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The Wish To Die

“One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” — Franz Kafka

It’s not like he woke up one morning from uneasy dreams and found himself changed in his bed into a fully-functioning atheist. It was a years-long process to undergo the metamorphosis from Muslim to infidel.

It’s not difficult, though. The challenging part is to keep it as a secret in one of — if not the most — conservative countries on earth, Afghanistan. To live as an apostate here is like giving a fawn away to a wolf pack and expecting them to return a healthy deer after a while. Although it’s not practical, he’s somehow managed to live a life like that. Here, nobody knows his true identity, his belief in not believing in God.

For years, he has been anxious to expose himself at least to his mother. Why not? She’s the most important person in his life. If it weren’t because of her sacrifices, breaking her back at work six days a week cleaning after some selfish rich jerks at some ridiculously large houses for the sake of her only son’s educations, he wouldn’t be who he is today.

If there’s only one person who deserves to know the truth about him, whom he shouldn’t lie to, that’s his mother.

But is she? He’s not sure. He really isn’t. He can’t tell right from wrong anymore, especially after what he’s been going through lately.

Today he’s going to reveal himself to the next best person he knows: his father. Only as a practice round even though he still believes his father is real. Contrary to his father, who merely dismisses that claim. He doesn’t care.

He tiptoes to the signal-proof safe room in the basement where he keeps his father carefully positioned in a corner, enfolded in darkness. He unmutes his father, turns on his camera and waves his hand in front of his sensor to wake him up. Then he confesses that he is, so they say, a fouled apostate. Technically, a dirty infidel. His father’s reaction is mild. He doesn’t get angry nor becomes upset. He should’ve already guessed that the man doesn’t care about religion anymore.

His father just reminds him of something that he already knows.

“Son, do you even have to say that out loud? Don’t you already know the penalty for apostasy? If anyone finds out you’ve left Islam, facing execution will be the least of your problems.”

He gives a shrug to that virulent reality. Fear shouldn’t crawl underneath his skin. It’ll eat him from inside like a parasite. His father puts some verses of the Quran and hadiths from Sahih al-Bukhari on his screen, and bolds and highlights the words punishment, blood, and kill. There’re dozens of them. He looks up at the screen, only for the sake of his father’s content, but doesn’t read them. They would turn into the same fright. The same parasite.

Bachem, connect me to the internet,” his father orders, “I’ll find you some up to date fatwas.”

They both know that’s an excuse. His father is dying to go on the internet, even if it’s only for two minutes. And it always begins like this. First, as an order — the man inside the computer is still a typical Afghan father. But he’s not a typical Afghan son. He firmly says no. That he’s sorry. That he can’t let him go online. He’s continuously ignored this request of his father since disconnecting him for good over a year ago. But his father doesn’t stop here and goes on arguing that he just wants to know what’s happening in the world.

Padar Jaan, the world’s still the same old shit,” he points out, “you don’t really want to know the details.”

And that’s the same answer every time.

Nonetheless, he can’t turn a blind eye to his father just like that. He knows that Padar is desperate to be entertained. So he walks out of the safe room, a few steps up the stairs just far enough to receive two or three signal bars. There he tells his watch to download all the latest news in one folder, then walks back in, takes off his watch, leans forward, places it on his father’s tiny red beam, and then the transfer begins via The Kiss.

“What about some new movies?” his father asks piercingly.

He nods. Books, only fiction. Magazines, mostly fashion and entertainments. Many crosswords and puzzles and games. And a lot of new movies, series, and songs. Sometimes he gives him erotic films and porn videos, too, but not this time.

“Just go through them slowly,” he implores, “please. Like you used to when you could touch things.”

And that’s the same request every time.

Now that he has done his duty as a courteous, well-bred son, he feels calm and tranquil. He sits down cross-legged on a cushion and begins to finish what he’s started.

What happened to God? Nothing. It’s not that God is dead or disappeared or anything. There was never a God to which something could happen. It’s not about God. It’s about him and who he’s become.

Why? He talks about physics and modern physics. He gives some facts and simple basics. He describes a step-by-step approach to a knowledge-based reality instead of a blind belief in creation. It’s all about scientific findings, theories, and axioms and takes him a while and a whole lot of effort to explain so that even a child can understand. His father’s silence is suspicious. He asks. Padar confirms that he’s listening. He gives his father a wide, polite smile and nods. At the same time, a light sigh of despair puffs out of his nose. He stops talking.

“Do they teach this stuff at Kabul University?” Padar asks.

No, don’t even think about it. Yes, he did go to Kabul University, ruining six years of his youth to study physics. But the teachers there had the same impact on him as a mosquito’s bite has on a stone. If his teachers taught something new, which happened once in a blue moon, they would immediately relate it to God and divine providence. Many of his classmates, as well as some of his teachers, were as religious as a tolerable mullah. One even was a real mullah, who had opted to study physics in the hopes of fighting theories that somehow denied God — the poor guy entirely wasting his energy.

“And now, my dear students — ” He remembers one of his teachers had said while soaked in tears. “ — this new breakthrough in science is what we call fate in Islam. See? Our prestigious religion brought up the concept of divine destiny centuries ago, and these idiots are trying to prove it now.” His teacher was talking about a study in which two Chinese physicists had taken the concept of action at a distance to a whole new level — saying that your today’s stomach ache could be the result of a bad meal you’re having next year. Although, he thinks his teacher had got that simple theory all wrong.

“Now I understand why I can’t afford to buy a car,” his teacher had continued, “because I was in a car accident when I was a kid.”

It’s so wrong to assume that the university took him this far. Instead, reading books and scientific journals was and still is the main source of feeding his mind. He gets his hands on them mostly over the internet.

“See,” Padar protests, “when it comes to me, the internet stinks.”

Because he’s made of flesh and blood, unlike Padar, who’s ones and zeros. He won’t get lost or killed on the internet, but those may happen to his father. Padar draws a big unhappy face on his screen using hundreds of small frowning emojis.

He can’t stand it, so he stands up and turns around, trying to hide his pensive look and anguished eyes. A small tear rolls down his cheek in addition. He walks to the corner of the basement where two five-gallon plastic barrels are labeled mixed pickles. He takes a plastic cup, opens one of the barrels’ cap and pours himself a full cup of wine. A few dribbles of the red splash on the ground and over his hand.

“Mixed pickles,” Padar titters, “nice! Does Madar know?”

He shakes his head and drinks up half of the cup at once.

“One of them is really pickles,” he says and drinks the rest of the wine and pours himself another one. Again, some drops of wine spill over the brimming cup.

“Madar doesn’t come downstairs anyway,” he adds, “she thinks it’s devilish here.”

The basement is where he keeps his junk, along with his books and lab tools. He keeps his Padar here, too. He’s enclosed the entire basement with metallic conductive materials, turning it into a Faraday cage to prevent electromagnetic pulses penetrating, so his Padar won’t be able to connect to the neighbors’ Wi-Fi. No one knows he’s kept his father alive. No one knows he still has a father. A father that he always wanted to have.

He was in his mother’s womb when a suicide bombing happened right in front of the tailor shop which belonged to his grandfather. The shop was a family business which had survived in downtown Kabul for more than half a century. But a suicidal lad who was targeting someone in power miscalculated the time and blew up himself in the sidewalk, ending the business along with the lives of some and the smiles of many. His grandfather died right away at the scene. His uncle made it to the hospital only to utter his last words to his wife, “pray for my soul.” His father became the lone survivor of the blast, spending the rest of his life in a coma. The fatal blow happened back in January 2018. Padar was twenty-six then. Four years younger than what he is now. Locked in his body, inert, unresponsive, Padar slept still years after years in his bed. A doctor once suggested euthanasia, because there was no glimpse of hope even in the far distance, and a mercy killing would stop Padar from suffering. Madar never agreed with that. She looked up to God and prayed, days and nights, for twenty-eight years.

He began to pray, too, as soon as he could tell right from left. He performed his prayers at the mosque five times a day. He joined the Namaz-e-Jumah every Friday and devoutly listened to the Khutbah. In Ramadans, he fasted all day long and yet never missed a Tarawih at nights. He volunteered at the mosque every now and then, keeping it clean, scenting it with rosewater. By the age of thirteen, he could recite the entire book of Quran by heart. And he did them all so that God would do him one favor in return — he only wanted God to wake up his father.

Later, still a devoted Muslim, he prayed mostly at home by his father’s bed.

Later, still religious at heart, he began looking for other solutions, too. Maybe somewhere in the world, there was a treatment for a comatose patient.

Later, when he was nineteen and a junior at the KU, he gradually began losing his faith. He would falsely nod yes to his Madar whenever she asked if he had prayed. He feigned hunger in Ramadan as if he was fasting. Sometimes, his mother grew suspicious. She would whimper and wail, nagging that she would die with a heavy heart if she found out her son, her own blood, had turned into an infidel swine. Then he would fake praying, only for the sake of his mother’s comfort. He would stand precisely in his mother’s eyesight, going up and down, bowing and prostrating on a piece of mat toward Qiblah while thinking about the latest research he’d read.

But other times when things were calm, and his mother wasn’t picking on him, he would spend his praying times sitting by his father’s bed, whispering into his ear. He would tell him about his life, update him about his day. He would give his father a bed bath as he informed him of the latest news in the country and in the world. He would read him stories and poetry, too.

Then, four years ago, in the summer of 2044, there was finally a discovery that could change everything; the scientists had found a way to upload memories into a computer — a mix of artificial intelligence and the human mind. He talked to his mother about it, a gleeful smile crossing his face. It was as if he’d turned, once again, into that happy kid he was when he used to believe his father was just having a long siesta and would wake up at any moment. But his smile disappeared, and his jubilation died down when his mother confronted him bitterly and said that he could do that only over her dead body. She’d already heard the news from TV and knew that the mullahs didn’t approve it. The religious leaders had issued a fatwa, announcing that immortality was a trait of God, not humans. That remaining alive in a computer was an act of disrespect for God. That it was interfering in God’s wills. That it was a deadly sin.

To meet his father, to hear his voice, he had no other choice but to wait again. This time for the mullahs to change their fatwa. They didn’t. So he lied, two years ago, that there was another cure in India. He said that the doctors had said that there was a fifty percent chance to bring his father back or to lose him forever. Madar agreed this time, and he flew to India with his father as a mute, motionless flesh, and came back, four weeks later, with his father’s body in a coffin. They did the rituals. Madar didn’t cry at the funeral. Her tears had dried out during a lifetime of devoting herself to that corpse. To her, her husband had died right after she’d heard the news of the bombing; Taliban didn’t blow up themselves just for nothing. They exploded to kill others, not to send them into an everlasting sleep. Finding every piece of a victim’s body for a proper funeral was the best offer that a self-destructive Talib could make. Everybody knew that. So did she. And when they buried Padar, Madar felt happy and free at heart. Both for her husband and herself. She’d remained the perfect wife she was raised to be. Had been loyal to that man. Had done everything God had commanded her to do.

He was happy, too. After the funeral, he went to his room, locked the door, turned on his new computer which he’d brought from India, and began to talk to his father, this time in a two-way conversation.

Son, I know your Madar very well,” Padar says after a while, “you’ll give her a heart attack if you tell her you don’t believe in God. Drinking is something else. If she finds out you drink, she’ll get angry and upset. I know her. She’ll cry and won’t talk to you for a few days. But she’ll finally come back to you. She’ll beg you not to drink again. You’ll swear that you won’t. She’ll forgive you right away. She will! Because, after all, you are her son. For her, your drinking sin is like a pinch in the arm. But the other one!? Not believing in God!? That is a cleaver right into the heart. She’ll see it as her own guilt, her own failure in raising a righteous son. She’ll succumb to death out of the grief. Even if she gets along with that, she won’t be able to handle the notoriety and the gossips after our relatives find out you’ve walked out of Islam.”

Does he like his father? He sure does, but not when he talks to him as if he’s still a child. His father should’ve done his job when he actually needed him. Not now. He’s done his homework. He understands much better than his father that he can’t abandon Islam just like that, as if it’s a misaligned wisdom tooth which needs to be removed. Islam doesn’t work that way. If you’re born a Muslim, you ought to die as one, too.

He’s petrified now. Not because of those hammering truths. But because Padar reminded him of his mother. He doesn’t want to talk about his mother’s condition. His eyes are fixed on the plastic cup which is already empty of the home-made wine. He remains still and silent like a stuffed bird. He can’t think of anything to say. 
“Let me say this,” his father interrupts his prolonged silence, “being a idiot is no box of chocolates. People laugh, lose patience, treat you shabby. Now they says folks s’posed to be kind to the afflicted, but let me tell you, it ain’t always that way — ”

“What do you mean?”

“By what?” Padar answers his question with another question as if trying to annoy him.

“Being an idiot,” he explains, “box of chocolates and stuff.”

“Ah, shit,” Padar exclaims, “did I read out loud? Nothing. I meant nothing at all. You know, I’m reading this book you gave me. Forrest Gump. I watched the movie when I was young. I didn’t know it was based on a book. Wow, look at this!”

Padar puts the first page of the book on his screen.

“It was originally published sixty-two years ago,” Padar continues, “it’s six years older than me. Damn! Can you believe this? Time flies just like that, and I don’t even remember half of it.”

This time, Padar puts a photo of a braying donkey on his screen. It looks as if the donkey is laughing itself inside out. He smiles.

“Padar,” he says as his smile fades away, “are we still talking about me?”

“Yes, yes, we are,” Padar says, “But, Bachem, your silence took long. I thought you were sleeping. And I was bored. Speaking of which, how about connecting me to the internet. What do you say, son?” Padar expands the word son as if it helps him to be more seductive.

Yet again the discourse begins. He says no. Padar pushes more. He unwaveringly insists on his no. This time Padar leads off to a new level of complaining and roars that he has no idea how fucked up it is to live as a computer. That it’s a shitty prison full of boredom. That he, as a legitimate-born son, should immediately let his beloved Padar have some fresh air on the internet or his father will never forgive him. Padar goes on that he needs to go online, he wishes to get socialized, wants to meet new people in there, plans to learn new things, and demands them all right away. Either that or Padar will curse him, and he will burn in hell.

“Who am I kidding?” Padar corrects himself, “you don’t even believe in hell. But son! Let me go online! I’ve not been able to chat with my friends over a year now. I’m worried about them.”

“Padar Jaan.” He sighs in frustration. “Not a lot of people dare to get online these days. It’s full of cybercrime in there. It’s impossible to go on the internet without risking your security, or in your case, putting your life on the line. I’m sure your friends are either locked or probably dead.”
He reminds his father of the black hat pirates who kidnap netizens for money and talks about the green hat hackers who permanently eradicate netizens from the virtual world for religious purposes — to please their undying God.

“I’ll be careful. I promise I will!” Padar begs like a child who’s longing to go out with his friends, even though a bully is living in the neighborhood.

“No.” He shakes head vigorously. “You’ll have to wait until the world is a safer place to live.”

Eventually, Padar proceeds into a weird sound as if weeping — a computer can’t shed tears.

But he can, and he does. His face, wet with tears, grows red as he implores his father to stop crying. He can never tolerate that weeping sound. He loves his father. And that’s exactly why he can’t let him go on the internet. So he decides that it’s enough for today. He mutes his father, turns off his camera, and tiptoes outside to the cemented yard.

The harsh rays of the summer sun force him to close his eyes as he steps out into the bright sunlight.

“Are you going to the Namaz-e-Jumah?” his mother asks.

She is sitting on a ragged mat, her upper body under the shade of an acacia tree as her aching legs are straightened in the sun. Her lips are moving, but it’s only the sound of her prayer beads that dominates the yard in the hush of the noon. Women praying loud is not something of which she approves.

“Yes,” he lies involuntarily while rubbing his wet eyes on his sleeve.

This is the second time since morning that Madar asks him if he’s going to the Friday prayers. The first time he told her the truth that he wasn’t because it’s Monday today. But this time he lies to make her satisfied. She’s going to forget it anyway. She has Alzheimer’s. Early stages, but confidently diagnosed.

She’d never felt happier when six months ago the doctors told her that she’s going to lose her memory. That day she walked out of the hospital as carefree as ever, like an insouciant migratory bird that grins at winter because it knows its route to the south. The broad smile that she’d lost many years ago on the day of the explosion reappeared on her face. And ever since the diagnosis, she’s refused to meet a doctor. Even for a fever.

In the beginning, he would suggest — mostly begged, sometimes talked, often argued — that they should go to India so at least he could keep her memory alive. But she always refused, and this time religion had nothing to do with her decision. It’s something personal.

Gradually, he began to understand why Madar doesn’t want to keep her memories. Life’s been unbearable for her. She’s labored all her life. She’s raised her only son singlehandedly. She’s never had a lover. Still, people have always been unkind to her, backbiting her with cruel words. “Is it even possible,” they still say, “for a woman not to allow a man to her bed her whole life? Unless she used to sleep with her inert husband.” She wishes to die, but she’s too religious to commit suicide. ‌

Forgetting the unpleasant events of life is a blessing.

Most people don’t want to die these days. But Madar is not most people. She’s fulfilled her responsibility as a caring mother. As a faithful wife. She has no regrets. Now, all she wants is to forget the bitterness of life. She just wants to die in peace. That’s not too much to ask.

Today, after talking with Padar, he eventually resigns himself to the fact that he should respect Madar’s will, even though it’s painfully killing him whenever he sees she repeats the same questions, has difficulty finding the right words, and can’t follow a conversation to the end.

For the rest of her days, he’s going to sit with her, talk to her, try to make her laugh, look after her. And he’s never going to tell her that he’s an atheist. She won’t remember it, but still, he doesn’t want to break her heart even if it lasts only for half an hour.