Louis splashed water on his face, pulled on a t-shirt and pocketed his wallet. Watching Hassan walk out had felt like watching his last chance go up in a puff of smoke. He’d wanted to say, “Hold on, don’t leave. I’m not a drug addict.” But he couldn’t say the words, partly because of pride, and partly because… well, what came next? “I need help, but I don’t know what kind? I need…”
He needed a drink, that’s what. No, he needed to get red-faced drunk, until his thoughts were drowned in a pool of scorching alcohol. He was running low on savings, but he would worry about that tomorrow.
What difference did it make? He’d ruined everything. Hassan would tell Kadija what he had seen and she’d never have anything to do with Louis again. Kadija. Her name was music in Louis’ mind. Thinking about her was like gazing at an impossibly bright gem: his mind approached her image then shied away, unworthy. She had captured him, entranced him in a way he didn’t understand. But it was pointless to hope.
When he exited the apartment he found Hassan sitting on the front stoop, performing some odd wrist stretches on himself. It was dusk, the sky still navy blue and the moon rising low on the horizon, orange as a the blossom of fire from an artillery shell. Hassan glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the door opening, saw Louis, and returned to his stretches. Louis stared at Hassan’s back. He felt a sense of profound relief, but pushed that aside and tried to act angry.
“Why are you still here?” Louis said.
“I was about to leave,” Hassan said without turning around, “and I realized that you never answered my question.”
Louis considered. What was the harm? “I’m not on drugs,” he muttered.
“I said I’m not on drugs. I’m not normally a drinker either. It’s just lately. Something’s shaken me up.”
“Okay,” Hassan said.
Louis sat on the stoop next to Hassan. He saw Hassan glance at his scarred and raw cheek. “These are scars, not sores,” Louis said. “From Iraq. When I feel unsettled the scars itch, and I can’t stop scratching.”
“What’s got you unsettled?”
“You a veteran?” Louis asked.
“Huh. You’ve been into something though. I can tell.”
Hassan did not reply. In spite of Hassan’s reticence, Louis felt a rapport with the man. It was that look the man had, that look of being a soldier. There are certain things you go through in life, and no one can understand unless they’ve been there. When you were with someone like that you didn’t need words, which was the whole point. You knew them, and they knew you.
“Do I seem dead?” Louis said.
“Dead? What do you mean?”
“Your book, the Quran, says we were dead and God brought us back to life. Kadija says that the person who believes in God or Allah is alive, and the one who doesn’t is dead, spiritually. So do I seem dead to you?”
“That’s what shook you up?” Hassan said. “You read the Quran?”
Louis did not reply. He watched an elderly Hispanic couple, immigrants perhaps from El Salvador or Nicaragua, stroll down the sidewalk hand in hand. They walked slowly, the man leaning on a cane, neither of them speaking. Louis felt that he would explode with the need to do something, but what? There was nothing left for a man in this world. Where were the answers?
“I see it now,” Hassan said, nodding.
“You’re not dead.” Hassan chuckled. “Just the opposite. You’re bursting with spiritual energy. The Quran has opened your heart.”
Louis looked sharply at Hassan. How could he see that? “I’m not ready to change my life,” Louis said. “I’m an American. I fought for this country. I can’t change.”
“You don’t have to. Islam is a faith, not a nationality. There are millions of American Muslims. But you need to make a change, brother. I can see it as clearly the moon.” He pointed to the full moon hanging low on the horizon. “You need to make a move.”
“A move to Islam, obviously. Allah is calling you.”
“Calling me to what?”
“To laa ilaha il-Allah. That means -”
” – I know what it means,” Louis said. “No God but Allah.”
“Right. Did Kadija explain that?”
“No, I mean I understand the words. I speak Arabic. But I don’t what it means for me.”
“You speak Arabic? Wow! Well, it means that we worship Allah alone. We obey Him, and we strive to please Him. The Quran is our guide, and the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – is our example.”
Louis was silent for a time. He studied the cement steps of the stoop, tracing the cracks in the cement with his gaze. Finally he said, “I thought you would understand.”
Hassan looked at him. “Tell me,” he said.
Louis tucked his chin into his chest, and breathed out heavily. “Alright…” He had never told this story to a civilian. But Hassan didn’t have the air of a civilian.
“We were on patrol in a Humvee. I’m up top with the fifty cal – that’s a mounted machine gun. A black SUV comes speeding up the cross street and I’m ready to blast it until I see an American flag on the side. It slams into an Iraqi woman in a niqab who’s crossing the street, and doesn’t slow down. The woman is hurled into a ditch on the side of the road. I hear one of our men shout, “Oh my God!” We take off after the SUV and force it off the road. Turns out they’re Blackwater. American mercenaries. They draw their guns on us, can you believe it? And there’s nothing we can do. We have no authority over them. We go back to render aid to the Iraqi woman and there’s an angry crowd. I try to talk to the crowd because I’m the only one who speaks Arabic. I kneel next to the woman and it’s obvious she’s dying. Her chest is caved in and soaked in blood. I’m trying to comfort her but her eyes are rolling and I can see she’s terrified of me. The crowd starts to pull at me, and one of the guys from my unit panics and guns down an Iraqi man, a middle aged man in a grey suit jacket. A college professor or engineer maybe. And Robertson shoots him in the head. Later he claimed the man was trying to grab my weapon. The situation was out of control, so we took off.
“There were no consequences,” Louis continued. “Not for the Blackwater bastards, not for us. That’s one incident. I could tell you so many stories it would make you sick. I’ve seen men – Americans – piss on the bodies of dead Iraqis. I never did any of that, but I couldn’t stop it either… So now you understand why I could never be Muslim.”
“No,” Hassan said. “I don’t.”
“Come on, man. After everything I’ve done? It would be an insult. How could I be accepted? And if I kept my past secret, how could I live with myself? We were supposed to help the Iraqi people and we betrayed them. Then, on top of that, I’d be betraying my own country, and my brothers who died in Iraq.”
“War is a terrible thing,” Hassan said. “It grinds people up and tosses them out broken, like that woman you described, but it happens to everyone, even survivors. It’s a nightmare. That’s not your fault – it’s the fault of the people who engineer wars. But the amazing thing about Islam is that it forgives everything that came before. It purifies your soul. You come into Islam with a blank slate, like a newborn.”
“Forgive and forget, is that it?” Louis said bitterly.
“Forgive, yes,” Hassan said. “The forgetting part… I don’t think the memories ever go away. The guilt, the shame. You wrestle with that – maybe forever. And maybe that’s how it should be. But at least you can obtain God’s forgiveness. You can build a life.”
Louis raised his eyes from the steps and looked at Hassan. “You’ve been in war,” he said. It was not a question.
Hassan did not reply.
“Where?” Louis said. “Iraq?”
“No. It was a long time ago.”
Hassan said nothing and Louis did not pursue it. Some men could not talk about it, he knew. He thought about what Hassan had said. Forgiveness. A chance to start over. It sounded so good.
“Out of curiosity,” Louis said, “What would I have to do if I were Muslim?”
“Pray. Fast in Ramadan. Give some of your money in charity. Go to Hajj in Mecca once in your life. Be a good person. That’s it, Louis. It’s not complicated.”
“What if I’m not ready? What if I just want… I don’t know, man. I don’t know what I want.”
“Hmm. Can I share something I’ve been thinking about?”
Hassan stood and stretched his arms above his head, then swung them back and forth as if trying to get the blood flowing.
“I’ve been reading a book about animal migration,” Hassan said. “The author says that mass migrations are the most spectacular wildlife events in the world. Sea turtles travel thousands of miles across open sea to nest on the same beaches where they were hatched.” Hassan moved his hands through the air to indicate great distances. “Flamingoes fly from their winter nesting grounds in sub-Saharan Africa to their summer grounds on the Black Sea in Russia. Isn’t that incredible? Even dragonflies migrate huge distances, which is amazing when you consider that they weigh almost nothing. These vast migrations, these miracles, take place all around us, and most of us don’t know it.”
Louis nodded. “We get the annual whale migration here in California,” he said. “From Alaska down to Mexico and back every year. My parents took me on a whale watching tour when I was a kid. There’s a salmon run too, on the Sacramento River, but I think all the dams have shut that down.”
“That’s the problem,” Hassan said. “These migrations are being disrupted by human activity. Habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, artificial light, roads and dams, they’re all destroying animal migrations. And we don’t know what effect this is going to have on the planet. Or on us.”
“Anyway, it got me thinking about human migration. In a way, we humans carried out the greatest migration. Scientists believe that all Homo Sapiens descend from a band of between twenty five and fifty humans who migrated out of Africa about a hundred thousand years ago. Doesn’t that blow your mind?”
Louis grunted assent. It was pretty incredible.
“What I’m trying to say,” Hassan continued, “Is that we think we’re removed from the natural world, but if you look at our history you see that we have a migration instinct. We’re driven to move, hunt, propagate. We’re not made to be sedentary.”
“Yeah, I was thinking about that,” Louis said. “How the modern world emasculates men, you know?”
“Yes, but that’s not where I’m going,” Hassan said. “I’m asking, what if spiritual migration is a part of our nature as well? What if, as we mature and experience loss, and get our hearts broken, and contemplate our purposes in the world, what if we come to a point where we outgrow our spiritual worldview and have to make a change? An animal at migration time feels in its bones that the environment has changed, and it’s compelled to move. What if we human beings experience the same thing spiritually? What if we sense that our old way of believing and behaving has become a prison? What if we feel in our guts that it’s time to change?”
“You think that’s where I am?” Louis said.
Hassan nodded. “Yes. And to answer your question about what happens if you reject what’s happening to you, let me counter with a different question. What happens to an animal – and I’m not saying you’re an animal, I’m speaking in terms of nature – what happens to, say, a flamingo in Russia, if winter is approaching and it’s time to fly back to Africa, and it doesn’t migrate? Maybe it’s injured, or restrained, or whatever. What if it stays in place?”
Louis lifted his eyebrows. “I’m no expert on flamingoes,” he said, “but I would imagine it dies. Freezes, or starves.”
“You’re saying I’ll die?”
“Not literally, but look at yourself.” Hassan gestured to indicate Louis’ ravaged condition.
Louis nodded slowly. “The thing is,” Louis said, “I’m stuck. Like I need to change but I can’t. It’s just… wrecking me.”
“You know what, Louis? You’re right. You can’t change by yourself. You don’t have the vision. That’s why you hand this process over to the One who can change you. I mean Allah. You put yourself in His hands and go where He takes you.”
“My family will tear into me like a Patriot missile.”
“Hmm. Yeah.” Hassan put his hand on Louis’ back. “Hold your head up. Be yourself. Express love to your family so they don’t think you’ve abandoned them.”
“You don’t know my mom,” Louis said. “She doesn’t let things go. We had a neighbor across the street who planted a maple tree. Mom was furious because it blocked our view of the park. She hassled the guy daily, called the housing inspectors, called the water department if he watered his lawn outside of restricted hours, called the cops when he had a loud party. The guy finally caved and cut down the tree. And that was just a tree. Imagine what she’ll do to me for adopting some heathen Eastern cult.”
Hassan chuckled.”She’ll come around, Insha’Allah.”
Louis snorted. “I doubt it. So what do I do next?”
“My suggestion?” Hassan said. “Go inside, clean yourself up and bandage your wounds, then let’s go to dinner. That cheese bread was all I’ve had since morning. How about Mission Burrito down on 24th, you been there?”
“I love that place,” Louis said. “Best burritos north of Tijuana.”
They took Louis’ car, but Hassan insisted on driving, and Louis didn’t mind. He was still slightly intoxicated and in no shape to drive.
Louis’ burrito was loaded with rice, black beans, sour cream and avocado, and drenched in cheese sauce and salsa. The restaurant was warm and the burrito was the most food he’d had in a week. Louis felt his bodily systems slowly activating, as if he had been partially dead and was now reanimating. His thoughts were clear for the first time in days. Life after lifelessness, he thought.
“What’s the deal with you and Kadija?” Hassan asked. “She didn’t tell me anything, except that you were her cabbie, and you helped her with something.”
“That’s it,” Louis said. “And I want to make that clear. She’s been proper with me.”
“Okay,” Hassan said. “But…”
Louis lifted his eyebrows. “Is it obvious? Yeah, I have some feelings. She’s special. And I admit, there’s a part of me that hopes that if I become Muslim… you know.”
“You need to separate the two,” Hassan said. “If you choose Islam, then do it purely for the sake of Allah, out of faith in your Creator. I don’t know what Kadija has in mind – if anything – but from what I saw in your apartment, you’re totally unready for marriage. If you converted to Islam today, I still wouldn’t recommend you to Kadija or any other Muslim woman. Give yourself time to grow into the faith.”
“What if she marries someone else?”
“We can talk to her about your interest. But first focus on the deen – the Islamic way of life. You have some thinking to do.”
Returning to Louis’ apartment, Hassan parked the car and shut off the engine. He sat, drumming his fingers lightly on the steering wheel. Louis wondered what he was waiting for.
“I was manning a checkpoint with my squad,” Hassan said finally. “Right on the – on the front line. Gunfire rattling all the time, shells and RPGs exploding, but that was usual. You tune it out after a while. A man approached on foot, waving a white cloth. In his forties, gray beard.” Hassan looked at Louis and Louis saw a terrible sadness in his dark eyes. “This is one veteran to another,” Hassan said. “You don’t repeat this ever, understand?”
Louis nodded. He recognized Hassan’s look of self-torment. He had seen it in the mirror more times than he could count. Hassan resumed his story:
“The man said he’d forgotten his papers, but no one ever forgot their papers. It’d be like forgetting to get dressed. The giveaway was the fear in his eyes. Our sergeant grabbed the man and pushed his hair away from his face, and he recognized him as a captain in a Sunni Muslim militia. Sarge told Yusuf, one of our men, to take gray beard into a nearby abandoned building and shoot him. Gray beard confessed then. He said that yes, he was a Muslim fighter, but that he had a ten year old son with asthma who’d been trapped on the wrong side of the line, without his medication. He just wanted to find his son and then he’d never enter our district again. Our sergeant asked gray beard for the son’s name and description, and where he might be found. I guess the man thought he was making some kind of human connection; I don’t know, but he told sarge everything. Then sarge told Yusuf to kill the man, then to locate the son and kill him too.”
Hassan paused in his tale and looked at Louis, who could not keep his shock from showing.
“I know,” Hassan said. “But that’s how it was in this particular war. There were no boundaries. Everything you described earlier I’ve seen, and worse. Anyway, the man began sobbing. It’s a terrible thing to see a grown man beg for the life of his child. It stays with you like a bullet lodged in your brain. Yusuf clubbed the man in the back, then dragged him by one arm. I saw a stain on the man’s pants and I knew he had pissed himself. I asked to go with Yusuf – so I could see how the killing was done, I said. Sarge laughed and made a joke about me being an eager little devil, and told me to take a liter of kerosene. I knew that anyone who didn’t clear this checkpoint was taken into the courtyard of a nearby empty building, then shot and torched. But I had never seen it. I got the kerosene, then I ran after Yusuf and took gray beard’s other arm. The man was weeping and shouting, ‘Save me!’ but no one on the street dared to interfere.”
“I’d already made up my mind that I wouldn’t let the man be killed. I had shot plenty of enemy fighters but always from a distance. This poor guy just wanted to find his kid. And the asthma part too… it touched a nerve.” Hassan was silent for a long time, until Louis wondered if the story was over.
Hassan lifted his head and inhaled deeply. “Anyway, that’s why I volunteered to go with Yusuf. My mind was spinning like a bicycle wheel in sand, trying to figure out how I’d save this poor father. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. Soon as we were out of earshot, Yusuf told the man to be quiet, that he wasn’t going to kill him. When we walked into the building the smell of rot and charred flesh hit me like a belly punch. I bent over in the foyer and vomited. Yusuf told the man that he’d escort him to his son, and get them both over the line.”
There was no hope in the man’s eyes. He said, ‘You’ll kill me and my son. I will not take you. Shoot me now, I don’t care.’ We obviously knew he’d pissed himself, but he stood straight as a cedar tree, with his chin up. Ready to die for his son. A real man, you know?”
“Yusuf looked at me and said, ‘Do nothing!’ Then he handed his rifle to the man, and told him it was loaded, and he said, ‘Mr. Badr. I’m Yusuf Ibrahim. I lived on your street in Sayyidna Ali. I played football with Jean. I’m helping you.’ The man stared at Yusuf and he recognized him. He hugged Yusuf and began crying again and saying, ‘Allah bless you both.’”
“There was an empty swimming pool in the central courtyard of that building and there must have been the remains of thirty bodies in there, but you could only tell from the skulls. There was a young tree growing out of the pool, feeding on the burnt remains. The wind had blown the ashes around so that the courtyard looked like a dirty fireplace. The smell was physical, like being struck. We poured kerosene on the bones and skulls and lit it so sarge would see the smoke, then went out the rear exit. I looked back on the way out and saw the tree going up in flames. I still see that tree burning in my dreams sometimes.”
“We escorted Mr. Badr to find his son, and got them over the line. We told sarge we’d killed them.”
“I’m only telling you this because of what you said about not deserving to be Muslim. On that particular day I did good but I didn’t always. I fought against Muslims, but here I am, because Allah is Merciful beyond all bounds. He forgives and He guides whoever He wills. You’re not the first or the last to be in this position. There were companions of the Prophet who fought against the Muslims before embracing Islam. So of course you can be forgiven.”
“The other thing is, I’m sure you have your own stories of people you helped. That’s what you hold on to. You can’t change the reality of war. You just hold on to whatever good you did. That’s what keeps you sane.”
Before Louis could think of what to say, Hassan got out of the car, unlocked his bike from the stop sign on the corner, and rode away.
Louis saw that Hassan had left his card on the dashboard. He looked at it:
Hassan Amir Hammerhead Courier Innovative Martial Arts - Private Instruction Available
Louis took out his wallet and slipped Hassan’s card into it. He had a feeling he’d be calling Hassan soon.
Continued in Part 4 here
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.