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Abu One-Eye

He left two photographs.

 

In the first, his eldest brother balances him on a knee. It must be summer, for Manshoor wears only a diaper. He has startlingly green eyes. The older Jalaluddin boys — the one who holds Manshoor in place, and the middle son, who clasps his younger brother’s hand — look away from the lens. Meanwhile, Manshoor laughs at the camera. Although he is barely a toddler, his head is rich with long, loosely curling hair. It’s easy to suppose he is the darling of his parents.

 

For the second picture, the photographer stands at the entrance to a living room or den. Manshoor, at seven, lies on the couch with his head in his mother’s lap. Shirtless, he sprawls across the cushions. His mother, in a sweat-ringed salwar kameez, her scarf fallen to her shoulders, smiles down at his face. Manshoor’s expression is dull but there’s every sign that he’ll grow into a handsome teenager. He must be staring at a television screen outside the frame. Given his age, and the afternoon light that warms the picture, one might suspect that Manshoor is watching a cartoon or a syndicated situation comedy — a cartoon or comedy that can’t inspire even a little boy to laugh, though he’ll watch through endless hours.

 

Past conjecture, there’s history. The Berlin Wall has crumbled, the United States has tidily expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait, and genocide is only an ember in the darkest dreams of the Hutu radio apostles. Slaughter and tragedy are as foreign to a boy in Somerville, Massachusetts, as an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

 

 

A TIGER IN THE GRASS

 

At 16, and the outset of his junior year of high school, Manshoor had the proud teeth and jaw of a young American who’d been treated by an orthodontist. His hair had darkened from brown to black; its curls had relaxed into waves. His eyes, though, remained as green as a shallow sea. Two weeks into the school year, al-Qaeda completed its attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Although Manshoor of course saw the images of the burning towers, and in the following weeks had to answer the questions of more than one classmate as to the depth of his own religious beliefs, he was hardly preoccupied with matters of terrorism or war. By then he was a Somerville Highlander, a member of the varsity soccer team. This rank had become the defining fact of his life. His classmates, and even some teachers, called him ‘Tiger’ for his tenacious work in midfield (his skills on the ball compensating for his modest height and pace). Between periods the Tiger strolled the hallways with all the expectation and pride of an underclassman who excelled at sports.

 

On a gusty November afternoon, the Tiger spun past a Boston Latin fullback in the waning moments of an away game. Off-balance, and desperate to preserve a tie against league-leading Somerville, the fullback thrust out a leg. Cleats met shin; the Tiger flew. The referee was reaching for his red card even as the Tiger landed with torn cartilage and a fractured knee.

 

His father, who had never seen him play, suggested that while he recovered Manshoor might attend to his studies. Instead, Manshoor cheered himself in the arms and lap of the pretty brunette he sat beside in World History. By the close of his senior year, the Tiger’s exploits had faded into his teammates’ memories and the oblivion of old box scores. Meanwhile, Manshoor had discovered the pleasures of marijuana and the water pipe.

 

 

THE PLUNGE

 

Manshoor’s father had for years understood that his own exploits as a student chemist at Punjab University would represent the peak, and not the foundation, of his academic career. At MIT Dr Jalaluddin was a trusted technical associate in the laboratories, but there was never any question of his joining the faculty. With his eldest at work in Chicago, his middle son a senior at Penn, and Manshoor — the long months of sloth showing in his stomach and jowls — bound for Syracuse off the summer wait list, Dr. Jalaluddin’s accounts were as empty as his house would soon be. Nights, he reached for the scotch.

 

Manshoor’s mother had long resigned herself to Dr Jalaluddin’s occasional violence but she could not live with his private apostasy. Or perhaps it was that her beloved Manshoor, in his final summer at home, passed his afternoons locked in his room with an infidel girlfriend, rap music and pungent smoke seeping from beneath the door, or that Dr. Jalaluddin refused to book her a flight to Lahore to visit her own dying mother, or that she suffered too intensely under obesity and a bleeding ulcer. Or perhaps it was simply that, with her sons going or gone, and without friends of her own, isolation bred a madness so deep that in its grip she could condemn herself to the hellfire.

 

On a humid August night, she put on her headscarf and tennis shoes for the mile and a half walk to the Charles. Her husband and youngest son, addled or unconscious, didn’t hear her leave. It must have been a difficult journey for a woman in her condition, the more so because in her purse she carried the heaviest objects from her kitchen (whetstone, mortar, pestle). She left the purse on the riverbank after she’d filled her pockets. In darkness Huma stepped into the waters. Though she was literate in Urdu she left no note.

 

To the police officers who woke him at dawn, Dr Jalaluddin said, ‘So it was written.’ That was a Monday. On the Wednesday, Manshoor, wearing a tie over a collar he couldn’t close, and a sparse summer beard that had come in with a copper tint, attended the funeral with his father and brothers. Eight days later, he left for Welcome Week at Syracuse.

 

 

A THICKENING HAZE

 

In the spring of his freshman year, Manshoor, now Manny, rushed Sigma Chi. Like his fraternity brothers, he drank, smoked, and went to all the games. Occasionally, he slept with a young woman from an allied sorority. The only class that left an impression was an elective he took in the religious studies department, on mysticism. For it he submitted a term paper on Sufi practice in Pakistan and America that he wrote himself.

 

When a sophomore, Manny inherited the fraternity’s marijuana connection from a departing senior. With a limitless supply, he smoked every night. Mornings, he woke with bloodshot eyes and a cough. He sobered for on-campus interviews and finals, and indulged himself only on weekends during two summers of internships in New York. His supervisors at First Republic Bank and Franklin Capital told him he’d performed well, although neither invited him to return as a graduate.

 

As a senior, Manny submitted a poem to Brick Bat, the student literary annual, under the pseudonym ‘Abu Habibi’. Most of the journal’s contributors were disciples of Bukowski or Plath. Their writing was suffused with erotic despair and episodes of extreme violence. Not Abu Habibi’s. A reader could have mistaken ‘The Rose in My Room’ for an outdated translation of Kabir or Omar Khayyám. Abu Habibi dedicated the poem, ‘In Memoriam: H.J.’ He began, ‘My Lord’s arrow pierces my heart / through smoke, my sorrow, and my doubt.” Twenty-six lines later, the poem ended with the couplet: “My faith in Thee glows bright. With You / I’m blessed. Still weak but ever true.’

 

When his rejection slip arrived, Manny dressed himself, as usual, in a plaid shirt, knit cap, and sneakers. He walked to Angelo’s Liquor for a fifth of bourbon. Sigma Chi was hosting a party that night, but Manny locked himself in his room with the bottle.

 

At two the following afternoon, Manny rose for an appointment he could not break. One of his housemates, who was recovering on the couch with Chinese takeout and a sports drink, waved as Manny went out the door, but Manny didn’t notice.

 

At a quarter to three his supplier, his face shadowed beneath the flattened brim of his baseball cap, was waiting when Manny wheeled his bicycle through the front door of the Iron Shamrock. The supplier clasped Manny in a hug. He had always been affectionate, though perhaps on this occasion the supplier embraced Manny more tightly and held on for a moment longer than usual. He helped Manny stow his bicycle behind the counter before he asked the bartender for another round.

 

After they’d taken their first sips, the supplier said he had a few questions. Why, he asked, was Manny ordering more weed than the brothers could ever smoke, even if all of them were burning? Had he been reselling his stash outside the Sigma Chi house? Was he taking profits for himself?

 

Manny, who had in fact passed on a few baggies to freshmen ignorant of the proper channels, should have thrown up his hands. He should have turned over his proceeds (less than two hundred dollars), and begged the supplier to forgive. But he had a hangover, there was the still-fresh wound of the rejection letter from the editors of Brick Bat, and, finally, there was the matter of God’s will. Manny shrugged. When the supplier asked if he knew who he was fucking with, Manny murmured, fatefully, ‘Some dumb townie.’ He caught a glint of yellow light on the glass an instant before the supplier broke his beer bottle on Manny’s face.

 

‘This world is the prison of the believers’; ‘Allah will offer the traveler a path, even in the sea’: two of the proverbs that Manny, or Manshoor as he once again preferred, repeated to his nurses during the weeks he lay in the recovery rooms at Upstate University Hospital. By all accounts, he was a model patient, even while a string of operations failed to restore sight to his injured eye.

 

The Dean of Students made every accommodation: an extended leave, tuition credit for his interrupted semester, counseling. But although Manshoor was only six classes short of a degree, he never returned to campus.

 

 

BENEATH HAPPY PAWN

 

In May 2007, upon his discharge from hospital, Manshoor went to his father’s house. Over the course of that summer Dr Jalaluddin became sluggish, then inert. In late July the doctor’s skin took on a greenish tinge. His limbs swelled over the course of a single night in early August but he would not allow his son to call an ambulance. Two days later he died. Renal failure, reported the medical examiner.

 

The Jalaluddin brothers were surprised to find the family home free of mortgage or lien. They sold. Manshoor took his modest patrimony to Brooklyn, where he rented a studio apartment on a shabby block of Crown Heights. He didn’t contact his former classmates, though many of them had also moved to New York. He kept the walls bare, the furnishings plain. He didn’t work but studied religious texts and an Urdu grammar from dawn until evening. He rested only for prayer, two simple meals, and tea. At night he read news reports and watched video clips on the Internet. His beard grew thick, his body lean. He wore white robes and a checkered kerchief when he left the apartment. His neighbours, most of them Pakistani immigrants, along with some Egyptians, took to calling him ‘Sheikh’. They could not miss the starburst scar on one side of his face. When Manshoor forgot to wear his tinted glasses, they saw his eyes, the one clouded, the other pure green. Some of the Pakistanis whispered that the Sheikh had been injured in Waziristan. Nonsense, laughed others. If he’d fought on the frontier the Americans would have sent him to Guantánamo. Most likely he’d been in Chechnya, they said.

 

The months passed: quiet months, a quiet year. Then, in 2008, Manshoor petitioned for a change of name in the Kings County courts. The NYPD’s demographics unit marked that action by opening a file on him. His petition approved, Abu Mohammed began to post to the Internet brief devotional poems that he’d composed in Urdu. To a native Urdu speaker, the poems would have seemed stilted in tone, even childlike.

 

The following year, Abu Mohammed toured commercial properties in the neighbourhood. Vacancies abounded in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Rents were low. In December he signed a two-year lease on a small storefront at Flatbush and Fifth. A pawnbroker had the floor above, with a rooftop billboard proclaiming, ‘HAPPY WILL BUY YOUR GOLD TODAY.’

 

Six weeks later, on a glassy winter’s dawn, Abu Mohammed pulled away the cloth he’d draped across the street-facing windows. He’d painted the rooms light blue, laid two carpets on the floor, and piled mats and cushions along a wall. From the lectern of the Masjid-e-Shuhuda, Abu Mohammed delivered his first sermon. To an empty room, in improved though not fluent Urdu, he thanked Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful. Allah, who had blessed the new mosque, on its first morning, with a snowfall as pure and sweet as mothers’ milk. Bismillah Allahu Akbar.

 

 

A PERSON OF INTEREST

 

The NYPD’s terrorism interdiction division entered the storefront mosque onto its surveillance roster within a week of its opening. A department IT specialist set up a camera to monitor the entrance. The officer directing the surveillance arranged for one of his informants to visit. This informant, a young Pakistani immigrant without papers, whose deportation the federal government had temporarily put on hold, was often the only worshiper present.

 

For three months, the informant reported that Abu Mohammed mixed familiar homilies on Islamic values with intense, if naïve, religious verses he’d surely composed himself. The supervising officer was on the verge of clearing the mosque from manned surveillance when, on his seventh visit, at which two other congregants were present (an old Pashtun and a boy of five or six, who was presumably the Pashtun’s grandson), the informant reported that Abu Mohammed had asked his listeners to pray for the safety of their brothers and sisters in Afghanistan. As a result, the supervising officer forwarded Abu Mohammed’s name to the FBI, for its national watch list. Because the list already featured twelve men with that name, the FBI identified the imam as “a/k/a Abu One-Eye.” An FBI agent now took over the investigation. He added a second informant to the case, this one a Syrian-born American who’d attracted the attention of the authorities after he’d embezzled charitable contributions from the faithful at a mosque in Queens.

 

By now the Pakistani informant and Abu One-Eye were friendly. They would chat after prayers. The Pakistani told the imam that he wanted to introduce a friend. Abu One-Eye seemed eager for more company. Because the Syrian didn’t speak Urdu, he would not attend services, but would join Abu One-Eye and the Pakistani for tea and sweets afterward.

 

The three men met regularly. They would talk for hours. The informants asked for advice on spiritual and domestic matters (what proportion of his income the Pakistani should give to charity; whether certain sexual acts that the Syrian wanted to perform on his wife were in fact forbidden to a believer). The informants asked the imam what he thought of the wars. Abu One-Eye, the informants reported, said the United States should withdraw its armies from the Muslim lands. Making jihad might be an option for able young men, but as for himself, he would never fight. ‘Allah, in his infinite wisdom, has granted me a voice, not a gun,’ the imam said, in the elevated diction he assumed when discussing the ways of God. ‘I am Sufi. Inshallah, it is for me to sing the Lord’s praise. La ilaha illa Allah.’ Summarizing these field reports in the imam’s file, the special agent wrote: ‘Suspect holds confirmed anti-American views. He is likely a material supporter of terrorists but appears to have no personal propensity toward violence. Will continue to gather evidence for criminal prosecution, at secondary priority.’

 

 

THE VERMIN

 

In June 2011, the signals changed. On the first Friday of that month, the Pakistani informant, wearing a wire, went alone to the Masjid-e-Shuhuda. By then the congregation had grown to ten or twelve worshippers. It was a sweltering day. The air in the storefront mosque didn’t move. Within minutes, the Pakistani was asleep. His head, slumping against his chest, knocked the microphone out of position. That, coupled with the Pakistani’s snores, left much of the recording unintelligible. Nonetheless, a bureau analyst discerned, amidst the static, the Urdu word ‘jalna’: in translation, ‘burn‘.

 

The special agent warned the informant that if his performance didn’t improve the FBI would restart his deportation proceedings. At the mosque the following week, the Pakistani stayed awake. The service was shorter than usual, attended by the same small congregation, and apparently innocuous. Abu One-Eye recited three new poems before final prayers. Afterward, the Syrian joined them for refreshments. At some point while the Pakistani sipped his tea and chatted, the recording device strapped to his chest failed (a glitch in the operating software, according to IT). The informants claimed, however, that when they pressed the imam for his thoughts on the war in Afghanistan, Abu One-Eye turned grim. The informants reported that he looked each of them in the face before saying that his views on resistance had changed. He had seen, on Al Jazeera’s website, a picture of a four-year-old Pashtun girl whose face had been so badly burned during an American bombing raid that she no longer had eyes, lips, or a nose. He had read an interview with a 34-year-old farmer in Helmand who had six children and no feet. Both informants swore that Abu One-Eye then said the following: ‘Brothers, you tell me, is this collateral damage? Why shouldn’t the believers rise up in America? Every corpse we count in New York, every corpse in a business suit or miniskirt, is worth twenty in uniform.’

 

The special agent immediately notified the Assistant Director at his field office, who contacted a liaison at the Office of Counterterrorism Intelligence. That evening, an OCI analyst entered Abu Mohammed, a/k/a ‘Abu One-Eye’, of Brooklyn, New York, onto the cross-agency register of Violent Extremist U.S. Nationals (‘VERMIN’).

 

In August, Homeland Security approved the Pakistani informant for permanent residency with no bar to eventual citizenship, while the bureau closed its fraud investigation on the Syrian. The Brooklyn field office offered each man a stipend for his continued assistance.

 

 

THROUGH THE SNARES

 

The special agent had every reason for confidence. He directed the Pakistani informant to confess to the imam the sense of futility and shame — the horror, in other words — that rose in him when he walked past the federal courthouse in Cadman Plaza or the Prospect Heights Shul. He had the Pakistani sow certain words into their regular conversations: fertilizer, nails, ammunition. But to the special agent’s surprise, Abu One-Eye seemed at first bewildered, then evasive, and later — as the Pakistani moved from sinister allusion to naked pronouncement of his desire to avenge the Muslim dead — outright disapproving. And when the Syrian, who with funds procured by the bureau had been making weekly donations to the mosque, asked the imam if he would in turn contribute to the struggle by wiring money to one of the Syrian’s contacts in Gaziantep, for weapons and supplies, Abu One-Eye declined. The imam explained that he planned to self-publish a collection of spiritual and ecstatic verse. He needed to save his money so that he could launch the book with advertising in the United States and abroad. The informants persisted in their entreaties. Finally, in a recording dated to an unseasonably warm evening in early October, Abu One-Eye told them he was interested only in devotion, not conspiracy. In unambiguous terms, with sadness rather than anger in his voice, he said he could no longer host the two men for tea and sweets after prayers.

 

The special agent had no choice but to report to the Assistant Director that the operation, which had cost the field office two and a half million dollars, was in tatters. Although the Assistant Director was disappointed, he told his agent that all was not lost. ‘There is the other path,’ he said. ‘How will our imam react to a firmer hand?’

 

 

AN ACROBATIC SUICIDE

 

On 5 December, 2011, an anonymous caller alerted the NYPD to a putrid smell in the fourth-floor hallway of a walk-up at Rogers and St Marks. Two officers arrived, knocked on the door of the apartment outside which the smell was strongest, and, when there was no answer, forced their way in. Abu Mohammed lay slumped on the tiles between the toilet and sink. His hands and feet were bound in cloth strips that had been torn from a bed sheet. Another strip circled the lower third of his face. An electric cord ran from the bathroom doorknob, over the top of the door, and around his neck. Flies swarmed the corpse.

 

A woman who lived on the same floor told the investigating detective, in halting English, that though the one-eyed Sheikh never had visitors, she’d seen two big Americans leave his apartment one night, about a week earlier. She didn’t think she’d seen the Sheikh afterward. No other neighbour had witnessed anything. The detective noted that few of the building’s residents seemed to be at home for his follow-up visits, and none responded to his invitation to call.

 

A federal examiner attended the city pathologist’s autopsy, since the deceased was the subject of a national security investigation. The pathologist discovered a rag deep in Abu Mohammed’s throat, of the same material as the cloth around his face, wrists, and ankles. In addition to the abrasions that the bindings had left on his skin, deep bruises marked Abu Mohammed’s chest and thighs. The pathologist concluded that these injuries did not suggest that an intruder had beaten or tortured Abu Mohammed. Instead, the pathologist surmised that Abu Mohammed had tied himself up, intentionally swallowed the cloth, and only then had sustained the additional injuries, perhaps on falling heavily against the sink and floor. The federal examiner concurred in the pathologist’s determination of the cause of death: suicide by asphyxiation. Abu Mohammed was twenty-six.

 

The city released the body to the surviving Jalaluddin brothers. They had Manshoor cremated at the Scolari Funeral Home in Bensonhurst, in a private ceremony.

 

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


's stories and essays have appeared in the New England Review, Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere. He was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in 2016. He is a fiction editor at Fence, and lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on a novel. 'Abu One-Eye' was shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize (US & Canada).