by Ted Mahsun
It was already a week into the month of Ramadan, but all Afiq could find in the dark corners of the sprawling town built on the back of the humongous beast Buraq was water to break his fast every evening. The water, whenever it was found, was not clean, and Afiq often had to lick it off the most repugnant of surfaces, such as the walls of an abandoned hut, rotting away, as walls made from the skins of long ago deceased tics were wont to do after a brief period of time; or in huge acrid beads of sweat in between the the beast’s fur, where ever he could find it growing –sometimes in between buildings, other times in between blades of the beast’s fur, growing like tall blades of grass in patches very much like small fields, on the outskirts of the vast decaying Town.
It was the beads of sweat that kept Afiq going on. He had no doubt the odious and vile liquid excreted from underneath the beast’s back contained some vitamins and minerals – though perhaps limited, it was enough to keep his body alive. His, and other food scavengers, as well.
The problem with the fur patches outside the Town was that it was getting harder and harder every day of Ramadan to find a big enough bead of beast sweat to last until the next breaking of fast. Competition was stiff. Fights often broke out amongst the scavengers and the militant Jayshists. Afiq had no intention of getting himself mixed up in any of these squabbles. He knew that in his weak state, he would most probably die if ever he got into a fight. That was why he kept his searches mostly within the confines of the Town.
But that was before he stumbled into the house of the Imam. In his stupor, brought on by his extreme hunger, he had clumsily dragged himself into a district of the Town where he had not gone before. In this part of town, the houses and buildings were made of a different material, something more rugged and longer-lasting than the skins of tics. He did not know what it was but as he slid his palms on the walls while walking between the buildings, the walls felt coarse and slightly elastic, very much unlike the brittle and smooth qualities of tic skins. Even the ground felt different. In other parts of the Town, the ground was soft and springy, as a Buraq’s back should be. But here it was solid and hard and shiny.
The musty stench in the air quickly gave way to a fragrant aroma, something Afiq’s nostrils had not had the luxury of smelling before. His nose clearly could not cope with this new sensation. Small streams of blood flowed out of his nostrils. He wiped the blood with his grimy wrist and licked it. His mouth started watering. He quickly swallowed the saliva produced. He was not one to waste moisture. He followed the aroma to an open doorway. Inside he saw a sparse room, decorated only with a table and two accompanying chairs, as well as a small black stove in the far corner. On top of the stove, there was a wok, and it was being used to deep-fry something. Attending to the wok was a tall man wearing a white skullcap. This was the Imam.
The Imam turned around and saw the skinny figure of Afiq standing in the doorway. If the Imam had any change of expression, he did not reveal it. Afiq expected the Imam to burst into a rage, a reaction he was used to getting whenever he appeared in strange doorways. But the Imam did no such thing. He turned his back once again to Afiq and resumed giving his full attention to the wok.
© 2008 Ted Mahsun
Creative process: Ted Mahsun: The genesis of this story came to be when I was reading up mythological or magical/fantastic elements in Islam. One element that I became very fascinated with was the magical flying horse, Buraq, with which the Prophet Muhammad rode to Jerusalem from Mecca in one night. Despite being able to fly, it was said that this horse had an incredible speed, "who would place its hoof at a distance equal to the range of vision." (According to a hadith.)
Muslims know the rest of the story: at Jerusalem, Muhammad was brought up to the heavens and he goes through something very similar to Danté. (In fact, some people think Danté could have very much been influenced by this story of Lailatul Qadar.)
Anyways, back to the Buraq. The ability for the Buraq to "place its foot at a distance equal to vision" made me realise that a gigantic beast of incredible size could probably do the same. And from there I wanted to write about a gigantic beast called Buraq, so huge that humans could build large settlements on its back and never realise they were on a back of an animal.
In this story, I also wanted to inject a sort of mystical Islamic essence, not unlike the Arabian Nights. I wanted to write fantasy that didn't have the tropes of Western Fantasy. I didn't want to go on the same route as Tolkienism. Neither did I want to go down the more modern fantasy tropes now currently popular in the West, such as Steampunk or New Weird.
I wanted to create something different and underused, and potentially as magical as all the other fantasy tropes. That is why there are militant Jayshists (not necessarily an analogy for al-Qaeda or the Taliban or similar Islamic militants) and there is an imam deepfrying something in a wok. These characters are also there for me to upturn present stereotypical thinking of Muslims...although I haven't got that far in the story for me to get to yet.
The wok is also interesting to me because it signifies something that's very Eastern to me. We Asians like to deepfry our food in woks, and perhaps whatever it is that's being cooked in the wok will be vital to the story, if ever I finish it.
Ted Mahsun is a literary critic, who is a "Reader, Writer, Malaysian. Partial to Haruki Murakami and prone to malapropisms." Visit his blog.