Unspoken facts are unspoken for a reason. Nobody had to tell the first men and women not to snitch. You don’t snitch. You don’t rat. That law never had to be articulated until rats showed up. Scions of the early Quraysh, they couldn’t handle the pain of hunger and quickly turned to any hand that would feed them, selling out Companions under a crescent moon like pelts in exchange for full bellies. But if you were weak and couldn’t handle pain, you couldn’t be trusted, and we’d have to adjust our behavior around you. You were just another cop, another teacher. Even the good kids, Hafiz Abdullah, Kadir, Jara and the others, knew better. You could be studious without snitching. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Feign ignorance. Even if the Maulanas started whupping us to find out who’d snuck out last night, or stolen cash from the Principal’s office, or hid Heart Attack 1’s belt, the good kids knew to stay tight-lipped and take the beating. You’ll retain respect that way, even gain some. But more importantly, you’d remain unharmed.
While other Maulanas might be more lenient if they caught you in the middle of some mischief, there were three that were notorious for their ferocity. The three Heart Attacks were so aptly named because of their propensity to instill exactly that upon sight. Seeing one meant an instant heart attack for you in fear for what you were about to endure. But what the Heart Attacks did behind closed doors was still nothing compared to what we could do. And I was just as guilty. I participated, but only part of me feels remorse. Violence motivated, and we would much rather be villains than victims. Villains survived longer.
The class was not a utopia. We could not keep an eye on everybody. If it were left to us, we would have added a few extra questions to the admission interview, to screen for the weak and hungry. ‘Have you ever been accused of being a snitch without pardon?’ or, ‘Describe the toughest beating you ever caught, and what was your crime?’ We couldn’t determine with exact certainty who was good and studious, and who was weak and spineless. We thought Bilal was good and studious.
It was another Friday evening at Al Haque in early November, the time of year when the night sky crept up on the sun too early, snuffing out its descent. Maulana Ibrar’s car keys had gone missing, and he would have to bum a ride home with Heart Attack 3 that evening, unable to find his car keys in time. He lived an hour away in Toronto, and as class neared its end, he was growing fidgety. He rushed through the final lesson of the day, an exegesis on the order of the chapters in the Quran, absentmindedly checking his pockets and fumbling around for a set of keys that weren’t there. He turned his spectacled gaze on the class.
“Has anyone seen my keys?” He asked.
We stared back with ignorance, busy in memorization. We heard his tongue click and the Maulana shook his head, his long, black beard moving with him.
“I know I had them with me.” He looked around the class with solemn eyes over the top of his frameless glasses, condemning the room as he gazed right to left.
“If anyone steps forward with any information, this will be the end of it. No one will be punished for anything. No harm, no foul.”
He looked down at the class one last time. The snitch wouldn’t have the strength to step forward with information in front of everybody. To be honest, the snitch probably didn’t even know he would end up snitching at that point.
“Okay. I’ll deal with this on Monday then.” He got up and gathered his black bubble jacket and left, his tall frame making no noise as he exited the room, even the long white jubba he wore neglected to swoosh behind him with every step.
Most of us had no idea what had happened with his keys and didn’t really care. Farid however, soon produced them, flashing them in his hand along with his trademark grin, the few whiskers on his lip and chin doing nothing to hide his white teeth. I should’ve known it would be him.
“Fam. Why?” I stretched my palm towards him along with my question, in the Gujarati style of our teachers. We all knew Farid was crazy, but we also knew he didn’t do anything without a reason, even if it was a dumb one.
“Maulana Ibrar called my Dad last month. Told him shit about how he caught me on Derry Road after Isha prayer. My Dad flipped. Came here just to beat my ass after Zuhr prayer and then left.”
Everyone around us cracked up. Farid lived his life in-between beatings and we bore witness with mirth, and something else. Farid was nonplussed by our laughter.
“Why some Maulanas gotta act all mighty and shit? Can’t deal with Madrasa issues inside the Madrasa.”
It was true. Farid had a point. It was another unspoken law followed by the Maulanas as well. They didn’t alert the parents unless it was absolutely necessary, so as not to risk raising alarm or more importantly, losing a student and the tuition that came with him. Unless the transgression was especially egregious, the Maulanas preferred to deal with things themselves. Maulana Ibrar had broken protocol by contacting Farid’s parents directly.
We also had no idea how Farid was managing to sneak out, as neither Maaz, Nawaaz nor I had shared our window trick with him. No one was in the mood for sharing there. Knowledge was power and power meant freedom.
“Why would Maulana Ibrar call your parents right away? Have you been caught before?” Maaz asked as we sat around the classroom talking. We were all draped around the red and gold carpet after the evening prayer. Most of us were chatting unsupervised until Isha. The pitch black night projected nothing into the room through the only window as Farid turned his narrowing brown eyes towards us. Fluorescent bright bulbs glared down at us from above.
“Wallahi fam! On my life that was my first time being caught. That’s why I don’t understand why he called my dad. And now get this, they think I’m a troublemaker!” Farid said. We laughed again at his incredulousness, unsure if he seriously thought he could sell the piety act. The Maulanas themselves had only bought it for a few weeks. Too many people had been caught laughing around Farid, he hadn’t been careful enough with his language, there was no accent to sell the pious FOB act either. A part of me also felt that he didn’t really care if the Maulanas eventually saw through him. His flamboyant yellow and red kurtas and gold beaded caps, unconcerned with fashion or fitting in, only held up his FOB act as long as he cared about it. He grew bored of the role. He relished a new one.
“Now…what am I supposed to do with car keys?” Farid said, twirling the shiny silver bundle in his hands. Half the class was watching along, interested in his car key crime, and the other half were engrossed in their own conversations. “If only there was a car for them. Hmmm. If only the principal and the Maulanas weren’t here tomorrow night. Hmmm. If only they were going to a huge sermon at the central mosque. If only the only one left here was Sharmil Bhai to watch us. Hmmm. HMMMMM!”
“You’re crazy bro.” I said as I shook my head. The heist he was proposing was on another level compared to just sneaking out. We had no idea how Sharmil Bhai would be so distracted he wouldn’t notice a car missing from the lot. I wanted no part of it. But Farid, the idiot that he was, was harder to dissuade. There was always a strange light in his eyes that never dimmed. It helped him convince us of anything, but it also helped Maulanas find him.
“Pickering Town. Tomorrow night. Bare girls at the movies. Who’s reaching?” He leaned over a bench to stare at Maaz, Nawaaz and me. He must’ve known who would be most likely to join him. Of the students in our class, in our year, none were older than fourteen, and none had spoken to a girl in years, or possibly ever. It was a bad mix. We were fitted with holiness young, the garb too long and large for our growing frames, but we didn’t care about our appearance without girls around to impress. But now there was the prospect of girls. To some, it was an easy decision.
“Fuck that. I don’t wanna die,” I replied. I was not as starved as the others, having only joined them that year from a public school.
“Wait, I’ll talk to you after Isha,” Maaz said with a glib smile. He was smart. Though we didn’t think there were any rats, it was still wiser to hold these kinds of talks in private. Conspirators only.
After the night’s final prayer, Maaz and Farid held counsel and devised a plan. On Saturday night, when we were all left under the scant supervision of Brother Sharmil, we’d sneak out after dinner, when the man would have to attend to the remaining kitchen duties along with the other assigned students. Our timing would provide cover, as Brother Sharmil would not be able to see us sneak out. All we had to do was ensure we’d be back by eleven, when he would check to make sure everyone was accounted for.
The plan went off without a hitch. No one besides Farid had much of an appetite at dinner, so we cut out early, dragging him to the shoe foyer with us. We slid our shoes off the racks and silently slipped into them, slinking into the evening. When we got to the parking lot, Farid walked over to the only car in the lot, a black non-descript vehicle that defied attraction, and unlocked it, taking his place in the driver’s seat. We filled the other spaces, unsurprised that Farid somehow knew how to drive.
By the time we got to the mall it was almost closed. There was barely an hour left. The sky above us was purple and red and fading fast. A breeze cut through the near empty parking lot and reminded us it was November. We welcomed the bite, as the chill was something we seldom felt now, living our lives indoors, underneath cheap, ornate chandeliers and white ceilings. It had been some time since we’d bore non-windowed witness to a bleeding sky and a singing wind. Being closer to it all changed things. Red turned to purple on our brown skin as cars emptied the lot, heading one way while we headed the other. We entered the mall and walked the near empty halls, wandering from emptying storefront to emptying storefront. It didn’t bother us that we weren’t there during peak hours. There was no way we could have been there then. Sean John jeans, Roc-a-wear shirts. Caps and the beginnings of beards. The beginnings of piety for some of us, the beginnings of the end of piety for others. We tread on marble tiles and pretended to be engrossed in all that was novel, trying to make our truancy worth it. There were girls around but none of us dared to speak to them. Just the idea of them, the sight was enough. We just needed a reminder that night. That they were out there. We drank in freedom and walked like drunkards. Paused at the wrong clothing store. Loitered too long at Starbucks. Stole straws and napkins like desperate men. Postured under awnings of light. Stood on benches and chairs like immortals. Rode stair and escalator rails like that’s what they were meant for. Pitched together enough nickels for a shared Iced Capp.
We walked along the black tiles, evading the eyes of the security guards, eventually following the herded crowd out. Chrome pillars on either side of us shepherded us into the night. Everything looked shiny and clean in that industrial, consumer purgatory. Our hearts reached for pleasure as we walked away from it all. Farid, Maaz, Nawaaz and I were caught in a dream. The dangerous satiation of desire in temporal things only leads to addiction, and then a fall from grace, but there was nothing else we wanted more.
We made it back safely that night, and all was well until Monday. During Monday’s review, I noticed Brother Sharmil retrieve Samir, the student on the far left side of the room. They disappeared quietly and returned some time later. Samir sat down and resumed his review. Brother Sharmil then took Alif with him. That’s when I realized something was up. We all did. They were trying to be discreet about the one on ones, but as I hummed sentence after sentence from the longest chapter in the Quran, I exchanged glances with Maaz and Nawaaz to make sure they were seeing the same thing. I nudged Farid beside me.
“I know,” he whispered. He then began to bellow out his review, louder than anyone else, drowning out the others. Maulana Abdullah didn’t even look up at the noise disturbance. Farid’s voice blended with the others, even if it was much louder than the rest.
I watched Alif come back a little shaken, sitting uncomfortably on his knees before continuing his recitation. Something was up. I knew it didn’t have to do with Saturday’s excursion because we’d pulled off that heist successfully. We’d made it back for the last bit of the Isha prayer and nothing was remiss. I wondered if it could be about the missing car keys but Maulana Ibrar was nowhere around and his class wasn’t until later that day.
Soon, Sharmil Bhai motioned for me to follow him. Some time had passed and there was a rhythm now to the excursions. I followed Sharmil Bhai downstairs and he led me to the principal’s office. I swallowed my fear.
I entered the room and looked around. Maulana Ibrar was leaning against a windowsill in one corner, light flushing in around his darkened frame, but I could still clearly make out his long white Jubba, white cap, and white eyes. In his eyes I recognized immediately why the Maulana had broken protocol and gone straight to Farid’s parents. I knew now. Maulana Ibrar had no sympathy for worldly desire. He’d been in the country for thirty years, since he was a kid, and yet was unchanged in all that time, having more in common with the earliest Companions of the holy Prophet than anyone alive today. His was one of the first families in the seventies, part of the first wave of mass migrants from India and Pakistan to settle in the city. I’d heard his father was a prominent Maulana in his Gujarat village, and fearing that his son would lose his faith in the new land, enrolled him quickly in an Islamic school in England. An expensive but necessary education across the pond soon created a serious, no nonsense type of person who decried what he had not learned indoors. He had a very serious disposition and an attitude attracted to study and devotion. His face never broke a smile, meeting a joke with a brick wall, and taking pleasure in being unbroken. As a matter of fact, the only time I remember him smiling is when another Maulana, or the principal complimented him for something. The corners of his lips would rise slightly before being checked, while he politely and modestly declined the compliment. He’d been commended many times before on how well his class behaved, and so he’d be greatly troubled if a student’s misbehavior challenged this pleasing paradigm. Maulana Ibrar believed his class behaved because they respected him. Farid was there to remind him otherwise.
The principal was seated behind his desk. White kurta in the sub-continental style, white beard in a natural one. The smell of oud from the agar tree permeated the room. The principal looked at me through his glasses. Maulana Ibrar didn’t look at me, instead adopting the posture of someone who was there accidentally, and had just happened to be passing through. Everything he would hear would be accidental. He would not dignify the crime by speaking. He let the principal speak in his stead.
“A very serious crime was committed on Friday. Do you know what it could be?” The principal was rarely the arbiter of crimes at Al Haque. His inexperience showed.
“No,” I said quietly.
“Maulana Ibrar’s car keys have gone missing. This is a very serious crime. Do you know who might’ve taken them?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Maulana Ibrar is your respected Ustad. He’s come to us from Dewsbury just to teach here. He didn’t come here for this nonsense. I know you spend time with those troublemakers Maaz and Nawaaz. Tell me now because we’re going to find out anyways. Did they do this?” The principal’s anger did not suit him. He was a portly, aging man with a loud, warm voice, more accustomed to shaking hands and waddling.
“No, sir. I don’t know anything.”
“Place your hands on the table and spread your legs. Look down at the ground.” This was Sharmil Bhai’s hard voice. I did as he asked, putting my hands on the principal’s desk, looking down. The air whistled softly and then there was a crack. My knuckles screamed.
“Then tell us who might know something,” Sharmil Bhai demanded. His voice was above me, taking its customary place. I knew he had his metre stick in hand. He was frustrated with the principal’s bumbling interrogation. Being around us every day meant that Sharmil Bhai had a deeper understanding of the most effective techniques to elicit information from students. Not that they always worked.
“Do you think it was him?” The principal’s voice was turned towards Maulana Ibrar. A moment passed that felt like an eternity. I stared at the faded teal carpet that always hid any dirt and dust that was present.
“No.” The Maulana’s voice was barely audible.
“Swear you know nothing,” Sharmil Bhai poked my ribs with the stick at this demand. I was about to swear when I heard a shuffle in front of me from the desk and a hard blow landed on the back of my neck. It wasn’t from Sharmil Bhai, who was standing to my right with the metre stick. The principal had stood up to relieve his anger, proving he was angry and imperfect and undeserving of something.
“I swear,” I said quietly, biting my lip hard to keep from yelping in pain.
“Not every student is as tight lipped as you. If we find out later you were involved, you’re going to be expelled. This is absolutely unacceptable.” The principal’s threat was as empty as the unused dorm rooms on the third floor and we knew it. He needed our tuition. I was summarily dismissed and quietly returned to class. Most of the class had been called in at that point. The day wore on. The too-red carpets moved me up and down stairs while I memorized tracts and passages, swallowing dull pains like regular pills until pain was my default and began to feel normal. Sometime around sunset, I noticed Farid was missing. I didn’t think too much of it until I neglected to spot him later at dinner as well. No one missed a meal. He missed the night’s final prayer as well and that’s when I knew something was up.
After the prayer I alerted Maaz and Nawaaz about Farid’s disappearance. We went up to his room to look for him. The door to his room was ajar. Maaz pushed the old door open and it gave way with a soft creak. The small room didn’t have much in it. Once a respected All-girl’s Catholic private school, the rooms now housed twin beds and broken bodies. One window on a far wall in each room overlooked unused fields of green and yellow. Land that had been purchased with the ambition of raising a second building, an Islamic school for girls, was left empty for now. We all saw the same thing looking out onto the land.
Farid was in bed, lying on top of the covers. His eyes were bloodshot and he was staring up at the ceiling. He didn’t seem to notice that he’d just been intruded on.
“Yo, where the fuck you been bro?” I said loudly, trying to rouse him. He didn’t even look alive. He looked at us blankly. We were afraid. Farid was never quiet.
“Did you…did you guys eat daal again tonight?” He whispered to us with bloodshot eyes transfixed on our white jubbas.
“Actually no. It was beef potato curry tonight. And carrots,” Maaz answered with his eyebrows raised.
“God-fucking-damn it!” Farid shouted. He kicked his legs at nothing in the air and thrashed his right arm around in frustration. I noticed he held his left arm against his chest unmoving.
“The one day it’s not daal for dinner–”
I cut him off.
“What’s wrong with your left hand?”
He wouldn’t answer, content to grumble about daal instead.
“Let me see. Nawaaz hold him.” I moved forward. Nawaaz moved to the head of the bed and grabbed Farid’s right hand, pinning it above his head. Farid squirmed but could do nothing. I tried to lift his left arm but Farid yelped. I stopped. Looking closer at his forearm I noticed it was red instead of brown, and swollen beyond belief between wrist and elbow.
“What happened?” I asked. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Maulana Ibrar found out it was me. I don’t know how…anyways it’s just a beating.” He replied sheepishly. He tried to shoo us away, which was difficult with his only functioning arm pinned above him. Instead, his chin jerked up and down.
“What do you mean just a beating? He fucked your arm. Maulana Ibrar did this?” I asked. We still had trouble believing it. That someone so serious and concerned with worship and supplication could betray themselves like that. Farid only nodded.
“This is bad. Someone snitched. If we don’t find out who…we’re fucked,” Maaz said shaking his head.
“You’re right. This is bigger than just Farid. We can’t do anything until we figure out who’s snitching,” Nawaaz said nodding his head. I thought for a minute quietly, realizing they were right. The rat could compromise every one of our excursions if we weren’t careful.
“I think I know who it was,” I said quietly. That morning, during review, after my trial, I’d watched and waited to see if Maaz and Nawaaz would have had similar experiences. But their turns never came. Instead, the interrogations abruptly ended after Bilal was called to the office a few spots after me. I wondered why and now I knew.
“It was Bilal,” I said, looking at the group.
“Wait, how do you know?” Farid asked. I explained my process.
“Yeah, but are you certain it wasn’t anyone before him or someone else and they were just looking for corroboration?” Farid was skeptical.
Maaz, Nawaaz and I looked at each other.
“I’ll bet my life on it fam.” My voice dripped with venom. We all knew Bilal. He was quiet, studious, and never partook in our pranks. Which was fine. But he also knew Maulana Ibrar from outside of Al Haque. They were distant relatives or something, their fathers knew each other outside of the Madrasa environment.
“I just…don’t want him to get hurt or anything on my behalf,” Farid said.
“It’s not on your behalf. We just gotta keep this place under control.” Nawaaz was firm. He would be impossible to stop now and could not avoid violent recourse. He understood what we only understood sometimes: that reason was a luxury in places where men and boys were base animals absent of their gentler nature. Breaking things led to more broken things.
We snuck into Bilal’s room that night while he lay sleeping. It wasn’t just Maaz, Nawaaz and me. Around six of us snuck into his room that night. None of us could survive with a rat amidst us. That would be no life, some holy unnatural order where spirits were crushed instead of belaboring onward. His roomie Samir unlocked the door for us and helped to tie each of Bilal’s limbs to a bed post. It was dark, but we could make each other out in the blue light of a moonless sky. The window shone nothing beautiful into that room; instead only what we needed.
Bilal needed to know there was a worse pain out there than what he felt at the hands of Brother Sharmil or Maulana Ibrar or the principal. We covered his face with a pillow so he could not scream or identify us later. Slowly, we unwrapped his hands and Nawaaz quickly grabbed them and held them together behind his head before he could claw or fight. Samir held the pillow steady. Bilal tried to sit up, muffling screams but no longer tied at the hands. Maaz stepped forward and punched him hard in the stomach twice. We heard a scream through the pillow as Bilal collapsed, trying to curl his knees up but the long white kurtas tied in a knot around his ankles didn’t let him. One by one, we all stepped forward, punching him in the stomach once, taking orderly turns, waiting politely in a silent queue, and slipping out of the room without a word afterwards. He could feel it in the way the strength of the blows varied, who felt guilty, who was dispassionate, who didn’t want to be there, who was cruel and relished the role. The room was almost empty when it was my turn. I punched him hard in the stomach and heard him cough and weep through the pillow while he squirmed and whimpered. Only part of me feels remorse.
Maaz and I waited at the doorway in the dark when it was done. We watched Nawaaz gesture for Samir to step aside and go to bed. Nawaaz dropped Bilal’s hands and took the pillow and moved it away from his face. Samir was in bed, pretending to sleep now. The pale, weird light from the window shined down on Bilal’s tear-stained face in the night while he stared at the ceiling with a blank expression. He was breathing heavy, and his brown skin was illuminated by blue light in the places where rivulets of tears had formed. Hellfire would never be permitted to touch his skin in those hallowed tear tracks.
Nawaaz leaned into Bilal’s face so they could eye each other with a bare inch separating them while Maaz and I watched from the darkness.
“The others. You can’t snitch on them cuz you didn’t see them. Your face was covered. You don’t know who was here tonight and who wasn’t. Except for me. You know I was here and I did this. You can see my face. Now I dare you to snitch on me. I’ll throw you off the roof of this fucking building.”
Nawaaz turned around and walked out. His role was universal, eternal. In every year and every moment in between, in some corner of the world, he was propelling things one way. When men had convinced themselves they could afford the luxury of morals in places they were being simultaneously manufactured and broken, Nawaaz was there to remind them.
We took no joy or solace in that night. Simply put, a catastrophe would’ve resulted from our inaction through the multiplication of rats. And we’d much rather stay some halfway beast-humans. Maybe Bilal thought he could afford something he really couldn’t, and that we could all be good students like him, void of our troublemaking nature. That he could help us rise and live like Companions of the Holy Prophet. But we weren’t interested in living; and one eternal, rising life didn’t sound better than one that sunk and died. That’s what Al Haque’s victims did. Rose and lived eternal. We weren’t victims. We were interested in living a life of the dying, clinging to middle school passions as they were beat out of us one by one at the slowest pace known to humanity. Until we were villains.