I guess I’ll go to Heaven, he imagines, waiting for death in a hospital room. Dying a Muslim, in debt to nobody. He might have sinned, but isn’t Allah all-merciful?
Family members gathered around his bed, glued to the TV dangling from the ceiling. Everything is orderly and clean. In this Lilliputian city of Central Anatolia, far from the world’s bizarre affairs, they are heartwarmingly grateful to the Islamist government for constructing this modern health facility.
But nothing helps when destiny reveals itself. Suddenly, he has a seizure followed by extreme chest pain. This must be it. The final breath is about to escape his mortal flesh, like a genie emerging from Aladdin’s lamp. Within a few seconds, he tumbles into an abyss.
The layered voice comes from a black woman with dreadlocks adorning her head. She stands on an illuminated platform like a solo singer on a stage, holding no resemblance to either Munkar or Nakir, the angels who test the faith of the freshly dead. The orangeness of her dress almost gives slight burns to his eyes.
To make things worse, she is also half-naked.
This first encounter with the seeming afterlife fuddles him, but he remembers from a Friday sermon that, even after death, the devil never stops deceiving human beings until they land in Heaven, the final and eternal destination for the blessed.
“Now, sweetheart, let’s see what you did down there,” she says as if she wishes to get humdrum formalities out of the way. Some figures appear before her like a transparent computer screen flimsily materializing in the air. Her eyes try to catch the numbers and letters gushing out.
“No offense, baby, but your life was so miserably dull,” she concludes, hands on hips, “but technically, you’re entitled to go to paradise.”
The expeditious reckoning and its euphoric result make Hasan feel like the immense darkness swathing them expands as if they are inside Jonah’s whale, and the beast takes a deep breath.
But the woman seems curious still as she bends over until her head is a few inches from Hasan’s face. She gently presses her plump fore and index fingers onto the center of his forehead. Their looks lock momentarily in suspense. She chuckles, lifting her finger and wagging it in disapproval. “Alright, not that boring, you naughty boy!” she says.
Annoyed by her, Hasan scans his memory to determine which one of his sins is the most embarrassing. “I believe in Allah,” he cries dutifully afterward, trying to find his way out of trouble, “No devil can deceive me!”
The woman’s sudden burst into laughter in response to Hasan’s undisguisable blush makes her one-piece dress slip. Struggling to avoid looking, he haplessly wonders why he is still having lustful thoughts, even though he is now free of the flesh.
In the meantime, a round magical hole emerges in front of him. A hazy, soft beam of light shines through the center. The darkness surrenders to it instantly. “This is a gate to Heaven,” the woman explains, “you can have a quick tour if you like. But remember, it’s only a preview, not the real thing.”
It puts a simper on Hasan’s face. He knows the believers become permanent residents of Allah’s land only after the apocalypse, so a glimpse into it would make it easier to wait until then.
“I’ll take it from here,” bellows a clarion voice with a hand reaching out from the luminous opening. “May Allah bless you, dearest Ridwan!” exclaims the woman, as she slowly vanishes into the timeless space.
The name just mentioned washes most of Hasan’s doubts away as he recalls Ridwan being the angel who protects Heaven’s gates. He would feel like a baby in a mother’s womb, however, if Ridwan’s bodily appearance is fittingly angelic, rather than sickly and pale like a tuberculosis patient.
Nevertheless, the most exquisite tour a mortal being could ever desire takes off with Hasan treading on the marshmallow-like surface, rummaging through his surroundings to find anything familiar.
Despite his expectations in their zenith, it is a fruitless endeavor all and all. The view is crystal clear, yet he cannot entirely grasp the vastness of shapes, fluidity of colors, and tardily changing distances between things. It reminds him of the day his youngest son dragged him to a 4D movie theater, where he vomited his guts out.
That’s why he feels dazzled and nauseated when Ridwan stops him in front of a detached one-story building. Following an instinctive squint, “It is… a barbershop,” he stutters.
“It is, in fact, a loose replica of the one you used to go to,” Ridwan clarifies. With some exceptions, though. The floors are brand new and ultraclean, and the barber looks like a homeless man with a long messy beard and a tatty outfit.
Still, the barber’s chair has always been a place of serenity for him on Earth, and now, it makes him let go of the thoughts like what is the point of hairdressing in Heaven.
As he looks at the mirror on the wall, he sees a younger version of himself and then remembers that every human being will be at the age of thirty-three in paradise. That is what his grandmother had told him when he was a child. “What happens, then, if someone dies before thirty-three?” he had asked her but received a scolding instead of an answer.
On the right side of the mirror, Hasan detects a verse from the Quran. It is in the original language, but to his astonishment, he can understand it. Before death, he could read but did not understand Arabic except for a few words. He even mutters what’s written on the wall in his language: “You will enter the Sacred Mosque, Allah willing, with assurance, heads shaven, or hair cut short, not fearing…”
This makes him feel witty.
The barber, meanwhile, prepares his customer for a proper shave, snipping the air with glowing silver scissors. “How do you like your hair?” he asks.
Puzzled by the question, “I’m O.K. with your taste,” replies Hasan. The barber sighs, thinking that some human beings are a waste of potential, considering their gracious maker. Hasan realizes that he can read thoughts, but chooses to remain silent.
During the shave, the barber poses abundant questions about Hasan’s family and friends. He is almost as chatty as his earthly counterparts. Talking about loved ones makes Hasan go through an urgent longing. Do they miss me? Will my children read Yâ Sîn for my soul every Friday? Will they also manage to get into Heaven? The barber interrupts these thoughts. “Why would they go to hell?”
“I’m worried about my children,” he replies, realizing that reading minds goes two ways. “They’re living in a big city, where, you know, the line between haram and halal gets blurry. Thanks to Allah, they’re still Muslims, so they have a chance.”
The barber leans over with a flabbergasted face. “If they were not Muslims, couldn’t they make it into the Almighty’s eternal home?”
This leaves Hasan conflicted. No one can question Allah’s judgment, of course, but isn’t Heaven for Muslims only?
When the shave ends, Ridwan thanks the barber and guides Hasan to fresh air. Hasan’s nose is still drunk with the heavy tobacco cologne the barber poured on his face, a bitter scent that brings his father to mind, invoking a sudden urge to pull himself together.
A golden golf cart with scattered dark rubies on its surface is waiting for them outside. “Let’s take a ride,” Ridwan shouts, as he settles into the driver’s seat.
The ride is unusual since the cart seems immobile, but the landscape is moving. As his eyes acclimate to this preview model of Heaven, he gets that the setting resembles the cartoons that Hasan’s children were crazy about when they were kids. Beige clouds in perfect shapes, spotless light blue skies, immense yellow fields, and green meadows dispersed here and there. It is disappointing that there aren’t gardens beneath which rivers flow or orchards of pure pleasure as advertised.
“I wish we were living in a cartoon land,” his wife used to say, as though the absurdity of the physical laws in that world would give them the pure freedom that they all longed for.
“This place,” Ridwan’s voice pulls Hasan back to himself, “is filled with every artistic work that human beings have ever created, including bright ideas never executed.” He points to a giant tower spiraling up into the sky. “You’ll have all the time to enjoy it,” he chuckles.
“All the humans?” he asks, unsettled. “Not only Muslims?”
Ridwan’s face falls momentarily, but he starts to explain with patience. “When our Lord told his angels that he would create your kin, we were in disbelief. ‘Will you create a being who will cause corruption and shed blood?’ we asked. ‘I know what you don’t know,’ He replied.”
“With every human being who pushes the boundaries a little further, like those cavemen painting livestock figures on the wall to tell their kids hunting stories, we began to realize that we lack the spark mortals have.”
Hasan remembers the conversation between Allah and his angels before the creation of Adam, as the Quran chronicles it, but what does this have to do with the cavemen?
“So those artists will wander in paradise?” he blurts out.
“Most of them, yes,” the angel responds. “You should have seen Dante when he had a chance to visit hell.”
Hasan hardly knows anything about Dante, but most artists, especially musicians, have immoral lifestyles, according to TV. How can they possibly enter these sacred lands?
His initial fear kicks back. Maybe Allah is still testing my faith, he ponders, so it is better to stay firm.
Ridwan, on the other hand, is still enthusiastic about showing Hasan around. He drives near another enormous building spread horizontally as far as the eye can see. Despite its vastness, the exterior is modest, even prosaic. But its dark blue surface is flickering hypnotically. “In that place,” Ridwan elaborates, “there is a collection of scientific revolutions and inventions that made life on Earth, well, much more interesting.”
“Tell me,” Hasan reacts, succumbing to his anger, “that notorious infidel Thomas Edison – will he be in Heaven, too?!”
It was one of the most controversial topics at the coffeehouse that Hasan had frequented. One day, someone read a newspaper article claiming Edison’s invention of the lightbulb had enlightened all the mosques around the world, all the residences of Muslims, as well as Quran schools. Since billions of believers had benefited from his efforts, shouldn’t he deserve some blessings from their God? Although Hasan has never spoken his mind, he is sure that everyone who denies Allah’s existence must perish in hell.
“Yes, the spark of creation is a golden virtue here,” Ridwan replies warily, “of course, it is not enough to prove your worth as a human being.”
What about unconditional faith? Isn’t it golden? Thoughts ricochet inside Hasan’s mind as he recollects the moments when he felt heavy in his heart because of believing in Allah. The moments of humiliation, confusion, anger, of being called backward, an antique, an old-fashioned fool by people half his age. The time when the school teacher told his kids that there was no god. The instances on TV where rich, well-educated, and good-looking people never speak of the Lord’s name. The hospital visit, during which a know-it-all doctor mocked him for having blind trust in Allah.
“I’ve been proved right; my cancer has gone away,” he fancies himself in glory.
Ridwan keeps driving the cart in silence. They near a rooftop garden with captivating colors and scents which put Hasan’s already weakened grasp of reality into complete dissonance.
“Would you like to see Allah?” the Guard of the Seven Heavens asks as if it is nothing. The question itself shakes Hasan to the core. Soon enough, he finds himself walking towards the twisty stairway that reaches the garden. Mesmerized by the elevated odors of roses and cloves, he feels every bit of his soul crave to see its maker.
As he climbs higher, a hymn sung by a choir of celestial beings starts to resonate. “I am just as my creations think I am,” they repeat on a loop.
He senses an involuntary submission to an unbearable power seeping into his soul. As if what separates him from the rest of the beings, the very essence of his individuality, melts into the air, making him an indistinguishable part of an overwhelming singularity.
At the entrance, Hasan, panting, comes across an open terrace built with ancient rocks and full of densely scattered flowers and plants. A lanky mirror stands in the middle. Unfortunately, his guide is no longer around to explain what he is seeing.
He has almost no idea about the nature of Allah’s existence, a subject that rarely arises in religious talk. “Your tiny minds cannot grasp God’s fabric,” scholars often say to prevaricate the matter.
Now, he doesn’t know what to expect, already feeling disoriented from what he has experienced so far. Estrangement imbues his mind despite walking in a place where he would anticipate some kind of belonging. Everything he did or didn’t do on Earth, he did or didn’t do in longing for Allah’s land, after all.
Soon, the mirror morphs into a giant TV displaying arbitrary scenes from Hasan’s life. At a ferocious pace, it travels through childhood to old age and back. He doesn’t remember most of these memories. He has never enjoyed trips down memory lane and makes a significant effort not to dwell on things. In his experience, thinking too much about the past creates doubt, ambiguity, hesitation, and even regret, emotions he could never afford to have.
To see his worldly life, all sixty-seven years of it, on widescreen, prompts another uncomfortable feeling – a yearning to go back and start it all over again.
Meanwhile, a little girl, seven years old at most, appears from nowhere.
“Come, sit with me, Hasan,” she says in a surprisingly commanding manner, sitting cross-legged a few feet away from the mirror-TV. Hasan involuntarily obeys her while she inquisitively fixes her eyes on the screen.
They watch together over and over until he starts weeping. Tears of unpacked, unresolved, and overripe issues, the entanglements that have been piling up quietly. So unnoticed that he can’t even grasp why tears are streaming down his cheeks.
“Why are people so miserable on Earth?” she asks eventually, her eyes still glued to the screen. “Don’t they know how to be happy?”
Feeling empty inside, “Life is hard in my home country,” he sighs. “I think Allah intends it that way. To test us.”
“Stop blaming me for your mistakes!” she shrills, pointing at the mirror. “Conviction isn’t an excuse for not trying, not daring to change things.”
The little girl’s words pierce Hasan’s mind, distracting him from the reel of his life, and eventually rendering him unable to speak. His face becomes crooked as if electrocuted. What does that mean? Where am I? Could she really be?
“Wake up, Hasan!” she shouts a few times, punching his chest.
In an almost fleeting moment, the girl and the magical mirror vanish. The garden disappears. When Hasan opens his eyes, the hospital room is there. His family is still watching TV.
“What nonsense that was,” he mutters, squirming in pain. And those become the last words of Hasan’s otherwise uneventful life.