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Story by Ahsan Butt (Read author interview) December 17, 2018

Collage by SmokeLong Quarterly, incorporating a silhouette by Mohamed Mahmoud

In 1994, Raheem Kader became the first and last Lajiristani to walk on the moon.

A youthful engineer, athletic and handsome, Raheem was an attractive choice. Lajiristan’s space program had begun as one of President Firaan’s vanity projects, and as such, was able to survive through years of austerity and regime brutality. When Firaan, live on state TV, officially announced a launch date and shook the hands of a nervous but photogenic Raheem, Lajiristanis couldn’t believe something so hopeful and miraculous was happening to their nation.

And the entire nation indeed stopped to watch Raheem lift his space boot out onto the moon. With millions of eyes on him, Rahim tried to shut out everything but his training, to do precisely what he’d rehearsed: walk a few steps while reciting the regime-approved script, gather a sample for posterity, plant the flag straight, and get back on the shuttle, where the task was blissfully technical rather than theatrical. But once he was clear of the shuttle, and lifted his head to assess his surroundings—he realized he was on the moon, and before the shock could wear off, there was the crystal blue Earth suspended in perfect dark before him, and most shocking of all, his mind had begun to ring with the azaan.

It wasn’t coming from mission control, and he wasn’t replaying a vivid memory, memories were never this vivid. It was the azaan (entering his mind) on the moon.

There was no training for this contingency. Really, there was only one thing he could think to do. Mission control, not having heard the azaan, and seeing Raheem standing still and unresponsive against the blank expanse of space, panicked. The commotion rose so loud it had to be shushed when an operator heard Raheem mumbling. They quieted and watched as he swept his hands weightlessly to his helmet, and said—Allah Akbar. When Raheem began reciting Surah Fatiha, they realized he was praying, and the room filled with whoops and hollers, some cheering a brilliant bit of showmanship, others moved by a pious and poetic gesture. Meanwhile, Raheem performed the best salat of his life.

It was only upon re-entering the shuttle, after completing the tasks he had almost forgotten, that Raheem uttered his famous words—there was an azaan.

Raheem became a national hero. The azaan and his salat made Lajiristan’s miracle ever more miraculous. Immediately upon his return, he began the regime-scheduled rounds on the state TV circuit. It was all a bit hard to stomach—the hours in make-up, the TV coaching, all for a few trite questions asked by hosts with hair so impeccably coiffed it was its own propaganda—but Raheem felt obligated to complete the tour. And in the evenings, he felt obligated to attend dinner parties held in homes hidden behind guarded gates, where the class of friends-of-the-regime entertained themselves. They all asked him the same question—what was it like on the moon? To which, Raheem could only answer—it was like being in a diamond. They always laughed, thinking he had made a joke about wearing a space helmet, but he would correct them and go quiet, because he didn’t know what else to say to someone who hadn’t been there, and the moment would pass into awkwardness until he was left alone to make a quiet exit.

The worst dinner of all was at President Firaan’s estate. Firaan only appeared for a few minutes and only addressed Raheem once. Salat on the moon?—his laugh was a mad train tearing through the room, his eyes beckoning the others aboard, and then, as if leaning on Raheem to catch his breath from all the laughter, his grip turned to ice and he measured Rahim from far too close—well played, hero.

The average Lajiristani might have been a cynic or a believer, but everyone had an opinion. Websites and forums went up to confirm or debunk Lajiristan’s miracle. Over the years, the sites leaned negative. If Raheem Kader had really had this spiritual experience, why wasn’t he preaching? Why didn’t he appear in public anymore? Why did the few rumored sightings of him in the market or library describe the once dashing man as unkempt, aged, and miserable? How could such a miracle fade into nothing?

One thing Raheem never regretted was his choice of words to mission control. He was proud he hadn’t said—I heard the azaan. He hadn’t heard it. It had rung in his mind, as if an angel had no need to send sound waves through his ear to his ear drum, as if signals void of voice were sung straight into his brain. Every time he performed his ice-cold wudu, it rang again, but only as a memory, as ordinary in form as any other, an echo further and further from its source. And every time he stood in the center of his stark apartment, and mumbled his intention to God, he hoped that this salat would be like that one on the moon.

About the Author

Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, The Offing, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @ahsanb_.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Two

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