“Everyone in Capanne knows your name. But here, in this prison, they simply refer to you as the American.”
Thinking, I let my stare fall to the floor. I nodded. “That makes sense.” I lifted my eyes from the blackened mold between the shower tiles. “Look, Tariq, I appreciate the offer but I won’t convert.”
My first refusal was probably a part of whatever mental plan Tariq had put into place before bribing the guard and stepping into the shower. Completely unfazed by it he replied, “Why is that? Allah akbar.”
I thought about that for as long as I thought I could, trying to come up with an answer that wouldn’t alienate the one person in this place who didn’t want me dead. In the end, I met his eyes and said, “I do not believe as you believe.”
That answer, perhaps the honesty of it, paused Tariq in his response. It was his turn to stare at the dirty grout of the showers. He rubbed his chin as if he were consulting some inner reference. Perhaps it was his conscience. “Others before you have made the declaration of faith with less than a whole heart to avoid death, then found Allah’s mercy later.”
It was my turn to demonstrate knowledge. “The Shahadah requires it be taken in sincerity. In front of witnesses. I wouldn’t presume to lie to you, your brethren, or your god.” After a moment I added, rather foolishly, “Or myself.”
Tariq’s demeanor changed at this. He didn’t become angry, but in his expression the slight rise in his cheeks disappeared, flattening his visage. “That is unfortunate.”
“I’m sorry,” I was. I was turning away the only person who wanted to help me in that ancient place of captivity and degradation.
“Without our protection you will most likely die here, American.”
The closest thing to a threat Tariq had made, those words made me think about Cheryl, dead in Venice without anyone to bury her because I was here, too stupid to have figured out a way to avoid the police. As I felt that old, cold anger rise up, I heard Cheryl’s voice, calming as always, telling me at least Sophie was OK, that’s that what was important, and Tariq was the closest thing that I had at that moment to a friend.
All I took out of that, though, was a reminder I would never see my wife again. Whatever empathy I felt for Tariq was supplanted by that so thoroughly I thought about killing him. His corpse in the shower would send a message to the others about trying to make peace with the American. And it would most likely spur the others into ending this.
Tariq must have sensed that, his eyes becoming shielded as he took a step back. That pulse of fear allowed me to keep my anger in check. Instead of bashing his head into the wall, I said, “Yeah.”
He blinked the fear out of his eyes, there one second gone the next. Replaced by a recognition of something he had probably seen in his home country many times before, he replied, “I see. I apologize. I did not realize that was what you wished.” Once he was securely out of reach Tariq added, “’The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.’”
The words were faintly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them, so I only replied with a scholarly, “What?”
Tariq, again, declined his chin slightly. “Merely an observation.” With that, Tariq turned and left, leaving me to my fate.
I don’t know what he did or said after that, but regardless of my resistance to conversion, my conversation with Tariq must have left a strong impression with him. The other haji in the place decided to take a pass.
In the end it was the stubbornness of the Italians that saved me. Predictably there were hotheads who wouldn’t wait for the dispute amongst the elders to work out who came at me, but those weren’t hard to deal with. Braver than they were smart, they never had much of a plan and I wasn’t simply going to roll over for them. The old mustachios running the Capanne, though, thought they had all the time in the world to deal with me and took their time about it.
All until one day I was given my old clothes and a room to change in, then let out onto the flat blacktop that was the prison’s parking lot. Leaning against an old supermini was Sophie, whole and beautiful, brushing blonde hair out of her green eyes and smiling at me in a way that made me think I should be waking up at any second. Instead of disappearing, though, the closer I walked to her the more real she became. She had been someplace where she got some sun, a few freckles dotting the pale skin on her cheeks and nose. Still half-a-hand taller than me I smiled up at her and wanted to ask how. But she just stepped away from the car and opened the passenger side, gesturing for me to get in.
I met Atwell later that same day at a rest stop near the Swiss border. That took the shine off, but I figured if I had someone like Sophie who cared enough for me to go to all of this trouble, maybe I had something worth living for.