Jahannam: A Justification of the Ways of God to Men by Najah Yasin

guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen


Because I loved with all my soul
my soul my soul - into this Din, 


I hadn’t seen the moon in twenty years. I looked up at the sky with my mouth gaping open, taking in the night air through my nostrils, adjusting my eyes to the fine balance between the light and the dark. I stumbled forward between the two men holding their rifles. My mother told me stories about life’s polarities, like the sun and the moon, boys and girls, heaven and hell. She told me our people believe that everything in this life is preordained and though we think that something is one way or the other, everything eventually comes together into a whole. Finally, I had seen a whole day outside and the sensation was mystifying. 

I’ll burn forever in fire and coal,
For I will go where she will go.
My soul my soul - into this Din.


I can see light ahead of me, something moving in the darkness like jinn. There is a fire burning in the woods. I can smell it. The high weeds tickle the tips of my fingers as I’m dragged along towards the life ahead. I passed many summers in these very fields on my back with Isra. I can still hear her calling to me to come out from my hiding place. I can still feel the smile spread across my face as I let her wander in front of me, frightened. When we reach the fire I see the woman inside it, eyes burning like rubies. The other men with rifles are sitting around her, watching her burn. They’re drinking vodka from tin cups. Don’t indulge in liquor, said the Prophet, and don’t interact with men who drink it. It is haraam. These men deliver the justice of God. This is what they say. Mother followed many laws, the ones she put priority on were laws of the heart. In the heart was God, in man was imperfection.

I pitch through darkness with a goal
to find my love. I need more coal!
My soul my soul - into this Din.

The men are laughing about something until they see me. I am thrown in front of the fire. The warm hand of the woman reaches out to touch me, but they drag me away from her and hold me down. I can see the full moon, shaped into a thin crescent as the men shift on top of me, pushing one another for their turn. Each head passes like one day and one night until the men are tired. Finally, I can see the stars after three weeks of pain. At night Isra would sneak from her hut behind the garden where her father laid fast asleep and she’d climb up the pipe beside my terrace. Her hut had but one window and it was on the ground floor. For a woman who has reached maturity, it is forbidden for her to be seen, even in her house, so the window was painted black. She was afraid of the darkness. But with my window so high, I could see only light in darkness because the moon was only a harness away from those who had balconies. I’d take her cold hand in mine and tell her what my mother told me. If she was scared, look to the moon and there she would find herself far away from her biggest fears.

And brimstone so that I can loll
to the ends of earth to find my whole.
My soul my soul - into this Din.

Some of the drunken men have fallen into a deep slumber with their backs on the ground. The two men who lifted me from the hole are among them, dozing as innocently as the day they were born. One remains awake. His rifle is pointed in my direction, but behind his yellow eyes I find Isra. In his broad nose, his lips, his mouth and almond skin I find my Isra.  It was beneath this very same sky we whispered our love, so consumed in our light that we didn’t see the clouds forming. We didn’t hear the determined footsteps of her father plowing through the fields, weeds crushed beneath his boots. It wasn’t until Isra was ripped from my arms, stomped in her face, kicked in her ribs, and dragged away by her hair, that I realized we were now to find what the other side of life felt like. The Darkness. When she was married away, gone without a trace, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time that I saw her, because there was a balance, presence, then absence, then presence again. The man’s name I know but I cannot find the words.

Into the fire, horror without console,
I'll pull darkness around me and coal.
My soul my soul - into this Din.

With his rifle strapped around his shoulder, he rises from the ground in front of me and grabs a tin cup from a wooden chair. Cautiously, he walks towards a pail and fills it. Instead of sitting down again he walks to me and holds the cup in front of my face. My Isra is looking down at me, dark tendrils of hair glowing beneath the moon. I cannot take the cup. Instead of losing his temper, he waits. He stands over me, patiently. Finally, he crouches down in front of me. “It isn’t vodka, it is water,” he says. “Take it.” I reach for the cup and the sharp pain between my legs spreads to my stomach like fire. I am too weak. He gently leans forward and reaches for my chador. He pulls it from over my head and drapes it over my lap. There is air running through my scalp. Now I know for sure, I will never see another sunrise. Many days after Isra vanished my mother forbid me to leave the house. Life had ended for me until I saw that one boy who held the moon in his face, the reflection of his mother. And she called to him, the moon child, Mehtab. This is Isra’s son. 

Bring the wind, closer lies her soul!

There is a crackling in the distance and he looks into the darkness with fear in his eyes.

“Do not speak,” Mehtab whispers. His eyes are wandering from one face to the next to see if anyone is awake. He is regretting bringing me the water, but he knows it is too late to pretend. “I am going to burn in hell for your sins.” He spits the words at me.

“What is your sin?” I say. “It is for our own sins that we burn.”

 A man does not shed tears over the dead, and he certainly doesn’t cry for a mother who dies in sin. Mehtab’s eyes are red, his face is flushed, but he will not cry. 

“I loved my mother,” he says, “and my sin was allowing you to do the same-”

He stops speaking when I see someone moving behind him. 

He looks over his shoulder just as the man stumbles to his feet. I toss the empty cup in Mehtab’s direction and he swiftly catches it in his hand. The man is still too hung over to notice that I am awake and no longer wearing my covering or that Mehtab’s face is paler than the light and heavier than the stars. I have forgotten the sweet touch of the woman with the ruby eyes until the drunken man pisses into her flames. With arms wide open, she invites me into her embrace like that fateful day at Isra’s house. In a small dark room, in the very back, between the kitchen and the courtyard we hid in the shadows but our light was too bright. I could no longer find where her body began or where mine had ended, and once again we did not hear the voices of our husbands in heated debate. Isra’s husband was very rich and quick to anger and he threw his money into conversation as a means to end debates. Money was the very thing that made my husband hot to temper, because when a man lacks money they lack power and a man will fight hard to salvage that loss of pride by any means necessary. For my husband, this meant fists. For us, this meant I was to leave. But where did these men find their wives? 

She burns in fire, she burns in coal
my soul our soul - into this Din,

The drunken man reaches to stroke my face. “It is a shame,” he slurs, “you are a very pretty woman.” Mehtab shifts uncomfortably. I dare to glance at him, to let him know he must remember his place and not cause a scene. The man is pulling my mouth towards his, kissing me, which is forbidden. His tongue feels like undercooked lamb and tastes like foul milk. I retch and he slaps me. He slaps me so hard, I stumble back. I’ve been slapped harder. In the field and in the house where I made love with my Isra. By her father and by my husband, and the by the hand of the man who owned her. We hadn’t seen them coming. When we were together the world had disappeared. When I stumbled back, in darkness, from my furious husband I saw Mehtab’s face in a closet no bigger than a bookshelf with golden eyes wide open. Until this very moment I wondered why it was that I never realized he had been standing there all along. The drunken man is beating me. He is kicking me in the ribs and no one else stirs. Closer and closer he kicks me towards the flames until the air fills with a smell like burning paper. The lady with ruby eyes is caressing my hair. He is kicking me closer towards the lady but water pours from over the drunken man’s shoulder. Before I know what is occurring, the drunken man falls at my side. A deep red pours from the base of his skull and soaks his hair. Slowly, it pools beside me. I am rising to my feet, yanked up. I am moving fast. I don’t realize, but we are running, Mehtab at my side. We have made it so far that the lady in the flames is but a speck in the darkness when I stop. 

“We mustn’t stop,” he says, grabbing me by my wrist.

“But we have to turn back,” I say, “they will kill you.”

He pulled me even harder and didn’t look back. 

“They already have.” 

I am running again, looking at Isra’s moon as the rising sun peeks over the mountains. There is a pink light in the distance. He is like his mother in the way that he makes up his mind and that is to be the end of it. I always thought I was the one who was determined, but it was her. She was the brave one who wandered through the fields and I was in hiding. She was the one who wasn’t afraid to love, even if it meant risking everything, she came to me. Always, she came to me. And though she never said it, she never denied it, and I imagined that her son must’ve known all along as he was the one who brought me her letters. He was a polarity to his father, as we were a polarity to the world around us. He must’ve known, but he didn’t care. He loved his mother, he made up his mind like his mother, he was determined to fight for what he felt was right. Even if it was wrong. 

for she too loved with all her soul,
Lost. Forever half, not whole. 

The men are awake and we hear voices in the woods. We have barely made it to the edge of the forrest. The sun is rising, the moon is at my side, and I must let go of one or the other. It was having her cling to me in that room as our husbands tried their hardest to pull us apart. It was like seeing love and hate at the same time. It was like pushing the moon and watching him roll down the side of a hill. The hurt look on his face when he reached the bottom, the pain that I felt in running back to the men who were only kilometers behind. It was like being in Jahannam. And in a forrest, filled with wood and stones, there is but one way for me to die, and as I bleed to death I smile. I pray that if they find our moon child, that he is shot in the head, that death comes quicker for him. That he rises to the sky, in a paradise far from where I lie. For hell is only a new beginning, another polarity. And if I have learned anything about the moon and the sun, boys and girls, heaven and hell this very day, it is that polarities are inseparable. Though I walk in Jahannam this is my paradise, for I will at least know this is where I will find her, this is where we’ll be together forever.


Contributor Notes

Najah Yasin isn’t afraid of the dark. Her play Biscuits: A Tragedy won the Agnes Scott 42nd Annual Writer’s Festival Award. Her flash fiction story A Lil’ Bit Of Good received honorable mention from the Hurston Wright Foundation. She is a current M.F. A. candidate who explores the darker side of humanity, but always leaves the reader with a little political light at the end of the tunnel. She updates her website: najahyasin.com regularly.