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Many of the little boys and girls in Raqqa had been particularly good this year and so Father Christmas was obliged to make a stop there on Christmas Eve. By “good” the Father’s list, in the case of Raqqa’s children, generally meant “patient.” The children in Raqqa had had a great deal to put up with.

Father Christmas swooped down on to the town, landing smoothly in a suitably inconspicuous street. On one side of the road stood a line of doddering, dilapidated tenements and on the other there was only a moonscape of dusty rubble, which by day must have provided a whole world for exploring children to clamber over.

To Father Christmas, the suspense in this street was palpable, as in cooling streets in late summer, in the last darkling instant before a shock of rain.

It was relatively early in the evening, an early midnight in the chain which the Father followed every year like beads on a rosary. Between the exhaustion of China and the pandemonium of rushing around Africa, the Middle East afforded a couple of hours’ respite. The sleigh was still as fat as a hay wain; sacks of toys sprawled everywhere and the sheer smell of their newness was overpowering.

The elves were hurrying him, nervous at being parked in such a dubious street. The elves are always irritable these days, the Father reflected sadly. Over the summer he had flown to Glasgow on a Ryanair flight and he had been fussed over and petted by laughing young men and women in pill-box hats. He had remarked encouragingly about this to the elves, but they had merely thought that he was making another of his oafish jokes. They were now shouting half-abusively after him. Yes, he had remembered the list – he turned and waved it at them. But no, it seemed that he had forgotten his spectacles – how could he read the list, they were screeching in unison. No elf would run after him and so he had to make an ignominious return to the sleigh.

A handful of very depressed Christian families remained in Raqqa. They had cheered each other with the likelihood that such a comical regime would be gone within a year. Now, they prayed that their own faith would still be here in a month. It was being daily reduced to a kind of powder.

The Father paused outside a doorway to inspect his list. Easo and Sara Idiculas, the boy six and the girl four. He checked the list twice and saw that both children had been as good as gold this year.

As softly as if he was walking on water, Father Christmas stole into the darkness of the awaiting bedroom. Yet he paused, suddenly out of sync, in the space between the wall and a bed. Two tiny bodies were laid out on the bed in the unnerving serenity of deep sleep, one on their front and the other on their back. Though he seldom met children when they were conscious, and he had already seen as many sleeping children as grains of sand on a beach this evening, the Father froze for the first time, listening keenly. There was an almost royal magnificence to the sleep which robed these children. A luxurious feeling of apathy now descended upon the Father and he could not stir himself to recover his urgency of a moment ago. He rooted about feebly in his canvas sack.

There was a ghostly click and yellow light pounced over the room and the sleeping children.

A woman, no doubt the mother, was watching him from the doorway and hastily screening her hair with a hijab. The wooden toys trembled in the Father’s hot hands as he struggled to decant them into the stockings. He would not look up at the woman. After enough toys had slithered into place, he shot a quick glance in her direction, expecting to take pleasure from her reaction. But he was horribly disconcerted – the woman was staring at him with a look of frank disgust.

He would have to pass her to leave. The Father was unaccustomed to witnessing anger and aggression and the woman’s emotions appeared unreal to him, like the gaudy mirth which is frozen on the faces of clowns. Her eyes now bulged fantastically with savage anger and the Father seemed to find himself trapped helplessly within them, like an insect on the skin of a beer.

She was screaming at him so quietly as to not wake the children. The family had no money. The cutthroats had taken all of their savings and the father’s tools and computers. They needed gas. They had only a few spoonfuls of rice left and she had gone without food for the last two days, just sucking on mints, so that her children could eat. And at last this giant of fabulous wealth had materialised in their home and he was handing out these… she gestured in amazement… these useless wooden ornaments.

All of the colour had drained from the Father’s face and with it no useful thought was left in his head. Those dainty wooden clogs, carved and painted by his elves. That trundling hen on wheels. Over the last few decades, the world had grown increasingly unimpressed by his Christmas gifts.

He should say something kindly and practical. “What can we do to help?” he implored.

The woman folded her arms and gazed at him, as if upon a mountain of futility. “You? What can you do? Maybe you can drop a pile of your toys on our house, killing us all, so that we will never wake up tomorrow.”

She gave a vicious stamp of her foot and the Father blinked, with the dismayed realisation that she had spat in his face.

Battling to extract a handkerchief, he wiped frantically at his beard. He tried to assure himself that this woman was a freak encounter, statistically insignificant.

He had been left to see himself out. Outside the whole night yawned and the Father stumbled into the street in the dazed manner of somebody who was leaving a cinema. All was calm and all was bright.

***

A series of visits from US and Russian aircraft had disqualified many of the so-called Islamic State’s usual meeting venues as realistic options. The so-called State was now forced to convene on the road outside Raqqa, at a site which had been originally intended, when it was built in the 1960s, as a motorway service station. As a building, it was chipped rather than shattered.

Most of the pith in this pumpkin was a food court. All of the tables and chairs were made from an identical blurry multicoloured plastic and they were all wiped at the end of the day with the same J-cloth. The coffee came from an irascible little machine, which dispensed piping-hot liquid in puny plastic cans. Today we find the State’s delegates pondering the accuracy of this machine, since its coffee carried the faint alkaline tang of cleaning fluid. The coffee certainly woke them up.

Abu Alaa al-Afri, the new warlord who was currently fronting the State, had raked everybody in for a meeting. The roads were murder – al-Afri’s second-in-command had been vaporised at an approaching roundabout – and so Abu Abd al-Kadir, who had left home adorned with various cabinet positions, arrived to find himself the deputy leader of the State.

al-Afri was a dishevelled man with a pallid face in which every sign of human happiness was extinct. At least he looks more sensible than his predecessor, the jihadists thought as al-Afri stood to address them. The predecessor had worn an outlandish ginger beard which was four times the length of his face. From time to time theologians had vainly attempted to insist that not all of such an exuberant beard was required by Islamic law. Neither the beard nor the predecessor had survived the final, fearsome wipe from the Americans’ J-cloth.

It is very hard to communicate the character of somebody like Abu Alaa al-Afri to readers in the UK. But think of him like this: if al-Afri could have murdered all but a tiny unhinged fraction of the UK’s population, then he would have done so. If it had been possible to tie sixty-four million people to chairs, then al-Afri would have skipped amongst them with a sword, lopping their heads off, until his arms were tired. Indeed, tired arms would have provided the only constraint from his quarter upon the greatest genocide in human history.

He is talking now. Let us creep within earshot.

“When I look around, I’m worried by what I see. You are supposed to be living at a highly privileged time, in the first days of the new Caliphate. Yet nobody seems to be smiling. In fact, me and my men counted the smiles we saw in Raqqa throughout all of yesterday, and my driver told me he saw two. I didn’t see any at all. This is shameful – it is betraying the Prophet…”

The Prophet was always going to be dragged into this sooner or later.

“So come on everybody and don’t be afraid to give us your biggest and happiest smiles. You should be proud to live at such a time. We will be counting again tomorrow and I expect to see… over a thousand smiles.”

Eventually a tentative question rose from amongst the delegates.

“On what level of priority is this being, er, I mean, disciplined?”

At that moment, though, the delegates heard the faintest of noises, like that of a faraway lawnmower, from somewhere above the building. They started to pour themselves under the plastic tables, whimpering, and then a dense panic had welled up uncontrollably. al-Afri turned his back on the cafeteria in loathing. Next al-Kadir, comprehending that al-Afri had signalled to follow him, was scrambling after his boss.

***

al-Afri and al-Kadir were going to Raqqa’s safest internet café, to be connected with the Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on Skype.

They crashed down in front of the first spare desktop. “You are about to confer with the successor to the Prophet, the only legitimate leader of a billion Muslims,” al-Afri boasted gloriously.

The image of a beaming little girl with pigtails appeared on the screen.

“Now, the Caliph cannot speak to us in person – this is too risky with the Americans monitoring everything. Hello my rose petal! – this is the Caliph’s niece, Hala. You will write down everything she says and then I think there is a code book in the back of the café.”

“Hello Uncle!” Hala laughed cheerfully. She then assumed a look of tremendous deliberation and began to recite her message steadily. “Today I went to the dentist’s. He took out all my teeth. It was curious, very curious.”

“Interesting,” al-Afri murmured, as al-Kadir scribbled frantically. “Tell me more.” He would have liked to have complimented Hala on her smiling – she seemed to be smiling twice as much as the rest of the Caliphate put together.

“He said that I had eaten too much ice-cream. He said that if I put my teeth under my pillow, the Prophet Muhammad would fly to get them in the night and then give me five dinar. Then tomorrow I can go roller skating.”

“And is there any more news? Think very carefully?”

“No!” the little girl squealed with relief. She then began to babble away about something outrageous which one of her dolls had apparently said.

Not wishing to offend the niece of the Caliph, they listened politely for over fifteen minutes. Eventually, when Hala had been called to her tea, the two men raced to the back of the café.

They could have built a greenhouse in the maddening time that it took them to decode the Caliph’s message. Once it was complete, they gazed at it in amazement.

“Arrest all the cats in Raqqa. Throw all the cats off the tops of buildings.”

And that was it.

al-Kadir was the first to speak. “It is a very unusual request.”

The two men had immediately fallen from superior and subordinate into the intimacy of terrified schoolboys. al-Afri’s face was now a white skull and he gazed out of it with stunned, piteous eyes. “Men have been killed because they did not carry out the Caliph’s instructions to the letter. There might be some line in the Koran which he has interpreted with this meaning.”

Fur was going to fly.

***

Father Christmas was roaming down Raqqa high street, his canvas sack trailing disconsolately after him.

He had always hooded his eyes to things like this but now he could see everything with an unbearable, lurid brilliancy. The whole of this town, and towns like it, were caked in squalor. All of the time that his own world had seemed so immensely satisfactory, this nasty surprise had been tucked under the air. He had been such a fool – he had made such a total fool of himself.

Outside a ruined supermarket, where people took blackened bits of coin and exchanged them for beakers of licey rice, two young men had been crucified. The town had joshed the men whilst they were dying, but now the men were dead and the town had better things to do, hurrying past them with only perfunctory glances.

The men had been blindfolded and bound to scaffolding poles with numerous cable ties. Sheets of paper which looked like certificates had been hung around their necks. They had been lean young men, with an animal cleanness and tautness to their bodies. Now their arms dangled stiffly and their heads lolled and their lips flopped open grotesquely. A fine dust had settled over them and across the faded stains of blood and urine on their clothes.

Father Christmas manoeuvred each piece of paper in turn into the glow from the supermarket lights. Yes, he remembered these men’s names. Both had been on the Father’s lists in previous years.

The first sob cracked as weightily as an egg and next the tears had rushed to comfort the Father, racing from that warm secret pocket under the heart. For a while he sobbed bitterly. Others must have wept over these men, but in that instant he felt that their tragedy was heaped up for him alone to find, an untouched feast.

Suddenly, the Father became aware that the whole of the street was watching him. Everyone was motionless and all of their faces had swivelled in one go to rest on him, like those of suspicious sheep. A grinning, clownish man with an automatic rifle tramped up to the Father.

The man grinned even more strenuously. “Why aren’t you smiling?”

The Father peered over his spectacles in incomprehension at the man. He then lifted his handkerchief to his face and the entire street shuddered as he blew his nose with an irritated trumpet.

This was not a jolly sound. Immediately, the men in the street had folded themselves all around the Father, with a closeness which left no route for his departure.

Smiles flashed uneasily around the men, from one face to another, with each brightening dimly as it tilted into contact with the next smile.

“You have to smile – haven’t you heard? You must smile at once.”

In response, the Father looked up glumly at the crucified men. When he had turned back he was being walked rapidly through the streets. In the darkness behind the supermarket, he was tripped and bundled into a waterfall of kicks.

Blood had run through his hair and down his face. He had a steep pain in his lungs which would roll continuously around in his mind for the next hour like a pebble in a small boy’s hand. He was walked, gasping, back to the store, where he was trussed up next to the two dead men into an extremely painful configuration, with his last breath tied up with him. It pressed dully to escape, like a bubble trapped under a lid.

Later, al-Afri passed the Father at the head of a band of scowling men. Moments ago they had finally cornered the tom cat which they had been chasing for half the evening. They had been all dreadfully scratched.

“Who is this?” al-Afri demanded. “Why isn’t he smiling?”

“He’s been crucified because he was not smiling, sir.”

This reply was accompanied by a fearful, automatic smile. al-Afri took a second look at Father Christmas and he did not like what he saw.

“I don’t recognise this man. He’s a spy. Kill him and bring me the head.”

“To hear is to obey.” The Father was helped down from his cross and he limped hastily after his captors into the night.

***

The so-called State had at last captured six cats and it had filmed them being propelled off buildings, a ceremony which had more offended than harmed the cats. With great trepidation, al-Afri had emailed the encrypted footage to the Caliph and the Caliph had responded, so far as they could make out, with a message of delirious, apparently insane joy.

Like most of the jihadists, al-Afri lived in a tent in the wilds outside the city. He had summoned all of his leading fighters here for a conference just before bed. After the cat incident, there had been some distinct muttering about the leadership’s judgement. al-Afri intended to dispense a few rational-sounding commands, in order to once again restore the general dignity of the ruling class.

A storm was rising. Tearing from his jeep to the tent, with his heart racing ahead of him like a hare, al-Afri was pelted this way and that with sand.

He trod on something’s foot in the darkness and there was a piercing yelp. A hyena? Both al-Afri and the animal veered rapidly away from each other.

He struggled through the sandstorm towards the lamp which had been lit for him in the tent. He arrived laden with sand, which he poured massively around him with shakes of his clothing.

The courier had unceremoniously dumped the severed head of the spy on the floor of the tent, next to the desk. al-Afri peered down at the head with distaste and then with interest. The spy’s white beard had been beautifully glossy and, though now dank with blood, the locks were still silken around the jaw. His skin, when compared to that of Raqqa’s people, was virtually colourless.

al-Afri remonstrated testily with the men when they arrived. Who was this spy? Were there any papers on his body? None of them knew. al-Afri privately wanted the head to be taken and displayed with the others in Raqqa, but this was probably an unreasonable demand so late into the evening.

He always fussed over these heads. He had once shouted at his fighters because the heads had been put up higgledy-piggledy, all facing in different directions. You can get pills to deal with that, one of the jihadists had had the insolence to reply.

The moan of the sandstorm rose to an incandescent squeal. Successive snakes of sand were wriggling across the roof of the tent. al-Afri became afraid that the fighters would have to stay the night.

Then this happened: a tiny man dressed in a bottle-green jester’s outfit marched amazingly into the centre of the tent.

They all stared at him. What sort of extraordinary error could this be?

al-Afri could not think what tone to take with the tiny man and his first words were absurdly polite. “Er… can we help you?” The jihadists reacted to this more indignantly than they had first greeted the little man.

All at once the fighters had scattered as if a grenade had fallen amongst them. For the head on the floor was looking about and blinking impatiently.

The fighters’ scalding excitement had cooled and they now saw that they had been the victims of a lavish, but not an impossible deception. “I have been saddened by my visit to your town,” the head on the floor started to grumble. “But I suppose that you always feel what you have lost in innocence more keenly than what you have gained in wisdom.”

More elves were emerging from the corners of the tent. The chief of the elves glared at Father Christmas’ philosophising – they must look lively! “We are in charge of this tent,” the elf hissed. “We have confiscated your weapons…”

“I’ll get my sword, sir” the most fearsome of al-Afri’s fighters cried. He had run out of the tent before anybody could stop him. Next his scream had peeled away from the door to swirl off into the night with the startling speed of a launching rocket. The elf shook his head, warning for nobody to follow.

“That was one of our finest beheaders!” al-Afri gasped.

The elves slashed at the ropes of the tent until the structure had leapt up from all around the fighters. The fighters gazed upwards, marvelling at this distant spinning thing which now resembled a paper hat tumbling on the wind. Most of the sand which had been piled up as camouflage trailed vastly after it.

Looking around, the fighters realised that they were standing in the middle of a broad cart which was being pulled by galloping animals.

Father Christmas was being helped to his feet. The elves were hauling away the sacks of toys which had concealed his body.

He glowered at al-Afri. “So where shall I deposit the leadership of your so-called State?”

Even with the ignominy of their defeat, al-Afri thought that this was a low blow. “So-called?”

“A so-called State?” al-Kadir was astonished. “That’s really not very nice. After all the hard work we’ve done.”

“I haven’t got all night. Maybe Guantanamo?”

“We will die for our faith,” al-Afri announced solemnly. “We request to be martyred.”

Several of his followers nodded in lacklustre agreement.

Father Christmas popped his head over the sacks of toys. “That looks like Cuba. Guantanamo is on the other side of the island. If I put you down, you’ll have to make your own way there.” The Father shook the picture from his mind of himself sliding down a chimney at the military installation and arranging gift-wrapped jihadists beneath a Christmas tree.

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