What We Did After We Lost 100 Years of Wealth

By Agri Ismaïl

“World finance had, in 2008, a near-death experience.”

The words belong to a partner of a renowned international law firm. The partner was standing at the podium, looking over a sea of bearded faces within which bobbed a scattering of men and women without any facial hair, some of whom (those from firms that were days away from collapsing) were jotting down every word as if the speech were a newly unearthed Gospel. The partner was trying his best to kill time before the introductory speaker showed up. It was already 8:30am and he had yet to arrive. The partner therefore ad-libbed into the dark sea, praying that nobody was really listening to what he was saying.

The introductory speaker – a Revenue Recognition Analyst for the redundantly named Halal Islamic Bank (HIB) – reached the office of the renowned international law firm at 8:32am, two minutes after the time he was supposed to have started the address for the Gillette-sponsored Islamic Banking Roadshow. He was late because this was his first time at that particular law firm’s offices and the blue GPS-dot on his mobile phone had been bouncing about erratically in the City, which had led him to take a taxi, which should have been faster than walking but wasn’t. His face was covered in a film of sweat, lubricating his nose and making his glasses slide down. The woman who greeted him at the reception was pretty, until he pushed them back up. She gave him a concerned look, then checked him off the list and opened the little glass gate that led to the elevators.

On the eighth floor, where the Islamic Banking Roadshow seminar was being held, there was a quiet pleasure felt among some of the attendees at the sight of French and Danish pastries, lined up on trays with military precision. As the seminar was taking place during the final days of Ramadan, there had been a fear that the organisers would not serve food, because more than 60 per cent of the participants were practicing Muslims. As nobody had wanted to appear insensitive, none of the participants had asked the organisers if there would be food. It was therefore considered prudent to have breakfast at home, which in effect rendered the presence of the trays of pastries pointless.

The Revenue Recognition Analyst from HIB, having reached the eighth floor, registered with the quasi-non-English-speaking Asian girl with impeccable patent leather shoes and slightly crooked teeth. She took his card and put it into what appeared to be a giant fish bowl, gave him a pass upon which his name was misspelt and walked him to the podium. The ad-libbing partner thanked a deity he didn’t believe in under his breath and introduced the Revenue Recognition Analyst. There was scattered, unenthusiastic applause. “Sorry I’m late,” he began, glancing at his watch, “I would like to take this moment to talk about Islamic bonds.”

He says bonds, but for some reason he omits the last letter, effectively saying “bon” and making it sound like “porn”. Either nobody notices or they’re all too polite to snicker.

“The composition of the Islamic market is divided into a tripartite entity: debt, equity and, what makes it unique and of interest, hybrid. What is hybrid? Hybrid is what we call mushakarah and mudarabah.”

The partner of the renowned international law firm, now sitting on a stool at the far left of the stage, stared blankly into the swell of attendees, trying to swallow a yawn. He noticed two women wearing full burkhas. His tummy rumbled. The pastries by his side were glistening with icing and custard and mocking his wait for iftar (breaking of fast).

“Standardisation of Sharia is a waste of time because it’s against the workings of Sharia. We should be looking to harmonise. Only then will we be following the footsteps of the Prophet, PBUH [Peace be upon him]. Thank you.”

He said PBUH not like an abbreviation, letter-by-letter, but like a word that stumbles upon itself. Applause swells as the half-sweating Revenue Recognition Analyst steps down from the podium and takes a seat in the back.

The partner took to the podium again and introduced the next speakers who were to hold a talk entitled “Islamic Finance: Past, Present or Future”. The first of the three men to take to the stage was a VP from an American Insurance Company that had scammed 50,000 people of their money, but had since then rebranded and renamed the company effectively enough for that particular episode to be forgotten by all but the 50,000 people. The second was a Junior Consultant from GHG Bank, who was intermittently imagining the tumour found in his pancreas three weeks prior grotesquely throbbing and swelling. He had four months left to live.

The last was a Corporate Analyst from Fletscher & Young, who had the face of a buzzard and the name of someone east of Iran but west of China, but when he spoke his accent – a spot-on mimicry of the upper classes he aspired to emulate with an enunciation so polished it bordered on parody – was in such contrast to his demeanour that the British in the audience, all sitting on the far right with an identical confused look on their faces as if still wondering where their empire had gone, all perked up and nodded approvingly to each other. Good man, they seemed to say. Good man.

“Would the British economy and, by extension, the entire United Kingdom as a whole,” the eloquent but buzzard-like Corporate Analyst began, “had it followed pure Islamic Finance principles, still have fallen into a similar crisis?”

The rhetorical question made several people in the audience instantly more alert, like animals in the wild on hearing a branch snap.

“Probably yes,” he continued, “since a lot of Islamic investments have been made in property.”

This was disappointing.

The panel then went on to discuss project financing. During this conversation the three panellists were appropriating sentences and, at times, entire paragraphs from the same Financial Times article. None of the panellists noticed this, however, due to the fact that they were too focused on trying to ensure that their ignorance of the topic remained undetected to pay attention to what the others were saying.

In the audience, the Junior Executive from Cast & Sugar whispered to his secretary (who had been given a title-bump to Director of First Impressions, which made her title sound better than his) to check up on this Islamic project financing thing that was being discussed.

After the first seminar, it was time for a break. This was announced by the partner of the renowned international law firm who, as a footnote to the announcement, made a large sweeping gesture toward the hitherto untouched table covered with the Franco-Danish pastries and told the crowd – which was already moving wholesale toward the door – that they were welcome to partake of them.

The few who dared approach the table of pastries despite the disapproving looks of the hungry Muslims quickly found it impossible to eat and drink at the same time. A trapeze-like balancing act with plates and cups was required, which few of the daring eaters successfully mastered. The possible option to put the cup down on a chair whilst eating the pastry (or vice-versa) did not provide an adequate solution, as the moment the cup or the plate hit a solid surface it was both instantly and imperceptibly whisked away by one of the myriad uniformed caterers.

Outside, the participants were busy networking. On introduction to the attaché-carrying Attaché from Bahrain, the Assistant VP of Poor, Hunter & Gray smiled broadly and then did a double-take:

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t catch your card.”

A group of younger people, all eager to impress each other and to pass themselves off as adults once and for all, were involved in a discussion regarding the topic at hand.

“It’s important to join the party early,” one of the Junior Partners said, as if quoting the line of a famous film or the chorus of a pop song everybody knew.

“Yes, because joining the party late costs so much,” said another, finishing the quote.

It was time to retake their seats. Next up to the podium was a Sharia scholar with a name that the Partner from the renowned international law firm didn’t even attempt to pronounce. In the scholar’s beard were breadcrumbs from that morning’s suhoor (breakfast) that nobody had mentioned to him for fear of being culturally insensitive. The scholar got to the podium, looking confused about what to do while people tried to find their seats, fumbling with papers and BlackBerries.

“Good day,” the scholar began, clearing his throat, the inner walls of which were too dry. His spit, unable to lubricate, just grated against the back of his throat. There was a problem with his microphone, which faded and increased his voice at a regular pace, echoing a sonar heartbeat. “I wish to talk to you about the takaful market. While it is true that we have a lack of scholars…”

The scholar, due in part to the microphone but also to his own dry throat, was almost completely inaudible as he went on. Occasionally snippets would emerge.

“…It won’t be solved by taking contemporary methods and Islamisising them…”

The audience, too confused by the aforementioned audio-technical and laryngeal difficulties to understand when the scholar had reached the end of the speech, failed to applaud. The scholar, who would later write a letter of complaint to the renowned international law firm about the microphone, glared at the partner of said firm when he stepped off the stage so as to indicate that he, i.e. the partner, ought to have rectified the situation.

The microphone having been replaced with a fully functioning one, the Directrice d’Agence from the BNP introduced herself – which caused two people in the audience to think she was from the political party and not the bank – and began talking. What she said was not important for on her way to the podium she had already been dissected by the eyes of the audience, who had decided that, due to her cankles and double chin, she would have nothing of interest to say. Her speech thus provided a good opportunity to check BlackBerries, iPhones and other assorted electronics.

It wasn’t until the next speaker, the CEO of Bursa Malaysia, a tall, gyrational and pneumatic Asian woman, reached the podium that the majority of the audience even noticed the Directrice d’Agence had stopped talking. The CEO brushed aside a lock of her shampoo-advert hair and began her speech. This time, it was worth listening to.

“The Credit Crisis was a coming-out party for Islamic Finance. Or, rather, it should have been. Because it never happened.”

Nods were dispersed throughout the crowd.

“Malaysia’s target audience has never been the Muslims. Malaysia doesn’t do sovereign paper, but near sovereign, and what we have learnt is that Islamic finance is about social-economic justice.”

The Head of Redemption at Hemel Finance PLC wrote down the following in his Smythson binder: “I wonder if she fucks as good as she sucks and sucks as good as she talks.”

“But it’s important to remember that moveable assets are becoming sexy again.”

“Yes they are,” a Research Analyst from Lance Corp. Ltd. said, at a volume just that bit too high.

When the CEO finished her speech there was almost rapturous applause. The partner, who had been sitting at a great angle to gaze at the CEO’s legs, cleared his throat and announced that, for all those fasting, it was now prayer time and a prayer room had been set up for them.

The Muslims got up and were shown to the impromptu prayer room. Many others swarmed around the CEO of Bursa Malaysia to exchange cards with her.

“The problem is that there are very few Bond-like instruments,” said a Business Developer at YouGov, hoping to impress.

“Well, also, currently UK banks require all their short-term assets be held in complete, hundred per cent sure triple A securities, and that’s all fine and dandy, but while the government provides these for regular banks, they have in an instance of classic Islamophobia, for it is a phobia, offered no alternative for Islamic products,” replied the founder of ANL, the world’s first Sharia-compliant hedge fund, who was now trying to set up a Precious Stone Exchange that was Sharia-compliant.

“That’s a point,” the Business Developer added, feeling his goodwill eroding, “but since Venture Capital has been described as potentially Sharia-compliant anyway, isn’t it safe to say that?”

At this moment the Business Developer was interrupted by the partner of the renowned international law firm, who announced the prayer time was over and that if everyone would please retake their seats, the final speaker of the day, his Majesty, Prince Ibrahim Bin Talal al Ja’afr, would say a few words.

The prince, a man who had flown in that morning to acquire four companies before returning after sunset, moved spectre-like to the podium, his feet invisible under the flowing fabric of his pristine white thawb. His voice was frail, effeminate.

Bismillahi rahmani rahim. Allah salli wa salih. I think that what we have learnt today is that the boundaries of Islamic finance are constantly moving outward. And where there might not be solutions now, they can be found in the future. Thank you.”

And that was the end of the event. For those who were eating, there was a lunch set up in an adjacent building on the side of the street, so as to not offend the Muslims, who were left alone in the conference room.

People switched their BlackBerries off silent and an armada of electronic chirps followed the non-Muslim segment of the audience to the adjacent building. In the room that had been emptied for the lunch that day, the non-Muslims found that the food laid out was, for cultural reasons, Halal.

The CEO of Isis Petroleum, an American with American teeth that shone that way American teeth do, stood in the middle of a circle of people who looked at him admiringly as he pronounced his verdict on the event:

“Well, the thing is, we feel that this whole Islamic Finance malarkey is, in fact, just veneer, right? I mean, sure, we talk about reducing the opacities of the products and all, but really, we’re just taking the same old concepts and giving them Sharia-compliant names, right? It’s like when in Iran it was, according to Islam, forbidden to execute virgins, so instead they would send someone the night before the execution to rape the girl so as to make it Halal.”

By the cucumber sandwiches and cans of Fanta (Coca Cola was deemed a Jewish drink and was therefore omitted, so as to not insult anyone), the Provider of Assets for JS Hope gave the Partner at Hyperion Limited his card and explained to him that they were fighting against lack of utility, and the products at hand didn’t rank, pari passu, with conventional ones. The Partner at Hyperion Limited nodded and gave the Provider of Assets his card.

By the window stood two people, each with a tasteless cheese sandwich in hand, discussing the building they had spent their morning in, a building they now saw for the first time. To their surprise, they both found it to be a particularly beautiful piece of brutalist architecture.

“I’m Kate,” she said.

“I’m Yassir,” he said.

They talked for several minutes, about his favourite author (Kipling) and her favourite film (His Girl Friday). He was fascinated by her right eye, which fluttered upwards on its own every time she laughed. It was that rare imperfection which accentuated her beauty all the more. She touched his hand when she laughed and he smiled a crooked grin that looked like broken windows, and which she found absolutely heart-wrenching. He said he liked puddles of gasoline. She said she liked the smell of magic markers. He wondered what was so magic about the markers. Her one bad eye went to the ceiling and he smiled his broken smile.

Enlivened by the excitement of having a real, genuine conversation, they forgot to exchange cards and, before they knew it, they had been forced into other conversations, giving out cards and discussing which products their firms had. And it wasn’t until they were both on their way home that they realised what they had momentarily had, and what they had lost.

CHRONIC ISSUE 2This article was originally published in the Chronic (March 2013).

In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. To read the article in full get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.
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