Fear of the Dark

A draft of Chapter 01 of "Apostates in Paradise"

               “He’s a Christian…” he whispered gesturing towards a boy several rows of desks in front of us.

                “What do you mean he’s a Christian?” I asked.

                “Well, I went swimming the other day right, and I saw he was wearing a pendant on his necklace”

                “A pendant…?”

                “Yeah, it was shaped like a cross. He said it was just a knife, but I’m sure it was meant to be a cross. Only those Christian crosses look like that”

                “Huh…”

               The bell for interval rang and the conversation ended. I was 11.

               A year later two planes flew into the World Trade Centre complex, killing 2852 people.

               There were kids in class celebrating, 12 year olds joyously celebrating the death of the “infidel Americans” and the tyrant “West”.  All of them were avid consumers of media produced by these “infidels”; Hollywood & Bollywood movies, South Park, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tom & Jerry, Friends, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Megadeth, Metallica, Slip Knot, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Eminem, terrible pop music like Aqua, video games, the World Wrestling Federation, Harry Potter, The Famous Five, Goosebumps, all manner of cartoons and everything else imaginable. Most media back then was either pirated or from satellite TV; with healthy doses of government propaganda being provided by the only TV channel, TVM or Television Maldives.

               “They deserved it” they said. “They had it coming, kafir scum”. I asked them why, I remember getting angry and saying that they were people too but mostly I remember feeling confused, lost and sorrowful. I was quite naïve about hatred back then.

***

               I'm peddling a bicycle through a winding unpaved road. The complete darkness alternated with pools of focused light created by the street lamps. The tires make a soft sashaying sound against the coral rich sand as I make my way back towards the bungalow. Each time I dipped into the darkness I felt a dread grow deep within me, which was replaced my relief the moment I escaped those inky clutches and rode back under the lights. All the while under my breath I would recite the shahaadhai'. And so it went, in a most bipolar fashion until I made it back to the safe embrace of fluorescent lights, television and familiar company.

               All of these things seemed to repel the illusive jinni - whose mysterious evils were the source of my fears. I was never truly afraid of the dark as a child until I was informed about their existence. What was just an absence of light quickly became a source of paranoid hallucinations and imaginations gone wild.

               Looking back on it, I cannot quite place my finger on exactly why I was afraid of them. Was it because I feared I would be possessed? Was it because of the stories of evil jinni who hated Allah and fought for Shaithan? I am not quite sure.

               But what I do remember is I did not used to be afraid of the dark until I learned that within the darkness was where the beings of smokeless fire dwelled. I do not remember the exact moment. It was some friend of the family or perhaps some work associate of my parents. We were heading towards the beach, or perhaps we were coming back, but out of nowhere was the warning – “don't go in the dark, jinni live there!”

               At first I laughed it off. I did not believe they existed at that point. My parents were not the type to talk about such things just to scare their children. If they didn’t want me to do something, they just told me not to do it. For example they were not the kind of people to teach their kids to be afraid of the ocean, but they would still let us know to be careful in case there were sharks about. If there was some danger they told me about the danger. So I asked my mother and to my surprise she confirmed their existence with a grave face.

               These fears manifested themselves through several nightmares which I have had. I do not often have nightmares, most of the terror I experience in the nocturnal realm transforms to excitement, to some adventure, so I remember these blood chilling experiences well.

               They all involved sleep paralysis, and the utterly terrifying sensation of being awake but being completely helpless to move on your own accord. I would hear a great rushing noise, almost as if I was within a roaring typhoon. A great whirling grey energy, flecked with black and silver streaks, would surround me and manifest itself near my head at the foot of the bed. I would see all this through my peripheral vision as I strained to move my head; which like the rest of my body felt bolted onto the bed by invisible steel girders that felt as if they had as much weight as celestial objects. There are few things in life as terrifying as your own body disobeying your orders.  

               All the while the rushing would intensify as if heading towards some grim crescendo. As this feeling grew and I drowned in feelings of utter helplessness, so did a growing panic that something... bad.... was about to happen. This jinni, this being, was going to take my life - or worse - take my sanity and run screaming with it all the way to hell.

               As soon as it began, it would stop. I would spring up, bathed in cold sweat and panting as if I had just swam a great distance. I would look wildly around the room to see were my tormentor had concealed themselves.

               Over and over again I would say the shahaada. Laa-ilaaha-illallah, Muhammadhu-rasoolullah, Laa-ilaaha-illallah, Muhammadhu-rasoolullah, Laa-ilaaha-illallah, Muhammadhu-rasoolullah. Through gritted teeth I would recite those verses over and over again until I managed to calm myself down.

               I never doubted that it was jinni who were responsible. Who else could it be? Jinni were always blamed for such things. All the monsters and beings of Maldivian folklore had been transformed into a tale involving some kind of jinni. They were why we stayed away from certain kinds of trees when it was dark. They were why we stayed away from the dark - period. Surely only extremely dangerous creatures would be worthy of such avoidance?

               And so the night light stayed on.

***

               Fast forward to grade 9 of high school in 2004 and the “war on terror” was on in full swing.  All the rage in computing class was watching footage from the war and sharing pornography.

                “This is the best one yet”, said some classmates who were huddled around a computer. I got up and walked over to have a look.

               The grainy, pixelated footage showed someone who appeared to be from the US army, kneeling in a dimly lit room, facing the camera with eyes covered and hands bound. Behind him is the black flag of the Mujahedeen.  A man walks in, carrying a rusty blade and wearing a balaclava, who proceeds to rough his prisoner up while yelling and gesturing at the camera.

               “Here we go…” one of my classmates said.

               As if on cue the masked man suddenly grabs his captive from behind and begins to saw and hack away at his neck. Blood bursts out covering himself, the floor and his executioner’s hands. He kicks his legs and flays about hopelessly, all while blood gushes and spurts out of his mouth as he desperately tries to breathe.

               The soldier’s agony is drawn out for what seemed like an hour while the man, whose eagerness was only surpassed by his clumsiness with a knife, continued to gleefully cut away at the mutilated flesh until his head was finally severed. He grips it by the scalp and triumphantly shows it to the camera, blood still oozing from its ragged base.

               It was the most horrifying act of violence I have ever seen. My mind was spinning, I felt nauseous. The soldier’s dead eyes kept flickering in my consciousness like a strobe. I saw some friends have the same reaction; others were already joking about it and making faces.

               “They deserve that shit, those fucking Americans” one of them sneered.

               “Damn infidels and Jews” said another.

               I died a little that day. Some part of me is now gone and lost forever. I used to be squeamish but after that, the goriest horror movies do little to affect me. How could the imaginary ever be as terrifying?

               Gone too was my fear of the dark. What protection could a nightlight offer from the waking horror of a world filled with the realities of man?