and his book:
Stepping away from his roles as professor, historian, and creator of “compassionate conservatism,” Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine has penned an edge-of-your-seat novel that educates as well as it informs.
SCIMITAR’S EDGE is the story of four unique Americans on a journey that takes them to a world of great beauty and great danger. Olasky uses his vast knowledge of the culture to pen a tale about the War on Terror that is so realistic it might have been taken from today’s headlines.
A FEW QUESTIONS WITH THE AUTHOR
1. What’s the book about?
At its basic level it’s about Americans who go to Turkey for a vacation — I spent a month there two years ago — and are kidnapped by Turkish Hezbollah; the question then is how to get away and whether to forget about the whole thing or attempt to fight back. In another sense Scimitar’s Edge is about America and the war against terrorism: Now that it’s almost five years since 9/11 many of us almost seem to be on vacation again, but the terrorists are not.
2. You’re a journalist and professor by trade, with about 18 non-fiction books in your past. What led you to turn to fiction?
Largely fun. In one sense I was playing SIM Turkey: Drop four people into a harsh foreign environment, give them action and adventure, build a romance … I grew to like the characters and wanted to see what they would do. I also enjoyed the challenge: I’ve written lots of nonfiction books and know how to do that,
but this was all new.
3. Is your research for fiction different from your nonfiction research?
The trunk is common – as I traveled through Turkey I took notes on geography, food, customs, and so forth – but the branches differ. My nonfiction research emphasizes accuracy concerning what has happened; for example, every quotation
has to be exactly what a person said. In fiction, though, I’m
inventing dialogue, yet everything that happens has to be true to the characters and the situation.
4. What’s been the feedback from your fans since your switchto fiction? Oh, are there fans?
Actually, I’ve gotten excellent reactions from many of the folks who like my nonfiction. A few worry about sexual allusions – one of the characters is a serial adulterer and two of the others, as they fall in love, encounter sexual tension. Scimitar’s Edge is also an action/adventure novel so there’s some shooting, and one of the main characters is a terrorist who relishes lopping off heads. So anyone who wants a sugary book should look elsewhere.
5. You also include some descriptions of what’s been called “the forgotten holocaust” a century ago, and explain some Turkish history.
Turkey was the proving ground for the first sustained governmental attempt at genocide, as Turks killed over one million Armenians and sent many to concentration camps; Hitler admired that effort. But Turkey has often been a central player in world affairs, not a backwater. Nearly two millennia ago Turkey became a Christian stronghold: The seven churches John addresses in the book of Revelation, for example, were in what is now Western Turkey. Going back one millennium, what is now Turkey was the front line for a clash of Christian and Muslim cultures.
6. I know you wrote your doctoral dissertation about film and politics from the 1930s through the 1960s, a time when Westerns were one of the dominant genres, and I see certain Western-like elements in this book.
Westerns came in about seven different varieties, and one of them was called the “revenge Western,” where a bad man has killed a beloved person and the hero heads out to bring him to justice. In nuanced Westerns the hero at various points asks himself whether his end justifies his means and whether it’s worth giving up a lot to carry out what he planned. An internal struggle of that sort occurs in this book as well.
7. Scimitar’s Edge is an unusual novel that combines action against terrorists with quotations from Walker Percy. In fact, the book ends with an allusion to one of Percy’s most enduring characters, Will Barrett. Were you consciously trying to walk a knife-edge between high-brow and low-brow culture?
Not consciously; that’s just where I am myself. Since evangelicals are sometimes disparaged as dumb, some press to show we’re not by tossing around Latin phrases or going to opera rather than popular movies — not that there’s anything wrong with opera, as long as there’s a car chase within the first five minutes. To me it comes down to enjoying the pleasures God gives us, including those from both popular culture and literary culture.
8. Are you planning a sequel?
When I talk with students about careers we discuss the importance of both internal calling and external calling – do you feel God’s pleasure as you do something, and do other people think you’re good at it? I feel the internal call to write more novels; I’m trying to discern the external call from readers.
Note: All present-day characters are fictional except for the media and political personalities in chapter sixteen and one character in chapter twenty-one: There really is a Metropolitan Ozmen at the Deur-ul Zaferan Monastery near the Turkish- Syrian border.
Descriptions of historical characters are factual. Suleyman Mahmudi did build Castle Hosap in southeastern Turkey in 1643.
The chess game in chapter fourteen derives from one played by Gustav Richard Neumann and Adolf Anderssen in Berlin in 1864, but then it was not a matter of life or death.
She peered out cautiously. Ever since her last book, threats from Hezbollah terrorists had come as fast as the sewage ran after heavy rains. One fatwa against her read, “She has confused and poisoned Muslims with her Western ideas. She deserves death.”
But it was only a man, Trafik Kurban, whose ailing mother she had helped. They had met in the room at the hospital where the old woman was dying of lung cancer. Trafik’s hollow cheeks and chain-smoking habits made generational continuity likely, but he had seemed friendly enough as he joked about his favorite American film, The Wizard of Oz. Zeliha opened the door to him.
“I have a present for you in my car,” he said, taking her hand in his own—it was sticky soft—and pointing to a white Mitsubishi that sat at the curb. “You showed yourself a true daughter of Turkey during my mother’s duress, and I want to thank you.”
Zeliha looked up and down the street but saw no danger signs. She smiled and followed him to the vehicle. Trafik reached in, pulled out a three-foot-tall scarecrow stuffed with straw, and handed it to her. She gave it a puzzled look before smiling and saying, “It’s lovely.”
Then Trafik stuck a needle into her arm and shoved her into the car.
She came to in a dank basement. At first all she could sense was the overpowering smell of onions. The odor hung in the air and left her struggling for breath. Her hands were bound behind her back, her legs tethered to a pillar. All was quiet, but then she heard movement and conversation on the floor above.
She strained to catch what was being said. A man with a booming voice. He sounded joyous. “Passed the initiation . . . Trafik, one of us . . . member of Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah! So Trafik was not just a petty criminal. Hezbollah! Instantly she knew what would happen though her tormentors made her wait. She lost track of the time and must have dozed because when she awoke her throat was parched and a glass of water sat just beyond her reach.
She often heard the man with the loud, harsh voice talking and then laughing outside the door. When the door opened, the smell of fresh bread wafted into the room. Only when her mouth was as dry as Saudi sand and her stomach cramped from hunger did the loud man enter. Even then he was patient, standing for a time just staring at her.
Finally he leaned close, smelling of garlic, his thick black mustache tickling her check. Spit from his mouth sprayed her face. “You wanted to be Turkey’s Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasrin, eh? They deserve to die, and you will.”
On the first day he beat her. On the second day he dripped burning nylon on her, all the time complaining that he had to use primitive torture devices because her Western allies kept him from getting modern electroshock devices. He demanded information about the members of her conspiracy. She explained that there was no conspiracy, that she had only written what was true. He became furious.
Upstairs she could hear The Wizard of Oz playing nonstop, with the Munchkins’ song turned up loud to cover up her screams. She imagined Trafik was watching, and her one hope was that he would come to see her so she could ask him how he felt betraying the woman who had been his dying mother’s only friend. Trafik did not descend, but she heard him chortle as the Wicked Witch screamed, “I’m melting, melting.”
Finally he did stand in front of her, but instead of displaying remorse he held a camera. As the loud man did his work, Trafik silently recorded the ravages of torture. Summoning her remaining strength, Zeliha spat at him. “How could you do this?” But before he answered, if he answered, she lost consciousness and never returned to life.
Providence Community Church in South Philadelphia was hosting its end-of-the-school-year rally. Five hundred members of church youth groups from the Philadelphia and Wilmington areas came to hear a hot rock band and enjoy a cookout, with a skit about the danger of growing gang violence sandwiched in between.
The band was hammering at high decibels in the low-lit sanctuary. Teens stood on the pews, swaying and clapping to the music. No one noticed a young man entering through the double doors at the back. A white and blue bandanna covered his head and an obscenity-laden T-shirt hung nearly to his knees, still not far enough to reach the crotch of his baggy blue jeans. His right arm was tattooed with spiderwebs, “laugh now, cry later” clown faces, and the name “Luis.” His right hand held a .38. Before a greeter could offer a welcome, Luis sent a bullet through one guitar and another clanging into a microphone stand.
As the band members froze in confusion, teens in the audience laughed and applauded the clever opening to the skit. A third bullet tore into the bass drum and sent the band members scurrying.
A lone voice yelled, “He’s shooting at us! Duck down!” The skinny youth pastor, looking not much older than the kids who packed the dark sanctuary, stood up and waved his arms wildly. “This is not the gang skit. This is for real.” His voice cracked, sending the crowd into fits of laughter. Suddenly his left arm jerked wildly and a red stain spread over the sleeve of his white shirt. “Get down in the pews!” he screamed.
Kids close to him began to yell and duck under their pews. Those on the other side still thought they were part of an interactive skit. “Paintball!” one boy yelled. “Awesome!”
Luis was outraged. “Shut up! All of you just shut up! Enough of this Jesus crap!”
One girl whispered, “Can he say that in church?” The boy next to her shouted, “Wash your mouth out with soap!” His friends gave him high fives.
The shooter turned and glowered at them, cursing in a combination of Spanish and English, swinging the gun from side to side as he sidled away from the doors and snarled, “Where’s Carlos?” He snapped off two shots, hitting a girl. She screamed, moved her hand to her shoulder, looked at her red-stained fingers, and screamed again: “He shot me!”
Her voice reflected shock and betrayal. That’s when panic set in.
Across the parking lot in the church manse the old air conditioner rat-a-tatted as Washington Post national security correspondent Halop Bogikian finished his interview of pastor David Carrillo, known for his work with gangs. This was an unusual assignment for Hal, but reports of Al-Qaeda connections with a Hispanic gang, Mara Salvatrucha—MS-13 for short—were surfacing; and his editor thought he should learn about the gang and the possibility that it could smuggle an atomic bomb across the border.
The journalist and the pastor sat across from each other at a round oak table in the book-lined study. Carrillo leaned back in his chair, a smile playing around his lips. Hal thought the pastor too relaxed, too comfortable in his own skin, so it was time to pounce. Leaning forward, pen poised above his reporter’s notebook, thin and wiry Hal searched the pastor’s face. “You’re saying that hard-core gang members, even members of MS-13, get religion and turn from their wicked ways?”
“I know you don’t believe it, but that’s what often happens.” Hal shook his head as though dealing with an imaginative six-year-old. “Church and state issues aside, why should anyone believe that gang members will give up power—and what seems to them an efficient way to get money—for God?”
Carrillo smiled. “I’m not expecting you to take my word for it. A young man, Carlos, is waiting in the living room. He has a remarkable story to tell you if you’ve got the time.”
Hal glanced at his watch. He wanted to get back on the road to Washington. This whole trip to Philly had been a mistake, proving once again that you couldn’t trust an editor to know the elements of a decent story. He began to offer an excuse as he capped his pen, but the pastor looked like a little kid who had called him chicken. Hal removed the cap from his pen. “OK, I’ll listen.”
Carrillo opened the door to the living room. “Hey, Carlos, come on in.” A heavy-set boy with a bad case of acne shuffled into the room, his pants dragging on the floor. His black hair was slicked back from his face, and the beginning of a wispy black goatee shaded his jaw. Though he was seventeen, his voice cracked when he spoke: “Me and my friends joined a street gang last year, La Mara Salvatrucha. Guys call it MS-13.”
Hal nodded, thinking, Here comes one more of those born-again stories.
“A couple of weeks ago, a little after midnight, three of us were standing near a 7-11, and some chicas cruised by, shouting insults at us. Our leader, Luis, hurled a bottle at them, but they kept going. Then a few minutes later we saw this big old Chevy come by. Three guys from the South Side Locos with baseball bats. They chased us into the projects.”
Hal thought, Might as well get some more human interest. He began writing.
“Luis said, ‘Let’s get our machetes and show them.’ Those Locos saw us coming out and ran, man. It was funny. But one of them tripped. The others kept going, so we caught him. I kicked him a couple of times. But Luis said, ‘Let’s teach the Locos that they can’t mess with MS-13.'”
Carlos was silent for a time. He pulled a chain out of his pocket, which he twisted and twined between his fingers. The faint roar of noise from the nearby highway continued. A car backfired.
The pastor said, “Sounds like the concert is over. I’m not hearing the bass.” Hal took another look at his watch and tried not to let the kid see how impatient he was to be off.
Carlos started up again: “OK, I want to get this off my chest. Luis started to nick that guy with his machete: hands, head, all over. I tell you, Luis is more loco than the Locos. He covers his whole body with MS-13 tattoos. But when he started to cut that guy’s fingers off it was bad, real bad.”
Hal’s pen flew over the page of his notebook. He kicked himself for not bringing a tape recorder. While he wrote, trying to capture the cadence of the boy’s speech, he felt the first flutter of excitement: This could be a good column, maybe even award winning.
Across the table the boy’s voice stopped. Hal looked up from his notebook and saw Carlos crying. “The guy was screaming. I was screaming. Luis kept cutting. Left only the thumb. He laughed and said the guy could hitch a ride home. That’s when I decided I had to get out. My mom could tell something was wrong. She nagged me nonstop and wouldn’t get off my back until I came to talk to the preacher.”
Just then a young woman ran in. “Pastor, come quick.” Hal took in bright hazel eyes, slender neck, soft shoulders, and a name tag reading “Sally.” He had never seen anyone so lovely. Then her words sank in: “Someone’s shooting in the sanctuary. I’ve called 911.”
Carrillo jumped up and headed out the door to the church building. Carlos’s face blanched. “Luis! It’s gotta be. He’s gonna kill me.” He looked desperately for a place to hide. Sally bit her upper lip. “Stay here. You’ll be safe.” She looked up at Hal as though seeing him for the first time: “You stay with him.”
Hal said, “Can’t. I’m a reporter.” He grabbed his pad and slammed through the front door toward his car. He heard Sally’s scornful voice at his back: “That figures. He wants to be first with the story.” She gave Carlos a reassuring pat on the back before following the pastor.
Carrillo entered the sanctuary through a side door and surveyed the scene. Children cowered behind the pews as Luis stalked back and forth, careful to stay away from doors and windows. “I want that traitor! Where is Carlos?” he kept yelling.
Carrillo took a step into the sanctuary: “Put the gun down, son. This is a house of God.”
Luis sneered and swore at him. Carrillo kept his voice even. “You haven’t killed anyone,” he said, hoping it was true. “The police will be here soon. It will be better for you if you put the gun down.”
“Shut up! I don’t want more Jesus junk like the lies you told Carlos. I should just shoot you and put you out of your misery. Want to die?”
Carrillo said evenly, “You can shoot me if you want. I’m not afraid to die. I know where I’m going.”
“Don’t give me any heaven stuff,” Luis screamed. “I can turn this place into hell. My boys and me are gonna nuke the city. And I’ll start with you.” He pulled the trigger, and Carrillo felt a piercing pain on the right side of the chest. As he crumpled to the floor, the shooter turned his gaze toward the front of the sanctuary.
Suddenly a voice from the back demanded, “Drop your weapon.”
Sally stood just outside the side door through which the pastor had entered. With her foot she held the door open about six inches. She could see Carrillo on the floor. The mystery speaker was outside her line of vision. She strained to hear police sirens.
Luis ran past the side door toward the back. She could hear his heavy breathing and his heavy footfall on the tile floor. He raised his gun and fired twice. Then Sally heard an answering shot and the metallic sound of a gun being kicked across the floor. She opened the door cautiously and saw Luis on the floor, and a shadowy figure walking away.
With no time to puzzle over the identity of the second shooter, Sally pushed open the door completely and crab-walked to the pastor as he moaned and a rising chorus of cries filled the sanctuary. Carrillo’s shirt was soaked with blood. Sally looked vainly for something to use to staunch the bleeding, before settling on her skirt. She unzipped it and slipped it off, then bunched it up and pressed it into the wound.
She waited for the sirens. What’s taking so long? she thought. She hadn’t prayed for a long time, but she did now, although it was more of a complaint: God, how could you let this happen? What’s the point?
As the first police cars fishtailed into the church parking lot, followed by ambulances, Hal started up his Jetta, which he’d parked on the street across from the manse. The hand that had held the Colt .45 shook, and he wished that he still smoked. He didn’t know if he’d killed Luis or not; he hoped not. Not knowing whether he should stay, he asked himself what the penalty was for a person with one shooting in his past using an unlicensed gun to save lives. He decided not to stay and find out.
As Hal headed onto the highway, he called his editor, gave him the outlines of the story, and said wire service reporters would be there soon. Brushing off demands that he stay and do the reporting, he used the sentence he had used many times before: “If you don’t like it, fire me.” Sometimes editors had complied.
He turned on the radio, scanning the stations until he found a news-talk station where some caller was blathering about delays at airport checkpoints. He was about to jab the button again when he heard a special bulletin giving brief details about the shooting. Then the soft voice of an eyewitness identified as Sally Northaway was describing the pastor’s action and telling a reporter, “I’ve never before seen bravery like Reverend Carrillo’s.”
Hal scribbled “Sally” in his reporter’s notebook as he tried to erase the memory of her scornful denunciation when he fled the room. He flipped to another station: “A pastor is in critical condition, and four others plus the accused gunman are wounded. It would have been much worse except for the intervention of an unidentified bystander.”
Hal honked as a Mercedes cut him off. He let a Ford Focus get in front of him as they approached a tollbooth. He turned on the CD player and listened to Patty Griffin’s melancholy voice: There’s a war and a plague, smoke and disaster Lions in the coliseum, screams of laughter, Motherless children, a witness and a Bible, Nothing but rain ahead, no chance for survival.
Hal let himself be lost in her misery and hellish visions, preferring them to his own. Only when he reached the outskirts of D.C. and saw out of the corner of his eye an IKEA store with a sign proclaiming “Manager’s special. Swedish meat balls $5.68. Comes with salad,” did he think about eating. He parked in a huge lot, noting with irritation the SUVs surrounding him.
Hal entered the modern building and immediately felt himself relax. Something about the white walls, cool wood floors, and spare furniture always did that to him, though he didn’t know why. Probably had to do with all the stories of human abuse and torture he’d been forced to endure at his granddad’s knee: IKEA represented cool detachment.
The cafeteria was nearly empty except for a couple drinking coffee by the windows. Hal pointed at the meatballs and said, “No gravy, please. Vegetables instead of potatoes.” He filled his salad bowl with lettuce and added two cherry tomatoes. The cashier rang it up: “$7.10.”
Hal waited a second and said, “Taxes aren’t that much, even here in Maryland. The sign said $5.68.”
The cashier stared at him and replied, “That don’t include the toppings on the salad.”
He stalked back to the salad bar and dumped the tomatoes into their bin. He returned to the register: “How’s that?
The cashier laughed. “Yes, sir.”
Hal took a table away from the windows and as far from the register as he could get. He ate slowly, relishing the meatballs and remembering how his grandparents had told him to chew everything twice and hug every penny. Contemplating how they had nearly starved as small children during the Armenian holocaust that was a sidelight of World War I, he wiped his plate clean, then drove to his apartment in a not-yet-gentrified building east of Capitol Hill.
Outside his door, Hal took in the odor of urine that never went away. One of the neighbor kids had left a couple of matchbox cars in front of his door. He gave them a soft kick that sent them rolling down the corridor. He unlocked his door and stepped into the living room, which was largely filled by an IKEA couch, its once-white cushions turned gray. A round pine table covered with cigarette burns, stains, and words etched into the soft surface by Hal’s too enthusiastic scribbling sat in front of the room’s one window.
One wall was decorated with portraits of Armenian leaders that he’d inherited from his dad. On the opposite wall an entertainment center looked forlorn, with a twelve-inch television in the space allocated for one much larger. A folder containing photos taken of Hal with important politicians was nearly buried beneath a stack of papers. He threw his rumpled blazer onto the couch and flicked on the news. The church shooting received some play, but his role merited only a brief mention at the end: “Police are trying to pin down the identity of the hero who prevented a mass killing today.”
He paced the room, thinking it crazy that he had a good story but couldn’t write it and even had to hope that no one would connect him with the shooting. Maybe it would be best to get out of town for a while. He could use a vacation.
Hal spent the next hour jotting down notes for a presentation he would make the next morning in response to a speech from an academic crank—not just any crank but his freshman roommate from Columbia sixteen years before. Finally, near midnight, he flopped down on his mattress, which lay on the floor next to wire baskets filled with clothes. He complimented himself on his stoicism and lack of concern for material things. But as he drifted uneasily off to sleep, he was asking himself what he did care about.
Also at midnight Washington time—seven a.m. in Antakya, Turkey, the city known in biblical times as Antioch—a man who knew what he cared about convened a meeting in a terrorist safe house to discuss his next move.
The man, Suleyman Hasan, had a Middle Eastern marquee idol’s features—height, thick black mustache, and olive skin. His lieutenant, Trafik Kurban, sat to the right, sucking furiously on a cigarette and grimacing frequently, as if pressing salt on an open wound. Mustafa Cavus, his well-muscled but potbellied special agent, sat to Suleyman’s left in a molded plastic chair, wiping at his nose with a gray handkerchief as he waited for the chief to speak.
The students all wore thick mustaches in imitation of Suleyman as well as school insignia because their leader insisted that his new insurgents have degrees. He had told them in his loud, deep voice, “We do not want to be seen as ignorant and poor people adopting terror out of desperation. We are poets and chess players, not gunmen.”
Tonight Suleyman was so bored that he was soliciting suggestions: “It would be wonderful to have a nuclear bomb, but while we are waiting, what should we do?”
Mustafa and Trafik argued for what they knew how to engineer— more bombings of synagogues and government buildings— but Suleyman shot down that suggestion: “I’d like a vacation from small-scale bombings. They’re the same old same old, as my classmates at the University of Texas used to say. Interns, what do you suggest?”
Sulhaddin perked up: “How about using poisonous gas on a subway train?”
Suleyman shook his head, arguing that it was too random in its effects: “We want to show the world that terror is not anarchy, that we can be precise in dealing even with those who resist Allah.”
Gurkan had been weaned on violent videos: “Let’s take a hostage and film his beheading.”
Suleyman stood up and began pacing: “That’s a good thought. I haven’t kidnapped anyone for a couple of years. But how do we rise above run-of-the-mill hostage-taking?”
The room was silent until Suleyman pulled from a bookcase a small volume with yellowed pages. “I have an idea. I have studied the work of my ancestor Abu’l-Hasan al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah, peace be unto him. A brilliant scholar, he died in Baghdad in 1058, but first he discoursed on how to treat captured enemies. He gave four possible actions. The first of the four is to put them to death by cutting their necks.”
“Yes, neck-cutting is good,” Mustafa said in his high, puffy voice. “What are the others?”
“The emir also may enslave captives,” Suleyman recited, almost seeming to go into a trance. “He may show favor to them and pardon them. He may ransom them in exchange for goods or prisoners.”
“That would be fun,” Fadil said. “We’d see the captives squirm, competing for our favor.”
Suleyman stroked his mustache and agreed: “This could be a pleasant vacation activity while our allies work on finding nuclear materials. We could show the world that we act thoughtfully, in accordance with our history.”
He paused in contemplation, and the room was again silent until Suleyman clapped his hands and said, “Yes, let’s do it. We may have to wait a while, but I would like to capture four Americans vacationing in our country and use all four of my ancestor’s options.”
“An elegant plan,” Mustafa exulted.
Suleyman spelled out the details: “We will cut the neck of one captive. A second will be a woman to enslave so we can repay the Americans for the way they treat women. A third we will pardon, so that person will tell the world our story along with one important detail: that we are ready to ransom a fourth.”
“Brilliant,” Trafik coughed.
“Excellent,” Suleyman smiled. “We will do our scouting and find the right group of four. We will all have a wonderful vacation.”