Muslim Sea Burial by Andrew Rose

They came in on the Zodiacs with the Armorflate up. For the first two thousand meters the outboards ran free, the wind and surf covering the sound. For the last thousand meter they cut the motor and paddled. Down the beach on the right was a ruined watchtower in a coconut grove, built to look for approaching ships in Spice Trade times. The dune grass bent on the dune ridges in the wind, its continuous rushing sound hiding them. Standing offshore on the U.S.S. Ghost Dance hours before the beach had been gunmetal blue. Now in the rising sun it had turned cantaloupe color.

Adnan’s Zodiac team, Number 4, beached and dragged the inflatable up onto the sand. Farther up the beach, the Number 4 coxswain took the sector map out of his camo pocket and pointed left. They moved along, their Heckler & Kochs ported, crouching under the dune face. The 1, 2 and 3 Zodiacs had beached further up and were closing in on the objective, climbing and crouched out of the wind too. Every fifth man carried a CamelBak hydration pack. As the team member who would stay back from the firefight Adnan had 4 Zodiac’s.

Everybody’s stopwatch timers were set. Adnan waited to hear the firefight noise, knowing from the training runs it would start in two or three minutes. There were shouts in Arabic over the wind and the sounds of weaponry began to pop pop pop, not real, like party favors being yanked at a children’s’ party.

Dry scrub brush grew up around the wall of the compound ahead. The tops of date palms were visible over the walls. In the growing morning light the walls and the buildings looked like they’d just been whitewashed a little while before they’d come, although it had probably happened ages before. The fighting was over in fifteen minutes. Weapon noise was sporadic and ceased and the Arabic cries were fewer. The silence after seemed like a sound in its own right.

The Yellow Team combatants carried the corpses into the compound. Inside, besides the date palms, Adnan saw a lemon and a fig tree. They laid the Shayk, Mos Def and KMS out on the ground beneath the fig, the broken figs scattered on the ground showing their magenta insides. The doors of the empty buildings stood open and on the second floor wooden window shutters banged in the wind. Adnan looked at the dead in a camouflage he didn’t know, then at the living Yellow Team members standing over them in his country’s own desert digital camo. He too was dressed in desert digital, wearing his gold Muslim chaplain’s crescents on the collar tabs.

There were several red sockets on the Shayk and KMS’s bodies where rounds had entered. There was a pineapple-sized exit wound from a detonator round in Mos Def’s back. The Yellow Team members laid out the items they found in the pockets of the bodies on a paper sterile surgical field and videoed them while a man described the items on the audiotrack. Five thumb drives, a USB cable, two burner cell phones, worry beads, a Pikachu doll, dirhams, riyals, rupees, pistachios in the shell. Everyone including Adnan watched in silence.

The medics brought forward a woman who matched the description of Layla. They asked Adnan to say something to her in Arabic, but when he began she screamed and pulled her hiqqab around her. A medical corpsman tried to put a dressing on the bleeding shrapnel wound on her arm, but she shouted and pushed him away. Two Yellow Team members sat on her while the medic injected through her garment –Cephalexin against infection, Demerol to counter pain, and Vistaril for agitation. Then they let her alone. Two Yellow Team members came forward with the children, ranging from infants to adolescents. The medics examined them, and gave out sesame seeds and Cliff Bars. Then the wrists of everyone were secured with white plastic flex handcuffs. Corpsmen drew blood samples, including from the children and corpses, and placed the vacuator tubes in a cooler. The Team Yellow tech specialists laid their Toughbooks in the sand and got iris scans and fingerprints that would be uploaded into the ABIS database.

While the Zodiacs were ferrying the bodies back to the ship, since it would be a while before they went back to the Ghost Dance, Adnan walked alone the fifty meters down the beach to the sentinel tower. It was built of biscuit colored brick and through the narrow windows you could see a broken spiral stairway leading to its top. In the gaps in the bricks hoopoes nested. As Adnan got close the crow-sized orange birds spread their black and white wings, and some opened out the black and white crests of feathers at the top of their heads. On the scrub field around the tower, which would have been grassy after the rains but was now flat stubble, some hunted for bugs and snakes or took sand baths, their well known habit, burrowing down, wings spread out and heads tilted back in ecstasy.

A stream ran out to the sea through the coconut grove, a water-drawing shadouf standing near to where it met the waves, its pole, weighted with a rope-net bag of stones, hanging over the irrigation ditch between the coconuts. Some cattle egrets and African ibises hunted around it in the damp sand. Walking back through the coco palms Adnan startled a gerenuk family feeding on tamarisk at the edge of the trees. In the sun beyond the palm shadows a broken-winged falcon was rising up smaller and smaller into the sky.

Something white and glittering in the sun was lodged in the tower wall, like the pieces of a broken mirror being flipped over in the sun. Getting closer Adnan saw that a beetle had got stuck, turned on its back, creeping along a niche in the bricks. But that wasn’t what made the mirror gleams. They were caused by a mother scorpion in her nest with her new babies. The babies, translucent white, their shells not yet hardened, crawled over their mother’s tobacco colored shell. From the distance they looked very much like the moving, gleaming, broken pieces of a mirror.

In a nearby niche in the bricks a beetle creeping along had got stuck, turned on its back.

On the U.S.S. Ghost Dance the DNA blood sample scans were complete. The bodies were indeed the Shayk’s, Mos Def’s’ and KMS’s. Adnan and the two Muslim covert agents passed through the cruiser corridors to the Sick Bay. They moved along the narrow corridors past ward rooms, electrician and armorer’s offices, around hatches whose ladders descended to the deck below or up into the superstructure above. Every meter of space was taken up with pipes and vents, lockers, closets and doors, dials and stopcocks and computer screens monitoring the status of operations throughout the ship. Here and little domestications were set up on ledges and table tops –silk flowers, framed photographs, an eleven inch high ivory plastic Ganesh elephant waving his trunk—to help the ship’s crew forget for a while the mission they were cruising the vast ocean on. Inside the Ward Room Petty Officers were eating, watching DVD’s of films and TV shows from America on desktops. Some were recording messages to send back to America. They passed the cramped little gym, hatch opened against the heat, where men and women AB’s did crunches and power jerks spotting each other. They entered Sick Bay, passing sleeping racks, some with occupants, curtains closed. In a partitioned-off section of the Sick Bay the corpses of the Shayk, KMS and Mos Def lay on empty racks, waiting.


         Adnan and the covert agents made the preparations for burial. First they got water in surgical basins and washed the bodies as required by hadith. They dressed them in clean garments –blue Navy boxer shorts drawn up over their genitals and their ears stopped with cotton. As directed by hadith they wrapped the bodies in three sheets taken from the supplies locker, bound them up with hurricane straps from sleeping racks and slid them inside white dacron cannon coverings. Medical corpsmen helped lift the bundles out through a hatch to three waiting gurneys on the starboard main deck. A medical Stryker frame was tied on top of each body and .62 caliber cannon shell casings were lashed at the head and the feet under the cannon shrouds.


            They wheeled the gurneys aft, past the Tomahawk missile cells and the .62 caliber gun, to the place where the burial at sea was to take place. Onlookers had gathered. Some were Yellow Team members and some were sailors of the Ghost Dance standing down from their watches in their denim work clothes. The C.I.A. agent on board, wearing unlaced Chippewa work boots, stood there too. An Office of Naval Intelligence lieutenant collected cell phones and cameras into a Faraday bag. No one spoke. From the military habit of standing at attention at official gatherings and also moments of reverence and fealty, the men and women seemed deferential, whether or not they were. A few lowered their heads. One Able Bodied made a sign of the cross. Another Able Bodied stood with his fingers pressed prayerfully together pointed down like two pistols. Some, arms folded, looked out to sea.

The burial commenced. As the corpsmen swung the covered bodies rigid on their Stryker frames onto the chute, standing at their heads Adnan gave the takbirs in Arabic. He made a dua for the Shayk, his family, his fighters and followers. In a language they would not understand he made another for the Yellow Team and the U.S.S. Ghost Dance seamen and their families and a dua for the nations and people of the Earth. He made a silent dua for himself. Reciting prayers, he and the Muslim covert agents guided the bodies down the chute. One after another the white bundles went down into the white foam. Above the sky was bright with feathering, ghostly cirrus clouds. The medical corpsmen retreated with the gurneys.

Now he spoke in English addressing everyone. Since the seamen knew nothing about the Shayk and probably didn’t care, he’d speak essentially about their own lives instead. Avoiding the parts of Islam that would mean nothing to them, might even raise the hackles of their prejudice, he recurred to a Sufi poem. It was The Convocation of the Birds, which they’d enjoy and understand. All non-Muslims loved Sufism. Madonna talked about it and online they sold hoodies with Sufi sayings. The men of the Shayk did not love Sufism. For what he was about to say they might have locked him in a cage, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire on video.

The poem was by the twelfth century Persian Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar. In the poem, the birds, wishing to emulate human beings, gathered to decide who would be their monarch, as occurs among humans. The wisest, a hoopoe, coincidently just seen by him that day, suggested that they should travel on a mission to the legendary phoenix-like Simorgh and ask it to be their ruler. In order to reach the Simorgh’s resting place they had to cross seven valleys where the sojourning birds learned some important secret of life.

First they’d flown into the Valley of the Quest, where they’d learned to begin by letting go of both dogma and unbelief. Imprisoned by the endless parroting of false doctrine, pronounced and heeded in blind authority, they were as much slaves to error as any apostate, any fanatic. They no longer searched, but only followed. And if it was true with the demonstrably false, it was true also of the narrowly verifiable. Technocrats, be not enslaved by your ruggedized Toughbooks and Tommahawk missile firing sequence manuals, your narrow facts and certainties. Everything became dogma when you looked no further beyond it, when you treated it in the spirit of arrogant finality. Learn that first, then fly on on your mission.

On they’d flown on to the second valley, the Valley of Love, where they’d learned to awaken to that love –for your fellow bird, man, a deity, a spirit or an idea, so powerful it overwhelmed your reason. Each of them here on the Ghost Dance, he hoped, would awaken to that love at least once in their lives. A love for lovers, spouses, parents, children and friends. And then besides that, for great minds, great souls, ideas, values, birthrights and faiths. To love with the greatest of passion was essential. You could find out who and what matters to you by attending to the strength of the feeling. Love the lovely brown nippled breast, the erected member, the caring hands that pulled you up from out the abyss, the golden book that gave delight, the wise friend that made life full and comprehensible.

The thirty flew on to the Valley of Knowledge, where next on their mission they discovered that everything they’d learned in the world was useless. It was as with us, trapped in this little floating hi-tech sardine can on which we lived and worked, far away from other worlds that seemed irrelevant, watching our streamed TV shows from home, scanning the irises of our enemies, giving people Vistaril for their pain, which would not help us for survive one minute in the limitless desert beyond.

On to the Valley of Disenchantment, where their attachments to the world were left behind, and what was called ‘reality’ separated into airy clouds and disappeared. A distancing from all the senses offered–water, trees and sky, animals, people, the world; what you thought was there when you saw God by his signs. A distancing from all the propositions of the intellect too –technology, science, evidence, post hoc, propter hoc, Occam’s razor. Within their ship the dancing plastic elephant god of a religion they didn’t know. Beyond it the dunes and groves shivering in the heat into bands of mirage nothingness. They were travelers in a world becoming ghostly.

From there they flew on to the Valley of Unity, where in contrast, everything they viewed in their detachment–the sharply-defined, the separate, the contradictory –came together as a blooming buzzing confusion. As here in this peaceful world of sand and palms, gerenuks, ruined towers and falcons, they cruised on a ship paradoxically armed with missiles that tore men and gerenuks and falcons apart and brought down towers in ruins. The mirror bright with the tobacco brown; the A and the not A. The confusion was part of the nature of things. Where the beautiful alone exists in the world, there will come ugliness; where only the good, evil is born. The good thing holds within it a kernel of evil, the bad thing a seed of good. Corpses lying among beautiful ripe broken figs.

They arrived next at the Valley of Wonderment, where, confronting the sight of the Beloved from earlier, they learned that, seeing her, him or it from a different viewpoint, they’d never understood anything. No acceptance of the Beloved simply because it was beloved—shayks or lovers, free world leaders, Tik Tock influencers with millions of likes, right and left wing cable news talking heads. See them periodically with eyes innocent yet skeptical, as if for the first time. You never really saw them before.

At last, the Valley of Poverty and Annihilation. In this twelfth century Persian poetic K-hole material existence was annihilated, and the thirty birds lived in the present, the past, and the future indiscriminately. And then there ahead was the mighty mystical Simorgh, its light so bright it was like the light shining from a mirror, blinding you. But when you got closer you saw that, exactly like a mirror, what was there and whitely bright wasn’t the mystical bird, but you.

So the scorpion nest had seemed that afternoon to him, he thought, but didn’t say. Glittering mirrorlike, a tempting thing, a dangerous thing because it was venomous but deceived the eye with its awesome beauty. Be the measure of everything within you. Your must not push it off onto the image of someone else outside you, onto the shoulders of something beyond, real as they might be and important or beautiful in the world. The mirror is you. And who am I to have them hear me, ‘charismatic imam’, a pathetic Navy Muslim chaplain, jobless before I found this job, passed over for the post at the Fairfax, Virginia mosque?

End of mission. He was finished speaking. The C.I.A. man was walking away. He’d taken his Thuraya satellite phone out of the holster and was calling, aiming its antenna at the sky where the satellite by which it communicated with the Earth perhaps was. The phone was made by a company in the Emirates. Poetic justice, Adnan thought. In Arabic ‘thuraya’ is the name of the constellation Pleiades. The man from Naval Intelligence ran after the C.I.A. man. He grabbed him and he swung around, standing ready as if for a scuffle. The O.N.I. man shouted at him that he was violating protocol, that the operation must be kept dark for eight more hours, and the C.I.A. man shouted back that he was only calling up his Blackhawk ride and who the fuck was going to detect one satellite ping a thousand miles off in an ocean? The O.N.I. man said he could have done it in person if he’d been willing to move his ass twenty-five feet to step through the rear hangar hatch. The O.N.I. man lunged, grabbing the phone away from the C.I.A. man –one dog stealing another dog’s bone. They squared off –the C.I.A. man bulky and big and easily able to overpower the O.N.I. man—dogs fighting over a bone.  The C.I.A. man grabbed the phone still in the O.N.I. man’s hands, and they jerked back and forth jointly around the phone –two dogs at the bone grappling. Then suddenly they relaxed and backed away off from each—dogs dog-tired of the contest, sheathing their snapping teeth. The O.N.I. man hand the phone back and the C.I.A man holstered it. The C.I.A. man moved off, starting to climb the rear deck ladder past the Tomahawk and Sea Sparrow launching cells, on up to the ladder to the helicopter launching pad. On the forth rung he tripped on the laces of his untied Chippewas and tumbled over backward onto the hard deck. He lay on his back, flailing like the beetle in the niche in the bricks, Adan thought, then rolled over and started struggling to stand up. The O.N.I. man came over and helped him. Back on his feet, the C.I.A. man stood there a moment as if checking for damage, then continued on up the ladder. His boot laces remained untied. My words will change nothing, Adnan thought. The elevator doors of the helopad had opened and a Blackhawk helicopter was rising up out of its hanger. As the Blackhawk’s rotors began moving, the C.I.A. man mounted into the shaking craft. For a moment it seemed like it would tip over as he got in. Then it leveled gracefully, gained force against the pull of gravity and lifted away like a falcon rising up on a thermal smaller and smaller into the sky, until it vanished and the Ghost Dance and its inhabitants were alone on the sea.

Andrew Ross is a writer of technical and medical pieces, now writing short fiction and CNF. His work has appeared in ‘Isthmus’ and ‘Ganga Review’.