Louis scrambled up the slope, digging his fingers into the dirt. A terrible sound like the roar of an enormous lion boomed across the hillside. Louis hunkered down against the dirt and covered his head. His heart pounded like a wrecking ball against the walls of his chest. A cold hand touched his shoulder and he looked up in fear, shielding his eyes against the light shining from a figure that stood above him. He perceived that this figure was not the roaring threat, but was a friend of some kind, here to help him.
“It’s coming!” Louis shouted to the shining figure. “I need help!”
The luminous figure’s voice was the beating of wings. “Nothinnnng comessssss. It isssss only you, Lllllllll…” The figure pointed upwards and Louis realized it was pointing at a building. A mosque. A simple adobe structure. It had no dome or minaret. He didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed it, or how he knew it was a mosque. A shell exploded and the blast struck Louis like a fist. He felt searing pain on the left side of his cheek, neck and torso. His blood spattered onto the grass.
“Take me there!” he shouted.
“Nnnnnoo. You mmmmust go yourselllllf.”
Louis struggled to his feet and ran. The roar came again and he hunched his head into his shoulders, staying low. With a gasp he reached the mosque and hurled himself through the doorway, tumbling onto the carpeted floor inside.
The inside of the mosque was cool and silent, with no indication of the battle that raged outside. A group of men sat in a circle on the floor, listening as one recited the Quran. They wore long white shirts over baggy pants, and some wore white turbans. One stood to greet him, and Louis saw it was Hassan. Hassan smiled and embraced him. “We’ve been waiting for you, L – “ he said. What was that he’d called him? Louis didn’t catch it. “It’s time for prayer.”
Louis joined them as they stood in a row, foot to foot and shoulder to shoulder. He prayed, following the motions of the others and speaking to God in his own words. He had the feeling that the lion was there, inside the mosque, but he felt no fear. Why had he thought the lion was dangerous? The lion had been trying to save him all along.
He woke slowly, with a sense of calm. The red numerals on the alarm clock said 3am. Louis didn’t think he could get back to sleep. He knew what he had to do, but he couldn’t call Hassan or Kadija in the middle of the night. He rose, showered, and bandaged his scars. Then he set himself the task of cleaning the apartment. He took out the trash, swept the floors, and put the poster back on the wall, tacking it up without the shattered frame. Cleaning up reminded him of helping Kadija reorder her apartment after the break in. Except of course that Louis had created this mess himself.
He gathered his dirty clothes and sheets into a duffel bag and walked two blocks to a 24-hour laundromat on Cortland. Finally he could resist no longer. He texted Hassan: Are you awake? To his surprise he received a quick response: Just getting up for Fajr prayer. What’s up?
I’m ready, Louis wrote back.
ok, Hassan wrote. Meet me at Islamic Cntr on Market in 30 min. 20 Jones, 3rd floor.
Louis shifted his clothes to the dryer, hoping no one would steal them, then hurried to his car and drove to the Islamic Center.
He parked on Golden Gate Avenue across from the YMCA, confident that the foot traffic to the Y would prevent the local dope fiends from smashing his windows in search of a couple of bucks or something to pawn. His hands trembled with nervousness as he mounted the three flights of steps to the Islamic Center. He wondered if the people there would be alarmed at a stranger walking in.
The mosque consisted of a large open space with thick carpets on the floor and pillars spaced throughout. A bicycle stood against the wall in the entrance. The lights were dimmed, and there was little sound apart from a few men reciting the Quran half-audibly. The dozen or so men and few women in attendance glanced up when Louis entered, then returned to their reading. One rose and strode to him with a smile. Louis saw it was Hassan, dressed in a long shirt and baggy pants, with a white skullcap on his head. He looked very different from last night – he seemed to glow, as if light shone from beneath his skin. The dream returned to Louis and he had a powerful sense of deja vu.
Hassan embraced him, then stepped back, looking him over. “You look better,” he said.
“Thanks. Listen Hassan, I appreciate – ”
“You don’t have to thank me. So, you’re ready….” Hassan raised his eyebrows.
Louis nodded. “I’m ready to be Muslim. Whatever it takes.”
“Okay, ma-sha-Allah. We have prayer in fifteen minutes. Do you want to wait, then talk about it afterwards?”
“No.” Louis shook his head. “I don’t want to wait.” He’d felt a sense of urgency since that last dream. In addition, the nervousness was mounting inside him and quickening his breath. He didn’t want to put this off for another moment.
“Are you sure? Don’t you want to take a few days to learn about Islam and -“
Louis cut Hassan off. “You told me the most important things. Worship Allah, believe in the Prophet Muhammad, follow the Quran. I’m ready, man. Come on.”
Hassan looked into Louis’ eyes and Louis met his gaze, unflinching. Then Hassan asked the other men to gather around. Louis and Hassan sat on the floor, and the men sat in a semicircle before them, with the women just behind.
“This is Louis,” Hassan said. “He’s ready to accept Islam.”
There were murmurs of approval and encouragement. Hassan explained to Louis that the testimony of faith was called the “shahadah” or witnessing. He elaborated briefly on what it meant. Then Hassan recited the shahadah, and Louis repeated it after him:
“I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
Louis felt a tremendous weight lift from his shoulders. He felt in that moment that he could fly out through the window and soar above San Francisco’s seven hills.
He knew that his mother would be furious at this change, and that his other family and friends would not understand, but he didn’t care.
The men embraced him one by one. One man had his own prayer rug and gave it to Louis. Another removed his white Muslim cap and said, “Please take this. It would be an honor if you wear it.”
“Come,” Hassan said. “Let me show you how to wash for prayer.” He led Louis to a large washroom with a row of taps set at waist height above a long basin, and a bench to sit on. Hassan led him through the wudu’ or ritual purification: hands, mouth, nose, face, arms, hair, feet.
“When you get home, take a full shower,” Hassan said. “It symbolizes the washing away of your sins.”
The call to prayer sounded, and soon the men stood like soldiers waiting to be inspected. Just like my dream, Louis thought.
“Stand next to me,” Hassan whispered. “Follow my motions, and praise God in your own words. I’ll teach you the formal words later.” Like my dream. They prayed behind the Imam, listening silently as he recited.
When Louis prostrated, his forehead and nose touching the carpet, he felt utterly at peace in a way he had never experienced. He had a profound sense that his problems were not only his own anymore. It was almost as if, in the act of prostration, the troubles and shames he’d been carrying on his shoulders tumbled off, surrendered to Allah to handle as He saw fit.
The sitting position at the end of the prayer was hard on Louis’ knees, but he tried to relax his muscles and be patient. As soon as the prayer ended he switched to a cross-legged position. He hoped it would get easier in time.
After the prayer, a young man in a 49ers jersey asked Louis if he was planning to change his name. The Imam shot the football fan a stern look and said, “The brother just took shahadah. The name is not important.”
“No, it’s okay,” Louis said. “Actually… this is going to sound crazy, but I’ve been having these dreams, and I’m wondering if there’s a name that means ‘lion’.”
“Asad,” the Imam said. “It means lion.”
“No,” Louis said. “Something that starts with an ‘L’.”
The Imam nodded to an older man and asked him, “Aysh ism al-asad yibda’ bil-laam?” Louis understood the question: What’s a word for lion that starts with L?
“Layth,” the older man said. “Huwa asadun shaab.”
“Layth,” the Imam translated (unnecessarily). “A young lion.”
Layth. Layth! Louis put his hand over his mouth, stunned. That was the name from the dream. That’s what the angel – if it was an angel – had called him, and what Hassan had called him in the dream mosque.
“That’s my name,” Louis said softly. “Layth.” He felt tears on his cheeks. Hassan had spoken the truth. You could start over. It was possible. You could make a new life. Louis felt the transformation in himself: something new, like a wide and resplendent valley in his heart;. A place of welcome and peace.
Before leaving, Louis asked Hassan about Kadija.
“I will speak to her,” Hassan said. “Right now focus on learning the deen. There’s a prayer class every Tuesday evening, and a Quran class on Fridays. You should attend both. Come to Friday prayers if you can” – he handed Louis a prayer schedule for the month – “and let’s get together once a week, you and me.”
Out on the sidewalk they shook hands. Hassan mounted his bike, then turned back.
“Oh, and Layth?”
“Yes?” Layth! It felt so right. He claimed that name as his own.
“Alcohol or drugs are forbidden in Islam. Can you handle that?”
Layth/Louis nodded briskly. “No problem.”
“I know a Muslim brother who goes to AA,” Hassan said. “I could hook you up with him.”
Layth waved the offer away. “It’s okay, Hassan really. I’m cool.” And it was true. He was as cool as a pure mountain stream. He’d never been so cool in his life.
Layth spent the next few days cleaning his apartment, reading the Quran and studying a book called “Islam in Focus” that the Imam had given him. His scars hadn’t been itching, and by Friday his skin was back to normal.
When he arrived at the mosque for Friday prayer he glanced discreetly at the women’s section. Kadija was there, reading the Quran. Layth looked away hurriedly and sat in the men’s area, resisting an urge to scratch the scar on his side.
After prayer Hassan found him, and they embraced.
“Ma-sha-Allah, look at you,” Hassan said. “Stylin’ your kufi, and your skin looks great.”
“It’s the newest revolution in cosmetics. Keep your skin healthy by converting to Islam.”
Hassan grinned. “Very funny. Listen, I talked to Khadija.”
“And?” Layth held his breath.
“She’s interested. I recommended to her that she wait at least one month before even talking to you about marriage. She countered with three months. So if you’re still interested by next January, she’ll speak to you then. In the meantime she prefers to have no personal contact with you.”
Layth frowned. “Three months? Man. Don’t do me any favors.”
Hassan shrugged. “This is how it is, akhi. I’m looking out for both of you. You can trust me or not.”
Layth didn’t have to think about it. He trusted Hassan implicitly. If it hadn’t been for Hassan, who knew where he’d be now. And Hassan had named him in his dream. The situation was disappointing, was all. No contact for three months. But if this was how it had to be, well, ma-sha-Allah as the Muslims say. As we say, I mean. Whatever God wills.
“Can I ask you something?” Layth said. “I’ve noticed you always wear long pants and long sleeved shirts, even when you’re riding. Is that required in Islam? Should I be doing that?”
“Well,” Hassan said, “Sort of. I mean, a man’s ‘awrah, the minimum area we have to cover, is technically from the navel to the knees, but covering the rest of the body modestly is an expression of faith. So you can’t be going around in short shorts – not that you would.”
“Okay,” Layth nodded. “What about the long sleeves?”
“No, that’s just..” Hassan paused and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s just me.”
“Alright. Well, I’m going to try to get my job back,” Layth said. “Wish me luck.”
“I’ll do better than that,” Hassan said. “May Allah grant you tawfeeq.”
Layth showed up at Yellow Cab ready to plead his case. His wounds had healed and he had dressed in his nicest clothes. He was ready to argue, cajole and even implore. “Bernie,” he’d say, “I had a personal issue that messed me up for a while, but I’m back on track…” Etcetera.
The speech turned out to be unnecessary. All Layth got out of his mouth was “Bernie, I had a personal issue -” before Bernie interrupted.
“I’ll say you did,” Bernie said. “You were a mess. Anyway, you look better. Here you go. Cab 1140. The radio’s on the fritz, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?”
“Right,” Layth said, biting off the rest of his prepared speech. Wow. That was easy. Alhamdulillah, he reminded himself to say. Praise be to God.
To Be Continued in Part 5
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.