Morning At Masada

Hamid knelt in the center of the Commandant’s office, facing east, and prostrated himself before God. I entered the room as quietly as I could and sat in one of the big chairs against the wall, poised on the very edge of the seat, watching Hamid’s hands very closely. The suicide belt around his waist made the sajdah awkward, and I could see him struggling with it, but his hands stayed in a prayerful pose and didn’t go for one of his pockets, so I sat quietly.

He lifted his face and sat, then performed the second prostration. I wasn’t sure how many rakats he’d already done, and of course it was entirely probable that he wasn’t following he prescribed fard; it wasn’t really time for prayer; Asr was an hours ago and Maghrib was a couple of hours yet.

I tried to remain calm as he finished the salat and stood, then launched into another rakat. Whatever else was going on, disturbing the man while he was praying wasn’t going to improve his frame of mind.

The five-times-daily public prayer was one of the things I found most beautiful about living among muslims. There was a simple ritual to it that Christianity couldn’t really match. Oh, you can talk about your daily office and vespers and whatnot, but nobody really does that except on special occasions; it doesn’t set the rhythm of the society the way the salaat does.

Hamid struggled back to his feet again and stood with his head bowed. His hands were pressed together over his chest; it was still difficult to tell where he’d stashed the detonator, but I didn’t see a wire.

His shoulders relaxed and head raised and his eyes opened; he was looking out the window, over the city. The Commandant had a lovely view of the square and the rooftops.

“Hamid,” I said, quietly. He stiffened, then turned suddenly, his face scrunching into an expression of frustrated fury.

“Father,” he said, “You’re not supposed to be here.” His hand had dipped into his pocket, which made my whole body stiffen.

I kept my face neutral, open, and even attempted a small smile. “I could say the same about you,” I said.

The call to prayer had woken me at twenty minutes before dawn, as usual. Other non-Muslims had assured me that I would become inured to it, would learn to sleep through it, but it had never happened. I’m not alarmed by the sound, as may Americans seem to be, but it is designed to wake the faithful, and it does its job in my case.

Prayer is better than sleep, indeed.

There was a baker on my street whose morning baking had started sometime much earlier, but the smell of it grabbed my nostrils as soon as the Adhan pulled me awake, so that I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was never sure I wasn’t imagining the smell of coffee, because the coffee house where I got my morning coffee was a couple of blocks away, but I could always swear I smelled it mixed with the bread from downstairs.

I was never an early riser, before I came to Arizona, but the desert remakes everyone, and I’m no exception. I rolled out of bed and washed my face at the sink, then pulled on some clothes: The universal men’s uniform in the camps: slacks and a button-down white shirt with the cuffs unbuttoned but not rolled, and a wife-beater undershirt that just showed through the shirt.

When I say “uniform,” I don’t mean that anybody as forced to wear it, it’s just what everybody wore. Fashion.

The muezzin’s second call rang out, exhorting the prayerful to line up; that was my cue to be out the door, down the long hallway and down the stairs, past the young man asleep at the front desk of the rooming house where I’d lived these past three years. My satchel, with a notebook computer and a pad and pens for drawing, slapped at my hip.

There was a big saguaro cactus, fifty feet tall, in a planter in the middle of the narrow street right outside the front door of my building. I had always imagined coming down the stairs too quickly, spilling out the front door, and ploughing straight into it.

I turned left at the cactus. If I hurried, I could reach the cafe while everybody else was praying and get the seat by the window.

Hamid sat down across from me. He looked eager about something; but then, he always looked eager about something.

“Hamid,” I said. “How is your morning going?”

He grinned, and opened his mouth, but then visibly hesitated, and took a sip of his coffee before speaking. I wondered whether he’d read somewhere that you should always take a drink of your drink before speaking, or something; it was such an obviously calculated catch of behavior.

“Father,” he said, “It’s going well, thank you. And how is yours?”

“Good,” I said. “I’m just going to finish up my coffee and go for a walk before I head up to the administrative plex.”

He nodded along happily. I’d just, a little bit, told him how important I was and that he maybe should think about fucking off, but I’m not sure he would have taken it badly even if I’d actually said those words out loud. I’m not sure he’d have left me alone to drink my coffee, either.

“Listen,” he said, “I hate to bother you again, Father, but it’s about these scholarships.”

I sighed inwardly. As well as being a butcher, and the owner of maybe the best butcher shop in the camp, Hamid was the Scoutmaster; and there was nothing more persistent than Hamid pursuing the interests of his boys.

His boys, the oldest of whom had been in middle school when they arrived here, and were now set to graduate from high school.

Unfortunately, there was no college here. There was a community college in the town outside the fence, and the University of California had offered to do remote classes, except that the camp as a whole didn’t have Internet access. We’d talked about having a room set up in the administrative plex to do streaming classes, but… well, it wasn’t really the college experience you saw in the movies, was it?

“Listen,” I said, “The war’s almost over. Like I said before, I don’t think there’s any reason that the boys won’t be able to go to…”

“Father,” he said. He sounded almost chiding, like I was being unrealistic… which I guess I was. “If they go outside, the snake people will kill them.”

The snake people. The remnants of the enhanced ICE battalions who’d originally set up the camps, now reduced to little more than a militia that patrolled the desert in modified pickup trucks, flying their DON’T TREAD ON ME flags and trying to prevent people from crossing the border and from leaving the camps.

The camps had been set up by the incoming President as part of the fulfillment of a campaign promise to round up all Muslims. There were something like thirty of the camps, ranging in size from about fifty thousand people up to half a million here at Masada.

Masada, Arizona was almost made to be the location of a prison camp: It was hot and bright and rocky, located in a canyon that was almost a valley, and there was only one road that led in and out of it. The irony of the name wasn’t lost on anybody, either.

The town had been founded by religious people — not a cult, just American protestants who felt strongly about their place in the world and in the American west; it had survived he 20th century more or less intact, but the 21st had left it without much in the way if industry, so it had welcomed the camp as an infusion of money and people.

When it became obvious how brutal conditions in the camps were — not so bad here at Masada, actually, but very bad at some others — groups of protestors began appearing outside the gates, and they didn’t go away. There was a whole segment of the American population that had become extremely skilled at both desert camping and political protest, and they were showing signs of militancy.

When fighting broke out, it was mostly between robots: A short, nasty drone-fight, in which the ICE people were driven out of Masada and into the desert, and the protest groups — now a militia — had moved in and taken control, first here and then elsewhere, until they’d liberated all the camps.

The Army had declined to intervene, or basically to do anything else the new President asked of it, which was probably good news for the entire world. After an eventful six months in office, the President resigned, and his Vice President, who was a surprisingly adept mainstream politician, took the reigns and did a passable job of bringing us back to normal.

Everything probably would have been over at that point, except that Iran had taken the internment of American Muslims, and the conditions in the camps, very seriously indeed, and had vented their displeasure by first bombing and then invading Israel.

That fight — a nasty, many-sided war in a different desert halfway around the world — was drawing to a close, a close that was good for Americans: A joint Israeli-Jordanian-Kurdish army was closing in on Tehran. It looked like Iran was going to become a variety of ethno-linguistically independent countries, like Iraq and Syria had; and many people here in Masada were hoping that that meant that they were going to be able to go home soon, wherever home was.

“Well, there’s not much I can do about it.” Jane Peach was sitting across from me in her office, in the administrative plex. She was technically responsible for education inside Masada Camp, but only because John Howard had died suddenly about three months before and nobody had wanted to go through the hiring process for what was almost certainly going to be an incredibly short tenure as Education Commissioner.

Jane Peach was Commissioner for Women’s Interests, and resented the hell out of the fact that she’d been saddled with the Education Commissionership; she felt like it just pushed the idea that Women’s Interests was all about educating children.

It was actually because she had a doctorate in Education and had been a school teacher and administrator for twenty years before joining the Resistance, and was absolutely the most qualified person for the job, and probably had been even while John Howard had been alive; but she remained prickly about it and reluctant to exercise power in that capacity.

Which was usually for the best, because everybody was aware that we were just riding the existing institutions through the landing process, and that we’d all be going home soon.

“Well,” I said, “I realize that there’s a sense of inevitability about everything here, right now, but even after the happily-ever-after when everyone gets to go home, we have some responsibility for…”

“God damn it.” She closed her eyes, counted visibly to ten, and then opened them. “I understand about responsibility,” she said. “I understand that when we leave here, there’s going to be a, a moment, when a procession of little brown children are led by armed guard into a public school in RatFuck, Arkansas or something, surrounded by a jeering crowd and the sky black with blogger’s drones, and at that moment we’re going to have a National Moment of Reconciliation at the expense of these kids, where a bunch of white people all quietly agree that we fucked up by putting them in camps and that we’re not going to talk about it ever again. And that’s the best we can hope for.”

I sat there, sort of taking in what she’d said. She was right, of course; but I still had to try.

“The scholarships he’s talking about…”

She blew air like an overheated horse and sat back. When they’d taken over the plex, the Resistance administration had taken out all the air conditioners, in solidarity with the camp’s inmates, who hadn’t been given any. In the first three months after the Resistance takeover, every even vaguely enclosed space in the camp had had an air conditioner installed in it, by the simple fiat of a free market; now the plex was the only place in camp that wasn’t air conditioned.

“Those scholarships are for kids from underdeveloped countries in the Middle East where they have problems like suicide bombers and Americans invading their country.”

“These kids have prob…”

“These kids,” she sat forward in her chair, the muscle in her jaw visibly working, “are Americans.”

“Well,” said Freddy, “It ain’t like they’re Americans, is it?”

Freddy was a truck driver. He drove one of the supply trucks from Masada, the town, to Masada, the camp.

Most of the shipping done in America these days was automated, but someone had figured out that if they had the supply trucks driven by white American members of the Republican Party pluckily running a small business as a private contractor for the Federal Government, the Snake People were less likely to blow them up. Hence Freddy.

Freddy was also the only person in the camp who had a cigarette I could bum. The anti-tobacco policy was one of the few things that the original administration and the Resistance administration agreed on. I’m pretty sure that the original administration just meant it as yet another in a long string of petty irritations, but the Resistance people firmly believed that tobacco was a… well, I’m sure each administrator would give you a different story.

If you walked into the warehouse attached to the administrative plex and through to the back and out the big rolling door to the loading dock and climbed down beside whatever truck was parked there, you were technically outside the camp, and there as a little four-sided picnic table and umbrella where the drivers ate their lunch and smoked.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, Father, I get that we’re all Americans together, but it ain’t like they’re Mexicans, right? I mean, they ain’t coming here to try and be like us, they’re coming here to make us like them.”

I thought briefly of Hassan Ali Minhaj, one of the high school teachers in the camp, whom I’d heard express this exact sentiment: That the problem Americans had with Muslim immigrants was that they thought the Muslims were trying to convert them, and not trying to assimilate. There was this problem with that, which was that White Americans couldn’t see assimilated Muslims, because they looked just like other Americans, so the only Muslims most Americans had seen were, indeed, unassimilated.

Would that Hassan Ali Minhaj, holder of doctorates in physics from Stanford and MIT and writer of a series of popular science fiction novels, could make Freddy Johnson more like him, through conversion or whatever method.

“Thanks for the cigarette, Freddy,” I said. “And the insights.”

“I don’t have any insights for you,” Ali shook his head. “I’m as puzzled as… you know, I think what it is is, he still thinks it’s, like, 1950 or something, and that the one true way is, you get a scholarship and go off to the big city and…” He shrugged, and passed his roach to Simi Baloch.

If the best place to go for a cigarette was the loading dock, the best way to get smoked out was to talk to the Boy Scouts.

When I was in Scouts, I remember most kids getting in at eleven or so and out by fifteen, when it started being too dorky to appear in public in the uniform — and, frankly, when most kids had achieved what Boy Scouts had to offer. The rank ladder led from Scout to Eagle, which was readily achievable by 15 or 16, and the responsibility ladder led you from Grubmaster to Patrol Leader and Senior Patrol Leader — the nominal leader of the troop — and then, if you were really determined to stay in the Scouts as long as possible, they had a special Junior Assistant Scoutmaster role, just for that one dorky seventeen year old who’s still hanging around for whatever reason.

Troop 550, Masada, Arizona, had nine Junior Assistant Scoutmasters. There wasn’t a football team, there wasn’t a whole lot of street gang craziness, and they got to go camping outside the gate regularly, so the original members of Troop 550 still hung around. They took a particular glee in pronouncing their position’s acronym: JASM. They were the JASMs.

“He never went to college,” said Simi Baloch. “He thinks it’s the only thing you can do, except be a butcher. He uses that as the, like, thing that’ll happen to you, if you fuck up and don’t go to college.”

I shook my head. In the country outside the gates, unemployment was approaching twenty-five per cent — and that was using the official statistics, which only counted active job-seekers. It was turning into a country of dependents. Having a job as a butcher seemed like a huge win, for a lot of people; it certainly would for these kids, who kept up with what was going on outside by hanging around the plex and having a whole system of supposedly secret phones.

Christian Smith, blonde and blue-eyed son of a Swedish convert and her Christian husband from California, took the spliff and dragged on it. “It’s control,” he said. “He likes the uniform and shit because it makes him feel like he’s in control, right? Everybody knows the war’s about to be over, everybody knows stuff’s about to change, but he can’t control it and it’s making him crazy. Like, really crazy.”

“I ain’t going to college anyhow,” said Simi Baloch. “Take on all that debt and be an office drone? No thanks.”

Simi Baloch was going to be a mechanic. It might as well have been tattoo’d on him at birth; in an earlier generation he’d have had a perpetual layer of grease on him, but there were better soaps now, and anyway Simi Baloch was as fastidious as a cat.

“You don’t have to work in an office just ’cause you get an education.” Ali, who was almost certainly going to college one way or another. “You can be a, an engineer, or a researcher, or whatever, outside.” He took the spliff from Chris and took a hit. “I’m kickstarting my college, anyhow. UC is covering me, for room and board and tuition, ’cause I’m an underprivileged camp genius.”

Ali had scored the only perfect SAT in any of the camps. He’d started referring to himself unhubristically as a genius immediately after the results came back; it seemed to carry a sense of responsibility with it, for him. He wasn’t going to be able to just screw around with cars like Simi Baloch or surf all day like Christian; he was a genius, so he had to go do something.

He passed me the spliff and I took a shorter drag than they had. I was there to listen to them talk, not to get high; the only reason I was smoking at all was so they’d trust me.

“What about you, Father?” Simi Baloch waited until I had a lungful before asking, so I had a chance to think about my answer before I exhaled. “What are you doing, when the war’s over?”

“Well,” I said, blowing a cloud of marijuana smoke into the circle of underage boys, “I’m probably going to prison.”

I had been the chaplain with the 56 Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, outside Phoenix, when the camps had been set up, and then immediately surrounded by permanent protest camps. The general sense inside the military was that the whole thing was fucked up and bullshit: Locking up Americans for being religious didn’t sit well with Luke’s largely well-educated, technically minded, and very religious staff.

I’d gone down to Masada camp with Asif Singh, one of the few Sikhs holding commission in the US Armed Forces; the big black beard, blue-camo fatigues, and the blue turban always turned heads, especially in company with my collar.

That first day, watching the internees bundled off the bus and behind the barbed wire. It felt like we were standing witness to something huge and profound, and the two of us rode back in silence.

“I’m going back,” I said, as I dropped him off. “You want to go too?”

“No,” said Asif, smiling just a little to take the edge off, “I spent the whole day terrified that someone was going to think that I was trying to escape and shoot me.”

When the actual fighting had gone down — it was extremely technical and was all over in one night — the fact that the military declined to involve itself made me proud and terrified at the same time: Proud, because this was how it was supposed to go, men and women of honor making choices about right and wrong. Terrified, because it had really come to this: Good triumphing depended on military leaders refusing orders.

I drove down to the camp that day to see what was going on with the friends I’d made in the protest groups, and found them in control of the camp; it was possible to move in and out, but it wasn’t clear how long that would last… I went in, and I didn’t go back out. I sent an apologetic email to my CO, but I didn’t hear back from her.

So I wasn’t sure what would happen when the war was over. I’d made my peace with that. But I could see why Hamid was having trouble with the loss of control.

“Prison? I don’t think that’s likely.” Manuel Hernandez, The Commandant of Masada Camp, was a big man in his middle fifties. He’d done three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan during the post-9/11 invasions and occupations, and his military career had been ended by a roadside bomb that had banged his head against the inside of the vehicle he was in hard enough to change his personality.

By all accounts, he was a lot more mellow these days.

He’d also been left face blind, totally unable to do the cute stupid-brain-trick that allows us to differentiate one person from another at a glance. He wore these big wrap-around dark glasses that made him look like he ought to be piloting a motor home around the country but which annotated his world, giving him a sort of super power.

He lived in a world of strangers, but he could smile at anyone in the camp and shake their hand and know their kids names and their birthdays. I wondered, not for the first time, if a prison camp Commandant wasn’t the perfect environment for him: The largest possible group of people where everybody you met would be in a database.

“I think they’re good kids,” he said. “Even if there isn’t a career path out there for them, I don’t think they’re doomed to prison or anything else. Teachers here are good, even if it is the middle of nowhere.” He and I were walking back from the little commissary attached to the plex. About three in the afternoon was always the best time to get five minutes of his time.

“Sure,” I said, “I just wonder about getting them launched, you know? They’re going to graduate right into… whatever happens next, for all these people.”

“Father,” said Manuel, “Everybody graduates into a mess, it’s called life. We’ll do what we can for…”

Someone leapt out of the stairwell halfway along the hallway we were walking down, made to turn for Manuel’s office, and then did a comic double take and almost fell down trying to change direction when they saw him walking down the hallway.

“Sir!” The young man untangled his feet and made it to where we were standing just as the door to Manuel’s office burst open and his secretary, another uniformed young man, turned the corner into the hallway and began sprinting for us.

“Sir,” said the young man who’d arrived first, “Sir, the war’s over, they’ve signed a treaty.” He was waving his phone in a way that obviously meant that he’d just read it somewhere, probably on the John. Manuel’s phone buzzed just at that moment, the ‘silent’ setting he enforced inside the plex just meaning that as all of our phones began to buzz it added the ambiance of a swarm of angry bees to an increasingly tense hallway conversation.

“Sir,” said Manuel’s secretary, stopping just short of running the two of us over. “Hamid the butcher is in your office, he’s got a bomb.”

“I talked to Jane Peach,” said Hamid. “She was very clear, those scholarships are not for my boys, they are for… for not-Americans, for kids from countries where they have suicide bombers.”

I winced. I remembered Jane Peach saying something exactly like that to me, earlier in the day.

“Where did you come up with a suicide belt?” Making conversation. Talking about his work was always an easy win with Hamid; this counted as that, right? Something he’d made…

He sneered at me. “You and the boys,” he said, “you think I’m an idiot, that I don’t know about their phones, but I do. I may just be a butcher, but I can follow instructions on a website.” He stood up and paced, back and forth. Like he was trying to figure something out.

“Nobody thinks you’re an idiot, Hamid” I said. “I am just impressed, that’s all.”

“Hand skills,” he said. He sounded bitter. “I can do anything, really. My father was a butcher, so I am a butcher. That’s all people see, of me: Hamid the butcher. Hamid the backward, Hamid the violent, Hamid the killer, Hamid with the blood-stained clothes and the blood-stained hands. Do you know what it’s like, out there, being a Muslim butcher? Everyone looks at you like you’re going to kill them, all the time.”

He was making a lot of leaps, all at once, but I sort of saw where he was coming from. “Yeah,” I said, “But I don’t think anybody in here thinks of you that way. Everybody in Masada knows you as Hamid the Scoutmaster, right? You’re the one taking the boys out all the time, you’re… you’re the reason we don’t have street gangs, Hamid. You’re the reason that these boys are going to…”

His face crumpled up when I mentioned the boys.

“The boys,” he said. “They’re not going to be allowed to do anything either, are they? They’re going to be butchers and, and mechanics, and…”

“Simi Baloch wants nothing more than to be a mechanic,” I said. “Nothing would make him happier. And…”

“He doesn’t know, yet,” said Hamid. “He doesn’t know.”

He stopped pacing and stomped around behind the Commandant’s desk. Manuel sat facing away from a huge window that overlooked the camp; it would have been perfect light for reading or writing on old-fashioned paper, and in the last decade computer screens had finally caught up. Hamid sat down heavily in Manuel’s chair and opened the top drawer of the desk.

It wasn’t a surprise, I guess, that there was a pistol in there. It seems irresponsible in retrospect, but at the time — I don’t know, Manuel just seems like the kind of guy who might have a pistol in his desk drawer.

Hamid seemed like he knew it was there. Probably one of the boys had seen it, snooping or just hanging around Manuel, and had told everybody else. Hamid opened the magazine, checked that it was loaded, then slammed it back in and worked the slide, cocking the weapon. He pointed it at me.


“You aren’t supposed to be here,” he said. “This is supposed to be, you know, symbolic. A gesture of frustration, at how we’ve been treated, at how…” He waved the pistol around, seeming to mean to include absolutely everything. “At how my boy’s future is being treated.” He sneered. “Suicide bombers,” he said. “It’s what you think of us anyway, right?”

I opened my mouth; I was pretty sure he didn’t mean me, personally.

“It won’t work with you here,” he said. “It’s not a protest, then, it’s murder. Killing the chaplain.”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m not leaving.” I was almost certain I wouldn’t run out of the room.

He nodded, sadly, and met my eyes. “I wish it could have been more dramatic,” he said. He spun the chair around, so that he was facing the window, looking out over the camp.

I didn’t realize what he was doing until right before the gun went off, so I was just standing up to say something like, “Hamid, no!” when the top of his skull burst outward and his brains sprayed over me and the rest of the room.

The door burst open; Manuel was standing there. I realized that there must have been a gunshot, but I hadn’t heard it. Hamid’s body was just sitting there, lolling in the chair.

“Fuck,” I said.

“The fuck was that about?” Manuel was looking around his office. The disaster, for him, was many layered: His office was a biohazard for at least the rest of the week, while important things were going on; an important and influential member of the community he was responsible for had just killed himself; and a Muslim suicide-bomber had just died in his office. It was going to take a minute to parse.

I started to take the shirt off, and then I looked down at it, covered in blood, and I wondered if this was how Hamid felt, his whole work day.

The sound of cheering came through the window. I looked out, past Hamid, at where people were gathering in the only real open space in the tightly-packed camp, the square in front of the administrative plex; it looked like the start of a party. There were some fireworks already being set off, and as I watched, someone popped the cork on a champagne bottle.

It was surreal and cruel, for a second, the world reacting this way, and then I remembered: The war was over.