Youssef Rakha

Islam Inc.

It occurred to me that, on an evening like this in the late seventies, when Burroughs lived there, the Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan would have looked no different from this stretch of Champollion Street. Even the dilapidated building whose winding stairway I found myself climbing seemed identical to the former YMCA gym where, without junk at first, Burroughs (at a much later stage in his life than he appeared now) had famously lived. It was surprisingly intimate. Maybe New York wasn’t as different from Cairo as I’d always assumed? We went up two stories and into an apartment that looked exactly as I imagined the Bunker to be, with trash in phenomenal quantities strewn around bits of Second Empire furniture and framed pictures on the walls; I recognized the Shooter’s Supply poster—the black outline of a human figure for target practice—unframed, and a Remington typewriter among some syringes and cotton swabs on a large oval table with no seats. A gooseneck lamp on the edge of that table was the only light.

Burroughs aged thirty-something closed the door to the Manhattan apartment where he was to live aged sixty-something—in Cairo, Egypt. He locked it like a man pursued. Then, taking off his coat and letting it drop on the floor, he unbuckled a shoulder holster with a pistol in it—I had been right about that—and eased it onto the table by the typewriter. Above the sharkskin pants and tired black shoes, he was wearing a simple shirt whose sleeves he proceeded to roll up, undoing the two top buttons as he sat down.

Without a word he nodded to me. Before I knew it—his limbs and torso forming a composite of diagonals against one abstract expressionist painting, large and yellow—he was balanced on a chaise longue, holding an ancient Zippo lighter to a deep, off-color spoon, then with a syringe finding a vein in his left arm and a medical tourniquet above the elbow.

His movements became slower and cooler, more languid, more measured. Otherwise he didn’t seem to be affected by the shot, but it took a while for me to come back into his field of vision. Only then did I realize I was still standing. As I sat down on the armchair opposite, I realized I had been seeing him through a sort of clear screen. Blood, viscid and dark as fig jam, was spurting all over its surface, making nauseating squirting sounds as it stained a millimeter’s thickness of the air between us.

As if he realized what was bothering me, Burroughs chortled and sat up, his shoulders hunched: “But it’s the same inside your body. What is it you’re so disgusted about?” He stood up slowly and sat down again. “You ever hear the one about the Egyptian Partisan?” he started in his trademark staccato drone, as if it was the nineties and he was America’s most famous writer reading his work to a huge audience.

“No. Is that really you? Bill Burroughs?”

“I represent Islam Inc., which means I’m the agent of some secret organization, I forget which.”

“But you’re dead, how—”

“How how how how,” he cawed. “How how how—good heavens, how do you know you’re not the dead one? How, dead, do I know you’re alive? The company sent me to assist you with your mission. Call me Lee,” he cleared his throat. Then, as if to place our exchange in parentheses, he took a pointed breath and leaned forward.

The Egyptian Partisan went around suckling Fundamentalists’ toes. You would, too. Extremely handsome athlete with hypnotic eyes. Got hooked on the Scarlet Constipator, you dig: diabolical preparation of ground Nile crocodile gall bladder, nuciferne and aporphine mixture naturally occurring in the blue water lily, and synthetic tryptamine. Instant metabolic addiction. Constipatees, the addicts are called. Survive on nuts and alcohol. Excrement collects in marble pellets they spontaneously eject once a month. Substance is smoked, sniffed, swallowed, injected, shoved. Hell, I’ve seen Constipatees slicing their arms and pouring the stuff into the gash. Clotty, colorless goo, you dig. Smells sulphuric like a fart. Can be crystallized and pulverized into odorless alcohol-soluble dust. Nothing scarlet about it. Name refers to narcotic effect which deploys the addict in service of Third International, meaning searing yen to dismantle the Institution of Capitalism. Turns you into a Partisan in no time. The more E.P. fought the businessman government in E.—sheer piously uncomprehending blackness of unchecked world market stampeding demonstrations million-man marches protest campaigns awareness-raising leaflets Occupy sit-ins jail sentences confession-less torture by electric shock the gallows—the more Fundamentalists in power. Surely you realize Fundamentalists are more capitalist than Adam Smith. By then S.C. was E. Health Problem Number One and the people in power were all Fundamentalists. As far as they acknowledged existence of S.C., they made it inhumanly expensive. Cut with melted Pritt sticks. E.P.—head growing tadpoles instead of hair, face peeling in blobs of protoplasm, solid wormlike turd permanently dangling out of tattered ass like rabbit tail, motor functions randomly impaired as in ether overdose, mottled fur growing in patches all over the body, and all language communication restricted to “Workers of the world, unite”—is reduced to depending on alms from the Bearded Masters, shrieking “Workers of the world, unite” as if he was saying “Please help me” and slobbering over hands he grabbed to kiss. Taking pity, the Minister buys him as a personal slave. Fundamentalists reintroduced slavery, you dig. Scraping the fungus from under visitors’ toenails is E.P.’s job. A hell of a lot of it. But till you can get some S.C., ingestion of trichophyton rubrum—ringworm of the nail—is indicated. Gives some relief but no hit. Now picture E.P. in above state crawling among swarthy sandaled feet of bearded apes in knee-high white tunics with fungus-marked skin from undried ritual ablutions, begging to orally clean them. Wouldn’t you? “Workers of the world, unite! Workers of the world, unite?” That is what being a Partisan comes to. And how do you know all Partisans are not Constipatees?

Spitting violently between his feet, Burroughs leaned back again. He had sounded more melancholy than mad, but I guess that’s what being mad on heroin sounds like when you’re dead. Not bitter, but weary and melancholy and perversely amused. “We have business,” he said slowly. “After two days you will perform a vital operation. I am here to tell you Islam Inc. has an interest in your success. Six contingencies have been dealt with. This,” he handed me a tablet wrapped in cellophane, “is the seventh contingency. You have to take it thirty minutes before pulling down your pants.”

I looked at the object, unwrapping and wrapping it again in the light. It was shaped exactly like an egg, with the same vertical asymmetry, except it was no larger than an M&M. Stationary, it was a sort of translucent brown; but when you moved it in the light the color changed and you could see the whole spectrum.

“What is it?” I said finally.

“Not junk,” Burroughs grinned. “You did worry about this, yes?” There was something sly about the way his lips curved; and I noticed for the first time that his eyes were no longer glassy. He spoke matter-of-factly, with cruel detachment, but it was as if his eyes were comforting me while he did. “Hentai-RK. Yohimbine-based, basically; you know, the tree bark of Pausinystalia yohimbe,” and I thought he was going to go off again. “But it’s the pharmaceutical industry of another age, or maybe of a different planet—it’s post-sildenafil citrate, which you probably know as Viagra. A superior tab.” For longer than I’d been aware he had readjusted his arms into a pair of incongruent triangles. As he talked, his hand kept coming off his elbow and rising toward me, palm up, fingers taut—a motion I remembered him describing as the junky’s quintessential gesture, the way the limp wrist is the homosexual’s—only to slip it back under his elbow again. “You see those color vortices, they’re mini-portals into your life past and future. Mostly past. Unlike sildenafil, Hentai-RK doesn’t simply help you to get it up, it hands you the biophysical equivalent on a four-dimensional platter. You experience everything you would if you were to taste the same incredibly focused libidinal drive without it.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I nodded anyway. “But you have to understand it is to aid you in performing the operation, not for your amusement. You have to understand this whole side of your life is for the operation. In this and other respects you should try to rethink control.”

He turned away to start cooking another shot. And after that—well, I could tell you he went unhinged and chased me out with his gun. I could tell you he forced me to shoot up, whether heroin or something equally strong, then deposited my limp body on a street corner. I could even tell you we made love; first, he said, I needed to lose my homo virginity in preparation for the Moment of Reckoning. . . . In the state I was in, anything could’ve happened and I could’ve gone along with anything. But the truth is, after putting the pill in my breast pocket, I don’t remember a thing. There was a sense of being in a closed-off space in the middle of a war zone—as if we were in a subterranean nuclear bunker while the radiation cloud mushroomed, incandescent, right over our heads. At some point, I seem to remember, he was flat on his back in the dark—he must’ve been lying on some kind of surface, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was floating—somewhere between the apartment and the sidewalk on Champollion Street. “Understand this,” he said to me, and I couldn’t see him saying it: “Control can never be a means to any practical end. It can never be a means to anything but more control.” The next thing I knew I was at the entrance to the Lion of Islam. Ahmad and Mehammad were a step behind me; and, in a godawful voice, the imam was giving the signal to start prayers. As if instinctively, my hand rubbed my breast in a panic. The Hentai-RK was there.

This is an extract from “Thus Spoke Che Nawwarah”, the longest story in Youssef Rakha’s collection Emissaries, appearing on March 21 and now available for preorder from Barakunan (“Thus Spoke Che Nawwarah” first appeared in Kenyon Review Online.)


Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian writer who works in both Arabic and English. His first novel to be written in English, The Dissenters, is forthcoming with Graywolf Press in 2024-25. He can be found at and on Twitter @Sultans_Seal. He lives with his family in Cairo.

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Image Credit: David Bowie (l.) and William S. Burroughs (m.) with A. Craig Copetas (r.) for a Rolling Stone Magazine interview. The interview appeared on 28 February 1974 (behind paywall) with the title “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie”.

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