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I will never worship what you worship.
Nor will you worship what I worship.
To you, your religion-to me, mine.
Esa Khattak turned his head to the right, offering the universal salaam at the conclusion of the evening prayer. He was seated with his legs folded beneath him on a prayer rug woven by his ancestors from Peshawar. The worn red and gold strands were comforting; his fingers sought them out when he pressed his forehead to the floor. A moment later, his eyes traced them as his cupped palms offered the final supplication.
The Maghrib prayer was for Khattak a time of consolation where along with prayers for Muhammad, he asked for mercy upon his wife and forgiveness for the accident that had caused her death. A nightly ritual of grief relieved by the possibility of hope, it stretched across that most resonant band of time: twilight. The dying sun muted his thoughts, much as it subdued the colors of the ja-namaz beneath him. It was the discipline of the ritual that brought him comfort, the reason he rarely missed it. Unless he was on duty-as he was tonight, when the phone call from Tom Paley disturbed his concentration.
He no longer possessed the hot-blooded certainties of youth that a prayer missed or delayed would bring about a concomitant judgment of sin. Time had taught him to view his faith through the prism of compassion: when ritual was sacrificed in pursuit of the very values it was meant to inspire, there could be no judgment, no sin.
He took the phone call from Tom Paley midway through the prayer and finished up in its aftermath. Tom, the most respected historian at Canada's Department of Justice, would not have disturbed him on an evening when Khattak could just as easily have been off-roster unless the situation was urgent.
CPS, the Community Policing Section that Khattak headed, was still fragile, barely a year into its existence. The ambit was deliberately vague because CPS was a fig leaf for the most problematic community relations issue of all-Islam. A steady shift to the right in Canadian politics, coupled with the spectacular bungling of the Maher Arar terrorism case in 2002, had birthed a generation of activist lawyers who pushed back vigorously against what they called tainted multiculturalism. Maher Arar's saga of extraordinary rendition and torture had mobilized them, making front-page news for months and costing the federal government millions in compensation when Arar had been cleared of all links to terrorism. A hastily concocted Community Policing Section had been the federal government's response, and who better than Esa Khattak to head it? A second-generation Canadian Muslim, his career had seen him transition seamlessly from Toronto's homicide squad to national counterintelligence work at INSET, one of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams. CPS called on both skill sets. Khattak was a rising star with an inbuilt understanding of the city of Toronto's shifting demographic landscape. At CPS, he was asked to lend his expertise to sensitive police investigations throughout the country at the request of senior investigating officers from any branch of government.
The job had been offered to Khattak as a promotion, his acceptance of it touted as a public relations victory. Khattak had taken it because of the freedom it represented: the chance to appoint his own team, and as with INSET, the opportunity to work with partners at all levels of government to bring nuance and consideration to increasingly complex cases.
And for other reasons he had never offered up for public scrutiny.
His mandate was couched in generic terms: sensitivity training for police services, community support, and an alternative viewpoint in cases involving minorities, particularly Muslim minorities. Both he and his superiors understood the unspoken rationale behind the choice of a decorated INSET officer to head up CPS. If Khattak performed well, then greater glory to the city, province, and nation. If he ran into barriers from within the community as he pursued his coreligionists, no one could accuse the CPS of bias. Everyone's hands were clean.
It didn't matter to Khattak that this was how he had been lured into the job by his former superintendent, Robert Palmer. He loved police work. It suited an analytical nature tempered by a long-simmering hunger for justice. And if he was being used, as indisputably he was, he was also prepared to enact his own vision for CPS.
What flame-fanning bigots across the border would doubtlessly call community pandering, a fig-leaf jihad. Take anything a Muslim touched, add the word jihad to it, and immediately you produced something ugly and divisive.
But Tom wasn't one of these. Chief historian at the Department of Justice, he was a gifted academic whose fatherly demeanor masked a passion for the truth as sharp and relentless as Khattak's own.
He had called to ask Khattak to investigate the death of a Scarborough man named Christopher Drayton. There was no reason that CPS should have an interest in the man's death. He had fallen from a section of the Scarborough Bluffs known as the Cathedral. His death had been swift and certain with no evidence of outside interference.
Khattak had pointed this out to his friend in measured tones, and Tom had let him. When he'd finished, Tom gave him the real reason for his call and the reason it encroached upon Khattak's jurisdiction.
Khattak heard the worry and fear beneath Tom Paley's words.
And into the remnants of Khattak's prayer intruded a series of recollections from his youth. Of news reports, hurriedly organized meetings and volunteer drives, followed too slowly by action. He saw himself as a young man joining others in a circle around the flame at Parliament Hill. He absorbed the thick, despairing heat of that summer into his skin. His dark hair flattened against his head; he felt in that moment his own impotence.
He listened to Tom's labored explanation, not liking the hitch in his friend's breath. When Tom came to the nature of his request, Khattak agreed. But his words were slow, weighted by the years that had passed since that summer. Still, he would do as asked.
"Don't go alone," Tom said. "You'll need to look objective."
Khattak took no offense at the phrasing. He knew the unspoken truth as well as Tom did.
Because you can't be.
"I'll take Rachel." He had told Tom about his partner, Rachel Getty, before.
"You know her well enough to trust her?"
"She's the best officer I've ever worked with."
"Not so young that she doesn't understand our work. And I find her perspective helps me."
He meant it. But even as he said it he knew that he would work with Rachel as he had done in the past. Withholding a part of the truth, of himself, until he could see the world through the clear, discerning eyes that watched him with such trust.
He knew he could turn to his childhood friend, Nathan Clare, for background on Drayton. Nate lived on the Bluffs and would understand why he'd agreed to Tom's request. Nate would understand as well the toll compliance would take. But Khattak's bond with Nate had long since been severed. It was a mistake to think Nate still knew him at all.
He'd meant the last words of his prayer to be a blessing asked for his family, in a space he tried to keep for himself, exchanging solitude for solace. Lately, he'd come to accept that there was no separate peace. His work, and the harshness of the choices he had made, bled into everything.
He rose from his prayer rug to find that dusk had given way to dark. He thought of the tiny documents library in Ottawa with its overflowing shelves. He'd spent most of that long-ago summer there, collecting evidence.
And he remembered other words, other blessings to be sought with a premonition of ruin.
They are going to burn us all.
Copyright © 2014 by Ausma Kehanat Kahn