March 2029, 53 miles off the coast of Nigeria

Whenever I read Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, I am reminded of my time on the rig. Rigs are the 21st century equivalent of the ranch in Soledad, populated by men – always men, even in these times of equal opportunities – who dream of a better future whilst they fritter away the present. The only difference is that whilst Steinbeck’s anti-heroes had to wait until the end of the month to hit the town, our warriors of the drill can gamble online even as they work.

Which is why I, who always saw myself as something of a latter-day George, always sought out those men who were a little bit different, who had something else about them. That is why I often sat in the evenings drinking instant coffee with Nikos, a Greek farmer’s son who similarly eschewed the temptations of the roulette wheel if not those of the grape. And it was also the reason why Ahmed fascinated me from then day that he first set foot on Erha 9.

Unlike anyone else on the platform, he did not drink. Ever. Not a drop. Of course, one could always put that down to him being a Muslim, and back on dry land that would be more understandable, but this was an oil rig for God’s sake; even the Muslims drink on a platform.
All Muslims that is, except for Ahmed. He did not drink or eat pork, nor too did he mix much. Instead he sat apart, perhaps reading or just staring into space. Yet strangely, for one who obviously had some religious beliefs, none of those books were ever Islamic in nature and not once did I ever see him pray, even when the other Muslims did.

He was from the Middle East, that much was clear from his name, accent and appearance, but beyond that he never volunteered anything. Since he was no fun to be with and was not willing to lose his month’s wages on a game of cards, the other riggers soon lost interest in him. But he intrigued me. Why should someone like that come to work on a godforsaken rig off the coast of Nigeria? I spoke to Nikos about it one night and my friend’s reply shocked me: “He is hiding something. That is a man with a secret, believe me. If he interests you so much, why don’t you try to find it out?”

At first I thought that Nik was being melodramatic, but then the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn’t some truth in his idea. And, with nothing else to occupy my mind, finding out that secret began to bug me, eat away as these things can and so it was that I decided to up my friend’s advice and, in true rigger fashion, made a wager: Before the next break, I would find out what it was.

“That will be the easiest $100 I’ve ever made,” replied Niko.

I started off by sitting next to Ahmed at lunch. At first he was unreceptive – though never rude – but gradually he began to warm and we got chatting. I found out that he was from Syria and had left during the war that had ripped his country apart a decade ago. He wasn’t married and had neither children nor living parents. Like most of us, he was a drifter on the face of this lonely earth for whom the prospect of a decent wage for damned hard work was too good to turn down.

After a week or so, I invited him round for coffee in my cabin. As expected, he turned me down. I, however, had my reply planned. “If you are worrying about praying, don’t. I have no problem with you praying in my cabin, and I won’t be drinking alcohol if that’s also the problem.”

He looked at me, his eyes dark and aged. “Is that what they think?” he asked. “That I am religious?”

“Well, you don’t drink or eat pork. Both are pretty rare in a place like this.”

He smiled. “I see. No, I’m not religious. You won’t find me praying in your cabin or anywhere else. I was once, very religious, but not now. I don’t pray and haven’t opened a Quran in years. The alcohol and pork, well, that’s more out of habit. Few people start drinking in middle age and seeing what it has done to half the men here does not encourage me to become one of those few.”

“So why not come across for coffee then? We can play some backgammon if you like?” I had noticed him with a set one day and Niko had taught me how to play a year or so ago.

“Why not? Ok, I shall come.”

And so that night he came and we played. He was a decent player and I am not but since no money changed hands it didn’t matter. Still, he could hardly be considered good company. Ahmed was a man of few words and fewer visible emotions. He was like a statue.

And so, on his third visit, I decided to take a gamble. “So, why did you give it up?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your religion. You said to me that you used to be religious, but now you are no longer. That’s kind of rare, for a man to leave his faith like that.”

“I have my reasons. If you had seen what I have then you would probably have done the same.”

“Seen what?”

He looked up from the board. “I am Syrian. That should be clue enough.”

I nodded and shook the dice. We left things at that.

The following night however, I took up the subject again.

“I hope you don’t mind me talking about this,” I said, “but what you said last night has been playing on my mind. You said that you lost your religion because of the war in Syria yet my experience has often taught me the opposite. I’ve served in the armed forces and I know a lot of men who’ve seen war and whilst they rarely talk about it, many only become religious when they are on the battlefield, where they see mankind at its worst.”

Ahmed then did something most unexpected. He laughed. A long, low, unhappy laugh. “War!” he exclaimed at last. “You think that war caused me to lose my faith? You think that war is mankind at its worst! My friend, you are mistaken, sadly mistaken. No one should lose their faith over combat, one man against another, only bravery, equipment and luck to tell them apart. That is not mankind at its worst, even it can be called mankind at its best. No, something far worse made me the man that I am.”

I said nothing and he moved his pieces, removing my lone white chip from the space where I had put it on my last turn.

“What I witnessed, what I was, in Syria was not war. You have heard of Daesh, ISIS they called them in the west?”

I nodded.

“That was me. I was a loyal soldier of Allah, a citizen of the Islamic Caliphate. Me, a boy dragged up in al-Yarmouk, the shittiest part of Damascus filled with refugees from Palestine. Me who saw his mother and father murdered by Assad’s troops. I hated Assad just as I hated Israel and I hated the West. My heart burned with hatred and my head was filled with love for Allah and His Prophet. I started reading my Quran and prophecies of the end times which, it was clear to me, were at hand. The signs were there, al-Baghdadi and his modern caliphate was all foretold. They would rise up out of the ashes of the false states of Syria and Iraq, created by Sykes and Picot for the benefit of the Christians to divide true Muslims, they would unite the ummah and go from glory to glory until that final decisive battle at Dabiq when the army of Rum would be defeated by the forces of Islam and the end times would begin with Isa returning to earth at Damascus and the truth of Allah’s glory being made clear to everyone. So it was that we lived, doing everything for those end times, doing anything that we wanted because those end times justified it. But then, those prophecies did not come true, when there was a battle at Dabiq it was only minor and we lost, just as we lost the others too, and the great caliphate was eventually overrun, not by the infidels, but other Muslims who still bicker over its carcass today.

And when it did end and we had to run, then we also had time to think, to realise what we had done. And that is when I lost my religion.”

“Because the prophecies didn’t come true?”

“No, because of what we did with its justification. You say that war is mankind at its worst, but war is a blessing compared with what they… I… did. In a war you can defend yourself, but they could not. I was there when we herded them into a pit and buried them whilst they still breathed and screamed. With my own hands I drove nails through the hands of a man, a Christian man from Maaloula, and left him gasping in agony on a cross like his god. And then those same hands took his daughter to my house as my wife and held her down as I took the rights given to me by my faith. I still remember their names; he was one Gregory al-Khoury and she was named Alees although I flatly refused to call her that and instead renamed her Aysha after the young wife of the Prophet. Do you wonder why I am so quiet in this place? Because I have no time to talk to you, I cannot hear you, not over her screams and his pleas and the wails, the incessant wails of those doomed fellow humans struggled to get out of the pit whilst we laughed, heaped earth on top of them and shouted ‘Allah akhbar!’”

After this I could say nothing and so I did not. He nodded goodnight to me and left. The game was still unfinished.

The following night I went to see Niko to tell him that I had won our wager. To my surprise, when I told him, he became rather grave and his only response was, “I am glad that you have told me this, my friend.”

The following morning both Niko and Ahmed did not report for work. We checked their cabins but no one was there. The alarm was raised and ten minutes later the corpse of Ahmed was discovered hanging from one of the girders in the engine room. His eyes had been gouged out.

And when I returned to my cabin I discovered an envelope under my pillow. In it was a $100 bill and a note which read:

My dear friend,

I have a confession to make. My name is not really Nikos Karagiannopoulos and I am not really Greek. My real identity is Nicolas al-Khoury and for the past ten years I have been wandering the earth looking for the man who murdered my father and raped my sister. Thanks to you, I have been able to avenge them.

May God protect you!


They buried Ahmed’s body the next day in the main Muslim cemetery in Lagos. I was the only one who bothered to attend the ceremony. What happened to Niko after that, no one knows but he has never been seen again. Whether the waves have consumed him or he has assumed another identity in some other godforsaken corner of the world I cannot say. All that I know is that whenever I read ‘Of Mice and Men’ I think of both those men and raise a drink to their memories.

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