Rushdie’s Dreamy Atheist Manifesto

The life of Salman Rushdie is one worth engraving in a novel. The acclaimed author is a staunch “reasonablist” who has made a living by weaving magical elements into the world with which we are familiar in a way that highlights some of the absurdities of it. When he did so with his 1988 book Satanic Verses, he ended up with a fatwa being issued against him, as the Iranian Ayatollah called for Rushdie’s assassination because the book was said to have blasphemed the Qur’an. The fatwa still stands today, but Rushdie has held true to his beliefs.

In his latest work, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Rushdie imagines our world in a state of strangeness that lasts the titular duration of time. In this period, the gate that connects the human world to that of the fantastical jinn (think Genie from Aladdin) is opened, allowing the supernatural beings to deprive the Earth of reason through magical acts. In one case, a graphic novelist’s monstrous illustration comes to life and terrorizes his home. In another, a gardener named Mr. Geronimo wakes up one morning to find that his feet no longer touched the ground and he began to levitate higher and higher each day. This period of strangeness results in four evil jinn, the Grand Ifrits, descending upon the human world in hopes of conquering it and enslaving mankind. It is up to Dunia, the lightning princess jinia who has a soft spot for humans, to halt the Ifrits’ plans.

Nothing in this novel makes sense. There are inexplicable acts of magic, an utter lack of grammatical order (sentences will often meander for paragraphs or even pages at a time), and constant references to sex (which Rushdie makes about three times a page). But it is precisely this chaos that allows Rushdie to assert his position of realism, and atheism, in an alluring way. The stories and language within this novel blend melodically to create a chaotic world. One that makes you appreciate our comparatively orderly one.

Despite the fantastical elements, the Earth portrayed within the novel is unquestionably our own. Rushdie imagines how we would react to a cast of giant supernatural beings terrorizing the order of our society and how we would cope with that fear. He uses the evil jinnis’ plague of curses and the ensuing war between them and Dunia to demonstrate his unreserved skepticism of religion.

The novel can be more accurately described as an atheist manifesto, an assault on religion and what Rushdie perceives to be the fallacy of faith. The evil jinn who seek to conquer the world realize that they can justify nearly any action, no matter how violent, in the name of religion. This is certainly not meant to be a subtle message, as Rushdie is not one to avert controversy. If he were, he would not have a bounty on his head. But like his characters in this book, Rushdie has been condemned to a life of fear by those who wield religion as a weapon. So the skepticism is understandable.

A shortcoming of the novel is the disproportionate time spent philosophizing to developing characters. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days reads more like an ancient classic fable than a modern novel. Written as homage to the 1,001 nights of stories in the Arab classic Arabian Nights, this is very much on purpose. The nature of the novel should not however excuse the shortage of fully fleshed out characters. We are given a fascinating and dreamy story, but the characters within in it (with the exception of Dunia, the princess) are simply flat, behaving with predictability and not complexity. Rushdie instead fills the space with stream-of-conscious thoughts on life’s most perplexing questions—chiefly love, truth, and faith. In this space, Rushdie does achieve the book’s intention of evoking (or provoking) the reader’s deepest thoughts on the values that comprise our souls.

Rushdie is an extraordinary writer who has lived an extraordinary life. This novel is a product of both of these aspects of his life, as he articulates in a trancing manner his resentment for unreason, something on which religion is based. What Rushdie relies on most to communicate his message and to tell his story is absurdity. The absurdity of the jinnia’s malicious supernatural actions and the absurdity of a world with no order illustrate what Rushdie understands to be the greatest absurdity of all—religion. Whether one agrees with its assertions or not, it is clear that the story of this novel is the story of Rushdie’s life. And what a story it is.


Cali N Tito’s Provides an Escape

Wednesday, November 9th was a day my friend Andrew and I needed to get away. Still feeling the aftershock of the previous night’s seismic events, we agreed that we needed to find respite from the chaos seeping through every channel of America. Plane tickets to a Latin American country were a little expensive, plus we both had to attend classes the next day. So we settled for Cali N Tito’s. And what a great respite it was.

When you first enter the parking lot (not even the restaurant itself) of the Lumpkin Street Cali N Tito’s, you are instantly teleported hundreds of miles south to a coastal locale with residents who know how to have a good time. By no means is this place fancy, but it is charming and authentic. The tattered and wobbly picnic tables are not optimal, but you’re willing to overlook it in the name of atmosphere. The outdoor dining area features palm trees rooting out from the pebble sand that layers the entire area, and even a rowboat.

Inside, which is where we had to sit to escape the cold, is only half covered and feels more like a shack alongside a beach. Colorful stringed lights and a collection of seemingly random decorations (like a four foot tall knight’s armor) serve to both provide flair to the restaurant and remind you not to take things too seriously.

Andrew and I ordered our meals at the cashier bar just in front of the lively and multicultural kitchen. I went for the Cubano milanesa, a unique take on your average Cuban sandwich, with a side of camote (Camo-tay), or fried sweet potatoes. He requested, at the server’s recommendation, Tito’s Fish Burrito. Just about everything on the menu is under $8 so, fortunately, we both had enough cash on us to afford our meals, as they don’t accept cards. We neglected to take advantage of the restaurant’s BYOB policy. Though we certainly could have used a few (or a lot of) beers after last night.

Perhaps sometimes you must sacrifice comfort in order to achieve authenticity. We had to switch to a table that was closer to one of the maybe three heaters in the place. But this was not enough to ruin the visit.

Nonetheless, we received our food in a timely manner and were impressed with its presentation and generous portions. My sandwich was sliced into large halves stacked on top of one another and garnished with purple cabbage and herbs. The roll was stuffed with breaded chicken, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, avocado, cilantro, and jalapeno. It was served with a side of “Special Pink Sauce,” which I did not use sparingly. The flavors all combined beautifully into a tangy, hearty, and spicy taste. The camote was equivalent to homemade sweet potato chips served with a chipotle sauce that brought the entire meal together.

The fish burrito was fresh and brimming. It contained lettuce, cheese, red onions, cilantro, chipotle sauce, valentina sauce, and, finally, plantains. The sweetness of the plantains blended with the spiciness of the chipotle sauce and complemented the tilapia exquisitely. I couldn’t help but drench it in the pink sauce too. In fact the pink sauce was so tasty that I couldn’t help but ask a server what was in it. He replied with a smile that it was just ketchup, mayonnaise, and peppers. What I thought to be a secret Cuban delicacy could in fact be easily made at a well-equipped fast food restaurant condiment station. I wasn’t disappointed by this realization, but rather thought it was quite fitting. Just like this sauce, Cali N Tito’s has you think, if only for an hour, that it is something so authentic that you must be in Latin America somewhere. But in reality, you are still back at home, overlooking a BP gas station.

My experience at Cali N Tito’s, though not my first, was a delightful one. It is a melting pot of culinary and cultural creativity. Its ability to transport its patrons to a far away island is unique from any restaurant in Athens. In uncertain times, sometimes we just need a break from it all and go somewhere exotic. Cali N Tito’s allowed me to do that. And gave me one great meal while doing so.

Luke Cage Breaks Free from Comic Book Norms

What is most striking about Marvel’s newest installment to its parallel universe, Luke Cage, is not the title character’s mega strength or invincible skin, but rather the show’s ability to address sensitive political and social issues. But the mega strength and invincible skin are also pretty damn striking. And finally, in episode four, “Step in the Arena,” we learn how Luke gained his abilities and the significance of them.

Watching this Netflix series does not feel like a typical superhero narrative. There is no alien or robotic antagonist bent on the main hero’s destruction. Instead, Luke is tasked with stopping a corrupt clubowner, Cottonmouth, who is obsessed with gaining absolute power over the show’s setting, the streets of Harlem. Unlike the mainstream guys like Superman or Captain America, Luke, played with a simultaneously grand and grounded demeanor by Mike Colter, is far from an infallible character. This is made even clearer in this episode as we are taken back to Luke’s stint in Seagate prison, where he was set to do 90 years before he broke out. But where the show departs most drastically from any other superhero show or movie that I have seen is its all black cast that serves as a stark and refreshing contrast to Marvel’s otherwise whitewashed universe.

Nearly all of episode four takes the form of a flashback to Luke’s prison days. In it, we see Luke reluctantly make a friend with a fellow convict, Squabbles (Craig Mums Grant). After Luke initially refuses their request that he fight in an underground fight club, the corrupt prison guards, led by the sadistic Rackham, threaten to hurt or even kill Squabbles if he does not participate. Meanwhile, Luke and the kind-hearted prison therapist, Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), are falling for each other in predictable comic book fashion. After Luke grows increasingly knowledgeable of Seagate’s widespread corruption, the guards take precautionary measures and beat Luke almost to death. It is this nearly fatal moment that gives way to Luke’s extraordinary abilities.

The origin of Luke’s powers—a science experiment gone wrong—is not a new one. In fact, it seems every superhero is either the product of a similar Frankenstein procedure or was inexplicably born with special abilities. But showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker knows this. So instead of focusing on how Luke became the superhero he is in the show’s present, he concentrates on telling the story of how Luke became the man he is. This is done by painting Luke’s realization of powers as the beginning of his “liberation” from slavery and the all-white prison guard brigade that served effectively as his slaveowners. Finally at this moment, Luke learns he can break from the shackles that society has placed on him throughout his life. Finally he learns, “No one can cage a man that truly wants to be free.”

The show is unafraid of delving into deep issues typically left untouched by superhero stories. The division between black and white is apparent and reflects our real-life superhero-less society. But the line between good and evil is not so clear. Both Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, portrayed with perturbing composure by Mahershala Ali, and Luke want the same thing—a prosperous Harlem community. Cottonmouth wishes to achieve this by working in cahoots with local government officials, funding community projects with dirty money, and any other means necessary. Luke’s intention, while somewhat ambiguous at this point, is to simply bring about peace in the crime-laden neighborhood. But both men share an undying desire for self-determination, something they were both denied for most of their lives. As black men bound to the relentless confines of Harlem, both Luke and Cottonmouth lost nearly every person they loved at the hands of violence. And with each death, another glimmer of hope met its demise.

What sets Luke Cage apart from other superhero narratives is its courage to provide commentary on racial inequality through the lens of an indestructible hero whose abilities do not even grant him an escape from prejudices. With explicit violence and unfiltered language, the show exhibits a side of Harlem with which a largely white Marvel audience may not feel comfortable. But it is exactly this audience, of which I, admittedly, am a part, who ought to be exposed to the reality of injustice in our country the most. For this reason, I consider Luke Cage’s greatest feat not to be his miraculous strength or impenetrable skin, but rather his ability to address true societal problems in a manner accessible to even the Marvel fan farthest removed from his situation.