‘ISIS: A Love Story’ turns the worlds most nefarious terrorist organization into a queer Romeo & Juliet
Gay erotica novels, as with most erotica, often turn quickly into sleazy midnight reading, but a new story which portrays two low-level Islamic State warriors as secret lovers offers a unique and surprisingly tasteful take on a controversial subject.
Written by Abu Salaam, the book comes in at a cool 120 pages that you can breeze through in an evening. But what lies on the pages is worth far more than a simple glance.
ISIS: A Love Story opens with an explosives-strapped Toyota pickup truck barreling through the desert towards an “enemy” compound. We immediately meet Ali and Majnun, two young ISIS warriors, as they play their part in the unfolding raid. Bullets are whizzing by their heads but the two persevere to fight another day in the name of IS.
The concept of humanizing ISIS fighters, who have been responsible for some of the most ghastly acts of modern terrorism, is taboo alone, but Salaam has crafted a well written and accessible piece of fiction that goes beyond headlines and finds a story few could tell. It doesn’t take long for the reader to move past the ideology to see a unique and touching relationship develop between the two leads.
The real stand out part of the book comes from its attention to detail. That’s where Salaam’s research into the topic comes into play. He put his self-taught knowledge of Arabic to use and spent years reading news articles and first hand accounts of ISIS attacks and fighters. Then he put his knowledge of the Quran to work providing another unique set of insights into how IS fighters live eat and pray day to day. From the illicit drugs soldiers are issued to keep them alert, to the protocols they face after losing their identity papers – otherwise mundane points are explained in a rich and compelling way.
“I first got the idea for the book after the attacks in Paris in November of last year – I wanted to utilize my unique set of intelligences to craft a counter-narrative to the propaganda that ISIS produces,” Salaam said about where the book’s concept originated. ”After the attack at Pulse in Orlando this summer, I really wanted to get the story out there.”
From there he began crafting Ali and Majnun’s secret love story as a way to counter the pro-ISIS propaganda being disseminated online and around the world.
Salaam said he’s received criticism from both sides of the issue: “the Islam aspect is just a way to take a knock at gays, and… the gay aspect is just a way to knock Islam.” But he wonders if those complaints are coming from folks who haven’t even bothered to read the book.
ISIS: A Love Story author Abu Salaam
For those of us who have (and who enjoyed the hell out of it), Ali and Majnun’s love story is relatable to the broader coming out experience than many might think: it’s forbidden nature, the secrecy required, the confusing set of feelings associated with just discovering your sexuality and finally the unquenchable thirst for feelings from someone you truly love.
Check out this passage below where Majnun is recovering from a nearly fatal wound at a makeshift hospital:
Ali traced his hand from Majnun’s blood and bandage covered abs up to his bare chest. He covered Majnun’s heart with an open palm. “-You lost a lot of blood.” Majnun’s eyes broke from Ali’s hand to meet Ali’s. “How did I survive?” Ali flipped his arm to reveal veins scarred with needle tracks. “I gave you life.” Majnun’s eyes welled. “I wish I didn’t have to take from you; to grow strong as you grow weak.” “I would give everything I have to be with you.” Majnun knew it to be truth, though a small part of him wished it wasn’t.
Sure, some of the lines could be considered a bit hokey or campy, but Salaam aimed to craft the story from an Eastern-perspective. This often leaves sections to read like rough translations instead of a traditional English-first novel.
“All of my characters are from the region,” the author said. “I wouldn’t have been able to write effective dialog without this knowledge.”
And effective is a great way of describing it. Beyond in depth descriptions of settings and events, the scenarios described seem believable in their plainness. When Ali and Majnun are assigned to a boarder station, the scene details the monotony of the scenario – how the two spend most of their time getting trained and the rest trying to avoid the sun.
But it’s not all military routines, and action comes fast and furious. For example, after a stretch of time guarding at the board crossing, Ali and Majnun find themselves caught mid embrace. But before their ranking officer has time to report them for lewd acts, the crossing post is attacked and the ranking officer is shot in the head. The tow lovers then must trek through the desert and find a way to signal help without getting shot as is protocol for most unexpected visits from speeding, blood soaked vehicles.
The climactic ending also offers insight into the struggles a gay ISIS fighter might feel. When they witness the brutal execution of two men for being gay, Ali and Majnun find themselves debating how they could possibly live in their world and love each other in an authentic way without facing a similar end.
It’s easy to compare what the characters are going through to LGBTQ folks in more conservative parts of the US where such love is similarly, though not as harshly, punished.
ISIS: A Love Story is sure to prick some people the wrong way, and don’t walk into this thinking Salaam is the next Robert Frost of jihaderotica, but you can easily pick up a digital copy from Amazon, pour yourself a glass of red wine, and live in a completely foreign, gay world for an evening.
“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” (Neil Gaiman)December 12, 2014
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