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No Less than Thirty

His father died three years after his sister was born. They were poor before his death but his loss made them even poorer, forcing his mother to clean houses and take in washing for little money, just enough to pay for renting a single room and very simple food. They wore mostly second-hand clothes donated by friends, neighbours and customers who no longer had need of them. When he was only six years old his mother sent him to the mosque to learn the Quran.

"I want to go to school," he protested.

"School, school?" his mother shouted. "And who is going to pay for your clothes, books, notebooks and pens?"

So every morning before sunrise he went to the mullah with the Quran under his arm, the one bought by his father many years before his birth and wrapped first in brown wool and then in green nylon fabric. He put it on the Quran holder and repeated the words emerging from the mouth of the mullah, together with those of the other children, their voices united in harmony. Their learning time was an hour, but he stayed longer because he did not attend school and there would be no surprise for breakfast: always the two- or three-day-old bread his mother brought home from work. During this time when the mosque was empty, the mullah sat next to him, touching his face, his hair and his back and said, "You are learning well."

Some years later the mullah suggested to his mother that the boy assist him in mosque matters. In return he would arrange for the community to pay a small amount of money to help with living expenses.

"When he has learned everything he will be a mullah like myself in a mosque," his mother was told.

"You know best, Mullah Sahib," the mother agreed.

The mullah became his teacher, his father-figure and his spiritual leader.

"This world is shallow; we must build our house in another one. There should be no attachment as everything here is artificial and temporary. In the other world there are rivers of honey, milk and wine, and houris await us if we follow the path of Allah. Each houri is a thousand times more beautiful than the most beautiful woman in this world, and they never lose their virginity no matter how often you sleep with them."

"How many houris can you have?" he asked.

"It depends, but the person who carries out jihad in the name of Allah would definitely have thirty."

"Thirty? That is too much for one person."

"Don't worry, Allah would give you enough strength to satisfy them all. What you need to do here is to shut your eyes. Don't look at these women, don't even think about them."

"I don't, Mullah Sahib."

"And if you do, there will be greater punishment than you ever imagined. You will be bitten by the most venomous of snakes, you will be burned to the core and then you will regain consciousness to receive the same punishment all over again in hell."

The fear of punishment made him depressed, and he wished his life to be short so that he would have little time for committing sins. And yet at night the image of the houri, the most beautiful of women, would not leave him. He had many wet dreams and was ashamed. But it was nothing compared to one night as he lay in bed, his eyes on the ceiling, trying not to listen to the Indian film songs coming from the neighbours' house, when without control his hand went to his genitals and created a fizzy taste in his mouth. It was as if his bones were twisting inside his body. He couldn't stop and when he reached orgasm, it felt as though someone had pulled his whole being out of his body. Almost immediately a huge sense of guilt overwhelmed him. He had surely committed a great sin. One day the mullah told him that "the hand of the person masturbating will become alive on Judgment Day and say: give life to your child, now that I am pregnant with your semen. I have your child in me."

He was the first person to enter the hammam in the morning, and the last to leave. He covered himself with layers of soap and splashed buckets of water over his body with frantic energy, making the others watch him in surprise. There was no way he would be clean again. Tired out, he looked at his right hand and with tears in his eyes said, "Allah, please don't punish me, I can't give life to this pregnant hand."

Some days later he waited for the mullah to finish teaching his students.

"I want to go for jihad, Mullah Sahib!" he said.

"What?"

"I am ready to die in the name of Allah."

"What has made you decide this?"

"I do not want to live in this sinful world," he said with his eyes lowered. "I am scared that if I live long, I will commit many sins. You said that this life passes fast and is artificial."

"Have you thought of your mother and sister?"

"Allah will provide and he would look after them."

The mullah was moved by such commitment. He got up from his cushion and kissed the boy's forehead.

"Praise be to Allah my son."

"You told me you knew someone who made bombs. Tell me how it works."

"He will strap to your body a bomb with a switch. You will approach the army compound and wait by the gate. You won't rush. Wait for the American soldiers to arrive and then press the button. But do not be scared, my son. As soon as you press the button, you will be on the other side in heaven, with thirty houris to welcome you."

Two weeks later he met the bomb-maker, a Chechen who had come to Afghanistan with the Russian army to fight against the Mujahedeen, but then had switched sides to become a mujahid. The Chechen told him he had fought in Kashmir, Kosovo and Pakistan.

The army compound had been built at the edge of the desert, and it was hot in that month of August, making the bomb-waistcoat stick to his body. Sweat ran down his temples, his neck, his chest and his back as far as his pants. He had forgotten to drink any water that morning, and now the burning sun was blinding him. He felt weak and scared, and yet as the mullah had instructed, he did not rush to take action. By midday he was so tired and hot that he almost abandoned the mission, but then luck came to him. He saw an army vehicle with American soldiers approaching the gate. As they came closer, he ran into the middle of the dusty road, shouted Allah o Akbar and pressed the button. He heard the sound of bullets and then everything went dark.

When he opened his eyes a beautiful woman wearing a heavenly white dress was smiling at him. He smiled back, looking around. The room was empty.

"Where are the other twenty-nine houris?" he asked.

"They will be here soon. Now you just go back to sleep," she said, and pulled the sheet over him.

He drifted off, losing consciousness once more. Only later did he find out that he had been in hospital for the past three weeks.