithful in Arabia and Europe.” His daughters marry powerful men. His sons wield it for themselves: one becomes pope. The Old One is the apotheosis of Muslim demographic insinuation.
Pages: 1 2