Publisher’s Note: The title of this story, “Al-Kahf,” includes some non-English characters that some older e-reading devices may not be able to render properly. If your e-reader is one such device, we ask that you consider visiting our website and reading the story there. (It’s the title rendered using Arabic characters.)
Visit lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/al-kahf to read the story online March 8th.
Let us begin at the beginning: What was your inspiration for this piece? The story draws on the Arabic entity of the jinn, but were there any pre-existing stories or particular mythologies that you drew inspiration from or sought to build on?
My starting image was Talub playing his violin under water, a scene inspired by AquaSonic, an underwater band whose videos I stumbled upon on YouTube a few years ago. I was drawn to the band’s aesthetic, and the story grew from there. As for pre-existing Arabic stories and mythologies, there were none I drew inspiration from. Being Muslim and Arab, Palestinian to be specific, religion, culture, and the political climate in the Middle East are every day for me. I drew inspiration from life and faith. Jinn are real beings in Islam created from smokeless fire, and by writing this story, I wanted to combine the religious elements of the jinn with the more cultural: the deception and magic. I wanted to explore the real through the unreal.
The title of the piece is “Al-Kahf” (الكهف in Arabic), which translates to “The Cave.” The story contains a literal, littoral cave where the jinn Talub dwells at the beginning, but that structure’s significance pales in comparison to the thematic depths that the title suggests. Caves can have many associations and connotations; for example, they may suggest imprisonment or ignorance (such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave), but also faith and resistance (like the Quran’s Surat al-Kahf, which retells the story of the seven sleepers). Were these or any other significant caves on your mind as you developed this story?
Surat Al-Kahf from the Quran was the only cave in mind and the overall frame of the story. As a whole, the surah covers four different stories: the people of the cave, Moses and Al-Khidr, a story of the rich and poor, and Dhul-Qar-nayn and Yajuj Majuj (Gog and Magog). There’s a lot going on in this surah, and no one story stood out to me when writing my piece. I built the story around individual themes and lines, like the trial of knowledge mentioned in Moses’ story and power in Gog and Magog’s.
The direct and unadorned prose, along with overt narrative summaries, lends this story the timeless feeling of a fable or traditional legend. Despite that tone, however, references to a “fractured Gaza” with “occupying forces,” as well as Palestinian “flags striped in red, white, black, and green,” establish that “Al-Kahf” takes place in our real world. What was your intent with melding this particular tone with this particular setting? Were there any specific stylistic touchstones for you?
I read a little bit of Angela Carter and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya while working on “Al-Kahf,” The Bloody Chamber and There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, so many of the structural and stylistic decisions I made in my own story were influenced by those authors. I’m a fan of Carter’s detail. Her writing is rich and dense, and I adore her attention to language. Petrushevskaya’s prose, on the other hand, is stripped and clean and is suited for fables and fairytales. So going into “Al-Kahf,” I wanted to incorporate the styles of both authors, to create a balance of detail and simplicity. As for using Gaza as the setting, that’s where Petrushevskaya comes into play again. Still new to this genre, my initial thought for “Al-Kahf” was that it needed to be set in a faraway place with faraway people, but I admired Petrushevskaya’s inclusion of her country. Behind the instances of magic and mystery in her stories were very real and very dark times in the Soviet Union. I wanted to do the same with Gaza, Palestine—a place people hear of but know nothing about.
Given the setting of Gaza’s occupation, the conflict between Talub and the sailor is imbued with significant metaphorical heft. In particular, there is this cycle of top-down desperation leading to mutual destruction: The occupying forces prevent the sailor from obtaining his son’s medicine, so he instead must rely on rumors about the jinn’s curative songs (which, interestingly, “Al-Kahf” itself never explicitly confirms or denies). Those same rumors call the jinn “clever and wicked,” which predisposes the sailor towards violently abducting Talub without even “think[ing] to ask before taking what isn’t [his].” As a result, Talub takes vengeance on the sailor’s son and, readers can infer, Talub himself will suffer. Because this conflict has its seeds in widespread social conditions but becomes personal due to lack of communication and biased assumptions, would, as Talub suggests, coming to one another with “dignity and decorum” be a better solution? Or, perhaps, are there some interactions that will always lead to conflict?
There’s definitely a lot of tension between Talub and the sailor. I found myself exploring their relationship the more I wrote and some time after the story was finished, so it didn’t begin with the metaphorical heft you mention. In the end, the idea here is the line, in any story, between man and the Other, whether they are of a different race or different beings all together, and the sense of entitlement man clings to. In this case, the sailor’s entitlement stems from his living conditions in occupied Gaza. He is mistreated. He is a victim. So when the opportunity to save his son presents itself, he pursues it not only because he needs it, but also because he believes he deserves it. And when it comes to capturing Talub, he compares him to fish in a tank. Along with thinking he is entitled to the jinn’s power, the sailor also looks down on him for being the Other. Despite the sailor being a victim of discrimination and oppression, he discriminates against and oppresses the jinn. Knowing this, Talub does not cooperate, of course. So if the sailor had only asked for Talub’s help, if he had approached him as an equal, then perhaps things would have ended differently. But I suppose there wouldn’t be much of a story here.
In the end, everyone here commits a sin and suffers a loss. The sailor does not abduct Talub for wealth or fame, but because his son will die without a magical cure. For his part, Talub kills the sailor’s innocent son to punish the father, but also, it is suggested, as revenge for Boutros. Neither Talub nor the sailor acts from purely selfish motives, yet they end up destroying one another’s lives. What kind of relationship do you see in these kinds of self-justified, but ultimately destructive, actions? Is there more blame to be leveled at one side, or is apportioning blame even a useful way to approach the issue?
Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? As human beings, we’re all capable of terrible things regardless of how good we are. That’s what’s happening here. The occupation is there, the forces are there, but the villain in “Al-Kahf” becomes the sailor, not because he himself is evil, but because he is desperate to provide and protect under the circumstances he is living in. He has his flaws, but he isn’t evil. And neither is Talub, even after killing the sailor’s child to punish and avenge. Regardless of how you divide the blame, scenarios like this will happen. The sailor will justify his wicked actions, and Talub will take revenge under the guise of justice. It’s that never-ending cycle of vengeance and justice. One begets the other.
Finally, what can readers anticipate seeing from you next? In addition to concrete projects and releases, are there any new and nebulous ideas that you’re just starting to explore?
I’ve been writing more jinn pieces and using these figures to tell stories about a religion and culture that face so much misunderstanding and backlash in the world today. I’m finding inspiration in life. I’ve been knocking around some poems, too, and recently had one published in Ohio’s Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology. Also, this coming fall marks my final year in the Northeastern Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University, so my plan from now until graduation is figuring out my thesis. A novel this time. Completely different than Talub and the sailor, but still very near and dear to my heart.
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