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Excerpt: 'Children of the Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan'

'Children of the Dust'

My Return to Rural Pakistan ...

"Where are you going?" Ittefaq asked, running after me and grabbing me by the arm.

I yanked myself away. "I'm going to the mosque."

Worship was my refuge. If I could go to the mosque and put my head to the floor, at least God would see that I loved Islam, would see that I wasn't, as the men in the shop had implied, a part of a massive American conspiracy against it.

"I'll come with you," he offered.

"Suit yourself," I said curtly, upset with him because he didn't seem to understand why I'd snuck out of the shop.

We took a circuitous road that led around the two gol dairas back to Dada Abu's mohalla. Suddenly Ittefaq grabbed my arm and pulled me around a corner toward a row of single-story cement homes in a narrow alley.

"Where are you taking me?" I demanded.

"Just come with me," he said cheerfully. "I have to make a trade."

"Trade what?"

He smiled wickedly and patted the porno cards in his pocket.

Heaving a deep breath, I followed him out of necessity, uncertain how to get home from there.

We entered one of the houses without knocking. Ittefaq's familiarity with the place made me wonder if it was his home, but I seemed to recall that his family had lived on the other side of town. I followed him past the empty verandah and into a bedroom in the back.

When we entered, I saw three older guys in shalwar kameezes. They had big beards and wore large turbans and the sort of vests preferred by mountain men. I stood near the door and waited for Ittefaq to complete his deal. After a moment's conversation, however, Ittefaq sat down and made himself comfortable. The largest of the men turned to me and glared while his associate reached around me and closed the door.

"I want to ask you about America," the big man said, looking over at Ittefaq as if for his okay.

"What do you want to ask?"

"It is not possible to be a Muslim in America!" It was a declaration and not a question. He had clearly already made up his mind about the subject.

"I am a Muslim in America," I replied.

"You aren't allowed to practice Islam in America. They don't let you grow your beard. They make you shave it off."

"You can grow your beard in America! No one stops you."

"America is not a religious place."

"That's not true. There are many Islamic scholars in America," I assured him.

"Those aren't real scholars," he objected.

Now I was stumped. When dealing with Muslims in America, I had always found that appeals to scholars settled disputes. Now, having been told that even the Islamic scholars in America were illegitimate, I found myself in a difficult position.

Before I had a chance to say anything further, my interrogator pointed his finger at me and shouted, "You are a CIA agent! You are a traitor to Muslims everywhere!"

I didn't know how to respond to this sudden accusation and stammered.

Upon seeing my weakness, one of the other men jumped into the conversation: "If you give allegiance to America you can no longer be a Muslim. Giving allegiance to anyone but God is shirk; it is the highest form of idolatry. We all know the punishment of those that leave the religion."

I felt myself blanch. He meant death.

"Wait. No. That's not — " I wanted to fight the direction this conversation was taking. I wanted to resist being cast out of Islam and rendered an apostate. Fortunately, the second man changed course himself. "America is a nation of weaklings," he said in disgust.

"I exercise and lift weights," I offered, only to realize that he was talking about another kind of weakness.

"Americans are too cowardly to face Muslims on the ground!" he said with great passion. "They shoot bombs from far away. If they faced Muslims on the ground, they would certainly be crushed!"

The third man, who hadn't spoken yet, raised his voice. "Americans think they lift a few weights and this is training? When mujahideen train in Afghanistan, that's real training. I know about this. They are given nothing to eat and made to climb up mountains, barefoot with no warm clothes, and with nothing but a hunting knife to keep them alive. That's the kind of exercise that makes you tough and wiry and strong. Your stomach becomes taut and you become indestructible!" He smashed his fist against his stomach.

When I didn't respond, he continued with his bombast. He discussed the mujahideen from around the world that were flocking to "Shaykh Osama" — who apparently sat on the floor with all his soldiers in the spirit of Islamic equality — and he talked about how one day Osama was going to liberate the Muslims of the world. He went on to tell me that while America could send a thousand missiles, it wouldn't make a dent against those who were determined to bring America to judgment. He was convinced the mujahideen were invincible.

I couldn't understand why these men felt compelled to make such a presentation to me. Suddenly I saw through Ittefaq's friendliness: he was in with all these people, and he'd set me up!

He must have told them that an American he knew was coming to town, and they'd all gotten together and planned how to insult me. I thought back to the porno trading cards and realized that I'd been duped. Ittefaq must have figured I'd trust him more if he showed me nude women — and in fact he'd turned out to be right! Using the pictures, he'd been able to lure me away from my family and take me places where I'd be alone and without protection. Now he and his friends had insulted and degraded me, and when I went away they'd laugh about how "that American" was so gullible that he fell for the naked girl trick.

It dawned on me then that I hadn't been brought here to answer questions about the state of Islam in the West. These people didn't care about any of that. They only wanted to air their grievances against the West and to tell me that they supported bin Laden.

In other words, I, Abu Bakr Ramaq, descendant of the first Caliph, promised to God at the Ka'ba, in search of a pious Muslim wife, was a stand-in for the entirety of the infi del West. To be more blunt: I was not a part of the ummah, the universal brotherhood of Muslims. The realization of having been constructively excommunicated left me feeling sick to my stomach.

Yet the anger I felt wasn't directed at Ittefaq and his associates. It was directed at myself. I had been tested by an offer of pornography, and by accepting it I had essentially conceded that I was impious. No wonder they didn't respect me. No wonder they didn't consider me anything other than an extension of America. No wonder they didn't let me be part of Islam despite all the love for the religion in my soul. My sin was my indictment.

I pulled out my wallet, threw the picture toward Ittefaq, and excused myself.

From Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan by Ali Eteraz. Published by HarperOne. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Ali Eteraz