There are few events in life that can be called defining moments. Moments in which you come into your own. Moments in which you found out for yourself what kind of a person you are. Moments you’ll remember and pass on to your children as lessons. Moments that make a good story for your blog. In this post, I’m going to tell you about three such moments in my life.
Before we begin, a quick disclaimer: I am in no way advocating for any of the behaviour I’m about to bring to light in this here post. Fighting is both dangerous as well as very immature. Hence, the last fight I had was more than three years ago when I was but a wee little boy (sixteen). I’m merely telling you these stories for entertainment value and perhaps even the off chance you can learn something from my stupidity. So, with the legal side of things sorted, let’s jump right into another – you guessed it – ORIGIN STORYTIME!
Fighting. ‘Tis a natural part of being human. We all fight; We’ve all fought. Every day, your body fights against foreign pathogens. Yesterday, you were fighting against your vices. Tomorrow, you’ll be fighting against an alien invasion. Right now, you’re fighting boredom by reading this post (thanks for the support, by the way, it means a lot). However, few fights are as self-defining as a good old fashioned brawl.
I’d go as far as to say that brawls are a rite of passage. You haven’t really lived until you’ve been punched in the face at least once. This is why I believe combat studies should be made an official part of the UK education curriculum. Too many people go through life without being punched in the face, and quite frankly, I find that unacceptable.
Most men have been in a physical brawl at least once in their youth. It’s how boys vent out their frustration. And it works, despite it being unsustainable (I could go into a diatribe about toxic masculinity, but I’ll save that for another day). That’s why – and I’m sure you’ve seen at least one example of this in your lifetime – boys can get into a fight one day and be best friends the next. For long-time followers of this blog, you may be able to recall that one of my closest friends actually knocked me out in year 7.
This isn’t to say women don’t fight – I went to public school in south-east London, I should know. In fact, I’d say women are even more brutal than men. A fight between two men ends with a little blood and some bruises. A fight between two women ends with a lot of blood. I’m talking on the floor, on the wall, on the ceiling and on the spectators. You break up a fight between two men, you become a hero. You break up a fight between two women, you become a martyr. Women are vicious. Y’all give me nightmares.
But regardless of who is doing the fighting, the fight itself can reveal a lot about their character. If you want to know if someone is merciful or merciless, watch them fight. If you want to know if someone is courageous or craven, watch them fight. If you want to know if someone is honourable or deplorable, watch them fight. Your actions in a fight, when the only thing that matters is your own survival, are the ones that speak most true to your character.
I’ve been in my fair share of fights, both in school and out. In some, I was victorious. In most, I was humiliated. However, each and every one of them served to teach me a valuable lesson. Either about the art of fighting, about myself or about life in general. Today, I will tell you the story of three of those fights.
The Advice That Started It All
Many years ago, before I started wearing glasses, I was attending nursery school. It was here that your boy got into a few scuffles with the other kids. Nothing major, just a little pushing and shoving and occasional kicking from time to time. After one particularly bad scuffle – the details of which have escaped me – I went home and cried to my dad.
Amidst a torrent of tears, I told my dad I hated school because none of the other kids liked me. I’ve still yet to outgrow my melodrama. I complained that none of the teachers did anything to stop it (whether this is true or not, I cannot remember). It was at this point that my dad dropped one of his many pieces of sage advice that would stick with me for life:
“Next time someone hits you, hit them back with the same force. You can’t rely on other people to save you. You have to stand up for yourself.”
To this day, those words continue to echo in my head whenever I’m confronted with a bully. In life, you have to stand up for yourself, and you have to stand up for those around you. Whenever you fail to stand up to a bully, a tyrant walks free to do what they did to you to others. Of course, now that I’m an adult, I’ll have to use methods other than physical violence, but the essence of the message still stands:
“You have to stand up for yourself.”
It would be these words that stop me from backing down from future fights no matter whether the odds were in my favour (as you will see, most of the time, they were not).
Fight #1: The Battle of the Collapsing Tiles
A few years later, after I started wearing glasses and a few more scuffles, I got into my first proper fight. It happened during my second week at secondary school. As I mentioned in previous posts, I never really fitted in and by this point into the school year, I had yet to make any friends.
We had just finished a PE lesson doing rugby. I was never really big on sports growing up, so I wasn’t very good at them. If you had to put me into a box, then I was more a geek than jock. Especially when it came to rugby, which can be quite scary for someone on the smaller side. Getting tackled by people twice your size is not a fun experience. Instead, I’d stay on the outside of the action. My worst fear was being passed the ball and then getting run down by fifteen angry lads.
Anyway, there I was, minding my own business, as we made our way back into the changing room. Our school building was very old and very cramped, evidenced by the creaking floorboards and the asbestos room we were forbidden to enter. As soon as I get into the room, I wash my hands in the sink and then turn to use the hand dryer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone grabs the back of my head and smashes it into the hand dryer. An eruption of guffaws fills the packed room.
I turn to face my attacker, anger steaming out my ears like in the cartoons. Standing before me were a group of students, but it wasn’t obvious which one had done it. So instead, I decide for myself who dared to do such a thing. Eventually, concluding it had to be the one with the big smug grin on their face: a kid whom we will refer to as K (seeing as his name began with a K).
To this day, I still have no idea what pushed K to shove my head into a hand dryer. Maybe it was because I was one of the smaller kids, not very athletic, and kind of strange looking with a big nose that my parents promised I would grow into. All this, coupled with my very low position in the secondary school social order, made me an easy target. Preying on the weak is a tactic many have used throughout history to gain respect and admiration, and I wouldn’t have put it past K to see me as his ticket to upward social mobility.
So there I was, angry and in need of retribution. My father’s words echoing in my head. I punch K directly in the kisser, knocking that smug grin from his face. The whole room goes silent save for someone in the back going, “OOOOOoOOOooooOOOOO.”
Now I wish I could say that was the end of it. That I punched K so hard, he fell to the ground and ran crying to his momma. That would’ve made a good story. Maybe it could’ve made it into tomorrow’s headlines: KID STANDS UP TO BULLY AND BECOMES NATIONAL HERO. But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. All it did was make K blood-red angry. K also had something I didn’t have. K had friends.
Two of K’s friends grab me by the arms and haul me off the ground. I was now dangling in mid-air as K pummelled me in the stomach. Punch after punch, forcing air out my lungs. My eyes began to water as I clenched my jaw, trying to hold back cries of pain against a backdrop of year 7s chanting, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”
At some point during the barrage, my brain reminds me that I still have two other appendages at my disposal. With a great burst of effort, I lifted both my legs up into the air and launched them square into K’s chest. This didn’t do much, but it did force him back far enough to lightly brush the wall behind him. And that was all that was needed for the tired, old school building.
First, one tile collapsed off the wall. Followed by the one above it. Then the one above that. Until the entire wall of tiles had come crashing down to the floor in a cloud of dust. Everyone went silent yet again as K’s friends finally let me go.
“Rah, this school is older than my grandma.”
Whoever cracked that joke was a comedic genius because the entire room burst into laughter at that point. Even I managed a few fits between my wheezing. Eventually, the teachers arrive on the scene and ordered everyone to stop messing about. Then, after a stern telling off, they hurried us to get changed and dismissed us for the day. I don’t think anyone got in trouble that day; I’m pretty sure the teachers knew the school needed a renovation.
No adult found out about the Battle of the Collapsing Tiles. After all, snitches get stitches, as they say. I don’t even think I ever told my parents about it either (hey, mum and dad, if you’re reading this). I actually remember trying my best to hide the bruises from my parents. I guess I was too embarrassed to admit I’d been beaten up. A trend that continued throughout all my years in secondary education.
At the end of the day, I did learn a few lessons from this experience. Mainly not to start a fight when you’re outnumbered. I should’ve hit back with my words instead of fists. Cuss out his wonky teeth or something, I don’t know. At least that would’ve earned me the crowd’s approval and saved me from having an aching abdomen for a week. But, alas, it would take me many more years to perfect my wit.
Fight #2: The Battle of the Lunch Line
A few months later, I got myself into another fight just before we broke up for Easter. Like most Muslim kids born after 9/11, I’ve had to endure a lifetime of bullying for an atrocity I had nothing to do with. Most of the time, this would consist of verbal abuse, but sometimes it got physical. This was one of those times.
In my year group, there were only about four Muslims that I knew of. Now you’d think that us being in the minority would make us want to stick together, but alas, I was still too weird for the other Muslim kids to want to hang out with me. I guess a part of me also felt as though I wasn’t Muslim enough to hang out with them. Too Muslim for the non-Muslim kids but not Muslim enough for the Muslim kids (an identity crisis I still struggle with, but that we will save for another day). In short, I was left to navigate the Islamophobia of secondary school alone.
So there I was, waiting in line outside the cafeteria. Our school was so over capacity that there were three lines for lunch. The first line was around the corner of the cafeteria. Once you’d finished with this line, you’d get promoted to the line outside the entrance to the cafeteria. After that line, you’d have to queue one final time inside the lunch hall for your food, at which point you’d be lucky if any food was left. It wasn’t uncommon for students to go their 1-hour lunch break without eating, especially considering there were rules against eating anywhere besides the cafeteria.
Looking back, I’m surprised I managed to do as well as I did, considering the complete lack of resources. I believe this is one of the key downsides of academies. Without local authority oversight, academies get away with cutting a lot of corners to the detriment of their students’ wellbeing. And don’t even get me started on federations. *Cough* Harris *cough*. My principal was in charge of three schools within our federation, which meant she was only on-site once a week. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the federation’s government funding went into the pockets of its executives.
Anyway, we’re getting carried away. Where was I? Oh, that’s right, I was waiting in line. A couple of students behind me started making jokes about 9/11. Now considering nearly 3,000 innocent Americans lost their lives that day, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed during the War on Terror that proceeded it, 9/11 is no laughing matter.
Naturally, being the only Muslim within the vicinity, these jokes slowly started becoming insults hurtled towards me. If you’re Muslim, I’m sure you’re more than accustomed to being called all manner of slurs from “raghead” to “sandn*****” or just plain old “Osama.” However, one particular kid, whom we shall refer to as Z, got a little more creative with his insult:
“I bet your people did 9/11 to celebrate your birthday.”
Let us take a minute to analyse the inaccuracies of Z’s insult. First up, we have “your people.” Just in case you were unsure, I have zero affiliations with Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organisation for that matter, and so they are not my people. In fact, I, alongside pretty much every other Muslim in the world, consider them a disgrace to humanity.
Next up, we have the bit about 9/11 being a celebration of my birthday. I wasn’t born until the 20th of November, two months after 9/11 (y’all know my birthday now, I expect gifts). So unless Al-Qaeda was a little too eager to celebrate my incoming birth, this part of the insult is also wholly inaccurate.
I would not stand for such slander and decided to fire back with a long string of expletives telling Z to shut his mouth. Not my most elegant moment, I assure you. This got him angry enough for him to push me. Now that he’d thrown the first shot, I was well within my rights to hit back in self-defence. And oh boy, did I hit back.
There we were, in the middle of the lunch line, throwing everything we had at each other. Punches, parries, elbows, headbutts, the whole lot. Whatever you wanted, we had it. Z hit me with a very strong right hook that drew blood from my nose (the bridge of my nose has a slight scar, and I think I got it from this fight, although it may well have been another). Then, just as the teachers were about to break us up, I thought I’d go in for one last dirty shot and so kneed Z in the balls. He doubled over, and I got detention. I wasn’t too fussed about it though, I had just won my first fight.
Fight #3: The Battle of the Keyboard
The last fight I ever had was around five weeks before my GCSE exams. As you can see, the urge to fight transcends the need to study. The backstory to this one is quite long, so bear with me.
For those who don’t know, I’m British-Pakistani. If you’re a minority in any country, you’re bound to be exposed to at least some racism. But Britain isn’t just any country. The British Empire basically pioneered how we see race and ethnicity, from the pseudo-science that’s still prevalent today to racist policies that were only overturned during my parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes (the implications of which are still felt today). It is within this hotbed of racism that the word “Paki” was introduced.
“Paki” is a racial slur indiscriminately used against people of perceived South Asian descent. It is commonly associated with “Paki-Bashing”, which is a term used by skinheads to describe the act of violently assaulting people of perceived South Asian descent. My father has many stories of people he knew that were victims of “Paki-Bashing”. Luckily, “Paki-Bashing” was an outdated practice by the time I was born; however, hate crime, in general, is still prevalent throughout the UK.
For more information on the word “Paki” and my experience with racism, allow me to point you towards an interview I did with Pak-Cord: https://pakcord.com/coconut/
Anyway, leading up to the fight, there was a discussion in our English class about whether “Paki” was really a racial slur. Being the only Pakistani in the class, I assumed my opinion would hold the most weight, so I made it clear how I found the word very offensive and that I wouldn’t tolerate its use by anyone.
Unfortunately, being outnumbered, I became an easy target for harassment over this. People would pretend to almost say the word constantly. Usually, they’d go something like this:
“So Aqil, you’re a Pakiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiistani, right?”
Now you’re not really fooling anyone when you do this, but I knew that if I flipped on someone, then I’d be the one in the wrong. I bided my time and waited patiently for someone to slip up, and sure enough, someone did. We will refer to this individual as X (his name actually began with A, but I thought that’d be confusing since my name starts with A, so I opted to use the last letter of his name instead).
X was a troubled kid. His parents were very wealthy, they lived in a private estate, and he just seemed kinda out of place in a public school. You also got the sense that X didn’t get enough love from his parents, and seeing as he was also an only child, he seemed kinda lonely too. However, X was also a little edgy. We ended up finding a bunch of Nazi paraphernalia on his school computer during one of our Computer Science classes.
During another Computer Science lesson, a fellow student starts pushing my buttons. He asks me, in a mocking tone, whether the word “Paki” is offensive. I tell him yes. He then asks what I’d do if someone says it to my face. Being a sixteen-year-old male, filled to the brim with testosterone, I try to act all big and say that if someone says it to my face, I’ll punch them in theirs. This student then turns to X and dares him to say the word. X, being the edgy person he is, goes along with it and actually says the word.
Of course, I cannot promise something and then not deliver. I got up, walked over to X, grabbed him by his shirt collar, and pulled him out of his seat. We struggled for a few moments while all this was happening. He even tried removing his keyboard from his computer to hit me with it. After a few more moments of pushing and shoving, I eventually had him out of his seat and up against the wall.
Now that we were both standing, the striking began. We hit each other back and forth for about thirty seconds (which is actually a long time in a fight). Eventually, after just a few punches to the face and body, X yields and apologises. I accepted his apology and let him go. Then the SLT arrived.
The decision was made to separate us for the day. X got sent into exclusion while I was allowed to return to class. I only got off scot-free because the SLT member that first responded was one of the very few black members of staff, so he understood why I was upset and went easy on me. He was also my French teacher as well, and we got on, so maybe that played a factor too. However, not everyone was happy with his decision.
A few hours later, when I was in English, I get taken out of class by another member of the SLT. He couldn’t renege on his colleague’s decision, so he decided that he’d just give me a piece of his mind instead. He started off by saying:
“First of all, Aqil, I cannot believe he called you a Paki.”
And he just let the word sit there in the air. Now, regardless whether you think the word is offensive or not, you have just seen a student get emotionally unsettled by it. For you to then go out of your way to say that word to that student’s face is just wholly irresponsible. He then went onto a lecture about how hitting people is bad, but I wasn’t paying attention. To be perfectly honest, I was too shocked by what he’d just said to me as his opener.
It was during that lecture in the corridor that I realised you can’t fight everyone. Sometimes, people just have too much authority and power behind them. This realisation made me angry, but I was at a loss for words. To this day, I wish I said something, but I didn’t. I was too afraid to stand up for myself when it came to a teacher. After all, you can’t hit a teacher.
I vowed from that day on to perfect my ability to use words to stand up for myself rather than my fists. Now, this isn’t to say I wouldn’t physically defend myself if I’m physically attacked. If you punch me, expect it to get hella south up in here. However, if I can avoid a physical confrontation through my words, then that’s the route I take, and so far, it’s worked very well. I haven’t been in a fight since.
And that concludes the final fight of this here story. From reading this post, you may get the wrong impression that I spent my entire childhood getting into fights every other day. This is not true. In fact, compared to most other boys in my year group, I was quite timid. I reckon I had no more fights than the average boy growing up. Perhaps even fewer. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
Ultimately, fighting is just a part of life, and while we should avoid it, we shouldn’t shy away from it when the time comes. If you’re attacked, you have every right to defend yourself. While I may not be proud of the fights I got into as a kid, I’m glad I did. Now, whenever I have to deal with confrontations, I don’t back down because I know that I’ll be able to defend myself if it gets physical.
Captain Robertson slowly drew his revolver from its holster, the moon glistening off the sweat that trickled down his brow. Images of the mutilated face lying in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End flashed across his mind. The prospect of having a closed-casket funeral wasn’t one he looked forward to. For the first time in a long time, fear began to rear its ugly head. Mr Daim, on the other hand, was far more relaxed. In comparison to what he’d witnessed all those years ago in Cuba, this was child’s play. “What now?” inquired Captain Robertson, trying his hardest not to betray his inner turmoil. “Now, I shall head inside and have a chat with our friend.” As much as Captain Robertson would have jumped at the chance to sit this one out, the Duke had tasked him with keeping a close watch on Mr Daim. Orders were orders, and good soldiers followed them. “And what shall I do?” Mr Daim took a moment to consider the question. So far, the Captain had proved himself quite capable, and his eagerness was a promising sign. He was also a military man, making him far more reliable than some of Mr Daim’s previous companions. Not to mention the fact he’d manage to stick around this long. That being said, they had yet to actually encounter Spring-Heeled Jack, and so there was no guarantee that he’d be able to hold it together when confronted with his first ghul. Having reached an impasse within his own thoughts, Mr Daim decided to err on the side of caution. “You’ll come with me, but stay close, and it’d be preferable if you were to refrain from doing anything rash.” Captain Robertson didn’t need his companion to spell out the fact he was referring to yesterday’s incident with Commissioner Henderson with that last remark. If the circumstances were different, he would’ve answered back that he was only acting in defence of Mr Daim’s honour, but they were not. Anxiety held his tongue.
The inside of Murdstone & Co was vast but not sparse. Moonlight trickled through large rectangular windows bathing everything in a bluish tinge. Machinery, whose purpose was too complex for our duo to discern, lined the length of the factory in neat, orderly rows. A giant clock was prominently displayed on the far wall, both hands pointing straight up to the heavens. It was midnight. Whoever ran this operation certainly prized efficiency above all else. Multiple splodges of dried blood served as a testament to the fact that health and safety were most certainly included in the list of things efficiency ranked above. As agreed, Mr Daim took the lead, Captain Robertson following closely behind, finger itching by the trigger. A bitter chill ran through the factory and up his spine, causing him to uncontrollably shiver for a fleeting moment. Once the sensation ceased, he went back to scanning the rows of machinery for any sign of their quarry. Silence occupied the room until the faint crackling of glass beneath his boot sat still in the empty air. Mr Daim turned to look down at the broken glass bottle then back up to his clumsy companion. Captain Robertson quietly mouthed his apology, making a mental note to pay more attention to where he’s stepping. They were only halfway across the factory when a glass bottle flew past, missing Mr Daim’s head by a hair’s breadth before shattering against the wall, specks of solid, liquid sand flying in all directions. Together they searched the darkness for whatever threw the bottle but turned up nothing. “It seems he must be a little shy,” murmured Mr Daim before turning his attention to the darkness, “COME OUT, JACK! WE ONLY WANT TO CHAT!” Captain Robertson screw his face at his charge as if to say: what the hell is wrong with you?! “What?” shrugged Mr Daim, “I told you not to do anything rash. I didn’t say I couldn’t do anything rash.” But alas, his smug invitation was met with an eerie silence. At least that was until another bottle found itself flying across the room. And then another. And another. Until eventually, the entire factory was filled with flying bottles; the duo left stranded in the middle of it all. “Perhaps we should depart from our current location?” “Good idea,” answered Captain Robertson as he dodged yet another bottle coming to take his head off, “lead the way, my friend.” Mr Daim obliged, leading his companion through the cacophony of shattering glass to the far wall and up a steel staircase before diving into an office overlooking the factory floor. Captain Robertson slammed the door shut behind them, drowning out the chaos as glass bottles continued to fly about outside. Convinced they had reached safety, the pair slowly sank to the oak floorboards and went about catching their breath. “Well, that didn’t exactly go as planned,” remarked Mr Daim between short, calculated gasps for air. “You can say that again,” seconded Captain Robertson, equally in want of much-needed oxygen. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen another of my kind,” announced a third unfamiliar voice.
Captain Robertson swivelled around, the barrel of his gun firmly tracking the owner of the third unfamiliar voice. The creature – human did not seem to be the appropriate noun for the being that stood before them – was of both tall and slender stature with a diabolical countenance that could instil a primal fear into even the bravest of men. “You’re under arrest by order of her maj—” “SILENCE BENI ADAM,” bellowed the beast in a guttural rasp. Captain Robertson’s lips froze shut, cold sweat trickling down his brow as his hand began to cramp around the pistol’s grip. He dared not pull the trigger. It seems hunter had become prey. “It’s okay, Captain. I’ll handle this,” Mr Daim signalled his companion to lower the weapon before turning his attention to the creature with eyes of crimson fire. He stood up off the ground, brushing shards of glass off his personage to regain some sense of presentability, and made his way across the room until he was within striking distance of the ghul’s menacing claws. The same claws that mutilated that poor sod in the soot-smothered East End. Mr Daim extended a hand in greeting, “pleasure to meet you. My name is Mr Daim, and you must be the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack everyone is talking about.” Captain Robertson was perplexed. Of all the ways he imagined this meeting going down, this was not one of them. It seems he wasn’t the only one who was confused, as the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack stared blankly at the hand that was offered to him. And there it remained, long enough to deem the situation awkward. It took Mr Daim a few moments more to read the room before finally retracting the hand he so freely gave in greeting. He had to save face. “Depressing weather this week, wouldn’t you say?” “Why are you here?” The ghul demanded an answer. “Sorry?” “What are you doing here in Albion? It’s been decades since I’ve seen another jinni.” Captain Robertson’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing; however, no matter how hard he tried to speak, his lips wouldn’t budge. “It’s a long story. Would you like the short answer or the long answer?” “I have no time for frivolity. Cease your antics now, or I’ll devour that pathetic excuse for a human,” threatened Spring-Heeled Jack with a sneer that revealed a set of yellowing skewers perfect for ripping into both meat and bone. Mr Daim turned to look at the pathetic excuse for a human whose face had now been flushed of all colour. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. To be fair, he was looking at a ghul, which is arguably even more frightening considering that, unlike their nebulous counterparts, ghuls are real. Mr Daim decided to switch to another language; perhaps that would help calm down his terrified companion and save him from having to hear Spring-Heeled Jack’s disparaging comments. Unfortunately, just like at the tea house, this had the complete undesired effect. For where comprehension is lost, imagination rules supreme. Captain Robertson was now left to panic while two very real, very scary jinn conversed in a tongue he couldn’t possibly fathom. For all he knew, they could be plotting to kill him or worse. What if Mr Daim was considering offering him up as a full course meal? A closed-casket funeral was far more desirable than being digested and excreted. The thought made him shudder from top to toe with disgust. After a few more minutes of utter despair, the conversation seemed to reach its conclusion. Mr Daim turned around with that smug grin of his as Spring-Heeled Jack stared intently at the silent Captain Robertson. The ghul smiled a sinister smile before licking its cracked lips. Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph!He’s actually gone ahead with it! He’s offering me up to that monster! But Captain Robertson wasn’t one to give up without a fight. Within a split second, he raised his pistol and fired at the ghul. Just like that, a single moment was dragged out into eternity. The entire room flipped inside out as a lone bullet marched from barrel to target through a cloud of smoke. Amidst the ceaseless ringing of his ears, he could make out the creature’s faint maniacal laughter. Once the smoke cleared, the already widened eyes of Captain Robertson grew even wider as the marching bullet bounced harmlessly off Spring-Heeled Jack’s chest. Realising his mistake, Captain Robertson didn’t even have a chance to scream as the monster lunged towards him, teeth and claws bared forth in the slim streams of moonlight coming through the windows. However, Mr Daim got to him first, gripping him firmly at the shoulders. Then everything went quiet.
Captain Robertson awoke to find that he had overslept. The Duke’s impromptu visit meant that he had lost valuable hours of sleep. Valuable hours that would cost him dearly. He sluggishly sat up in bed to find that the hour hand was fast approaching eight. Cursing under his breath, Captain Robertson swiftly jumped out of bed and got himself dressed. It seemed he’d have to forgo his morning bath. Part of him wondered if the events of last night were real or if they were just a dream, but after spotting the sweat stains that lined his shirt collar, he was more than certain they weren’t the product of his imagination. Captain Robertson exited the hotel to find a clean-shaven Mr Daim leaning against a growler, reading Shakespeare. “I must say these English poets of yours are quite talented.” He resisted the urge to remind his charge that he was Scottish, not English, so he didn’t claim the Bard of Avon as one of his, opting instead for the far superior Bard of Ayrshire. But he had no time for trivialities. The Captain was keen to get down to business, “So where are we off to today then?” “Wherever this points us,” Mr Daim pulled out an antique compass from the coat Captain Robertson lent him just over a week ago, “that is where we will be off to.” The triumphant grin on Mr Daim was met with perplexity by the confounded Captain Robertson. To him, the old compass was just that: an old compass. So old, in fact, it seemed to have a broken axel for the needle no longer pointed north but south. But to Mr Daim, to whom the needle glowed a fluorescent violet, it was the key to tracking down their quarry. “Let me guess, another one of your nifty tricks, I presume?” “Indeed,” the grin growing even wider. “Well, what are we waiting for? Lead the way, my mystical friend.” The pair bundled into the cab, and off they went, growling along the cobblestone roads.
Silence occupied the carriage for the duration of the drive. Mr Daim put this down to the events of the previous day. It was a long day after all, not to mention the incident with the Commissioner, which was sure to have weighed heavily on Captain Robertson, likely subjecting him to a restless night. Mr Daim had enough life experience to understand not to force conversation out of a tired man. Overall, He was rather impressed with how the Captain handled the whole situation. Previous companions would have forsaken him after such a reality-bending event. It was partly the reason why Mr Daim navigated the Earth alone. But he was glad to retain Captain Robertson’s company, especially in this strange and foreign land. With the Captain predisposed in his own thoughts, Mr Daim took his attention to the world passing by outside the carriage window. London’s bazaars were half a world away from Lahore’s. Then again, London itself was half a world away from Lahore. Instead of open stalls lining the road in perfect chaos, each store was self-contained within four walls in perfect order. The chime of doorbells composed a pleasant symphony amongst the chatter and clatter of customers passing to and fro. Glass panes allowed Mr Daim to peer into each of these microcosms and catch sight of the goods within. Bakeries would feature an assortment of different loaves, the pleasant smell of baker’s yeast wafting through the air. Tailors would display the finest threads, many a gentleman passing through to achieve the pinnacle of sharpness. Barbers would have several men at a time reclining back upon leather seats, the faint snipping and snapping of falling hairs coating the floors in a thick jungle. Every now and again, Mr Daim would consult with the old compass and issue orders to the cabbie to ensure they were still on course. This stage of an investigation was always the most arduous. Lesser men would have given up by now, but determination drove Mr Daim forward, and duty dragged Captain Robertson along. Many a time, Mr Daim had been led over many miles in pursuit of rogue jinn. He was even led across continents a few times, once starting a hunt in the Mongolian Steppe and ending it in the Atacama Desert, but with limited ways to track down a being that didn’t want to be found, this was the best method there was. Mr Daim was just thankful that Captain Robertson wasn’t the type to complain. The man had a lot of patience for someone whose lifespan only lasted several decades. A group of intoxicated lascars bundled out a nearby tavern, one of them almost stumbling into the path of their growler. “Watch it!” shouted the cabbie. “Tor pode ekta tiktiki dhukiye debo,” replied the stumbling lascar before spotting Mr Daim in the back as they drove past, “tumi ki dekhacho?” Mr Daim didn’t need to know Bangla to know that unpleasantries were exchanged. Regardless seeing his fellow countrymen did instil a sense of comfort in him. It felt nice to know he wasn’t the only Indian currently on the British Isles.
Eventually, the sky began to darken, and the smog began to thicken. The cabbie, who up until this point had become progressively irritated with the constantly changing directions, kicked them out onto the street. He wasn’t getting paid enough for this nonsense, plus he had a family to get home to. And so, our pair were left wandering the streets of London while the cabbie returned home bracing himself for the inevitable abuse his missus threw his way. Soon after, the chill began to bite, and the night began to blind. The only light was the occasional sliver that slipped through bedroom curtains. After a long walk, the pair found themselves outside a wine-bottling factory that had been abandoned after the working day, ready to be back in operation the following morning. They could just about make out the words Murdstone & Co arching over two doors tall enough and wide enough for an elephant and its mahout to pass through. Mr Daim had yet to see one during his stay. An iron lock lay shattered upon the ground, leaving one of the doors slightly ajar. Meanwhile, the compass pointed straight ahead, which could only mean one thing. Mr Daim locked eyes with Captain Robertson. The hunt was just about to begin.
The following report was originally submitted as part of my A-level EPQ and was completed in February 2020. As such some of the information may be outdated. Regardless, I hope it proves informative for anyone who is interested in Sino-Pak relations.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, most commonly known as CPEC, is perhaps one of the world’s largest infrastructure overhauls seen in the last decade. It is comprised of 70 projects, ranging from coal-fired power plants to fibre optic cables, and is currently worth over $62 billion in Chinese investment.
CPEC is the flagship for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy similar to that of the US Marshall Plan. It marks the beginning of a new venture in Sino-Pak relations which already has a strong military and political base. The aim: to ensure sustained economic growth for both Pakistan and China’s western region of Xinjiang.
However, the question must be asked: Is CPEC good for Pakistan?
By this, I mean, is CPEC good for Pakistan economically and politically? This is an important question considering Pakistan’s history of being a client state to foreign powers such as the US and Saudi Arabia. These relationships have plunged Pakistan into over $82.19 billion of external debt, with 29.5% of its population below the poverty line.
In addition, Pakistan’s involvement in the US War on Terror claimed the lives of over 23,375 Pakistani civilians while leaving the country with several terrorist organisations to deal with. Meanwhile, corrupt Pakistani officials hoard money in overseas bank accounts while the poor suffer from a crippling economy. It is no wonder why we should be concerned with the recent developments concerning Pakistan’s newfound love for China.
Will CPEC break or reinforce the status quo?
That being said, CPEC doesn’t just affect Pakistan; it could have implications for the whole world. Pakistan is located in one of the world’s most strategically important locations. The Indus River has always been the crossroads between civilisations, even being one of the cradles of civilisation itself, and ruled by great powers such as the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander’s Macedonian Empire, the Mongols, the Mughals and, most recently, the British Raj.
Today, Pakistan borders two of the world’s fastest-growing economies: India and China, not to mention the oil-rich Middle East and mineral-rich Afghanistan. With the Strait of Hormuz only 600km from Gwadar port and direct access to the Arabian Sea, Pakistan will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the global economy with the help of CPEC.
What does CPEC mean for the BRI? And what does the BRI mean for the world and its future?
In this essay, I aim to answer these questions as well as highlight the necessary steps that I believe Pakistan should take to ensure that they can get the most out of CPEC.
Are SEZs good for Pakistan?
CPEC is going to see many changes to the Pakistani economy. In particular, under CPEC, Pakistan will see the introduction of new Special Economic Zones (SEZs), areas in which the business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country.
China is helping Pakistan establish a total of 9 SEZs , which will most likely be based on the Chinese model for SEZs such as Shenzhen in the Guangdong province and Kashgar in Xinjiang. Chinese SEZs give special tax incentives for foreign investment and have greater independence from the central government on international trade activities. These SEZs are export-oriented and primarily driven by market forces. Furthermore, they are listed separately in national planning and retain the authority to pass legislation. This gives SEZs the same power as provincial-level administrations when it comes to economic policy.
Proponents of CPEC put forward the idea that these SEZs will bring about economic growth by liberalising the Pakistani economy via increased exports and foreign direct investment.
‘If there is one proposition with which virtually all economists agree, it is that free trade is almost always better than protection.’
This is based on the theory of comparative advantage (a country’s ability to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than that of its trade partners). In short, by liberalising the Pakistani economy, Pakistan will be better off. This is because it will naturally force Pakistan to specialise in whichever industries it has a comparative advantage, such as raw cotton. Overall, this would increase Pakistan’s output in those industries, leading to increased exports and economic growth as a result.
Pakistan would then be obligated to increase trade in whichever industries it lacks a comparative advantage, such as dairy products. This will allow other countries to specialise in whichever industries they have a comparative advantage meanwhile trading with Pakistan in whichever industry they lack a comparative advantage. In theory, this would increase world output and, by extension, economic growth for all countries.
In China, following the establishment of its first SEZs in 1980 and various economic reforms designed to open up the country to global trade, GDP skyrocketed from $191 billion (1980) to $1.2 trillion (2000) and eventually $13.6 trillion (2018). China is a textbook case study of how market liberalisation can significantly transform a country’s economic position.
If Pakistan learns from China, there is no reason the country would not also achieve long-term economic growth. Furthermore, the CPEC proposed SEZs are said to have the potential to generate over half a million direct jobs and over a million indirect jobs in Pakistan.
However, as seen with the case of the Kingston Free Zone in Jamaica, free trade is not always conducive to the betterment of a country’s citizens. Jamaican citizens working in the Kingston Free Zone were forced to work in poor conditions on wages as low as $16.30 a week, in the 1980s, at the behest of foreign companies that were not legally required to operate according to government standards.
SEZs across the world have been responsible for the rampant exploitation of workers and loss of government revenue. Other negative socio-economic impacts include suppressing labour rights, preventing trade unionisation, and a lack of environmental standards. It is evident that without proper government regulation, the SEZs proposed by CPEC have the potential to exacerbate already existing problems concerning Pakistani labour. This, in turn, could have serious social and political implications for Pakistan, a country that already has the third-largest number of people trapped in modern-day slavery at 3.19 million after China and India.
Will CPEC put an end to Pakistan’s energy insecurity?
One major obstacle to Pakistan’s economic success is the country’s poor energy provision. Pakistan currently ranks 115 out of 137 countries for reliable electricity , with only 70.8% of the country’s population having access to electricity, leaving over 52 million people without access.
Ultimately, this negatively affects local businesses and the country’s economy as a whole by curbing investment. Private sector investors see the lack of reliable electricity as a potential risk to profit. And rightly so, in 2015 alone, power sector inefficiencies cost the Pakistani economy $18 billion (6.5% of GDP). Couple this with the associated social implications, such as increased strain on healthcare and lower quality of education, and you have a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, when you compare this to the rapidly emerging economy of China, where access to electricity is at 100%, it is clear to see the importance of a reliable energy supply when it comes to developing a strong economy. By introducing energy reforms, Pakistan could save $8.4 billion in business losses and increase total household incomes by at least $4.8 billion a year.
Proponents of CPEC claim that it will “fulfil the electricity demand and ensure the reliability of electricity supply in Pakistan”. After all, CPEC includes a total of 22 projects dedicated to energy generation and supply, which, when combined, offer a power capacity of 12.4 GW. When this is added to Pakistan’s current installed power capacity of 30 GW, there will be more than enough energy to overcome Pakistan’s deficit of 5 GW. Therefore, in theory, CPEC will indeed fulfil Pakistan’s energy demands and leave room for demand to increase, which will be crucial to supporting economic growth in the long term.
However, the question remains: does it work in practice?
Of the 22 energy projects, only 8 are fully operational , therefore still leaving a significant energy deficit from lack of power capacity. Furthermore, transmission inefficiencies frequently lead to blackouts across the country. Pakistan’s transmission capacity sits well below the country’s current installed power capacity at 22 GW. This slow progress meant that CPEC did not achieve its 2020 goal of addressing the bottlenecks in the country’s economic and social development.
In other words, CPEC has already failed in achieving 100% energy access by its own deadline of 2020. If the country cannot even provide enough electricity for its people, how will it provide enough energy for the second phase of CPEC? Therefore, in practice, CPEC has failed to fulfil its own goals, let alone the electricity demand of Pakistan.
In due course, these projects will be completed. However, if they are to be completed alongside the same timeframe of CPEC’s second and third phase projects, there will be dire consequences for the Pakistani economy. Without sufficient energy provision, Pakistan will have to increase energy imports to complete its second and third phase projects, such as the New Gwadar International Airport, which began construction in October 2019.
This will increase the country’s current account deficit, as seen with the ‘Punjab Speed’ predicament. As a result, the Pakistani rupee will be devalued once again, and annual growth will continue to slow. Pakistan will then seek yet another bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank and other countries like China.
Even if all the energy projects are completed, they will become obsolete over the long term. Of the 12.4 GW provided by CPEC, 8.2 GW are coal-based. The negative impacts of burning coal are widely documented. For a country where four major cities (Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi) have air quality rankings ranging from unhealthy to hazardous, is it wise to invest in coal-fired power plants? While coal is more reliable and efficient, it will not last forever.
Once Pakistan exhausts its domestic supply of Thar coal, it will have to begin importing coal from abroad, most likely from China. Pakistan is already dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil and gas, making up 80% of its energy mix. Add China to the mix, and Pakistan will become even more vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers and the fluctuating prices of fossil fuels. This is ultimately counter-productive to the goal of achieving sustainable long term economic growth for Pakistan.
Is CPEC a debt trap?
Another major issue afflicting Pakistan’s economy is the ongoing debt crisis. Since the establishment of CPEC, Pakistan’s total external debt increased from around $60 billion (2013) to over $90 billion (2018). However, it is important to note CPEC itself did not cause the debt crisis.
As Pakistan accumulates more debt, it means that the country will have to use more money to service debt in the future. Pakistan serviced a total of $7.5 billion in debt, of which $2.3 billion was interest, between 2017 and 2018. Due to the increasing issue of debt servicing, the current account deficit increased from $18 billion (2017) to $21 billion (2018).
Furthermore, due to the interest of such debt having reached a high level, Pakistan has had to borrow more money to repay its obligations. Despite declaring he would rather die than go to the IMF seeking a bailout, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was forced to turn to the IMF for $6 billion in the face of a weak economy, making it the 12th time Pakistan has had to rely on the IMF.
Pakistan is in the midst of a perpetual cycle of debt that must be addressed if the country ever wants to see sustainable long term economic growth. Will CPEC exacerbate or relieve the debt crisis?
Proponents of CPEC are often quick to point out the insignificance of Pakistan’s external debt to China. Pakistan’s external debt to China is around $6 billion, less than 6% of Pakistan’s total external debt. In fact, the majority of Pakistan’s external debt is owed to multilateral lenders such as the IMF and the World Bank. However, nobody calls these organisations a ‘debt trap’ despite having plunged many more developing economies into debt than China.
On the contrary, CPEC offers increased trade, allowing the country to pay back its debt in the long term. Pakistan is forecasted to collect between $6 billion to $8 billion from CPEC toll taxes and rental fees, with 4% of China’s total trade ($154 billion according to 2015 figures) passing through CPEC. This is something that other lenders do not offer, making the debt from China less of a burden as CPEC provides the needs to pay it back.
On the other hand, Pakistan is one of 8 countries of particular concern regarding the risk of debt distress. Furthermore, China has also been charging Pakistan interest rates as high as 5% compared to the 2% to 2.5% rate given to other BRI countries. Due to the high cost of electricity and transmission losses, Pakistan would also have to pay Chinese companies for electricity that Pakistani distribution companies cannot afford, resulting in a currency crisis as Chinese companies move money outside the country.
In addition, an increase in CPEC related imports combined with decreasing exports, as the Pakistani market is flooded with Chinese products, could push the country further into a currency crisis. Therefore, it is fair to say that while CPEC represents an opportunity for Pakistan to end the debt crisis, it also poses a risk of falling even deeper into it.
There is also the concern that if Pakistan cannot pay back Chinese loans, China may begin seizing assets as it did with Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Thereby compromising Pakistan’s sovereignty as well as robbing the country of potential revenue. However, the likelihood of this occurring is very slim.
A study conducted by the US-based Rhodium Group found that most of China’s debt renegotiations end with the debt being completely written off. Furthermore, China’s long-standing political and military relationship with Pakistan, which saw the joint development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet, Al-Khalid tank and Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, makes asset seizure all the more unlikely for Pakistan.
If Pakistan can utilise CPEC and policy reforms to increase exports, there is no reason why the debt crisis cannot be solved in the long term. Therefore, the argument that CPEC is a ‘debt trap’ is not entirely fair. CPEC itself did not cause the debt crisis. CPEC itself will not exacerbate the debt crisis. CPEC itself will not even relieve the debt crisis. To pin all the responsibility on CPEC is neither fair nor well grounded. It is, in fact, Pakistan’s own economic policy that will determine whether the country remains in debt, not CPEC.
Does CPEC favour Punjab?
Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the country’s politics have been dominated by the Punjab province. Of Pakistan’s 342 seats in the national assembly, 174 seats are reserved for Punjabi politicians on account of Punjab making up the majority of the country’s population. By dominating the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament and contributing to 57% of the country’s GDP, Punjab has proven itself to be the most influential province of Pakistan.
This has led to controversies in the past. For example, the proposed Kalabagh Dam has been debated over for the last 40 years. The project is advocated by Punjab-based power brokers but has been opposed by politicians from the country’s smaller provinces, such as Sindh, which sees the project as a threat to its water security. Therefore, it is a viable concern that CPEC may favour Punjab over the other provinces of Pakistan.
Proponents of CPEC tend to claim that that all Pakistani provinces will benefit equally. Following the 18th amendment to the country’s constitution in 2010, many powers were devolved at the federal level and given to the provinces. It was seen as a step towards democracy as it allowed the smaller provinces greater autonomy from the Punjab dominated centre.
As a result, when it comes to CPEC projects, parliament only provides oversight and is not responsible for coordination and decision-making. It is down to the provinces to plan and execute projects with China. Therefore, it is argued that the notion that CPEC favours Punjab is a false narrative, and due to the devolved power, all the provinces are effectively in the same boat when it comes to CPEC.
On the other hand, given the history of Punjab’s dominance politically, economically, and socially compared to the rest of Pakistan, Punjab remains the most equipped and desirable province to absorb investment from China. This has led to two major controversies concerning CPEC’s lack of transparency and its alleged favouritism towards Punjab. Despite being resolved, these issues have fuelled an overall distrust of Punjab amongst Pakistan’s other provinces.
The first controversy began in 2014, when politicians from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province began claiming that the CPEC route had been shifted away from KP towards Punjab, thereby excluding the region from Chinese investment. The original route proposed in 2006 passed through the impoverished areas of Balochistan, southern Punjab and central KP, including the provincial capital of Peshawar.
Following the rise of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, which grew to threaten most of KP, the route was changed to avoid KP in its entirety. In response, PTI held a dharna aimed at dislodging the PML-N for electoral fraud with the alleged support of a former Inter-Services Intelligence chief. In 2015, politicians staged a walkout from the Senate. To placate critics, the government proposed that CPEC would have three routes (Eastern, Central and Western). By 2017, the issue was resolved . However, should there be another change in government, the debate may resume.
The second controversy is centred on the Orange Line in Punjab’s capital of Lahore. When CPEC formally launched in 2015, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit, the mass transit rail line stood out as a municipal project amongst largely intercity, and interregional connectivity focused projects. This led to an outcry amongst the smaller provinces of Pakistan.
No Pakistani city outside of Punjab’s jurisdiction, save Islamabad, has a mass transit system. Including it as part of CPEC, despite having to be subsidised at $160 million per year to keep fares affordable, is a clear example of CPEC’s favouritism towards Punjab. Following the controversy, it was asserted that the Orange Line was not part of CPEC and was instead a bilateral agreement between the Punjab government and China that had been planned four years prior.
It was not until December 2016, following document leaks confirming that the project had been on the CPEC agenda early on, that the Orange Line was formally added to the Planning Commission of Pakistan’s list of CPEC projects. Following this, additional municipal rail projects were finally added in Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar to appease the smaller provinces.
Will Gwadar Port put an end to Baloch separatism?
Balochistan has proven itself to be a difficult province for the Pakistani leadership to handle. The conflict goes back to 1948, when Kalat, a princely state that used to make up most modern-day Balochistan, acceded to Pakistan. The Khan’s brother opposed the move, and since then, multiple insurgencies have been fought against Pakistan. However, it was not until the latest insurgency following disputes between the Rajiha, a subtribe of the Bugti tribe, and the government over natural gas concessions in 2003 that anything near a unified Baloch revolt occurred.
By 2013, the insurgency subsided but is still said to be operational in the Awaran region and Makran coast. With CPEC’s flagship Gwadar port located on the Makran coast, Baloch separatism poses a huge security risk. Will CPEC placate or provoke the Baloch separatists?
Proponents of CPEC put forward the idea that making Gwadar the focal point of the economic corridor will bring about economic growth and social development for the people of Balochistan. Thereby putting an end to Baloch disenfranchisement and, by extension, the broader anti-Pakistan sentiments that fuel Baloch separatism.
Following the 2013 elections, the PML-N had to form a coalition with the Balochistan National Party (BNP). This nationalist party is pro-Pakistan yet wishes to see more autonomy for Balochistan. By maintaining the support of the BNP, the government has been able to move towards more equitable development through CPEC, thereby avoiding an intensified insurgency. Baloch politicians admire China’s ability to rapidly improve its standard of living and see CPEC as a means to uplift the Baloch people if done right. Therefore, Gwadar port is the only solution for the Baloch insurgency.
However, the BNP still echoes the view that Balochistan should have control of its resources. This view shared by Baloch separatists and has been central to the historical struggle in the province.
Balochistan is home to over $1 trillion worth of natural resources; however, despite being so mineral-rich, the region has the lowest human development index (HDI) in the whole of Pakistan. Any income that has ever been generated by these resources has largely been used for the social development of Pakistan’s other provinces, mostly Punjab, rather than the betterment of Balochistan from whence they came.
With this in mind, the BNP has called on the federal government to hand control of Gwadar port over to the Balochistan provincial government. Unfortunately, the port remains in the hands of Chinese Overseas Port Holdings Limited. This could spell disaster for Pakistan. With Gwadar now in the hands of China, resources are bound to leave not just Balochistan but Pakistan as a whole. Therefore, little to any income generated will ever reach the Baloch people. Social development will continue to stagnate, and anti-Pakistan sentiment will worsen.
The nature of CPEC, being interregional connectivity, dictates that resources are bound to leave Balochistan no matter what. To promise that no resources leave the province would be impossible, impractical and counter-productive. Instead, what can be done is to ensure that Balochistan receives a disproportionally high benefit from CPEC projects to help de-escalate the insurgency and improve its low HDI. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.
Take, for example, the Saindak copper mine project. Only 2% of revenue is awarded to the Balochistan province; meanwhile, the Metallurgical Corporation of China receives 50%, and the Pakistani federal government receives the remaining 48%. In addition, the Balochistan Mineral Resources Development Board, formed in 2015 to oversee exploration and mining licenses, is indirectly controlled by the federal government as seven of the nine members are bureaucrats, with only the final two being elected officials.
This almost certainly indicates that CPEC has so far continued the status quo. Until more is done to ensure the social development of Balochistan, the insurgency will continue to pose risks to CPEC.
Will CPEC improve Pakistan’s foreign relations?
It is almost an unwritten rule that when it comes to Pakistani foreign affairs, one has to mention India and vice versa. The Indo-Pak rivalry is virtually iconic in nature, going back to the establishment of the respective countries as they gained independence from the British, resulting in the largest human migration in history. Over a million people lost their lives, and many more were displaced in what is now known as Partition. Since then, Pakistan and India have fought a total of four wars.
Considering South Asia’s tumultuous history, there is a genuine concern that CPEC may exacerbate the strained – if not dysfunctional – relationship between Pakistan and its much larger, economically superior neighbour.
Proponents of CPEC point towards the fact that CPEC offers the opportunity to foster an economic partnership between India and Pakistan. It is within Chinese interests that as many countries as possible join the BRI as part of the country’s common destiny vision to bring peace and economic balance to the world. China invited India to BRI meetings in both 2017 and 2019.
Similarly, Pakistan also wishes for peace with India. Following the flare-up in Indo-Pak tensions during the 2019 Pulwama Attack, which saw cross-border airstrikes carried out by both sides, Pakistan released a captured fighter pilot as a peace gesture. Furthermore, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his wishes for peace following the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent 2019 Indian elections, a wish that was reciprocated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Unfortunately, India declined both Chinese invitations. This is part of India’s fear of being encircled by the BRI, thereby being shut out from international trade. As a result, India has been reluctant to join BRI negotiations so far, being critical of Chinese activities in the South China Sea and CPEC on the grounds that it undermines India’s sovereignty claims over Kashmir.
In fact, this fear has driven India to exploit the instability in Balochistan by publicly announcing its support for Baloch separatists in 2016 in an attempt to sabotage CPEC. Since then, the Baloch insurgency has been emboldened, leading to an increased number of attacks on Pakistani military personnel as well as CPEC labourers.
On the 18th April 2019, Baloch militants blocked the Makran coastal highway and executed 14 members of the Pakistan Armed Forces. This highlights how instead of being used as a tool for peace, CPEC has instead been exploited and used to deepen the Indo-Pak divide.
On the other hand, following India’s brutal lockdown in Kashmir, it was China that brought the issue to the UN Security Council on behalf of Pakistan. This was partly due to the long-standing Sino-Pak relationship but also to protect Chinese interests in Kashmir, namely CPEC. As a result, it could also be argued that CPEC, having brought China and Pakistan closer, has proven itself to serve Pakistani interests on the world stage by bringing important issues into the spotlight. Furthermore, public perception of Pakistan has significantly improved, in no small part due to CPEC, in recent years.
However, at the time of writing, the Kashmir lockdown continues , and Indian Muslims are now at risk of losing their status as Indian citizens. These issues will most certainly lead to more stand-offs between India and Pakistan in the future. CPEC may not solve the many Indo-Pak disputes; however, it has given Pakistan the upper hand in international discourse, that being the support of China.
Nonetheless, it is well known that influence goes both ways, and Sino-Pak relations are no exception. By supporting Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir dispute, China has effectively bought Pakistan’s silence on the various human rights violations that occur within Chinese borders. As of yet, Pakistan has failed to publicly address China’s ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, despite jumping at any chance to call out India. Considering the fact that Pakistan was created on the basis of protecting the rights of Muslims and that the country’s close ally, Turkey, has denounced China for its treatment of Muslims, this hypocrisy is sure to lead to some political complications in the future.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that CPEC does indeed have the potential to revolutionise Pakistan. Not just economically but socially and politically as well. However, as highlighted, more needs to be done by Pakistan to ensure that it can capitalise on this opportunity. Pakistan must ensure that it does not fall into the many pitfalls of large investment packages, such as CPEC, which many other developing countries often fall into. It is also important to remember that CPEC will not change the status quo on its own and needs the necessary policy changes to be truly effective. As such, I have decided to summarise the key steps that I believe need to be taken to ensure that CPEC yields the greatest rewards with minimal losses.
First, as recommended by Arif Rafiq, Pakistan needs to create a formalised CPEC authority that oversees all investment from China. This should be led by the Prime Minister with equal representation from all of the provinces. This will ensure that CPEC projects are distributed evenly and as well as improve interagency coordination. As a result, this will build a sustainable consensus in favour of CPEC.
Second, I would suggest that the government introduce their own version of China’s Leading Small Groups (LSGs) to supplement the CPEC authority. Every project should have its own LSG that focuses on community dialogue to ensure that local residents are kept in the loop, and their needs are addressed. This will significantly improve the public’s approval of CPEC.
Third, Pakistan needs to scale back on CPEC projects until the energy crisis is addressed. I propose that Pakistan puts all non-energy projects on hold and introduce more projects focused on increasing transmission efficiency. Once the energy projects are completed and the energy crisis put to an end, then Pakistan should begin work on other CPEC projects. This will help avoid another ‘Punjab Speed’ incident.
Fourth, I would recommend that CPEC place more emphasis on renewable energy. In doing so, Pakistan can ensure a sustainable energy supply which will help foster long term economic growth. Introducing solar panels on a local scale will be especially effective in rural communities. In fact, Balochistan has a solar power potential of over 2,200 kWh/m² per year , making it the ideal location for concentrated solar power plants.
Fifth, CPEC should invest in more welfare projects on the local level, especially in Balochistan. This will help ensure that the correct social development measures are being taken to improve education and healthcare provision throughout Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan’s HDI will increase along with household incomes. Thereby, CPEC will be able to alleviate poverty and contribute to the betterment of Pakistani citizens.
Sixth, I believe it imperative that Pakistan reviews its economic policy in order to increase government revenue and protect workers’ rights, especially when it concerns SEZs. By doing so, Pakistan will end the debt crisis and ensure that Pakistani citizens are not exploited by foreign companies. More importantly, it will provide the government with the necessary funds to continue social development throughout Pakistan.
Lastly, Pakistan needs to ensure peace with its neighbours so CPEC can continue unhindered. To do this, Pakistan must invite its neighbours to the negotiation table and discuss how Pakistan can facilitate trade between South Asia and the wider world. One such example would be to connect Afghanistan to CPEC via an Afghanistan-Pakistan economic corridor. Thereby giving Pakistan access to Afghanistan’s natural resources and giving Afghanistan access to the Arabian Sea.
 Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development (2019). Long Term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (2017-2030). [online] Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/long-term-plan-cpec [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019].
 Ministry of Planning and Development, Pk. (2019). CPEC | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Official Website. [online] Cpec.gov.pk. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2019].
 Ministry of Planning and Development, Pk. (2019). CPEC | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Official Website. [online] Cpec.gov.pk. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2019].
 Rehman, M. (2019). Pakistan’s electricity generation has increased over time. So why do we still not have uninterrupted supply?. Dawn. [online] Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1430728 [Accessed 1 Jan. 2020].
 Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development (2019). Long Term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (2017-2030). [online] Pakistan Ministry of Planning and Development. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/long-term-plan-cpec [Accessed 19 Nov. 2019].
 Rafiq, A. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: The Lure of Easy Financing and the Perils of Poor Planning. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.236-248.
 Ministry of Planning and Development, Pk. (2019). CPEC | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Official Website. [online] Cpec.gov.pk. Available at: http://cpec.gov.pk/ [Accessed 24 Dec. 2019].
 Kugelman, M. (2019). Great Potential, Many Pitfalls: Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.180-186.
 Rolland, N. (2019). Beijing’s Response to the Belt and Road Initiative’s “Pushback”: A Story of Assessment and Adaptation. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.216-235.
 Rolland, N. (2019). Beijing’s Response to the Belt and Road Initiative’s “Pushback”: A Story of Assessment and Adaptation. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.216-235.
 Rafiq, A. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: The Lure of Easy Financing and the Perils of Poor Planning. Asian Affairs: Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 50(2), pp.236-248.
Book #23 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
It’s no surprise to anyone that’s been following this blog that I’m a pretty big history buff and a self-taught one at that. I haven’t formally studied history at GCSEs or A-Levels, so most of my knowledge comes from books and the internet (shout out Kings and Generals on YouTube). That being said, history is just that: a story. A narrative. The prevailing narrative of world history in the West goes a little something like this:
The Birth of Civilisation: Egypt and Mesopotamia
The Classical Age: Greece and Rome
The Dark Ages: Rise of Christianity
The Rebirth: Renaissance and Reformation
The Enlightenment: Exploration and Science
The Revolutions: Democratic, Industrial, Technological
Rise of Nation-States: Struggle for Empire
The World Wars
The Cold War
The Triumph of Democratic Capitalism
But what about other parts of the world? How do they view world history? That’s where Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary comes in. Ansary attempts to retell world history from the Muslim perspective. A counter-narrative to the Western view of history that goes something like this:
Ancient Times: Mesopotamia and Persia
Birth of Islam
The Khalifate: Quest for Universal Unity
Fragmentation: Age of the Sultanates
Catastrophe: Crusaders and Mongols
Rebirth: The Three Empires Era
Permeation of East by West
The Reform Movements
Triumph of the Secular Modernists
The Islamist Reaction
Ansary does away with the diagnosis that the world’s current political turmoil results from a “clash of civilisations”; instead, he argues that it is a “clash of narratives”. Both the Western and Islamic world have gone through different experiences to get to where they are today. It is a failure to recognise these different experiences that have led to poor policy-making. Furthermore, the “clash of civilisations” diagnosis implies that Western and Islamic civilisation have mutually exclusive attributes. Secularism, democracy and science are not just attributes of Western civilisation. In fact, Ansary highlights how many things we consider to be Western achievements and ideas were actually predated in Islamic culture by centuries.
My favourite part of Destiny Disrupted would have to be chapters 2 to 4 detailing the early rise of Islam and the lives of Prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun. Ansary presents the facts, but he also explains the lessons that can be derived from them. After all, history isn’t just about the past; it is also about what we can learn for the future. For this reason, Ansary refers to this early period of Islam as a kind of theological drama. A drama that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can learn from. Ultimately, the story of the Rashidun (and subsequent Muslim leaders ever since) is a story about people trying to work out the best way to run civilisation in accordance with the Islamic social project. They may not always get it right – more often getting it completely wrong – but that is the ultimate destiny and goal of the Ummah as a socio-political body.
Many religions say to their followers, “the world is corrupt, but you can escape it.” Islam said to its followers, “the world is corrupt, but you can change it.”
Of course, as with any book that claims to be a complete retelling of history, one must remain cautious not to take its claim at face value. *Cough* Our Island Story *cough*. And this is where I must put forth some criticism. For a book that claims to be AHistory of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Ansary has left out large swaths of the Muslim world from his narrative. Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population on Earth, is only briefly mentioned once in the entire book.
Furthermore, pretty much the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa is left out of Ansary’s narrative. Perhaps the greatest crime of his work was the complete omission of the Mali Empire of Western Africa, a contemporary of the three empires he mentions during the rebirth period (Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals). I would argue, therefore, that Ansary’s work starts off as history of the world through Islamic eyes in its early chapters. But then ultimately morphs into a history of the world through Arab, Persian and Turkish eyes with some fair amount of time dedicated to South and Central Asia.
Despite its limitations, I would say that Ansary succeeded in presenting a counter-narrative to global history that proves very enlightening. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about early Islamic history and the Middle World (what we usually call the Middle East) from a non-Western perspective.
Following the end of Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement, communal tensions worsened in the Subcontinent. The introduction of religious sentiments into the political sphere did irreparable damage to the fragile relationship between Muslims and Hindus. For a more detailed and contemporary breakdown of the worsening relationship between India’s sister communities, I recommend one reads The riot-torn history of Hindu-Muslim relations, 1920-1940 by Dr B. R. Ambedkar.
The reality on the ground inevitably drew a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim leadership. Cooperation between the AIML and INC was a mere shadow of its former self. Within Congress itself, Muslim representation was at an all-time low of 3.6% in 1923. The unprecedented era of Hindu-Muslim unity was taking its final breath. However, there were still some that weren’t willing to give up on the failed dream just yet.
Many attempts had been made at achieving Hindu-Muslim unity throughout India’s history. Before the British Raj, Emperor Akbar attempted to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity by creating a new religion Din-i Ilahi, a syncretism of Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jain and Buddhist beliefs. Similarly, many Indian saints of both Islamic and Hindu tradition advocated for greater cooperation between the two religious communities, one notable example being Kabir Das.
However, all these attempts failed to bring about any meaningful and sustained unity between Hindus and Muslims and largely lived and died with their progenitors. It wasn’t until the advent of the 20th century and India’s modern political awakening that anything close to true Hindu-Muslim unity occurred.
The first example of Hindus and Muslims bridging the political gap can be seen with the implementation of separate electorates under the Minto-Morley Reforms. The Congress Moderates, led by Gokhale, supported the League’s demands for separate Muslim representation despite opposition from those that saw separate electorates as an unnecessary provision, such as Jinnah.
The next and most successful example was the Lucknow Pact of 1916, which precipitated the golden age of Hindu-Muslim unity during the latter half of the First World War. During this period, the Indian political elite became a unified force under the Indian Home Rule Movement, leading to the August declaration of 1917 and the subsequent Chelmsford-Montagu Reforms.
This period of unprecedented Hindu-Muslim unity was brought to an end by mass agitation under the Non-cooperation Movement, which saw Gandhi’s political legitimisation of the Muslim Ulama. During this period, Jinnah went into self-imposed political exile after cutting ties with the INC, and all other political parties save for the AIML.
The majority of Indian opinion was in favour of Gandhi and the Khilafats. To oppose them would be to oppose the will of the Indian people, and so all Jinnah could do was stand by and watch as all the work he did in bringing about an understanding between Hindus and Muslims was undone. As far as India was concerned, mass agitation was the way forward regardless of how much damage it did to Hindu-Muslim unity.
Following this, multiple attempts were made at snatching back what was lost. In this essay, we will look at the first of those attempts.
In March 1923, during their annual session in Lucknow, the AIML passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a national pact ensuring unity between India’s various communities. This went a step further than the Lucknow Pact as it aimed to include a lot more parties than just Congress and the League. In September that year, during their special session in Delhi, the INC resolved to appoint a committee to help prepare a draft for the national pact. In December, the committee’s report was presented to Congress at the INC’s session in Kakinada.
The draft of the Indian National Pact consisted of the following resolutions:
It shall be the firm and unalterable object of the Indian National Pact’s signatories to secure complete Swaraj for India.
The form of government under Swaraj shall be democratic and of the federal type; however, its exact nature will be determined by a national convention.
Hindustani is to be India’s lingua franca written in both the Nastaliq and Devanagari scripts.
Full religious liberty is to be afforded to all of India’s communities as part of their constitutional right.
To prevent any religious community from being given undue preference, no government or public funds will be devoted to any religious institution or purpose.
Once Swaraj has been achieved, it will be the duty of every Indian to defend it against all attack, external or internal.
Minority communities shall have separate representation in the legislatures, both central and provincial.
No cow slaughter to take place except on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, out of respect for India’s Hindu community.
No music is to be played in front of places of worship at such times that may be fixed by local boards.
If two or more religious processions occur on the same day, they shall follow different routes as determined by local boards.
Provincial and local boards will be appointed as arbiters to prevent any conflicts that may arise during religious processions.
India should participate in forming a Federation of Eastern Countries for mutual help in commerce and emancipation from European powers with a view to support oriental culture and foster friendly relations.
The committee’s report was signed by Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, founder of Jamia Millia Islamia University and staunch supporter of the Khilafat Movement, and Lala Lajpat Rai, founder of Punjab National Bank and die-hard nationalist. Lala Lajpat Rai was part of the Lal Bal Pal triumvirate alongside Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The three men had led the opposition against the Bengal Partition of 1905. Those who have read the previous essays may recall that Tilak had founded the first Home Rule League in Belgaum.
In regards to separate representation for minority communities, both Dr Ansari and Lala Lajpat Rai held opposing views. Dr Ansari wanted separate representation to be extended to municipalities and local boards. In contrast, Lala Lajpat Rai believed that a time limit should be imposed on separate representation, after which it should be scrapped entirely.
Lala Lajpat Rai further posited that separate representation should be in proportion to the numerical strength of each community with special provisions made for small minorities such as Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. To this, Dr Ansari suggested that larger minorities such as Sikhs and Christians may be given special representation in the provincial legislatures but only very small minorities such as Parsis may be given special representation in the central legislature. Regardless, the electorates will be joint in all cases, and there is to be no distinction based on caste, creed or colour in public services or educational institutions.
In addition to the resolutions already a part of the Indian National Pact, Dr Ansari also wanted the following clause added: No bill/clause/resolution concerning a particular community can be passed if 3/4 of the members from said community oppose it. This very same clause was part of the Lucknow Pact several years prior. Unfortunately, it never made its way into the Indian National Pact, perhaps indicating that relations would never return to what they once were. At least on the national level.
Alongside the Indian National Pact, a second cross-community pact was in development by the Bengal Provincial Congress under the leadership of Chittaranjan Das, founder of the Swaraj Party, with the involvement of Bengal’s Muslim representatives. It, too, was presented to Congress at the Kakinada session.
The draft of the Bengal Pact consisted of the following resolutions:
Representation in the Bengal Legislative Council is to be determined in proportion to population with separate electorates subject to necessary adjustments.
Representation in local bodies is to be in the proportion of 60% for the majority community and 40% for the minority community, with the inclusion of separate electorates to be determined at a later date.
55% of government posts should be reserved for Muslims.
No resolution or an enactment concerning a religious community can be passed without the consent of 75% of the elected members from said community.
No music is to be played in procession before a Masjid.
No interference is to be made in sacrificial cow slaughter for religious reasons.
No legislation is to be passed concerning cow slaughter in the Bengal Legislative Council.
Cow slaughter is to be carried out in such a way as not to offend Hindu religious sentiments.
Annual representative committees, of which half are Muslim and half Hindu, are to be formed in every sub-division to arbitrate any disputes between the two communities.
One interesting thing to note here is the resolutions in both pacts concerning music outside places of worship, cow slaughter, and religious processions. In the Lucknow Pact, no such resolutions were included. Instead, its resolutions were largely concerning representation rather than actual religious sensibilities. This shows just how much the legitimisation of religious rhetoric had impacted Indian politics. The mere fact that these issues had to be discussed by the political leadership rather than solved by Hindus and Muslims on the ground indicates just how much the communal question had infiltrated Indian politics and how pressing the conflict between the two communities was.
It should be added that there is no religious requirement in Islam to slaughter a cow. In the case of Eid al-Adha, goats and sheep serve just as well, and most Indian Muslims opted for this to avoid unnecessary troubles. At the INC’s Kakinada session, one of the Muslim members boasted that he had reduced the amount of cow slaughter in Aligarh on the occasion of Eid al-Adha from 500 cows to just two. Furthermore, in Hyderabad, a princely state consisting of a majority Hindu population ruled by Muslims, the Nizam had outlawed cow-slaughter on Eid al-Adha entirely. The current draft of the Indian National Pact contradicted that ruling.
Both the Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact were subject to debate at the December session of Congress. A debate that lasted approximately four hours over the course of which many Congress members had their input. It was then decided that a vote would be taken regarding whether each pact should continue being pursued. The overwhelming majority voted in favour of a second report of the Indian National Pact to be presented no later than the 31st March 1924. Unfortunately, no second report ever arrived.
Despite insistence from C. R. Das that the Bengal Pact was still subject to change on account of it being a draft proposal, the Bengal Pact was rejected with 678 votes against 458. The main reason given was that the Bengal Pact was specific to the situation in Bengal, and if other provinces adopted them, it would lead to more frictions between Hindus and Muslims. In contrast, the Indian National Pact was abstract without any hard figures so that it could be implemented in the provinces with respect to each specific situation. In addition, the Bengal Pact directly contradicted the Indian National Pact’s stance on cow slaughter opting to prevent its ban rather than facilitate it.
Other Congress members asked why Muslims should have to enter into an agreement with Hindus before standing under the banner of freedom when other communities didn’t need such concessions. Not only that, but what was wrong with the Lucknow Pact that a new pact needed to be drafted anyway. These were the attitudes of an Indian National Congress that refused to open its eyes to the current state of Hindu-Muslim unity.
Furthermore, regardless of one’s views regarding the relationship between Muslims and Hindus, opting to delete a draft proposal before it was even completed sent the message that the largely Hindu INC refused to even consider the needs and apprehensions of Muslims. For Muslim India, this sent a clear picture of what Indian Independence would look like. A union dominated by Hindu opinion without adequate protection to the Muslim minority. A Hindu Raj.
All in all, the Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact proved to be yet another failed attempt at Hindu-Muslim unity. It was safe to say that things were no longer as simple as back in the days of the Lucknow Pact. For Jinnah, a man who tried his absolute hardest to bring about a fragile understanding between Hindus and Muslims, this must have been a hard pill to swallow.
Eid Mubarak. May Allah shower blessings upon you and your family. Ameen.
Today marks the end of Ramadan, but it also marks one week since Israeli forces illegally entered the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. Since then, the Western-backed colonial state of Israel has placed Masjid al-Aqsa (the third holiest site in Islamic tradition) under siege, launched missiles into the Gaza strip, and continued the sadistic process of ethnic cleansing it began in 1948.
At this point in the 73-year-old conflict, there is no longer room for sitting on the fence. You’re either on the side of a fascist state armed with one of the world’s most powerful militaries or that of a native population that has been subject to the same brutal treatment enacted upon the Jewish people of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the world’s governments have chosen to remain largely silent on the genocide currently taking place in one of the world’s holiest lands.
As Muslims across the world wake up today to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, Palestinians will be waking up to mourn the loss of their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, and colleagues. So far, at the time of writing, a total of 17 children have been killed by the Israeli “Defence” Force. None of these children asked to be born into this conflict. None of these children were combatants. The only crime they committed, at least according to the Zionist apartheid State of Israel, was their mere existence.
For many of us, today will not be the happy Eid of years past but rather a solemn one. While we greet friends and relatives with smiles and break bread with our brothers and sisters, our hearts will be torn as we remember those that do not have this privilege. In many ways, this Ramadan has been a test for all of us but none quite like that for the people of Palestine.
However, it is important to remember that no matter how grim things may seem right now, whether in Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang, Myanmar or elsewhere, there is always hope. Indeed to lose all hope is to lose your belief in Allah. As for those who have lost their lives, let us remember that they are not really lost at all.
With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky. He was ready to open fire, but something made him hesitate. Unsure of whether it was his keen intuition or if he’d just been out of practice, the Captain decided to go with his gut instinct and held off from pulling the trigger. After the confusing day he just had, he wasn’t sure if he could trust his head anymore. And oh boy, was he glad he did, for the figure dressed in black was none other than the Eighth Duke of Argyll with his bright orange hair being the only splash of colour to his otherwise rather dull attire. “Bloody hell! Put the gun down!” hissed the Duke. Captain Robertson realised he still had his gun levelled with the Duke’s chest and quickly returned it to its holster, “My apologies, Mr Secretary. I’m rather on edge today.” “Indeed. I’ve read the reports. It seems that our friend, Mr Dame, hasn’t been entirely honest with us, doesn’t it?” Captain Robertson didn’t answer but didn’t object either. It was somewhat true. He’d been running around with Mr Daim for nearly a month now, and everything he knew about him was dwarfed by what he didn’t. “We believe it’s time you were filled in on what’s been going on, Captain,” continued the Duke, “and by we, I mean the Prime Minister, the Viceroy and I, but first, why don’t you recount the events of the past few weeks. And please, don’t leave out any details, no matter how absurd they may seem.”
While the Captain conversed with the Secretary of State for India, Mr Daim was downstairs in his hotel room preparing the vial containing Spring-Heeled Jack’s residual aura. He started by removing the vial from the coat that Captain Robertson had lent him. Unlike his companion, Mr Daim could see the aura swirling about inside, a light pinkish-red vapour like the petals of a rose found in the gardens of Damascus. He gave it a quick but gentle flick of the finger. Satisfied with the way the pinkish-red vapour dissipated then coalesced, Mr Daim moved onto the second stage of this well-practised procedure. Grabbing his battered old briefcase from the opposite side of the room, he unbuckled the clip and rummaged around inside. There, nestled between Hafez and Ghalib, was an old compass, so old it could be no younger than five centuries, so old it was engraved with symbols whose meaning was remembered only by those who engraved it. Mr Daim carefully removed the crystalline glass cover protecting the glinting metal needle beneath, the only part of the device that hadn’t succumb to rust. It was really time Mr Daim got his hands on a new one, but this particular compass had been given to him by a dear friend. Or was it a lover? Truth be told, it was so long ago he couldn’t remember the exact status of the relationship, but he could still feel the remnants of the affinity he had for this long lost person and so opted to hold on to it. At least until it stopped functioning or fate forced him to part with it. The final part of the well-practised procedure was the one that required the most concentration. Mr Daim placed the compass in the centre of the oak desk beneath the mirror opposite his bed. He looked into the eyes of his reflection, then down to the sprangled inky hairs of his unkempt beard and decided that he’d commit himself to a grooming session before bed, but first, he had to focus his mind and free it from the distractions of the material existence. Firmly gripping the glass vial, Mr Daim began chanting in a language unknown to the Children of Adam. Continuing the incantations, he tightened his grip shattering the vial into a thousand tiny pieces. The pinkish-red vapour tried to escape but was trapped by the prison that was Mr Daim’s clenched fist. Any small fragments that tried to escape through his fingers were forced back in by the rhythm and tempo of his incessant chant. The vapour suddenly expanded, engulfing the entirety of Mr Daim’s fist, the pinkish-red now a deep burning purple, but this didn’t interrupt the sweet melody of his tongue. With the vapour reaching a fever pitch, Mr Daim hurled it into the compass, firmly sealing it shut with the crystalline cover. With nowhere left to go, the aura began aggressively swirling around inside the compass like the wheels of the steam engines back in India before being sucked directly into the compass needle itself. It was only once all the vapour was consumed, the needle a glistening violet, that Mr Daim ceased his incessant chanting. He tapped the crystalline glass cover twice, and the needle began spinning rapidly before grinding to a complete halt; however, this time, it wasn’t facing the magnetic north but rather in the direction of his quarry: Spring-Heeled Jack. Convinced everything was in working order, Mr Daim removed a bar of shaving soap and razor from his battered old briefcase and went about his long-overdue grooming session.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Captain Robertson’s jumbled thoughts were finally ordered into something a little more coherent. The mental fogginess that had been plaguing him since he left Lahore for London had faded away, leaving him with a crystal-clear picture of everything that had happened since he met the mysterious Mr Daim. Anything he couldn’t rationalise was packed away in a box labelled “lunacy” and shelved in the recesses of his mind. He was just glad to finally have someone to talk to. Someone who’d actually listen to him and give him straightforward answers. A welcome break from the ambiguity of Mr Daim. As it turns out, the Eighth Duke of Argyll and his associates, the Prime Minister and the Viceroy, had been keeping tabs on Mr Daim for over a year now. Rumours of an individual possessing extraordinary abilities had been circulating around Lahore for weeks in the monsoon of eighteen sixty-nine. Of course, these sorts of rumours were commonplace in India. Still, they had to be investigated nonetheless should the individual in question utilise the superstition surrounding them to rile up the discontents. After the events of the Mutiny, Lord Mayo, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, wasn’t taking any chances. He immediately put Mr Daim under temporary surveillance, as was routine protocol, until it could be determined the size of the threat he posed to the British Raj. Expecting Mr Daim to be deemed a none-threat, it came as quite a surprise when reports started piling in about a disturbance in one of the city’s outlying villages…
The monsoon had arrived late this year but arrived it did, and to the people of Mallianwala, it was most welcome. Harpreet was worried. Local merchants had been speaking of famines to the south. Famines meant food would become unaffordable and unaffordable food meant Harpreet and her family would go hungry. But luckily, by the grace of Waheguru, the famines to the south were halted by the cascading rains that blessed the boundless Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India. No, Harpreet was worried for an entirely different reason. Aamir, the older brother of Harpreet’s best friend Zainab, was seriously ill. The whole of Mallianwala could hear his panicked wailing at unseemly hours of the night. The first time it happened, Harpreet had mistaken the pain-stricken cries for the local Muezzin. Now it had been a week since, and the poor boy was still unwell. According to Zainab, he had even become uncontrollably violent, forcing her father to make the difficult decision to confine Aamir to his room. Harpreet had never talked with Aamir at great length. Like most of Mallianwala’s Muslim population, Aamir and his father worked for Harpreet’s father. The daughter of a Sikh landowner conversing with the son of a Muslim peasant would be the scandal of the decade, but that didn’t stop Harpreet from catching a glimpse of the muscular boy with black wavy hair whenever she could. In the real world, a Muslim would never marry a Sikh. However, the real world didn’t apply to Harpreet’s fantasies. And so, when Zainab told Harpreet about her brother’s condition, it was Harpreet herself who pleaded on Zainab’s behalf, asking her father to see what he could do for the boy. As always, Harpreet’s father gave in to the demands of his princess. That very evening, Harpreet’s father called a village meeting. Women weren’t allowed to attend these meetings but seeing as it was being held in her family’s courtyard, Harpreet eavesdropped from her bedroom. The local Mullah had concluded that Aamir was possessed by a jinni, evidenced by the scars that ran down his cheek after being scratched for reciting his holy book. The men decided that the best course of action would be for Aamir’s father to travel to the city in search of an exorcist. Harpreet’s father generously agreed to accompany him and cover the costs of the journey. They set out the following morning and returned by nightfall. It wasn’t every day that something this eventful occurred, and nearly the entire village had gathered to witness the exorcism. Harpreet could even spot a few unfamiliar faces in the crowd. Intrigued spectators from some of the neighbouring villages, perhaps. Children watched from the rooftops while men and women crowded around the wall demarking the boundary between the private domain of Zainab’s family and the public domain of Mallianwala. Fortunately, with the help of Zainab, Harpreet was able to sneak in and get the best view in the house: a small window located in the far corner of Aamir’s room. Harpreet watched Aamir lying face down on his charpai as his father, her father, and the Mullah entered the room along with a fourth man she didn’t recognise. Harpreet deduced that he was the Exorcist her father went to fetch. Aamir let out a long inhuman groan that almost sounded like the whimper of a wounded wolf. Aamir’s mother, who was standing by the door, tried rushing into the room to tend to her only son but was subsequently shooed away by her husband. The Mullah began reciting something in Arabic under his breath which started to rouse the sleeping Aamir. The four men surrounded the charpai, ready for anything that might happen. Suddenly, Aamir’s back arched upwards, and his head slowly turned towards the newcomer. Harpreet gasped. Aamir’s eyes were no longer the beautiful bright hazel she was used to but instead a deep crimson red like the blood of a slaughtered animal. His pupils were absent, making it impossible to tell what it was he was looking at. For all she knew, he could be staring directly at her. Or rather, it was staring directly at her. This was no longer the muscular boy with the black wavy hair but something else entirely – a demon. The Demon began to slowly uncurl itself and rise up, like a puppet being lifted by its head, its limbs hanging limp in the candle-lit room until it was levitating two inches above the charpai staring down at the four men. Sweat trickled down the side of Harpreet’s face. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Fear forced her eyelids open and froze her to the spot. The Demon started talking in a language Harpreet had never heard Aamir speak before. A language nobody had spoken before. Except for the Exorcist, for he not only understood what the Demon was saying but was speaking back to it in the same strange language. Harpreet had visited the city often, but she’d never heard a language with a melody quite like this. Everyone was startled yet entirely engrossed in the conversation they couldn’t understand. Even the Mullah’s attention was stolen away from his recitation as he remained fixated on the creature that stood before him. The Exorcist and the Demon that was not quite Aamir went back and forth like this for several minutes. All was silent save for the whispers travelling through the gathering crowd, the gentle whistling of the wind passing through the trees, a clap of thunder in the far distance and the pitter-patter of the monsoon rain slapping against the ground. The Exorcist let out a sigh of disappointment, the kind of sigh one let out when their hand is forced. With a nod, each father grabbed one of the Demon’s arms, dragging him off the charpai and onto his knees before the Exorcist. The Demon let out a blood-curdling laugh that reverberated loudly into the midnight sky, blowing out the candles, bathing everything in the moon’s glow. The Exorcist folded up his sleeve, concentration etched into the wrinkles of his face as he forced his hand down the Demon’s throat as it began to violently choke. To Harpreet’s amazement, the Exorcist was almost elbow-deep, something that should have been impossible unless he was able to shrink his own arm on demand. She was either dreaming, or her eyes were deceiving her. The thing began trying to shake free, struggling against Harpreet’s father’s tight inescapable grip, but it proved futile. The Exorcist began to pull his arm back out, dragging something along with it. Now that it was removed from Aamir’s body, the Demon looked like a dark cloud, and it let out a deafening shriek as it attempted to resist the Exorcist’s grip. Meanwhile, Aamir fell unconscious at the foot of the charpai, his father by his side. The Exorcist walked towards the window, the same one Harpreet and Zainab were crouched behind, the shrieking cloud in hand. As he got closer, Harpreet could finally make out what looked like a face with the sharp teeth and pointed ears of a cat. Once the Exorcist reached the window, he launched the dark cloud up towards the sky, Harpreet and Zainab ducking to avoid the ungodly monstrosity. As the shrieking faded away into the distance, so too did the fear and tension of the past week. The ordeal was finally over.
“And you’re sure this is all true?” asked Captain Robertson. “It was witnessed by one of our own. The same officer that was assigned to keep an eye on our friend, in fact. An Englishman, so I’m certain we can trust his rational judgement. If it was an Indian, I’d be sceptical too,” verified the Duke. “I see… so what of Spring-Heeled Jack?” “That’s what we’re trying to find out. Gladstone says whatever he is, it must have something to do with Mr Dame, hence why he ordered the Viceroy to bring him here.” “So, where do I fit in in all this?” “You’re the most important part, Captain. We need you to gain as much information as you can about our friend, Mr Dame, and see if there is indeed a link between him and Spring-Heeled Jack. In essence, your orders are to spy on him. I didn’t tell you this before because I wanted to see, for myself, if the reports were true. Today’s events proved that.” It was all made clear now. Captain Robertson wasn’t just being brought home to be put on guard duty but was instead being made part of something far greater. But did he really have it in him to be a spy? And could he really betray his friend’s trust? “Is that clear, Captain?” “Yes, Mr Secretary.”
Book #18 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
If you’d been following this blog for a while, you’d know that I’m big on comic books. If you’d been paying attention, then you’d also know that one of my favourite characters is Kamala Khan, a.k.a Ms Marvel, created by G. Willow Wilson. This is what led me to my most recent read: Alif the Unseen.
The novel is set in a fictional city, aptly named “the City”, somewhere along the Persian Gulf. A heavily stratified society ruled by an elite Arab aristocracy with large immigrant populations from all over the world (think Dubai or Riyadh). It is amongst the cultural amalgamation of Baqara District where imported labour from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the lesser Arab states live side by side that we find our protagonist: Alif.
Alif is a computer hacker; his services available to the highest bidder, whether they be the Islamists, the Communists, or the Feminists. As long as they’re against the regime, it doesn’t matter to him. Together, Alif and his computer hacking friends do everything they can to get back at the censors. A quasi-digital revolution, you could say. Unfortunately, this kind of life doesn’t come without its risks, and the infamous Hand (man? computer program? both?) is always on the prowl for anyone that dares defy the state authorities.
Everything was going to plan for Alif until the day his illicit girlfriend, Intisar, decides to break up with him after being betrothed to a member of the royal family. Crushed, Alif chooses to do what he does best, creating a computer program designed to recognise an individual by decoding their behavioural writing patterns. All so he can block Intisar from ever reaching him again (a bit excessive if you ask me). Of course, this kind of program could have disastrous consequences for Alif and the revolutionaries should it end up in the hands of the state. Which it does.
Now on the run from state authorities with his neighbour Dina, Alif comes across a mysterious book called the Alf Yeom (the Djinn’s equivalent of The One Thousand and One Nights). This opens up a new world to Alif as he straddles the line between the world of man and Djinn in his race to put a stop to the Hand. A fugitive on the run, Alif is about to be at the centre of events that will shock the City to its very core.
Willow G. Wilson creates a vibrant world filled with everything you could ask for in an action-adventure novel: Romance, Revolution, Magic, Technology, and, my personal favourite, Djinn. Not only that but Wilson also talks extensively about Islamic theology and highlights issues that are prevalent in the Muslim community with nuance and complexity in a way that doesn’t detract from the story.
Take, for example, the character referred to as “the convert”, an American woman that reverted to Islam and works at Al-Basheera University located in the Old Quarter. An American revert herself, Wilson details a few of the struggles that new members of the Muslim community face from their coreligionists through the convert’s interactions with Alif, Dina and the rest of the uniquely interesting characters that make up her novel. My favourite character being Vikram the Vampire, Alif’s Djinn protector, with his quick wit and constant banter about the fragility of beni adam.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a story that blends the seen with the unseen. Whenever I think of modern Islamic literature and fiction, this is what will come to mind. Many philosophical quandaries are proposed throughout this work, from the Qur’an and its relationship with quantum computing to the all-important question of whether it’s haram to consume virtual pork in a video game. I will most definitely be adding this to my personal canon. Highly entertaining.
The first thing to hit Captain Robertson was the pungently repugnant smell. The second was the abhorrent sight of what he believed used to be someone’s face. The third was the burning sensation of bile creeping up his oesophagus. The fourth was the sound of the Lorne sausages he had for breakfast splatting against the pavement. The fifth was the bitter aftertaste left in his mouth as he pulled out his handkerchief to plug his nose and wipe his brow. Whilst serving in China, Captain Robertson had spent time in an infirmary as men of red with holes in their chests were carried out in stretchers of white in wailing fright. To this day, he had yet to distinguish the red of their coats from the red of their blood. But even the carnage in the aftermath of battle wasn’t enough to prepare him for the brutal fate that befell the poor sod lying before him in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End. Mr Daim crouched down beside the body and muttered a few words. Words that he had repeated many times in his long life. Words that Captain Robertson could understand but in a language the Scotsman couldn’t recognise. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” And so, as the angel Azrael guided the soul on its journey to the afterlife, our duo were left to ponder what had happened to its now vacant vessel. According to the officers, who had set up the cordon, the body was estimated to have walked the Earth for a grand total of eighteen years before it was left lying limp in a back alley amongst all manner of gutter trash one would expect to find littering the streets of London. It wasn’t uncommon to see unnamed labourers lying dead in unmarked alleyways. What was uncommon, however, was the nature in which this particular labourer met his fate. Not a victim of the endless march of industrial progress but instead something far more sinister, far more gruesome. “Ghul.” “What was that?” asked Captain Robertson, the handkerchief muffling his voice. “Ghul. The being that killed this young man was a ghul,” answered Mr Daim as he carefully examined the deep gashes that mutilated the body’s face. “A Ghoul?” “Jinn that try to intrude on the heavens but are struck by comets for their transgression. They are condemned to walk the Earth for eternity driven mad with insanity.” “Genie? Like in the Arabian Nights?” “Those are children’s tales, my friend. But believe me, the jinn are more real than you know, and whatever did this was one of them.” “So you mean to tell me that Spring-Heeled Jack, the criminal who’s been giving us the runaround this past week, is actually a genie gone mad?” “Yes, Jack is a ghul. If he was scum and villainy of the regular sort, you wouldn’t have been tasked with bringing me here all the way from Lahore.” Captain Robertson wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Ghuls and jinn were the work of fiction. Mr Daim was treating them as fact. On their journeys, he had come to accept that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of great wisdom. However, this bordered on lunacy. “Are you sure you’re not just messing with me?” “Well, I could be wrong. It may have been a mardykhor that murdered this poor child but last I heard, they were hunted to extinction by the Sasanians. Not to mention this climate is far too cold.”
The pair were finishing up with their perusal when they heard the sounds of commotion coming from the cordon. Captain Robertson went to see what was happening while Mr Daim remained to tend to the body. After covering what was left of the young man in a white shawl, Mr Daim left the hazy alleyway to find Commissioner Henderson giving his officers a bollocking. “With all due respect, sir, they had permits signed by the Indian Secretary himself.” “I don’t care who signed those documents, sergeant. This is the city of London, not the backwater slums of Delhi. No one is permitted to interfere in police business without my say so. IS THAT CLEAR, SERGEANT?!” Commissioner Henderson admonished the officer, who replied with a sheepish yes, sir though you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming the Commissioner preferred to be addressed as sire. He now had his sights set on Mr Daim, “well, if it isn’t the Indian faqir himself. I don’t recall giving you permission to operate in this area. In fact, if I remember clearly, Mr D, I said quite the contrary. I should have you arrested.” “You will do no such thing. Mr Daim is under my protection and authorised to work here by order of Her Majesty the Queen. You lay a finger on him, and you’ll have to deal with me,” Captain Robertson chimed in to defend his charge. “Are you seriously going to take sides with this Mohammedan? Disappointing. I expected more from a fellow member of the British Armed Forces,” scoffed Commissioner Henderson. “Unlike you, I actually saw combat, so I wouldn’t test me if I were in your shoes.” Captain Robertson was in his face now. “Is that a threat, Captain? Are you threatening an officer of the law? I should have you both arrested. Officers! Arrest them!” The officers reluctantly obliged, stepping towards Captain Robertson with their batons in hand. The veteran was already bouncing on his toes, ready for a fight, when Mr Daim suddenly appeared beside the Commissioner, firmly gripping his wrist. Locking eyes with his adversary, he sternly dictated the following: “By the power of the jinn, as ordained by the almighty, I hereby order thou Child of Adam to let us depart freely from this place without molestation.” Captain Henderson stopped his struggling, staring straight ahead as though he was hypnotised and gave his men the order to stand down in a dreary, monotonous tone. No inflexion. No intonation. Confused though they were, the officers were thankful they needn’t have to apprehend a member of the British Armed Forces. After all, they were civilian police, not military police. “Hurry. We must leave. This only works for a few moments,” Mr Daim briskly led the way, the dumbfounded Captain Robertson trailing behind. “What in the hell was that?” “You shouldn’t refer to the place of punishment for evildoers when asking for an explanation.” “Oh, right. Sorry about that,” Captain Robertson apologised and waited for elaboration. Realising none was coming, he continued, “so are you going to explain what just happened?” “As I said before, you will not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents.” “I guess I should take that as a no then.” “You should.”
The Tea House
That evening, the pair found themselves in one of London’s many premier tea houses, the kind diplomats would use to host foreign dignitaries. Tea had only arrived on the British Isles two centuries prior and had since taken Britannia by storm. Everyone from pauper to prince relished the piping hot beverage that travelled all the way from China, and soon it came to represent the quintessence of British culture. Ever-present at their greatest victories as well as most embarrassing defeats. Some even went as far as to say that to defeat an Englishman, all one must do is dump his tea in the sea. To Mr Daim, tea was just another drink in a long list of drinks consumed by mankind, from the mead of the ancients to the sherbet of the shahanshahs. “Would you like something to eat, Mr Daim?” asked Captain Robertson as he scanned through the menu. He hadn’t eaten anything since those Lorne sausages he had for breakfast. Of course, they were now splattered all over a hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End. “No, thank you,” replied Mr Daim whilst jotting down some squiggles into a brown leather notebook. At least that’s what it looked like to Captain Robertson. To Mr Daim, it was Persian. “So, where do we go from here?” “You may order what you please. I do not find myself currently in need of sustenance.” “You know that’s not what I meant.” Mr Daim let out a long-drawn-out sigh, the kind an irritated father would when tired of their infant’s endless stream of inquiries and shut his notebook closed before giving Captain Robertson his full attention. He knew the veteran needed answers. The man had just witnessed something that defied the boundaries of his limited knowledge. Like the Mayans when they were confronted with fire-breathing Spaniards riding atop strange four-legged beasts. This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself with a gobsmacked companion. It always happened the same way. In the heat of the moment, Mr Daim would brashly call upon one of his abilities, usually to get them out of a situation brought about by said companion, leaving them confounded and in need of answers. There was no sure-fire way to give them answers without shattering their very perceptions of the material world. Up until now, Mr Daim had been putting off the inevitable. So he decided this time he’d just try answering the Captain’s questions as straightforwardly as possible without confusing him any further. “What is it you wish to know?” Realising he could finally get some answers out of the mysterious Mr Daim, Captain Robertson put down the menu, crossing his arms, “so according to you, genies are real?” “Yes.” “And Spring-Heeled Jack is one such genie?” “Yes.” “So, where is his lamp?” Mr Daim burst out laughing, breaking the quiet, relaxed atmosphere of the tea house and drawing the attention of their fellow diners. One such diner in a black bowler cap, complete with a golden monocle and bristly mutton chops representing the pinnacle of English sensibilities, loudly coughed and ruffled his newspaper to indicate his disapproval. Captain Robertson was beginning to feel like a fool. “Oh wow. That’s a new one indeed,” Mr Daim wheezed with laughter before collecting himself together, “not all jinn live in lamps, my friend. That went out of fashion centuries ago.” “I see that now. So how are we going to stop him? We barely got anything from the crime scene before that bastard Henderson showed up.” “Relax. You needn’t worry, for I have everything I need right here,” Mr Daim pulled out a glass vial from his coat pocket, the same coat Captain Robertson had lent him. “It’s empty.” “To your eyes, maybe. But I assure you this contains some of Jack’s residual aura, which I can use to track him down.” “Let me guess, another talent whose extent I won’t be able to fully grasp?” “Yes.” “I take it you’re some kind of genie hunter then?” “Yes, you could say that.” “And you’ve done this sort of thing before? “Many a time.” “What is Spring-Heeled Jack doing in London?” “My guess is as good as yours.” “How many other genies are there? “Millions.” “Then explain why I’ve never met one before?” “The chances are, you probably have. Perhaps you just weren’t open to the possibility that they could be a jinni.” “Are all genies evil?” “Are all humans evil?” “You just answered my question with another question.” “And the answer to both is the same.” Captain Robertson remained in quiet contemplation after that. Satisfied he’d managed to sate his companion’s curiosity without confusing him any further, Mr Daim went back to writing in his notebook. Unfortunately, Captain Robertson was even more confused than before, with a multitude of questions bouncing around in his head. Are genies really real? Can Mr Daim really track down Spring-Heeled Jack using his residual aura?Why did genie lamps go out of fashion? How did Mr Daim even get his hands on Spring-Heeled Jack’s aura? Have I really met a genie before? What did Mr Daim do to Henderson? WHO IN THE HELL IS MR DAIM? The realisation began to dawn on Captain Robertson that he didn’t really know a thing about the man sitting across from him. But that didn’t matter. His orders were to provide Mr Daim with protection, not wrap his head around the madness the world seemed to have devolved itself into. The more he could focus on his job, on what was right in front of him, the less his head would ache. Speaking of which, it was really time he had something to eat. Captain Robertson called over the waiter and ordered the day’s special. The men spent the rest of the evening in silence before hailing a growler to take them back to the hotel they were staying at. After seeing Mr Daim safely back to his room, Captain Robertson retired for the night. Ascending the staircase, trying to force the day’s events out of his head, the veteran was met with an uneasy feeling. Something was off. His door was ajar. Adrenaline kicking in, Captain Robertson carefully unclipped the holster strapped to his chest and slowly pulled out his revolver. Staying extra vigilant, he steadily ascended the final steps. A loud creak reverberated from beneath his feet. Curse these rickety floorboards! Pressing flat against the wall, he crept down the hallway, finger twitching by the trigger. Upon reaching the door, he took a deep breath like a diver about to collide with water and, little by little, he pushed the door open on its squeaky hinges. With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky.