Short Story Review – Youssef Rakha – The Secret History of Atheism

 The shantytown boys were escorted to an abandoned construction site, stripped and made to kneel with their faces in piles of cement. They were sodomised till the sun went down, struck with cables to the head or the spine when they cried out. At night they were packed into a truck and driven through a tributary of the Suez highway. They were abandoned bleeding and half-conscious by the side of the road.

What happens to the radicalised young when their revolution is snuffed out before it manages to gain any kind of critical weight or broader social acceptance?  See above.

The ‘Yaroslavsky Brothers’, as they call themselves, are led by four university students and are, for all their fine proclamations and grand ideals about a ‘Godless Nile State’, naive and very, very young.  Their resistance to Egypt is to listen to death metal, to take drugs, to slap one another on the back about their new independent state.  And, as always, nation-states tend to take these kinds of threats very, very seriously, even when it could all easily be hand-waved away as an elaborate prank by passionate but young (so young) and misguided (so misguided) men (always mostly men).

On the third day a Special Operations detachment entered the State in the guise of citizens-to-be. They found less than fifty Yaroslavskys dressed in fatigues, fewer girls than young men. The militants blasphemed religiously, taunting each other for half-hearted sacrilege. They wore Richard Dawkins buttons and swore at each other using the English term god-bitch.

As mentioned, nation-states take this kind of thing seriously because you can never be quite sure which spark will alight, and it’s best to stamp out resistance before it has a chance to take hold. Youssef Rakha’s story, The History of Atheism, knows this, and knows also that the upper echelons of the ruling political class will laugh and smirk about these rebellions while simultaneously brutally killing those responsibility.  It’s all a joke, on every side, but nonetheless people end up dead.

Of particular interest is the casual, embedded nature of technology and websites.  This particularly resistance group was right on the cusp of the world we have today, but they were just a little bit too early.  Three years later and who knows what might have happened?  But it is 2005 and YouTube is in its infancy.  Facebook is a toddler.  Twitter doesn’t yet exist.  These tools, for all of their flaws, are extremely capable of spreading messages all across the world, and a visible resistance is one that may – may – have a chance to survive.

But The Yaroslavsky Brothers didn’t have that luxury, and were unable to properly take advantage of the world’s idle internet users, the chattering political classes from rich countries, fellow resistors from other oppressed nations.  And so they died, brutally, horribly, and it was all over.  In five days.

Rakha’s story is short, coming in at under 900 words, but there’s a lot here.  It’s fitting to be this short, too, because it underscores the candle-flame of the resistance.  It didn’t last long, let’s not dwell on it.  All another thousand words would do is wallow in the pain and anguish of their final days, which were also sadly their first days.

Short, yes, but full.  We are witnesses to both the resistors and the government, and also too the narrator, an easy stand-in for the author, who recalls sympathetically the movement will acknowledging its flaws and lamenting the end.  It didn’t need to happen, but it did, and this is what might be learned from it.  Or at least that is how it reads.  It is a history, after all, and surely by now we’ve learnt the importance of paying attention to history, right?

The Secret History of Atheism is a short story by Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha.  You can read the story online at Minor Literatures.

Author Youssef Rakha
Title The Secret History of Atheism
Nationality Egyptian
Publisher Minor Literatures

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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