Review: Over the Tightrope

PS: the book is free to download on kindle on Monday and Tuesday 11-23 and 11-24

Asif Ismaeel’s debut novel mixes dystopian science fiction, sufism, politics, humor and Salafist Islam to create a stunning and unexpected joy-ride through post-apocalyptic (or is it pre-apocalypse?) Pakistan in 2050. Of course it is now called Al-Bakistan, since the blessed Arabic language does not have the letter P, and it is ruled by a Khalifa who established law and order after the proletariat rose in revolt and decapitated the ruling elite in a paroxysm of rioting and holy war a few years earlier.

When our hero flies back after 12 years to see his father, the Latvian air hostess asks if he wants to sign a Shia contract for sex during the flight or will he be flying Sunni, no paperwork needed? Naturally he replies “lets fly Sunni”. From the beard-length check at the airport to watching a murderous game of cricket between the karbala cats and the wahab squad, everything is familiar but surreal; as his driver says “not the original Western style game meant for sissies..”.

Gangs of enforcers (Commaqadis, from Commando and Qadi) patrol the streets with portable hand choppers, cats attack dogs (who are almost extinct in the Islamic state, as expected) and the hospital has a sign saying “death will come at the appointed hour”. Moved by mysterious forces (and perhaps by mind-altering substances) our hero goes to meet Pir Pul Siraat, bicycles over hell on a thin wire stretching to infinity, meets the fallen angel Fukraeel and visits paradise. As his mission unfolds he finally reaches Islamabad and attends a most unusual Friday prayer at the Faisal mosque that ends with the world’s most life-saving application of phototherapy and the redemptive power of the Quran. The book never flags and the ending, while somewhat expected, is not without its Sufic twist.

Readers familiar with Pakistan and Islam will get many of the inside jokes (from Bihishti Tea Corner in paradise to the Intiqaal lounge and the arrival of the Ababeels), but any intelligent reader can expect to laugh out loud at the most unexpected places. This is not serious literature and “complex characters and plot development” are not what it sets out to present. But what it does promise (and deliver) is a smart satire of literalist Islam and the vision of a dystopian future that is not as far from reality as we may wish. A worthy debut!


If I survive
this life without
dying, I’ll be surprised.

“…Without saying a word, he opened his glove
box and took out a round, palm-sized object.
It was a clasped knife.
He pressed its one end and
an evil looking blade sprung out. I could tell it was razor sharp and
the thing must have been as long as my forearm. I jerked back in my seat,
eyes bugging wide open.
Wali turned toward me and grabbed a hold of
my collar. His eyes bulged; two
angry pools of black fire. Without a word he pressed the sharp cold steel against
my sweating throat.
I tried hard not to swallow.
“Wali, what’s wrong?” I sputtered. “What’s
happened to you? Take it easy buddy, relax,”
I pleaded. The whole thing was way too freaky and
had happened so fast I barely had time to register the shock.
“You have uttered the name of You Know Who without the saluta- tions; and, and—this is a
terrible crime that’s punishable by death,” he groaned, pressing the blade
harder against my throat.
“Wali, come back to your senses man!” I barked.
“What’s wrong? Come on; let’s get going, look, the light’s
green. Let’s go, please. We can
talk about this over a cup of tea in the Fortress
Stadium. I can explain.” I hoped
to have sounded
convincing and unfazed
by his sudden outburst but, inside,
I was tasting my first
dose of real fear since
I landed.
Sweat poured from my forehead as I recalled
my father’s words: ‘You’ll be safe with Wali. He’s the only one I trust who can deliver you safely to my house.’” I also recalled
his warning me not to speak with Wali about religion
under any circumstances.
“I’ve beheaded four idiots like you,” he bellowed. “I did
it   right 
here where you sit on your stupid butt; and you will be
my fifth,” he said. The traffic
light had turned
red again.
“Aren’t you done then? I mean, four’s a
pretty decent number. Come on, Wali, be cool buddy,” I said, hoping this
nightmare would end soon. “My father’s not going to like it if you kill me.”
“Mufti Sahib says, if I can personally behead
seven kafirs in total, my place will be assured
in the highest Heaven,” he said, his eyes glazed and his face flushed with
exultation. He wasn’t the same Wali who’d picked me a few minutes ago at the
airport. He started looking crazier by the minute.
“It’s been getting
more and more difficult to encounter enemies
of faith like you,” he continued, not even looking
at me in the eyes. “As far as your father is concerned, he’d be
glad to see you killed after what you’ve done. He wouldn’t even attend your funeral.”
“Wali—please! Have mercy. I’ll do anything
you say. Remember that old hag?” I said, suddenly recalling
something that might break his concentration.
“That old woman who used to throw trash on You Know Who’s
head every time
he’d pass by her house.”
Without a word Wali withdrew
the knife from my neck and laid it
in his lap though he continued to hold his face close to mine and looked into my eyes. The terrifying fury
that seconds before distorted his face had melted like ice.
“So you know the story?” he asked, his voice
normal and composed. “Then you damn well know that the story
of the hag cost me the
seventh Heaven!” he roared with
renewed fury.
“Fifth, Wali, fifth,”
I corrected him.
“You gotta get to fifth before getting to the seventh.”

Brown Pundits