Archive | literature RSS for this section

Apparently I can write short fiction…

A while ago I submitted an entry to a short fiction competition. And by short, I mean very short… the length of a tweet, to be precise.

The competition was run by The Fiction Shelf, and my entry was long-listed for their inaugural competition. Unfortunately, they released the long-list and short-list on the same day which somewhat ruined the suspense. But, very nice to get the recognition.

You can see the full short- and long-lists here (there are only 11 entries in total, so it will take you all of a very entertaining 5 minutes to read them…).


Today I have mostly been learning about… “bullshit”

The name of this post echoes my previous, much longer post entitled Today I have mostly been learning about… “Fuck”. However, it would be somewhat of a lie to say that I had been spending most of my day on this…

As you’ll see from the citation, this was from a book on Qualitative Methods. However, it amused and intrigued me… and thanks to my amazing OCR software and scanner, this took little effort. So without further ado, enjoy learning a bit about ‘bullshit’:

Bullshit in the outback

Of all the definitions of ‘bullshit’ read so far, I’ve yet to find one that discusses the source himself, the bull. I’m speaking from many years experience of working with, and observing, wild cattle in our far north. Like the males of other animal species, wild bulls often fight over harem rights. Typically they go through a display routine something akin to ‘come any closer, and I’ll punch your lights out!’.There’s a lot of bluffing, swaggering, mouthing off, and literally bullshitting. The process might go on for minutes or hours, but all the while the bulls are constantly dribbling shit from the back end and paddling it around with their tail. You can always tell when a bull is in fighting mode because his arse-end is smothered in green slime. They circle around each other with their noses down, pawing up as much dust as they can (think ‘bulldust’), bawling each other out and sniffing at each other’s shit. Does that sound like some academic discussions you’ve witnessed! The point is, the issue of who wins is most often settled in these preliminaries. The process might go on for a while, but one or the other has already conquered, without the potential danger of actually locking horns. One short rush and it’s all over. In conversations among the stockmen, use of the term ‘bullshit’ was almost invariably in this context. If someone was suspected of bluffing/boasting/overstating their ability to ride, root, drink or fight, then he was ‘full of bullshit’ or ‘bullshitting’ or simply dismissed with ‘Ahh bullshit!’. (Eric Whittle personal communication, 2006)

From Silverman, D., 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research, Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, p. 122.

The Fiction Shelf

From time to time I will point readers to websites that I think might interest them. It just so happens that this one was set up by my good friend Liam.

Do you like reading? Are you a budding writer?  Liam has been working on this project for a while now and it has just officially launched. Check out the website, where authors and readers can share high-quality fiction, poetry and more in all manner of on-screen and printable formats. And if you fancy sharing the link with others, we’d both be eternally grateful.

The Fiction Shelf

We are The Fiction Shelf – an entertainment site for readers and writers, and a free one at that. All of the stories and poems here are of excellent quality and are available to you however you want them.

If you would like to read some of our fiction use the buttons at the top of page. If you’re a writer and want to have your work featured click here to learn how. If you have any ideas on how the site could be improved then please drop us an e‐mail.

Having your Cake, and then Raping the Baker: Biblical Criticism by a Respectful Nonbeliever

I’m pretty busy with my thesis right now… hence the sudden fall off in proper posts. However, one of the good things about getting back into the office and working on the University computers is that I had a dig through my old documents and came across some essays and assignments that I submitted as a first year undergraduate. During that time I took some Theology courses… and some biblical studies courses. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things that I submitted… in an attempt to show that you don’t have to believe in what you are studying to engage with it. Especially with biblical studies… some of the stories are just absolutely fascinating. Here is a piece that I wrote on II Samuel 13: 1-22 – a quite shocking (and thus, unfortunately, often overlooked) story about David’s son and daughter, Amnon and Tamar.

You can find the NIV translation of this passage here. Or a more light-hearted look at it on The Brick Testament (and I shall intersperse my essay with images from this amazing resource).

Power and Powerlessness in II Samuel 13: 1-22

The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is one of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that can prove shocking to the modern reader. This is illustrated well by the fact that, in the opening paragraphs of many commentaries, the authors feel compelled to highlight the nature of the account as “exceptionally tense” (Hertzberg, 1964:322), “frighteningly realistic” (Evans, 2004:220)  or even “revolting” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341). However, when looking at the passage in the form in which we have it today, it is important to not become distracted by subject matter, but to see the story as it is in its context. In this passage, the doom pronounced on David’s house in the previous chapter [2 Sam 12:10] begins to receive its fulfilment (ibid), and the passage also  “stands as a prologue to the account of (Absalom’s) rebellion in chapters 15-20” (McCarter Jr., 1984:327).

Much modern scholarship (particularly Christian scholarship) tends to focus on the character of Tamar and her tragic fate, but, as Hertzberg points out, whilst Tamar is indeed the “tragic figure of the drama, (…) in the general context she is merely a subsidiary figure whose fate is only important for the light it sheds on the struggle between the two oldest princes and its further consequences for the history of the kingdom of David” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Marie Evans believes the focus of the text to be “the use and abuse of power” (2004:222)  and it is the intention of this essay to build upon this belief by identifying and discussing the various manifestations of power and powerlessness in the text, rather than focussing on one individual character.

At the very beginning of the chapter we are made aware that the recorded events related to the previous chapters. Whilst “in the course of time” [2 Sam 13:1] does not denote a precise duration of time, the phrase “was intended to provide the link between chapters 12 and 13” (Mauchline, 1971:259)  – these chapters, along with David’s indiscretion in chapter 11, are connected as cause and effect (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341).

The main characters of the story – Amnon, his father David, Amnon’s half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom – are introduced in verse 1, and we learn that not only has Amnon fallen in love with Tamar [v. 1] but that Amnon became “frustrated to the point of illness” because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” [v. 2].

Because of the clarification that Amnon was so frustrated because he wish to do something to Tamar, it is clear that Amnon’s is confusing lust with love (Conroy, 1978:23), and that he is “dominated by the same sensuality as his father” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Not only is he presented as being powerless against his desires, he is also powerless to do carry them out because she was a virgin [v. 2] – “unmarried girls, and particularly those of the royal house, would be carefully guarded” (McCarter Jr., 1984:321).

In verse 3 we are introduced to the only other character in the story, David’s nephew Jonadab, indicating that whilst this whole affair will have far-reaching consequences, it is essentially a family affair. (Conroy, 1978:28)  Jonadab notices how Amnon’s frustration is affecting him physically [v. 4] and addresses him as “the king’s son” – emphasising the dichotomy between the powerlessness he was feeling, and the power he should be experiencing “as a prince with all the privileges of royalty” (Mowley, 1998:182).

Before the plot is developed in verse 5, the reader is subtly reminded of the ominous presence of Absalom – Amnon identifies Tamar as his “brother Absalom’s sister” [v. 4], emphasizing to Jonadab just how bad the situation is, and alerting the reader that Absalom is very much involved in the story, even though he is currently ‘backstage.’

From verse 5 onwards, Amnon is presented as exerting power and authority, albeit for his own selfish ends and, as throughout this entire passage, always subject to the power of his own lust. Here, Jonadab provides Amnon with a crafty plan to see Tamar in private, but one that will require the (innocent) collusion of King David. In actuality this presents no problems, and verses 6 and 7 describe how David believes Amnon’s feigned illness and sends for Tamar. Apart from illustrating the power of Amnon and Jonadab, who successfully manage to trick and manipulate the king, these verses also say something about the power of King David: this is the first instance in this passage where David is seen as a power that must be appealed to – whilst the exercising of this power is overshadowed by Amnon’s manipulation, the important notion here is the necessity of appealing to David, and the potential that had David exercised his power in a different way, the following events would not have occurred (Evans, 2004:221).

Tamar arrives at the house of her brother Amnon [v. 8], silently obedient and submissive to the wishes of her father, the king, and her brother, the crown prince. Amnon, however, refuses to eat the food that she has prepared for him [v. 9], and orders everyone to leave the room – an action which Hertzberg regards as “a whim of the crown prince, who is so used to giving orders” (Hertzberg, 1964:323).

After dispensing with the servants, Amnon continues exerting his power, effectively ordering his sister to bring the food to him in his bedroom [v. 10] and again, physically grabbing her saying, “Come to bed with me, my sister” [v. 11].

What follows in verses 12 and 13 is an impassioned speech from Tamar. She recognises that she is powerless to stop her much stronger [v. 14] brother carrying out his wishes, so she appeals to two more powerful authorities – custom [v. 12 & 13] and the king [v. 13]. The reason Tamar gives for condemning Amnon’s wishes as a “wicked thing” is that “such a thing should not be done in Israel.” Regardless of whether she is referring to incest, or premarital sexual relations, it is worth noting that in this case “morality (…) finds its sanction in custom, not in a written code,” (Kennedy, 1905:252) – here she is referring to “serious violations of custom [Gen 20:9; 29:26] that threaten the fabric of society” (McCarter Jr., 1984:322)  She makes no reference to the Law, or to the authority of God, and it is at this point that the reader first realises that God is mysteriously missing from this ‘revolting’ story. When looking into the subtext of Tamar’s statement that Amnon would be “like one of the wicked fools in Israel” [v. 13], Kirkpatrick tells us that the term “fool denotes not merely one who is stupid and ignorant, but one who has abandoned the fear of God, and cast off the restraints of decency and morality” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:343)  Whilst this description certainly fits with the character of Amnon presented in the text, and whilst the narrator may indeed have intended the reader to pick up on this meaning, if we accept the apparent absence of God in this passage, this places more responsibility on the individuals capable of changing the situation, and their use and misuse of power.

Tamar’s appeal for Amnon to speak to the king [v. 13] has provoked much academic discussion. This discussion is generally directed towards the nature of Amnon’s sin (incest or rape), but it can also prove useful in discerning how much power David would have had in this matter. Numerous questions arise: Was the law stated in Leviticus 18:9, prohibiting sexual relations between siblings and half-siblings, in place? If so, does Tamar assume David would use his power as king to overrule this law?  If not, is David to be appealed to as a father or as a king?

There is a lot of disagreement amongst scholars about whether the law of Leviticus 18:9 is in place. McCarter Jr. (with Mowley, 1998:182) believes that the most defensible position is that the laws were in full effect, and that unless Tamar is merely temporising, her “assumption that David would be willing to overlook such a prohibition in order to accede to Amnon’s request is consistent with what we know of David’s attitude elsewhere [v. 21]” (1984:324).  Whilst this is based slightly more recent scholarship, by the simple fact that Tamar makes no reference to God or any legal code, it seems more reasonable for us to accept the opposing position of Mauchline (with Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) that Amnon “could have married her in the ordinary way” for “the marriage of a brother and half-sister was possible at this stage of Israel’s history” (1971:260).  If we accept that this is the case, it is reasonable to conclude that Tamar is appealing to David as a father who has the power to grant or refuse a marriage proposal.

After clearly demonstrating his physical power by raping Tamar [v. 14], Amnon continues to treat her like a servant, ordering her to “Get up and get out” [v. 15]. We are told that, not only did Amnon suddenly hate her, but that “he hated her more than he had loved her.” This sexual, psychological factor is a natural progression of Amnon’s (now fulfilled) lust from verse 2, for “it is human nature to hate those whom you have injured” (McCarter Jr., 1984:324,citing Tacitus).  This demonstrates how powerless Amnon really is against his base, human nature.

Amnon refuses to listen to any further protest from his sister Tamar, and has his servant unceremoniously throw her outside outside, and bolt the door behind her [vv. 16-18]. Tamar, who has acted blamelessly throughout because she did everything in her power to stop Amnon disgracing them both, then tears her robe, puts ashes on her head and goes away weeping aloud, performing “all the signs of mourning, not for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of her virginity” (Mowley, 1998:184).

In verse 20, Absalom takes an active part in the story for the first time. It is interesting to note that Tamar turns to her brother Absalom after the incident, and not to her father, David. Conroy suggests two possible reasons why this might be the case – there may be have been more solidarity between siblings than between a father of many offspring and his children, or Tamar may have held David partly responsible for what happened (1978:18). Both of these alternatives diminish David’s power and influence over his children, the only difference being that in the first case this was always so, and in the second it is the result of these recent events.

Some translations, such as the New International Version, do not include the full version of verse 21 (included in the Septuagint and the ordinary text of the Vulgate  (Kirkpatrick, 1930:345)), which reads, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry; but he did nothing to harm his son, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  However, the inclusion of the italicised text makes little or no difference to how we interpret the text. Whether David did not act because of his love for his son, or because “he was reminded of his own misconduct and could hardly punish his son for a similar offence” (Mowley, 1998:185),  it is clear that David, who had the power to intervene as both king and father, did not do so.

In the final verse of this passage, we see Absalom, Tamar’s actual brother, silently hating his half-brother Amnon. According to Kirkpatrick, by oriental custom, Absalom had both the power and the duty to avenge his sister’s wrongs (1930:345).  However, Absalom chooses not to exercise this power – this could be seen as a sign of weakness (maybe he feared that the house of David would be discredited if he made a sharp protest ) but it is far more likely, given his eventual murder of Amnon, that he is exercising his power wisely, by biding his time (McCarter Jr., 1984:326)

Power has clearly been a major theme running right through this text. What we have been presented with is a situation where four human characters all use, or misuse power in various ways, in a situation in which God plays no active, recorded role: Amnon is the powerful crown prince, who is powerless to resist his sexual urges, and uses his royal powers and physical strength to satisfy this lust; Tamar is the powerless victim who tries everything within her power to prevent the events taking place; David is the powerful king who fails to appropriately use his power to prevent the situation; and Absalom wilfully withholds his power, preferring to bide his time and take revenge at a more suitable moment. There is a clear “pattern of reversal, upset and contrast”  (Conroy, 1978:36-37) at work here – those who have power (Absalom, Amnon and David) misuse it, and Tamar, who is powerless, is the only character to emerge blameless, albeit as “a desolate woman” [v. 20].


•    Conroy, Charles, Absalom Absalom! (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)

•    Driver, S. R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913)

•    Evans, Mary J., The Message of Samuel (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)

•    Hertzberg, Hanz Wilhelm, I & II Samuel (London: SCM Press, 1964)

•    Kennedy, A. R. S., Samuel (Edinburgh: TC & EC Jack, 1905)

•    Kirkpatrick, A. F., The First and Second Books of Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930)

•    Mauchline, John, 1 & 2 Samuel (London: Oliphants, 1971)

•    McCarter Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)

•    Mowley, Harry, 1 & 2 Samuel (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998)

Giles Fraser on Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”

Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St Paul’s cathedral, and his take on Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”. Taken from the Guardian. Enjoy:

We are caught in a battle between those who believe too much and those who believe too little – so Terry Eagleton was saying at St Paul’s cathedral the other day. In the one corner are the fundamentalists for whom certainty can be pulled off the page of ancient scripture, and in the other are the “whatever” generation for whom the continual introduction of the word “like” is the perfect expression of anxiety about certainty per se. (Conversation with my daughter: she says “It is, like, raining.” “No,” I reply, “there’s no like about it. It is raining.”)

Sam Harris struck literary gold having a go at those with too much certainty in The End of Faith. Now he turns his attention to those with too little. His target is moral relativism. For too long religion has sheltered behind the popular idea that you can have your truth and I will have mine. Harris wants a more muscular form of God-denying liberalism, attained by tearing down the familiar idea that science does facts (where truth is possible) and religion does meaning and values (where relativistic respect is essential). With this fact/value distinction – inspired by no less a figure than David Hume – religion and science have announced the terms of their peace treaty, each claiming for themselves a non-competing jurisdiction. But Harris will have none of it. Science has sold itself cheap. The peace treaty must be torn up. Science can indeed tell us about morality. Indeed, science can determine morality.

First, the atheism. On that useful quadrant – interesting and right, interesting and wrong, uninteresting and right, uninteresting and wrong – Harris is mostly in the uninteresting and right category. Uninteresting because he is concerned only with the narrowest definition of religious belief, and right because the moral and intellectual crimes he pins on this form of belief – its ignorance and prejudice – are so obvious to the western secular imagination that they do not require argument, and certainly not a PhD in neuroscience. Given his definition of religion, his attack on it is the philosophical equivalent of taking sweets from a baby. These things are wrong: “female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice”. The list goes on. With regard to the god Harris describes, I am a much more convinced atheist than he – even though I am a priest. For Harris asks constantly for evidence, with the implication that if he discovered some, he would change his mind. My own line would be that even if the god he described was proved to exist, I would see it as my moral duty to be an atheist. An all-powerful eternal despot is still a despot. Blake called this wicked villain “Nobodaddy”.

Nonetheless, the attack on relativism leads Harris into much more interesting territory, but interesting and wrong. His astonishing lack of humility leads him to claim too much for what science can achieve in the realm of morality. The key concept is that of “wellbeing”. It is, he suggests, both a fact word and a value word, like “health”. So, for example, to suggest that a thing contributes to wellbeing is to make of it a positive evaluation as well as to claim something that can be measured scientifically. On this Harris has invoked the wrath of countless philosophers. But I’m with Harris here. As Mary Midgley argued years ago in her brilliant Beast and Man (a book with a comparable intention to Harris’s, though more modestly expressed), an apparently neutral description – “natural” or “human” for example – relates to the empirical world and contains a moral charge. But to extend this point to the idea that wellbeing can shoulder all the work of morality is breathtakingly hubristic.

What is presented as Harris’s big new idea is really just reheated utilitarianism with wellbeing in place of pleasure. Where this idea breaks down is where utilitarianism breaks down. Let me start with Harris’s defence of torture. If the sum of general wellbeing (whatever that means) is increased by the torture of a terrorist suspect, then torture is not even a necessary evil – it becomes a moral duty. Worse still: discussing Robert Nozick’s ingenious idea of a “utility monster”, Harris asks “if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings”. His answer is astonishing: “Provided we take time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly ‘yes’.” For me this is back with the evil Nobodaddy. I will not worship superbeings nor sacrifice to them. Once again I am more atheist than he.

There are so many problems with utilitarianism, it’s a pity Harris does so little to address them. How can one quantify the sum total of wellbeing produced by a single action when the potential consequences of any particular action are infinite? So keen is he to turn morality into science that Harris presses on regardless. His demand is that all morality be calibrated on a single scale. Yet if one observes what it is that people call good (and isn’t observation a scientific golden rule?), instead of assuming what good ought to look like, one surely recognises very different sorts of moral value. Can the moral value of freedom and equality really be measured in the same way? Can a conflict between love and duty be resolved by some scientific calculation? No. As Isaiah Berlin rightly pointed out, moral values are often incommensurable. Not all things are good in the same way and for the same reasons. Thus they cannot be measured against each other, however attractive that seems to the scientific mind.

For all this, it is not so much that I disagree with Harris. Rather, I am scared of him. And not his atheism, which is standard scientific materialism with the volume turned up. But scared of his complete lack of ambiguity, his absolute clarity of vision, his refusal of humour or self-criticism, his unrelenting seriousness. Harris sees the great moral battle of our day as one between belief and unbelief. I see it as between those who insist that the world be captured by a single philosophy and those who don’t. Which is why I fear Harris in just the same way I fear evangelical Christians, to whom he looks so similar. Like them, he is in no doubt about his faith. Like them, he has his devoted followers. Like them, he wants to convert the world. Well, I’m sorry. I am not a believer.

Leading atheist publishes secular Bible

This sounds interesting,,,

Essentially it’s just a compendium of Grayling’s favourite writings which he believes provide inspiration, consolation, etc etc.

We could probably all do this ourselves… if only we had the time. And he’s a very intelligent bloke…

Whatever, I know I shall be reading it at some point… definitely for academic reasons, if not also for personal interest

Leading atheist publishes secular Bible By Jessica Ravitz, CNN The question arose early in British academic A.C. Grayling’s career: What if those ancient compilers who’d made Bibles, the collected religious texts that were translated, edited, arranged and published en masse, had focused instead on assembling the non-religious teachings of civilization’s greatest thinkers? What if the book that billions have turned to for ethical guidance wasn’t tied to commandments from God or any one … Read More

via CNN Belief Blog

A Mason’s Hand: A Fictional Pakistani’s experience of Saudi Arabia

I finally read this short story from on my journey into work this morning. If you have 15 minutes spare I would heartily recommend it.

New Voices: A Mason’s Hand

In our New Voices series we publish the work of emerging fiction writers exclusively on the website. Our latest New Voice is Pakistani writer Ali Akbar Natiq, whose story ‘A Mason’s Hand’ impressed us with its melancholic tone and black humour. It has been translated from Urdu by novelist Mohammed Hanif. Read other stories in our New Voices series here.


Photo © Mait-Jüriado

A Mason’s Hand

Haji sahib, these kids are beyond me. I can’t teach them any more. Please make some other arrangement,’ he said, throwing his hands in the air.

‘Why do I need another arrangement when I have you?’ Haji Altaf sounded apologetic. ‘I have tried every good tutor in the city but nobody has lasted even a month. I thought you were from a good family and needed a job. You are the only one who can teach these rascals. You can go and look for another job but while you are looking, please keep teaching them.’

‘Haji sahib, that’s all very well. But your grandsons don’t respect me, they don’t listen to a single thing I tell them. I am wasting their time as well as my own. I do hard manual labour all day – I just don’t have the energy to do this too.’ Asghar started to walk out of the door but stopped and turned. ‘Haji sahib, if you really have any sympathy for me, see if you can get me a proper job.’

‘Okay,’ Haji said. ‘But I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life building minarets for mosques.’

‘Then what shall I do?’ he asked.

‘Why don’t you go to my sons in Saudi?’ Haji Altaf patted his shoulder. ‘God will create some opportunity for you there.’

Asghar put his palm on the wall to check if it was wet. If the wall was even a little dry it would be difficult to plaster. He decided it wasn’t ready yet. He asked a labourer to splash some more water on the wall and went to his father who was fixing decorative tiles on an already plastered section of the wall. Tiling was easier than plastering, so this is how they divided their work. Asghar did the hard labour himself and let his father do the lighter work. They had worked together for fifteen years. Asghar observed that his father’s hand trembled slightly as he fixed the tile. He looked at the old man’s white beard closely, the little specks of cement stuck to it. His cheek bones stuck out.

He had an overpowering feeling that his father had grown too old for this kind of work. He was an expert mason and had worked on many of the new mosques in the city. Everything that Asghar knew, he had learned working alongside his father.

He remained silent for a while, then abruptly related his conversation with Haji Altaf to his father.

His father put his trowel and bucket aside after hearing him out. ‘You should do what you think is good for you. But let me tell you one thing. There is nothing but humiliation in those Arab places. You know that I was in Kuwait for three years. My lot didn’t change; I couldn’t put down this trowel and hammer even for a day. As for Haji Altaf and his sons : those traders and jewellers will get themselves skinned but won’t spare a single paisa. They’ll never help you out.’

Asghar listened to his father’s advice patiently – but he had already made up his mind.

After arriving at Jeddah airport, Asghar rushed to the immigration queue. There were five counters but no staff. He found himself in the queue at one of the counters. Soon there were hundreds of people in every queue. Then came another large group of people with shaved heads, long beards and rosaries; they all wore ihrams. They gave off a terrible odour. Asghar thought that if he had to wait with them for a long time he would throw up. Reluctantly he spoke. ‘Baba ji, you should get in the queue. I was here before you.’

‘Don’t worry son,’ the man in the ihram replied. We know that we have to wait for our turn to get our passports stamped. We are here on a pilgrimage, we’ll never do anything unjust.’

But as soon as the immigration staff arrived the pilgrims surged forward, shoving everyone aside. In the ensuing pandemonium, Asghar found himself at the end of the queue. After being pushed around for more than an hour he reached the immigration counter, where shurtas pounced on him and snatched his passport. He wondered what was going on. ‘Be warned Haji, fifty riyals,’ one shurta said.

‘But I don’t have that kind of money,’ Asghar said in his broken Arabic.

‘Then you head straight for Mecca. You have got a visa for umrah. You’ll get your passport back in Mecca. You are not allowed to enter any other city,’ the shurta told him.

Asghar started to think about his situation. He wasn’t wearing an ihram. He didn’t have enough money to stay in a hotel. Of course he wanted to perform the umrah but first he had to meet up with Haji Altaf’s sons in Jeddah. He had informed them of his arrival over the phone and they had reassured him that they would receive him at the airport. But here he was in a situation that he hadn’t anticipated. He had only one hundred riyals. After mulling over the situation for a while he approached the shurta again. ‘Can’t you reduce that a bit?’

‘Fifty riyals or straight to Mecca,’ the shurta said cruelly.

Feeling hopeless, Asghar put fifty riyals on the shurta’s palm and left the immigration hall quickly. Taxi drivers mobbed him as he came out but he didn’t pay them any attention. He was sure that Haji Altaf’s sons would be waiting outside. He came out of the airport and looked everywhere but there was no sign of them. He went into a telephone booth and called them and found they hadn’t left for the airport. They gave him their address and told him to take a taxi.

His bag slung on his shoulder, he stood reclining against the trunk of a date tree. A taxi driver looked him over and approached him. ‘Sir, are you from Pakistan?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Where do you need to go?’

‘Bani Malik,’ Asghar handed him the address. The taxi driver glanced at it, returned him the piece of paper and opened the cab door for him.

Gingerly, he approached the taxi. ‘How much would it cost?’

‘Brother, forty riyals only, since you’re from our own Pakistan.’

‘Forty riyals is too much.’ He backed away.

Asghar took his bag, walked away from the taxi stand and wondered what would happen if he walked up to the road leading to the city and tried to get a lift. He could save some money that way. He walked on the roadside for a while and left the airport behind. There were clusters of date palms on both sides of the road. He put his bag next to one of the trees and entered the moonlit orchard. In the last hours of the night, the moonlight filtering through the date trees in the desert transported him into a world of wonder. Ripe dates were strewn on the sand. He picked one up and ate it. The fruit was sweeter than anything he had ever eaten. He picked up more dates and ate them. The fronds of the date palms rustled in the wind and cast a magic spell on him. Whenever he saw the headlights of an approaching car, he would come out and wave but the cars whizzed past him. This would have bothered him, had he not been feasting on the dates. For about one hour he roamed around in the orchard. He picked quite a few dates and put them in his bag. Then he heard the azan for morning prayers. As soon as he heard it he came back on the road and started walking towards the airport. He was bored with eating dates and wanted to reach the city as soon as possible. He had concluded that nobody was going to offer him a lift here because of the simple reason that he had left his Pakistan behind. He came back to the taxi stand.

After arriving at the house of Haji Altaf’s son, Haji Nasir, he slept. He woke around the time of Asr prayers. The air conditioner had chilled the room and he felt very cold. This was the first time he had slept in a room like this and Asghar felt that his whole body had stiffened. He came out of the room and a gust of hot wind scorched his face. He had never felt winds this hot. He made his ablutions, returned to the room and offered his Asr prayers. He promised himself that he would never be late for any of his five prayers, and that as soon as he found a job he would call his family.

He started to enjoy the idea that the next day he would see with his own eyes all the places that he had read about in history books and sacred texts. He was lost in these thoughts, as he roamed Jeddah’s street with Haji Nasir. He was surprised to see thousands of Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis in the streets. Some seemed prosperous, but there were beggars too. They reached a square where they saw gangs of Indian boys loitering around. When he asked about them, Haji Nasir said that the boys who were standing in that square sold blue movies to Arabs. Some sold themselves as well, he added.

As soon as the azan for evening prayers went up that night, humans of a thousand varieties reached in their pockets for their prayer caps and rushed towards the mosques. Asghar found himself joining them.

That night he was restless and couldn’t sleep in anticipation of his pilgrimage to the haram in the morning. He thought about all those multi-millionaires who are so forsaken that despite all their wealth they never get to see the aram. He was still lost in these thoughts when the morning arrived. He got up quickly, took a bath and put on his ihram. Haji Nasir had lent him three hundred riyals and his own ihram for the umrah. For ten riyals he took a taxi that he shared with three other men. As soon as he sat down in the taxi he asked the taxi driver impatiently. ‘Brother, how far do you think is the haram?’

‘We should get there in an hour,’ the driver replied.

‘What would you say is the total area of the haram?’ Asghar asked him.

‘How should I know, my friend?’ the driver said, bitterly.

After the driver’s rude response, Asghar sat quietly in his seat, leaned back on the headrest and watched the desert and barren mountains on both sides of the road. They sped past the occasional hut, and every so often a dust devil rose from the sand and headed for the sky. He wondered if the Holy Prophet had walked the same route. Although the taxi drove fast, Asghar found the journey slow; time seemed to have stopped. He distracted himself by thinking about the tribulations of fourteen hundred years ago; Prophet Muhammed’s invitation to Islam, Abu Talib’s support, the exile, the battles of Badar, Uhad and Khandaq. He was lost in these thoughts when the taxi driver startled him. ‘This is where you get off brother. Here is your haram.’ Asghar picked up his bag and jumped out of the taxi. Right in front of him was the haram’s east door, which pulled him towards it with its terrifying splendour.

Asghar let himself get pulled in. People of various races, black and white, walked around in an easy companionship. Thousands of pigeons roamed and fluttered in the compound, feeling no fear. It was eleven in the morning and despite the sun he felt no heat. He entered the haram, offered his prayers and started performing the umrah rituals. Staying close to the wall of the Kaaba, he completed seven circles around it all the while reciting, ‘O Allah, I am here.’ Although there was a sea of people, during every circle he managed to kiss the Black Stone. Then he did his walk between Safa and Marwah. On the Safa Mountain he could see groups of women, looking like fairies in their white ihrams, but he didn’t want such distractions on a day like this. He sought out and studied every place that he had read about in history books. He held the sacred black cloth that covers the Kaaba and prayed for a very long time. After spending his whole day in the haram, he came out just before nightfall.

After performing the umrah, there were other places Asghar wanted to visit but he felt too tired and postponed the visit to the following day. In an open field, he placed his bag under his head and went to sleep. He was right next to Abu Qubais Mountain, where the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib once lived. Many pilgrims who couldn’t afford to stay in the hotels were sleeping here. Oblivious to his surroundings, Asghar slept a deep sleep and was finally woken up at the time of Fajr prayers, when a shurta kicked him.

Asghar offered his Fajr prayers and went out into the streets of Mecca. All the streets and roads were paved and very clean. Wandering around, he asked for directions and reached the Station of Hajoun where the graves of the Prophet’s family members and Bani Hashim were. He visited a number of other holy places by noon and returned to the haram for his Zuhr prayers. This became his daily routine. He would wander around in the valley of Mecca in the morning and return to the haram before the afternoon.

It was his eighth day in Mecca, and despite being very careful with his money Asghar had spent one hundred and forty riyals. He decided that he should immediately go to Medina and, after his pilgrimage, find himself a job.

He had just got on a bus after paying forty riyals for a ticket when a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old black boy accompanied by two little girls boarded the bus. They were probably his younger sisters. There was a strange and attractive innocence in their features. The girls occupied one seat; the boy looked around and then sat next to Asghar. As soon as the bus started its journey, the boy broke the silence.

‘What is your name?’

‘My name is Ali Asghar.’

‘My name is Abdullah,’ said the boy. Then he took out banknotes from various countries and started showing them to Asghar. He told him that he had friends from every country: America, Europe, Africa, Iraq, Syria, India, Iran; everywhere.

‘Don’t you have a Pakistani friend?’ asked Asghar.

‘No. No. All Pakistanis are bastards. Thieves all of them.’ He was suddenly very angry. ‘I do not have a single friend from Pakistan.’

All colour drained from Asghar’s cheeks and he turned to look out of the window. After a few moments’ silence, the boy spoke again. ‘You are from Iran?’

‘No. I am from Pakistan,’ Asghar said in a cold voice.

It was his fifth day in Medina. He had visited the Prophet’s Mosque, Uhad, Khandaq – all the places he knew about. Day and night he would roam the open bazaars and clean streets of Medina and then head for the date orchards surrounding the city. Here he would watch the sunset from a lush green valley of date trees to the west of Medina. The sun would put little red and golden robes on the floating clouds before disappearing behind the mountains. Every day he would stand in front of the Prophet’s mausoleum and say his benedictions. He was surprised at the Iranian rascals who carried their shoes in their bags, desecrating the Holy mosque.

That day Asghar wanted to see the entire Medina, as he wasn’t sure when he might be able to visit again. After visiting the Prophet’s Mosque and all the other holy places he went to the west of Medina where he spotted a plaza under construction. If he got mason’s work on this site then not only would he be able to continue to live in Medina, he would be a permanent pilgrim and could earn a living as well. He went in, found the supervisor and introduced himself.

‘What can you do?’ The supervisor observed him closely.

‘I can do all kinds of masonry work,’ Asghar said with confidence.

‘You are here on an umrah visa, right?’ The supervisor asked him.

‘Yes, I have an umrah visa but if you give me a job here, slowly I’ll be able to work my way towards a work permit as well.’

‘Okay. Let’s see if you can raise this wall by one foot.’ The supervisor pointed to a wall that was being built.

Asghar stepped forward, picked up the tools and, like an expert builder, started on the wall. Within no time he had raised it by a foot and a half. The supervisor seemed pleasantly surprised. After evening prayers he gave Asghar food and told him that he himself used to be a mason, but that his employer, Iqbal sahib, had been impressed by him and appointed him supervisor. ‘Tomorrow is Friday. Come over the day after tomorrow – I’ll talk to him and then give you work.’

‘Who is Iqbal sahib?’ Asghar asked.

‘He is an engineer, he is from Lahore. He is looking after a number of construction projects here.’

‘Why don’t you just give me some work now?’ Asghar said impatiently.

‘Brother, this is a dangerous place. You see all these shurtas roaming around? They check us three times a day to make sure that nobody is working without a permit. Engineer sahib will first talk to someone. Only then will you get a job.’

After Isha prayers, he returned to the compound of the mosque – delighted that, because of the blessings of the Prophet’s mausoleum, he was soon to get a job.

Asghar now had fifty riyals left and he thought that if he got a job within the next two or three days, he wouldn’t go back to Jeddah. He’d stay here in Medina, and every morning, every evening bow his head at the Prophet’s mausoleum. The very idea made him ecstatic; he took off his shoes and went inside the mosque. He sat next to the mausoleum for a long time. When the mosque administration expelled all the pilgrims from the compound at ten that night, he also came out and started looking for his shoes. But despite desperate efforts, he couldn’t find them.

He went barefoot for the rest of the evening. At night-time he put his bag under his head and slept next to the wall of a plaza. He woke up with the call for the morning prayers, rubbed his eyes and saw a boy sitting next to him. Both went to the mosque, and after offering their prayers they began talking.

‘Where are you from?’ The boy asked.

‘I have come from Okara,’ said Asghar.

‘Found work yet?’

‘Not yet, but someone has promised. Where are you from?’

‘I’m from a little town called Raja Jang near Raiwind. Name is Naveed. I have lived here for two years. These days I have no work and I have run out of money as well. I saw you sleeping last night and I thought you were a Pakistani. Maybe we can get to know each other and do something together. What can you do?’

‘Tiling, plastering, painting, mirror work, I can do all types of masonry work,’ said Asghar.

‘On the other side of Uhad mountain there is a settlement and I have a Bengali friend who lives there,’ said Naveed. ‘He also works as a mason. If you want to find work, I can take you to him. I am also thinking of working with him. And the real advantage is, there is not a single shurta in that place.’

They arrived in the Uhad town before ten in the morning. After paying for breakfast and a taxi, Asghar was left with fifteen riyals. The Bengali wasn’t home so they had to wait till the evening. Asghar thought that he should get himself a cheap pair of shoes so that he wouldn’t have to put up with the shame of walking around barefoot. They both visited the little bazaar in the town but they couldn’t find a pair that was less than twenty-five riyals. The gravelly earth burned like hot brass and it was impossible to step on it. As the sun rose, heat crept up to his head. Burning pebbles pierced the soles of his feet. Finally they sat down under the shade of a date palm. In the afternoon he gave Naveed five riyals and asked him to get some food from a restaurant. He was in no condition to walk there himself. Naveed brought food, they ate and then lay down till the evening.


Your daily wage will be fifty riyals.’ The Bengali spat out betel juice and said, ‘I won’t charge you anything for food and accommodation. If your work is not up to the mark, there will be a deduction from your wages. On your day off you’ll have to pay for your own meals. If you accept my conditions you are in, otherwise do what you will. But just remember one thing, I am taking a big risk by offering you this work.’

Asghar inspected the room while the Bengali spoke. A mat, bedding and some filthy utensils were strewn all over the place. He felt very unsettled. Everything in the room, including the Bengali man, was so filthy and smelled so foul that Asghar was nauseated. Whenever the Bengali opened his mouth to speak, his stained teeth frightened Asghar. Instead of listening to the man’s conditions, he wondered how he could bear to spend even one night in that place.

Early in the morning he woke Naveed and they left without informing anyone. They didn’t have enough money for a taxi fare so they decided that they would take a short cut by climbing the mountain and coming down on the other side. That way they would reach the Uhad plain; the Prophet’s Mosque was only three kilometres from there. But by the time were halfway up they had realized it wasn’t as easy as they had imagined. The rays of sun were slowly heating the dry rocks and just putting a foot on the ground was torture. And the mountain seemed endless. As soon as they climbed over one rock, they confronted another. By now Asghar had blisters on his feet which grew inflamed and painful. With great difficulty they reached the summit at two in the afternoon and realized that descending on the other side was much harder than climbing it. The field of hot, pointy stones that he saw ahead scared him. They were surrounded by small bushes but there was no shade. Thirst and hunger had completely drained him. ‘I can’t walk any more,’ he told Naveed and collapsed in a small cave, surrounded by tiny acacia bushes. He had been lying down for a long time when a wave of pain travelled up from his feet, which were now swollen. He could hear the call for evening prayers in the distance; he could also clearly see the minarets of the Prophet’s Mosque. They had slept for four hours but only felt more tired from hunger and thirst. The moon rose in the east and they started their journey again. The rocks had cooled down a bit and he liked it when the wind caressed him softly amid the silence of the mountains. Although the blisters in his feet had burst, and his soles were bleeding, they wanted to continue their journey in the moonlight. At about eleven o’clock they lay down again. Asghar’s feet bled so much that when he stepped on a stone, it was stained crimson. The pain was now stabbing with such intensity that Asghar fainted.

When he came to and wiped his face with his hand he realized that he was covered in dew. He looked around but Naveed was nowhere to be seen. He looked everywhere, then called out for him but there was no response. As the sun was beginning to come up again, Asghar decided to make a move. But as soon as he reached for his bag, he was shocked to find out that it wasn’t there. His passport and other papers were also in the bag. Involuntarily his hand reached into his pocket. It was empty too. Naveed was gone with his bag and his last five riyals.

He invoked Allah’s name and started to walk. After stumbling forward for three hours, he came down the mountain. He was dying of thirst. He desperately looked around for water and saw an iron drum next to a goat barn. There were stacks of dry hay in the barn and the goats were busy munching.

He put his hand in the drum and started drinking the same water that goats had drunk earlier.

The water was so hot that it pierced his throat and burned his stomach.

Somehow Asghar managed to start his walk towards the Uhad plain. He tried to harness all his energies and go as fast as he could. When he approached the plain he saw a ten- or twelve-year-old boy outside a house. Asghar fell in the shadow of the wall and signalled the boy for some water. He felt alive after drinking some cold water but before he could ask the boy for something to eat, he went in and shut the door. Starving and weak, Asghar walked on his injured feet and arrived in the Hamza mosque where he splashed cold water on his face. Then he reclined against the wall and started to stroke his feet. He was overwhelmed with hunger, but he had never before begged for food, or anything else. He wanted to get hold of something to eat but the very idea of going out in the sun again frightened him. His feet were still swollen and bleeding. He had not yet made up his mind when the call for Asr prayer began and people started to come in.

He got up, stumbling, and came and stood at the mosque door. He saw an Arab in a very fine dress arrive, take off his shoes at the entrance and go in. The shoes were made of soft leather. As soon as the Arab entered the mosque, Asghar slipped into them and turned to go. The guard standing by the mosque door grabbed him and started to shout ‘Sariq, sariq!’ People came rushing at him as if a roadshow had just started. He was slapped and kicked. The Arab caught him by the scruff of his neck and two people tied his hands at the back. They kept asking him questions in Arabic but he couldn’t reply. In fact, in his weakness, he could hardly hear a thing.

‘My lord, right in front of my eyes this wretched man stole this gentleman’s shoes. Both these gentlemen witnesses and many others saw the crime with their own eyes,’ the mosque guard said in his statement in front of the court. After the guard, other witnesses testified. ‘But the accused must get a chance to defend himself,’the cadi ordered, looking towards the interpreter.

The interpreter repeated this to Asghar three times but Asghar stood mute, with his eyes shut. His ears were ringing. He didn’t even understand why he had been brought to the court.

Because of his shabby appearance and refusal to utter a single word, the cadi was convinced that the accused was a hardened criminal and professional thief. Keeping in mind the demands of justice as well as the injunctions of Sharia law, the cadi delivered his verdict. It was heard and hailed by everyone present except the accused.

After the call for morning prayers, when they brought him out of the lock-up to chop off his hand, Asghar had forgotten that he was an expert mason. He couldn’t even remember his old father’s face. ■

Tomorrow we will publish an interview with Ali Akbar Natiq about this story and how he came to write it. Read other New Voices stories and interviews here.




KJB: The Book that Changed the World (Film featuring John Rhys-Davies) – Edinburgh, 3 March 2011

Just alerting you to an interesting event happening in Edinburgh today. If it is interesting enough and I have time I might write a review…
You are are warmly invited to a special premiere screening today (Thursday 3 March) of a new historical docu-drama film on the making of the King James Bible.

‘KJB: The Book that Changed the World’ is a fine feature-length film that includes dramatic re-enactments, on-site narration by actor John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings), and reflections from scholars about the creation of the King James Bible. It provides rich insights into the role of James VI of Scotland (James I of England), aspects of religious & political history and the different forces that shaped the making of the KJV bible 400 years ago.

This will be followed by a brief panel discussion (around 5.30pm) with the director Norman Stone (BBC’s Shadowlands), screen writer Murray Watts (Miracle Maker) and Professor Larry Hurtado, and then a drinks reception in the Rainy Hall. This is a unique opportunity to hear from two leading film-makers about their craft and the making of this film.

Please note that there has been a slight change in the venue for the KJB film showing at 4pm on Thursday, 3rd March. It will still take place on Thursday, starting at 4pm in New College, The University of Edinburgh, but in Lecture Room 1. (The Martin Hall will be used for overflow if necessary).

This event is sponsored by the Theology, History and Ethics Research Seminar & CTPI (the Centre for Theology and Public Issues).
All are very welcome.

I think I could turn and live with animals…

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

From Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, available in full here.

Call for Papers: eSharp Issue 17 – Crisis

Call for Papers: eSharp Issue 17 – Crisis

eSharp, an established peer-reviewed journal publishing high-quality research by postgraduate students invites papers for the forthcoming themed issue. For issue 17, Crisis, we invite articles which engage with crises, real and perceived, contemporary and historical, from within the spheres of the social sciences, education, and the arts and humanities. We encourage submissions from postgraduate students at any stage of their research and early career authors within one year of graduation.

The effects of the recent banking crisis are both financial and social, resulting in struggling markets, property devaluation, and mass unemployment. Within academia, austerity measures taken by
national governments are depleting and restructuring educational funding, and there is widespread speculation over greater social problems to come. Natural disasters and continuing wars challenge
governments and citizens to respond, both in action and thought. Conducting an analysis of the origins, explanations and consequences of crises, both within and across disciplines, will help construct a more complete picture, contextualize topical concerns, and indicate fruitful lines of further enquiry.

Subjects may include, but are not limited to:

*Economic Crises, Past and Present
*Natural Disasters
*Social Change and Upheaval
*Regime Change
*Identity Crisis
*Crises in Representation
*Approaches to Crisis Management
*The Family in Crisis
*Shortage and Austerity
*Consumption and Excess
*Personal Crises
*Stability and Flux
*Diasporic Responses to Crisis
*Crises in (Post)modernity
*Revolution and Conflict
*Digital Literacy and Education in Crisis
*Crises in print media
*Serious Illness and the Body in Crisis
*Ageing Populations
*Destruction, Reconstruction and Restructuring

Submissions must be based on original research and should be between 4,000 and 6,000 words in length. These should be made in Word document or RTF format.  Please ensure that you accompany your article with an abstract of 200 to 250 words and a list of three to five keywords to indicate the subject area of your article. A full list of guidelines and our style sheet is available online at  Submissions and enquiries should be sent to The final deadline for submission of articles is Monday 14th of March 2011.