Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my
God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer
and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies,
adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask,
What else is there to see? Boys strut and saunter along and
look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and
careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is --- a
noisy varnished hall lined with metal lockers and having at its end
a blank wall desecrated by graffiti and roller-painted over so
often it feels to be coming closer by millimeters.
The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of
teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes
and hollow voices betray their lack of belief. They are paid to say
these things, by the city of New Prospect and the state of New
Jersey. They lack true faith; they are not on the Straight Path;
they are unclean. Ahmad and the two thousand other students can see
them scuttling after school into their cars on the crackling,
trash-speckled parking lot like pale crabs or dark ones restored to
their shells, and they are men and women like any others, full of
lust and fear and infatuation with things that can be bought.
Infidels, they think safety lies in accumulation of the things of
this world, and in the corrupting diversions of the television set.
They are slaves to images, false ones of happiness and affluence.
But even true images are sinful imitations of God, who can alone
create. Relief at escaping their students unscathed for another day
makes the teachers' chatter of farewell in the halls and on the
parking lot too loud, like the rising excitement of drunks. The
teachers revel when they are away from the school. Some have the
pink lids and bad breaths and puffy bodies of those who habitually
drink too much. Some get divorces; some live with others unmarried.
Their lives away from the school are disorderly and wanton and
self-indulgent. They are paid to instill virtue and democratic
values by the state government down in Trenton, and that Satanic
government farther down, in Washington, but the values they believe
in are Godless: biology and chemistry and physics. On the facts and
formulas of these their false voices firmly rest, ringing out into
the classroom. They say that all comes out of merciless blind
atoms, which cause the cold weight of iron, the transparency of
glass, the stillness of clay, the agitation of flesh. Electrons
pour through copper threads and computer gates and the air itself
when stirred to lightning by the interaction of water droplets.
Only what we can measure and deduce from measurement is true. The
rest is the passing dream that we call our selves.
Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by
seed, into the drab city's earthy crevices. He looks down from his
new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he
would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year
past he has grown three inches, to six feet --- more unseen
materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow
any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a
next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the
Prophet's blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is
a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell's
boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent
Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging
fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God,
as described in the ninth sura of the Qur'an, takes eternal good
pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics?
The deaths of insects and worms, their bodies so quickly absorbed
by earth and weeds and road tar, devilishly strive to tell Ahmad
that his own death will be just as small and final. Walking to
school, he has noticed a sign, a spiral traced on the pavement in
luminous ichor, angelic slime from the body of some low creature, a
worm or snail of which only this trace remains. Where was the
creature going, its path spiralling inward to no purpose? If it was
seeking to remove itself from the hot sidewalk that was roasting it
to death as the burning sun beat down, it failed and moved in fatal
circles. But no little worm-body was left at the spiral's
So where did that body fly to? Perhaps it was snatched up by God
and taken straight to Heaven. Ahmad's teacher, Shaikh Rashid, the
imam at the mosque upstairs at 27811?2 West Main Street, tells him
that according to the sacred tradition of the Hadith such
things happen: the Messenger, riding the winged white horse Buraq,
was guided through the seven heavens by the angel Gabriel to a
certain place, where he prayed with Jesus, Moses, and Abraham
before returning to Earth, to become the last of the prophets, the
ultimate one. His adventures that day are proved by the hoofprint,
sharp and clear, that Buraq left on the Rock beneath the sacred
Dome in the center of Al-Quds, called Jerusalem by the infidels and
Zionists, whose torments in the furnaces of Jahannan are well
described in the seventh and eleventh and fiftieth of the suras of
the Book of Books.
Shaikh Rashid recites with great beauty of pronunciation the one
hundred fourth sura, concerning Hutama, the Crushing Fire:
And who shall teach thee what the Crushing Fire is?
It is God's kindled fire,
Which shall mount above the hearts of the damned;
It shall verily rise over them like a vault,
On outstretched columns.
When Ahmad seeks to extract from the images in the Qur'an's Arabic
--- the outstretched columns, fi 'amadin mumaddada, and the
vault high above the hearts of those huddled in terror and
straining to see into the towering mist of white heat, naru
l-lahi l-muqada --- some hint of the Merciful's relenting at
some point in time, and calling a halt to Hutama, the imam casts
down his eyes, which are an unexpectedly pale gray, as milky and
elusive as a kafir woman's, and says that these visionary
descriptions by the Prophet are figurative. They are truly about
the burning misery of separation from God and the scorching of our
remorse for our sins against His commands. But Ahmad does not like
Shaikh Rashid's voice when he says this. It reminds him of the
unconvincing voices of his teachers at Central High. He hears
Satan's undertone in it, a denying voice within an affirming voice.
The Prophet meant physical fire when he preached unforgiving fire;
Mohammed could not proclaim the fact of eternal fire too
Shaikh Rashid is not much older than Ahmad --- perhaps ten years,
perhaps twenty. He has few wrinkles in the white skin of his face.
He is diffident though precise in his movements. In the years by
which he is older, the world has weakened him. When the murmuring
of the devils gnawing within him tinges the imam's voice, Ahmad
feels in his own self a desire to rise up and crush him, as God
roasted that poor worm at the center of the spiral. The student's
faith exceeds the master's; it frightens Shaikh Rashid to be riding
the winged white steed of Islam, its irresistible onrushing. He
seeks to soften the Prophet's words, to make them blend with human
reason, but they were not meant to blend: they invade our human
softness like a sword. Allah is sublime beyond all particulars.
There is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsistent; He is the
light by which the sun looks black. He does not blend with our
reason but makes our reason bow low, its forehead scraping the dust
and bearing like Cain the mark of that dust. Mohammed was a mortal
man but visited Paradise and consorted with the realities there.
Our deeds and thoughts were written in the Prophet's consciousness
in letters of gold, like the burning words of electrons that a
computer creates of pixels as we tap the keyboard.
The halls of the high school smell of perfume and bodily
exhalations, of chewing gum and impure cafeteria food, and of cloth
--- cotton and wool and the synthetic materials of running shoes,
warmed by young flesh. Between classes there is a thunder of
movement; the noise is stretched thin over a violence beneath,
barely restrained. Sometimes in the lull at the end of the school
day, when the triumphant, jeering racket of departure has subsided
and only the students doing extracurricular activities remain in
the great building, Joryleen Grant comes up to Ahmad at his locker.
He does track in the spring; she sings in the girls' glee club. As
students go at Central High, they are "good." His religion keeps
him from drugs and vice, though it also holds him rather aloof from
his classmates and the studies on the curriculum. She is short and
round and talks well in class, pleasing the teacher. There is an
endearing self-confidence in how compactly her cocoa-brown
roundnesses fill her clothes, which today are patched and sequinned
jeans, worn pale where she sits, and a ribbed magenta shorty top
both lower and higher than it should be. Blue plastic barrettes
pull her glistening hair back as straight as it will go; the plump
edge of her right ear holds along its crimp a row of little silver
rings. She sings in assembly programs, songs of Jesus or sexual
longing, both topics abhorrent to Ahmad. Yet he is pleased that she
notices him, coming up to him now and then like a tongue testing a
"Cheer up, Ahmad," she teases him. "Things can't be so bad." She
rolls her half-bare shoulder, lifting it as if to shrug, to show
she is being playful.
"They're not bad," he says. "I'm not sad," he tells her. His long
body tingles under his clothes --- white shirt, narrow-legged black
jeans --- from the shower after track practice.
"You're looking way serious," she tells him. "You should learn to
"Why? Why should I, Joryleen?"
"People will like you more."
"I don't care about that. I don't want to be liked."
Excerpted from TERRORIST © Copyright 2011 by John Updike.
Reprinted with permission by Knopf, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved.