I never asked much of Hesham El Ashry, and Hesham never asked much of me. All I wanted was some conversation about religion and Egyptian politics with someone who had strong views on both. All Hesham wanted was one more chance to describe in grotesque detail the fate that awaited me and everybody I loved: Our skin would thicken, not with callouses but with soft, thin, tender layers, each more sensitive than the last. Eventually the accumulated layers would be miles deep. And then God—not my god, or the god of the vast majority of so-called Muslims, but the one true Allah, worshiped by Hesham’s fellow Salafis—would burn off those layers individually, savoring the pain until he reached flesh. Then Allah would restore them again, like Prometheus’s liver, so he could blister and rip them away for eternity.
“Do you feel that?” Hesham asked me once, gently handing me a scorching glass of Lipton, poured straight from a whistling kettle. He never missed a chance to illustrate a point. My fingertips burned, and I recoiled a little, losing a splash of the tea. “You feel why Allah chooses heat,” he said. “Because it’s the worst torture there is.”
Hesham is a squat little guy, 52 years old and usually smiling, as guys who think a lot about hellfire and how they are surely going to avoid it often do. Though he is not rich, he spends his time and money freely in an effort to convert new Muslims, and for the last year, I have been a special project. His goal is as much spiritual as hygienic—a quest to purify Islam and the world of heresy and disbelief.
Every couple months, I visited his tailor shop in downtown Cairo for instruction in the narrow, rigid take on Islam known as Salafism. As a Salafi, Hesham explained, he is concerned not only with replicating the ways of the prophet and his companions, but also with erasing all religious “innovation” (other Muslims might call it “development” or “progress”) that has perverted Islam since the eighth century. He always greeted me cheerily, with a “Salaam” and a handshake. Eventually, we achieved a sort of unconventional friendship. “I hate you,” he told me in August, with a smile. “I hate all Jews and Christians, anyone who is not a Muslim.”