Here’s the part of the conversation where we hear about the Mahdi. IMO, it’s well worth your time to read it… the first part is more serious, the second part more light hearted.
Now it was Abu Hassar who laughed right in my face. “For your government, it’s no worse a position than the one they’re in now. We used to be friends, remember, in Afghanistan, in the ‘80s. If we went from being allies to enemies that means we can go from being enemies to allies.”
“Okay, so how does that end?” I asked. “My government arms the Islamists. Tell me how that ends?”
“You really want to know?”
“The Prophet predicted all this,” began Abu Hassar, speaking as if from some place of deep personal knowledge. “He said it begins with the boys, writing and speaking messages of a new future in the streets.” Abu Hassar stopped and looked at Abed for a moment. In that look, it seemed Abed and the democratic activists of 2011 were the boys Abu Hassar was speaking about. “The messages spread, breeding outrage and a war fought by the men. This is what we see now. In that war, an Islamist Army rises, uniting to destroy all others. Then a tyrant is killed. This is Assad. His army will fall. Afterwards, among the Islamists, there will be many pretenders. The fighting among them will go on.”
Abu Hassar looked down at my notepad. I hadn’t been writing anything down. This seemed to bother him. “You know all this?” he asked.
“It’s all happening right now,” I said. “The infighting, the rise of the Islamists, how does that end?”
“The Syrian people thirst for an Islamic State,” said Abu Hassar. “After so much war, they want justice. After Assad falls and when there is fighting among the pretenders, a man will come. He is a common man, but he will have a vision. In that vision, God will tell him how to destroy His enemies and bring peace to all peoples. That man is the Mahdi.”
I wrote down the word: Mahdi, a heavy and dissatisfied dot above the ‘i’.
“You don’t believe me?” said Abu Hassar.
I stared back at him, saying nothing.
“You think as poorly armed as we are, we can’t defeat Assad and his backers?”
“It’s not that,” I said.
Abu Hassar continued: “Our weapons don’t matter as much as you think. Even Albert Einstein predicted what’s happening now. He said that the Third War would be a nuclear war, but that the Fourth War would be fought with sticks and stones. That’s how we beat you in Iraq, with sticks and stones. Whether we are helped or not, this is how we will create our Islamic State even with the super powers of the world against us.”
“So the plan is to wait for the Mahdi?”
“He walks among us now, a simple man of the people, the true redeemer.”
I shut my notebook. Our waiter was lurking across the room. I caught his eye and made a motion with my hand, as if I were scribbling out the bill for our lunch. He disappeared into the back of the restaurant.
“What will you do if this is true?” Abu Hassar asked me.
“If the Mahdi comes?”
“That means there will be a peaceful and just Islamic State?”
Again, he nodded.
“Then I’ll come visit you with my family.”
“And you will be welcome,” said Abu Hassar, grinning his wide ear-to-ear grin and resting his heavy hand on my shoulder.
We’d been sitting for hours, and it was early afternoon. Abu Hassar excused himself to take the day’s fourth prayer in a quite corner of the restaurant. Abed, seemingly exhausted from translating, stood stiffly and went to use the bathroom. I sat by myself, the empty plates of our lunch spread in front of me.
“Syrie?” he asked, pointing to where Abu Hassar and Abed had been sitting.
Our waiter pointed to where Abu Hassar had been sitting. He stroked his face as if he had a thick and imaginary beard, one like Abu Hassar’s. “Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said.
“Amerikee?” he asked, pointing at me, seemingly confused as to why an American would spend so much time sitting with two Syrians, especially one Islamist.
“New York,” I said.
He shook his head knowingly, as if to intone the word ‘New York,’ were to intone a universal spirit of ‘anything goes’.
I handed over the money for lunch. Abed and Abu Hassar returned and we left the restaurant. Outside the gray morning rain was now gray afternoon rain. The cafés were still full of people sitting on green Astroturf lawns, sipping tea that steamed at their lips. Nothing had changed.
We piled into the black Peugeot and returned to the road. For a while, we didn’t speak. We were tired of our own voices. There was just the noise of the broken wiper in front of me, stuttering across the windshield. Above us, the overcast sky lost its light. Below, Akçakale camp spread in all directions, as gray as a second sky. Something heavy and sad came over Abu Hassar and the heaviness of that thing came over me. He and I had spent the day somewhere else, in a different time. Now he’d go back to the camp and I’d go back to the road.
But we weren’t there yet. With about a mile left to go, Abu Hassar put his hand on my shoulder. “So you will come visit when the war is over?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “If it’s safe for someone like me.”
“It would have to be. You would never pass for a Muslim,” said Abu Hassar. He pointed at me and spoke to Abed: “He is such a Christian, he even looks like Jesus!”
I took a look at myself in the rearview mirror. I hadn’t shaved in a couple weeks. My face was a bit gaunt, my kinked hair a bit unkempt. “Maybe I look like Einstein?” I answered.
As we pulled over by his brother’s shop, Abu Hassar and I were still laughing.
“If I look like Jesus,” I said, “you look like the Prophet Muhammad.”
Abu Hassar shook his head. “No, I don’t look like the Prophet, peace be upon him.” He opened his door and a cold breeze filled our car. I could feel the rain outside hitting my neck. Abu Hassar grabbed my shoulder with his thick and powerful hands. He pushed his face close to mine. Again he was grinning.
“I look like the Mahdi.”
That comment, “He and I had spent the day somewhere else, in a different time” is particularly interesting from psychological, anthropological and theological angles.