The Ottomans were not stopped at the gates of Vienna. Ferdinand and Isabella failed in their attempt to defeat the Moors. The European Renaissance never happened.
Imagine a world turned upside down. Northern Europe is the basket case. The Middle East is the centre of the developed and "civilised" world.
Acts is a reflective, personal journey, a moving story of loss, love and transition. It is about Marwan the boy and Marwan the man. The story is uplifting as Marwan's humanity shines through: the book itself is like a meditation on isolation, which links the reader with Marwan: to keep the focus on him keeps the reader's focus narrow - so there is a real empathy there. One loves Marwan as Marwan himself loves...
...and through Marwan's story we ask a simple question; how would we behave if we were dealt the same hand as the Lebanese in the 1980's or the Palestinians and Iraqi's now?
Acts of Faith takes us on a journey of hope amid chaos and brutality in a world so very similar to the one that we feel so comfortable in, except that it might very well be we who are the extremists.
It was only the thought that I had to say my goodbyes to the students at the Middle East University in London that got me out of bed that morning. Every single sinew in my body ached and my head was a mess of misfiring synaptic squibs. It hurt just to roll over and squint at the alarm clock. My stomach complained violently about the abuse of the previous night, the moment I struggled into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Starting the morning with a raging thirst but being unable to keep anything down is hardly a recipe conducive to fond farewells. The light in the bathroom spun stars across my eyes as I stood under the shower and let hot water cascade off my head and shoulders for a full twenty minutes.
One way or another I managed to dress. I even managed a mug of coffee and, keeping a nervous inner watch on the rumblings down below, I decided that I needed some fresh air. The morning was bright and blue, and there was already a haze building on the narrow city horizon at the end of the street. I needed to feel the muggy freshness of the city morning on my skin, before I could contemplate getting into another stuffy car for the trip to the university. It suddenly became vividly and urgently clear to me that absolutely nothing else would do. I needed a few minutes out of doors, even though the streets were already filling with the atmospheric fug of mechanised urban life and that almost feral nervousness that accompanies armed occupation.
I left the flat, while my erstwhile expatriate friend, Usman, finished his breakfast of hot buttered toast and thick, sweet coffee. My drunken companion of the night before had woken up with a slight fuzziness of the head but with no other visible signs of the harm that we had done to ourselves, at least none that he would admit to. I was too confused by the basic requirements of breathing and walking to notice that Usman was possibly being too damned bright and breezy. The compelling urge to taste fresh air meant that I walked down to the front door some fifteen minutes before our car was due to pick us up.
Beyond the heavy wooden portcullis that locked us up safely in the dead hours of the night there was a short series of portico steps leading down to the open pavement. I took a fresh refill of hot coffee with me and under an all too rare burning London sky in July I sat down on the second step. I nursed my drink in both hands for some minutes, with my sunglasses pressed tightly against the bridge of my nose, and tried to focus on the coming day. From where I was sitting I could just make out one of the local police check-points towards the far end of the street, manned as usual by two armed officers. They were too far away to make out faces, but they looked relaxed as they both smoked, leaning against a wall of sandbags while they watched the rush hour traffic on the Warwick Road. My home for the best part of this last year had been in Earls Court.
Cars and motorbikes nosed their way towards the main arterial avenues of the capital just as they did every morning despite the random nature of the threat hanging in the air at every street corner. Shirt-sleeved men carrying bags and briefcases walked slowly along the street, sweat stains already appearing under their arms and in the smalls of their backs. I tried to compose an elegantly witty adieu for my students but the words would not take shape in my head. I supposed that I would have to busk it, that a suitable way of saying thank you to them would come to me nearer the time.
I remember feeling again the absolute fatigue that had overcome me on my trip back to my home in Beirut at the end of May. I decided to risk my first cigarette of the day, feeling tightness, a closing up of my airways on the first drag. I coughed solidly, drew down a second lungful of smoke, and started to feel better. Caffeine and nicotine. I made a mental note to buy a litre of something cold and fizzy in the university shop before I started my classes.
Sitting in the sunshine, warming my bones, feeling the prickly crawl of perspiration on the skin around my neck, I thought again about the missing Levantine souls. The latest victim was a banker. Reports said that he was in his mid-thirties, an executive type specialising in the financing of major capital projects in derelict countries like England, a man who might know my father. They say that wherever you are in the world you are never more than seven people away from someone you know. It seemed somehow bizarre that I might be linked to any one of the sweating workers walking past these steps by some vagary of mass acquaintance.
The kidnapped banker was taken in broad daylight from the heart of London's financial district, right under the noses of the authorities, leaving pools of black and bloody stickiness surrounding his dead bodyguards. I knew now that the fantasy of my year as an aid worker was done with, and that the madly persuasive force of my self-deluding imagination was spent. My life in desolate, brooding little London was nothing but sheer and utter folly.
The selfish arrogance that once upon a time I mistook for some sort of life-purpose under the billboard on Monot Street all those months ago in Beirut now collided with a sudden rush of gut-churning fear. I was truly afraid for the first time in my life. In the rising heat of a July morning on a busy street in London filled with outwardly rational people, I admitted all this to myself for the first time and I felt emotionally sick. I put my coffee mug on the stone step beside me and checked my watch. Five minutes had passed. I wanted to go home right there and then.
There was only one answer to the conundrum of survival in this city and that answer involved poisons and nicotine. I lit another cigarette, breathed the smoke in deeply, and let the panic wash through me. I trembled a little despite the rising heat of the day and the half-digested coffee in my stomach started its slow reflux, but I continued to breathe, letting the nausea float away on repeated, deep exhalations. Usman would be down any second and I could not let him see me like this. We were friends at the edge of the world, descendants of Salah-ad Din's knights, and such a scene would be an act of betrayal, an act of gross boorishness.
A small flight of sparrows flickered across my peripheral vision, rising in a sudden burst from one of the Plane trees that lined the street. I have no recollection of anything suddenly being different in the world, but I do remember being vaguely aware of the birds' chatter as they took wing. I was wrapped up in thoughts of my own morbidity, a process that should be strange and alien to one so young. At that moment, my conscious self was oblivious to its surroundings. The transition between fundamentally opposed states of being, of switching over between life and death, only takes the briefest of moments.
The car was a Mercedes. It was a dirty beige colour, one of the big boxy types from the seventies, the sort of car that leaves diesel smudges on the fabric of city streets. I remember staring at the driver's side front tyre, which was a white-wall, strangely out of place amid the summer dust and debris of this dilapidated city. Two men got out of the car, one from the front and one from the back. The driver remained seated in the front of the car, the diesel engine idling in the background with a low and insidiously menacing growl. I could make out the silhouette of a fourth man sitting on the traffic side of the back seat.
My first thought was about Usman. Where was he? The agency men were obviously here to pick us up, albeit a little mob-handed and a few minutes early, but I supposed that the agency were taking extra precautions. And then a switch flicked over in my head. I should have moved quickly. I should have jumped back to the door of our house. I should have had a key in my hand. I should have acted like the cool-headed warriors in the films, but I was pathetically and predictably human.
From the front passenger side of the Mercedes the larger, more thick-set of the two men climbed up on to the sill of the open car door and turned his head slowly from side to side, keeping watch. He was a squat but powerful lighthouse of a man illuminating any possible threat to his colleagues from the police at the end of the street or from the glass-eyed passers-by, all of whom seemed to be scurrying along the opposite pavement as fast as their terrified little legs could carry them. I glanced towards the police check-point, thinking to call out, but I saw no one to call to.