Today I conducted a metaphysical interview with one of the men who allegedly carried out the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, killing Stéphane Charbonnier and eleven others. As you may know from earlier posts, a metaphysical interview is like a real interview except instead of talking to people you speculate about what they might say. It’s basically like Fox News without the pretence of factuality.
The killers are in hiding, of course. I met them in what looked like an abandoned warehouse. Before me was a thin, thuggish man, his head not quite shaved recently enough to hide his widow’s peak. He fixed me with a menacing stare. “Allahu akbar,” he said slowly. “I am Cherif.”
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me.” Then I froze up, not sure what to say to someone who had allegedly just gunned down twelve people in cold blood. “Um – so you are one of the alleged attackers.”
“Yes,” said Cherif. “I was one of those who allegedly executed the infidels. We allegedly cut those bastards down where they stood. We allegedly went in there, found that beast Charbonnier, that foul cartoonist, and put an alleged cap in his alleged ass. And then we allegedly shot everybody else, mostly because they were there.”
“And – why? I guess that’s the question, right? Why did you allegedly do this?”
“To defend Islam. They blasphemed the Prophet.”
“And so you killed them all? Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?”
“Allah is harsh,” said Cherif. He leant towards me, scowling. “You don’t fuck with Allah, see? You try fucking with Allah, and you’ll hear from us.” He tapped his chest with his fist.
“This,” he went on, “was divine motherfucking wrath. The Koran says that blasphemy must be punished with death.”
“Where does it say that?”
Cherif took a yellow-striped paperback out of his pocket. The cover read Ql’iffs Notes: The Qu’ran, and below that Your imam will never know you didn’t read it! “Right here,” he said. “‘It is forbidden to make the Prophet look silly.’ And when you insult Muhammad, we are gonna fuck you up.”
“If Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were offensive and broke Allah’s law,” I said, “God would punish the cartoonists in the afterlife, wouldn’t He? Why do you need to kill them?”
“You stupid or something?” Cherif snarled. “You want Allah should go around breaking kneecaps himself? Is Muhammad gonna have to cut a bitch?”
“I’m a little confused here, but I think – ”
“Thinking is forbidden. Islam prohibits it. Everybody knows that.”
I smiled nervously. “For a second there I thought I was talking to Geert Wilders.”
“Islam means submission to God. It does not mean ‘think about shit’. Ever heard of a Muslim who – ”
“Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina – ”
Cherif waved his Ql’iffs Notes in the air. “The Koran says – ”
“That’s not actually the Koran, though.”
He tucked in his chin and glared. “Let me tell you a story. There was once a great Islamic scholar. And when he came across people in the marketplace blaspheming and apostating and philosophering, he said to them, ‘You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friend.’”
My jaw dropped so fast I pulled a muscle. “That’s from Scarface.”
“Yes. That scholar was the great al-Pacino.”
“It’s a movie about a psychopathic drug dealer.”
He shrugged. “It’s allegorical.”
“Holy shit,” I said. “Is this really what you believe in?”
“Hey!” said Cherif. “I’m a devout Muslim. I check Muhammad’s Twitter feed five times a day, sometimes more.”
“Muhammad died in the seventh century. He does not have a Twitter feed.”
“Well, the angel set it up for him. I don’t know. Allah is all-powerful.” Cherif narrowed his eyes. “You’re thinking again, aren’t you?”
I sighed. There was no point arguing with him. But maybe something else would work. I leant forward and said in an Oprahish kind of voice, “Was this really about Islam?”
“Everything is about Islam,” Cherif snapped. He began counting on his fingers. “Scarface, Taxi Driver, that one where they cut the guy’s eyeball open – ”
“Or is this about your own pain?” I continued. “Did you feel that Charlie Hebdo was insulting you?”
Cherif’s eyes suddenly misted over. His voice wavered. “Maybe – maybe I was jealous, since that blasphemous magazine was so popular and my rap career never took off and the networks won’t broadcast my show.”
“The Super Salafist Funtime-mentalist Variety Hour. Good, wholesome, pious entertainment, but the liberal media refuse to air it.” He leapt from his chair. “We’re taping a new episode right now, in fact.”
“I thought you said the networks refused it.”
“We put them on YouTube. We get dozens of views – sometimes. Come on! You can watch!”
He dragged me through another door, where to my shock I found a soundstage. Men, and women in niqabs, were milling about. There was a live studio audience, with all the men seated on one side and all the women on the other, and a portable chain-link fence set up between them. Cherif and I sat down in the back row.
“Can you sit in the audience like this?” I asked. “You said it was your show.”
“I’m an executive producer,” Cherif said. “Now hush, it’s about to start.”
The house lights went down. A loud recording of a man singing played for a moment, and then a sign reading APPLAUSE IS FORBIDDEN in red letters lit up over the stage. Two lines of veiled women walked out and formed a sort of phalanx.
“These are the Funtime-mentalist Showgirls,” Cherif whispered excitedly.
“They’re, um, not moving.”
“Dancing is forbidden,” Cherif replied.
“Shouldn’t there at least be music or something?”
“Can’t have women and music together. Things could get out of hand.”
Several minutes went by. “How do you even know they’re women?” I whispered. “You can’t see anything but their eyes.”
Cherif pouted. “It would be improper for me to see their faces, but I talked a bunch of times with one of them, while chaperoned. There, the tall one in the back row. Her name is Richard.”
“She has the loveliest knuckles,” Cherif went on. “And this husky voice. Once we even talked about getting married. Richard wanted to have our wedding in Canada or Oregon, but I said, no, we should go to Saudi Arabia. And she said we couldn’t get married there for some reason she never really explained.” He sighed. “Well, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”
The dancers filed away, and a portly man with a long beard walked onstage. “Good afternoon and welcome to the Super Salafist Funtime-mentalist Variety Hour!” he said. “I’m your host, Abdul al-Unser.” He took a book out of his pocket. “We’ll begin tonight’s show by reading some of Muhammad’s sayings.”
“You see,” said Cherif, “unlike that degenerate, corrupting mockery Charlie Hebdo offered, we both entertain and teach.”
Al-Unser began to read from the book, in what appeared to be Classical Arabic spoken with a thick French accent. I looked around the audience, then nudged Cherif. “It doesn’t seem to me like anyone here understands what he’s saying.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” said Cherif. “He’ll explain it for us afterward.”
Sure enough, after several minutes al-Unser closed the book and said, “And those are the passages where Muhammad said that we must kill all the infidels, women are not allowed to use phones, and Mountain Dew is liquified sin. And now,” he continued, “it is time for entertaining jokes. Please welcome Abdul al-Jolson!”
Another stout bearded man came on. He must have been the designated comedian, as his robe was made of different clashing plaids. “Good afternoon, al-Unser,” he said. “Tell me, how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“Why, I don’t know,” al-Unser replied. “How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know either,” said al-Jolson. “I don’t speak to Jews.”
No one laughed. Cherif nudged me with his elbow and whispered, “He’s a comic genius, isn’t he?”
I was too flabbergasted to answer.
“Knock knock,” said al-Jolson.
“Who’s there?” said al-Unser.
I couldn’t help snickering. Cherif jabbed me hard with his elbow. “Laughing isforbidden.”
Al-Jolson bowed to the silent audience and left the stage, and al-Unser said, “And now everybody’s favourite part of the show: the Funtime-mentalist Puppets, featuring the severed heads of executed infidels!”
The curtain of a Punch-and-Judy-like booth behind him opened up to reveal two decomposing heads with arms shoved up the necks. One began moving its mouth, and a second or two later a voice said, “Good afternoon, fellow infidel. How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“All right, that’s it.” I stood up. “This has gone way, way too far.”
“You can’t leave now!” Cherif hissed. “I co-wrote the next sketch! It’s called ‘Jihad to Avonlea’. Some hair is sticking out from under Anne’s hijab and so al-Unser – well, I won’t ruin it for you, it’s too hilarious!”
“It’s horrible,” I said. “This is all horrible. You’re so stupid and cruel it’s almost pathetic.”
Which I should not have said out loud, because I was immediately surrounded by men waving guns and shouting “Blasphemy!” and “Kill him!”
I had to think fast. “There!” I cried. “Look over there!”
No one looked. I had to come up with a better plan.
“In the…backstage dressing room! There’s a piece of toast with Muhammad’s face on it!”
The men stared at me in horror. “Kill the toast!” somebody bellowed. “Kill that blasphemous toast!” The mob charged toward the stage. There were screams as they trampled one of the alleged showgirls. And I got out of the building as fast as I could.