Last month in New York State, “New Jersey man” Hadi Matar rushed the stage and repeatedly stabbed Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. Matar was hoping to collect on Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa, promising millions of dollars for anyone killing the “infidel” author. Rushdie’s crime was to write a book referring to passages, stricken from the Quran, in which Mohammed supposedly speaks the words of Satan instead of God. The Iranian fatwa extended to publishers and even booksellers.
“I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be to kill them without delay,” the Ayatollah said, “so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth.” In 2017, Iranian leader Ali Khamenei confirmed the fatwa, and in 2022 Hadi Matar took him up on it. Rushdie may lose an eye, but it looks like he will pull through. The episode recalls another novel that was not especially kind to Islam and its founder.
“I could hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer but I didn’t hear nobody pray, man. No, I didn’t. And it’s a pretty miserable call too, let me tell you. GWAWAWAWAWAWAWAWAK. FNUHUHUHUHUHUH—glottal stop.”
That is the opener of The Marrakesh One-Two by Richard Grenier, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1983. In this tale, Hollywood aims to tap Arab petrodollars for a film about Mohammed, and screenwriter Burt Nelson gets the call.
“I’ll level with you,” Nelson explains. “This was going to be a shitty movie. But there was a market for it. There were half a billion Moslems in the world, right? If we had our Bible epics why couldn’t they have their Koran epics? That’s why they needed me, author of The Song of Jesus, which raked in all those shekels.” So Burt gets busy reading the Quran.
“Reams of Allah is great, Allah is one, Allah is supreme,” Nelson finds. “And suddenly you run into, You are forbidden to take in marriage married women, except captives whom you own as slaves. And then more Allah is great and Allah is merciful, until you come to, Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other and because they spend their wealth upon them. Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them.”
Nelson also comes across “good solid stuff” like: “Those of you who divorce their wives by declaring them to be their mothers should know they are not their mothers. Their mothers are those who gave birth to them. The words they utter are unjust and false but Allah is forgiving and merciful. Which was a good point to clear up. I mean, I was sure it had led to a lot of misunderstanding until Mohammed cleared it up.”
Nelson is a Christianity and Judaism man, so “Mohammed struck me as kind of a gamey figure for a religious leader, I mean for a man God spoke to personally.” He is “plagiarizing the Bible like mad “or it’s one hell of a coincidence,” but there’s more to it.
Mohammed “expels one tribe of Jews but they can take a little property. And then, he expels another tribe of Jews, but they can’t take any property. And then he gets sore and figures they’ve really driven him too far, and when the last tribe of Jews surrenders, he has the men slaughtered and the women and children taken as slaves. Allah is merciful, but not necessarily Mohammed, I guess.”
The prophet of Islam is “always praying to Allah for guidance and if Mohammed really wants something bad enough you get the impression Allah is going to tell him it’s okay. I mean, Allah can’t say no to him.” For example, “Aisha bint Abi Bakr was the beautiful six-year-old Mohammed married but the wedding wasn’t celebrated until she was nine. They gave her the good news when she was playing on her swing and let her bring along all her dolls and toys.”
On location in Morocco, Nelson encounters the dazzling, dark-haired Mouna. She has the curves and Burt has the angles. “We could be platonic friends,” Nelson says, “talk about native jewelry, native handicraft, Third World liberation movements. Fourth World. Fifth World. I’d go as high as she liked.” Trouble is, screenwriter Burt Nelson moonlights as a CIA agent, and Mouna thinks she is on to him. This puts their relationship in some difficulty.
“She was a more complicated girl than I thought,” Nelson discovers. “She was a mad Palestinian fanatic, anti-U.S. anti-Israel of course, anti-capitalist and quite humorless about all that. She had an aggressive, overbearing personality, capable of virulent hostility, with a strong strain of malicious hysteria. Very hard to get along with, by and large. Very vengeful. On the other hand, inside was this fun-loving girl who could do tricks with her vagina.”
As the film production stalls, Nelson is kidnapped by a group of Moroccan revolutionaries. The leader asks “What do you think of the king of Morocco?”
“He’s an asshole,” Nelson shoots back. “I guess. Isn’t he?”
In captivity, Nelson is interviewed by American feminist Nancy Hinton, a convert to Islam.
“But you were the class enemy,” Nancy says. “You were the capitalist-imperialist-warmongering Imperial penis!” As Nelson notes, Nancy and her friends “were so resentful of the Capitalist-Imperialist penis that they hadn’t noticed there were the Islamic-Fundamentalist Penis, the Tribal Autocratic Penis, and all these other penises, including the Marxist-Leninist Penis.”
“Mohammed Superstar” is not going to happen in Morocco, so the crew has a go at Libya. “Land of freedom! Kaddafi ran a taut ship. He ran a taut desert,” Nelson explains. “A good stable regime. No coups d’etat since King Idris. No angry dissidents, underground malcontents, Montoneros, Tupamaros, Brigatte Rosse, protesters, riffraff like that. Law and order. Koranic law and order. Deep sleep at night. Deep dreams of peace and unpermissive societies where they don’t permit you to do frigging anything but the peace is beautiful, man, wow.”
Turns out, Col. Kadaffi is not going to spring for the movie, so the producers move on to Iran. In the Shiite regime they encounter an American television correspondent named Jensen. As he sees it, “If the Islamic clergy is brought into the political process here, Iran will have a new birth of civil liberties such as the world has rarely seen.”
As Nelson recalls, “there were people running around loose saying things like that in those days.” The Iranians, Nelson finds, “were lousy, maggoty, money-grubbing Aryans” who turn down the movie project.
That leaves Iraq, but en route to Baghdad the airliner gets hijacked, in a strange sort of way. In this part of the world, nothing is quite as it seems. For Nelson, it was “finally the end of Mohammed Superstar, which I still think would have brought a lot of peace and understanding in the world.” The novel should help with the understanding part.
“The Arab world depicted with murderous realism,” reads the cover endorsement from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who regarded Grenier as a critic without peer for his work at Commentary, the New York Times, and The New Republic. See also Capturing the Culture: Film Art and Politics, from 1991. The author may also be without peer as a novelist.
To entertain and instruct is the most difficult literary task, and Grenier pulls it off in grand style. Comparisons to Evelyn Waugh are in order, if not for volume, certainly for satiric quality.
The Marrakesh One-Two appeared just a few years after the Iranian hostage crisis but no Ayatollah put out a fatwa on Richard Grenier. The U.S. Naval Academy graduate passed away at 68 in January of 2002, so on September 11, 2001, he got to see the “murderous realism” close at hand. In 2022, the Arab world remains pretty much as he described it nearly 40 years ago, perhaps more so.
Salman Rushdie finally gets stabbed for writing a book that displeased Muslims, and the “woke” Left, in effect, has put out a fatwa on comedy, satire and such. The author of The Marrakesh One-Two would not be surprised.
“It just shows how little people know about things,” says Burt Nelson at one point. “How would you expect to know if your idea of an Arab country is Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca?”