Hassan’s Tale | Part 1 – The Mountains are Muslims Too

This story is a sequel to Pieces of a Dream, A Lion is Born, The Deal, and especially to Kill the Courier” and “Dispatch Wizard“. If you have not read those stories yet, please do so.

See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.

March 22, 2010 – almost midnight
San Francisco, California

Hassan retrieved the black leather briefcase from storage and hit the road. Speeding along Highway 101 south, pegging the car's cruise control to just over the speed limit, he sipped green tea from a thermos and tried not to worry about what revelations Dr. Basim might have in store. He hoped Dr. Basim would be able to guide him. He had to find a way to get Sarkis to back off. Every conflict had a negotiating point.

His face felt swollen and sore, but the arm was the real problem. He could feel his pulse in the wound, throbbing with every heartbeat. He adjusted his seatbelt so that he could cradle his injured arm in it, using it like a sling.

He was glad that Muhammad had found his father unharmed. Insha'Allah the man would get treatment and recover his sense of self. What a frightening thing it must be not to be able to think clearly; not to be able to distinguish the real world from one's inner nightmares. The very thought made Hassan shudder. subhanAllah. Good health was such a gift, but everyone took it for granted until it was lost.

He wondered if Muhammad would be able to forgive his father. Was there anything harder in life than truly forgiving someone who had hurt you badly?

Hassan believed in his heart that forgiveness was the key to every happiness. It opened your lungs so you could breathe, and released your heart like a bird from a cage. Resentment, on the other hand, tightened your chest and narrowed your vision. It made your world smaller, and shrunk your capacity to love.

Though he knew this, and believed it, he still could not forgive Sarkis. The best he could do was to walk away. Reach accommodation of some sort, and let the man live his perverted, twisted life. Leave it to Allah to end Sarkis' life when his qadar, his pre-ordained fate, called.

He took 152 east through the lightly forested foothills. The hills were dark now, silhouetted against the purple sky. Merging onto Interstate 5 south, he popped a disc into the CD player. It was a homemade compilation of Islamic nasheeds given to him by Fatimah, his Tuesday night class assistant – not my assistant anymore, he remembered. The class is hers now.

A haunting voice flowed from the player, singing:

I can find myself in the mountains
for the mountains are Muslims too
and they are my friends.
They avalanche, thundering “Allahu Akbar!”
Their rivers sing subhanAllah.
Trees crowd the slopes like pilgrims,
praising in unison,
celebrating life.

Hassan looked up at the outline of the dark mountains on his right, marching westward like an army on the move. Muslims, all of them. The orange groves dotting the mountain slopes, the wisps of cloud in the night sky, the half-moon shining in the east like a heavenly child about to be born… How strange to think that all these things were Muslim in their nature – they obeyed the natural laws laid down by Allah, with no thought and no complaint – and yet so many of the people who lived upon this earth, and survived only by means of these natural elements, did not believe.

Traffic was light. Hassan was not an expert in counter-surveillance, but he'd known a few CS guys in Lebanon and had picked up the basics. He did his best to make sure he was not followed, running what the CS guys called a heat run. He pulled off the freeway at a scenic overlook called the Crow's Nest and watched the cars pass. Shortly afterward he exited at a truck stop, where he bought a tuna salad sandwich, a small pack of cookies, and a bottle of ibuprofen, and made a mental note of any other cars around. Leaving the truck stop, he signaled right then quickly turned left, keeping an eye on the rear view mirror.

He downed four of the painkillers along with his meal, then entered the freeway heading in the wrong direction – north. One exit down the road he pulled off, circled around and drove southward very slowly in the right lane, forcing anyone following him to slow down or pass. Finally he exited the freeway one more time and parked at the side of the road for five minutes. Confident that he was not being tailed, he resumed his southward trip.

Such precautions were probably not necessary, since it would be easy to spot a tail on these straight stretches of I-5; but there was no harm in being safe.

The Tejon pass over the Tehachapi Mountains was dusted with snow. The mountains themselves were invisible in the dark, but the patches of snow shone with reflected moonlight and seemed to hang in the sky, luminous and strange. It was always queer to see snow in California, and it made Hassan feel as if he had been suddenly transported back to Lebanon. It was not a good feeling.

This was only his fourth time returning to Los Angeles in the last sixteen years. The oversized, glittering city held many good memories, and some that were so terrible they overshadowed everything else. Driving down the mountain into L.A. felt like sinking into a great prison, or tumbling into a locked-up corner of his mind that he did not wish to revisit.

He made no stops. No detour to the old house, no pass by his old school or dojo. By 7am, as the sun rose in the east like a great yellow fist, Hassan was ringing Dr. Basim's doorbell, messenger bag and briefcase in hand.

Dr. Basim answered the door and greeted Hassan with a warm hug and a handshake. There was something about his appearance – with his short stature, bald head fringed with curly white hair, and portly figure – that always reminded Hassan of a penguin. The blue jean shorts and preppy sweater vest only added to the comic effect.

Dr. Basim was not a man to be underestimated, however. He had once been the deputy director of the Lebanese intelligence services – the only Muslim to hold such a high rank before the civil war – and was now dean of the UCLA school of business. He was also an avid pottery collector who travelled all over the world collecting antique pieces. And he was the man who had helped Hassan set up his offshore corporation several years ago, as a means of concealing his wealth and identity.

Hassan had sometimes wondered if Dr. Basim was a CIA agent or asset, using the pottery thing as a cover. Basim played his cards close to his vest.

He also was not much of a Muslim. He drank wine, did not pray, and liked to play poker at the local Indian casino on the weekends. None of this was secret; Basim was quite open about his predilections, and liked to boast about the big game he'd won, or the bluff he'd pulled off.

But he'd been a lifelong friend of Hassan's father, and had known Hassan's assumed identity for years. He was like a second father, and Hassan trusted him implicitly.

Pulling away from the hug, Dr. Basim noticed Hassan's cheek. “Shoo hatha, ibni?” he asked. “What happened?”

“I'll tell you later, Ammu” Hassan said, using the Arabic word for 'paternal uncle'. “Do you have any coffee?”

“Of course.” Basim ushered him in the house. “Tafaddal.”

The large, Spanish-style house was stunningly decorated with some of the antique vases and urns that Dr. Basim had collected around the world. Hassan knew they must be worth a fortune, though it did seem to him that there were fewer pieces on display than the last time he'd been here. Maybe Dr. Basim had put the rest in storage for safekeeping.

Dr. Basim led Hassan to the breakfast nook in the kitchen. Morning light streamed through the window. A morning dove called softly outside, and a crow answered. Someone slammed a door and one of Basim's dogs – he had two German Shepherds – barked from the backyard.

Hassan had spent many afternoons in this kitchen with Motaz, eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches, or taking chess lessons from Dr. Basim.

“Sit,” Basim he said. “I'll bring you coffee and breakfast. You must be hungry.”

“I have to admit, that sounds good.” Hassan said. Not a very Arab response, he knew – he was required by tradition to insist that Dr. Basim not trouble himself, at which point Basim would override his objections – but, having been raised in the USA, Hassan tended to dispense with such conventions.

“Nisreen went to an early class at the gym,” said Basim. “Jumba, Zimba, something like that. Some kind of dance.”

“How are Motaz and Dalya?” Hassan inquired. He sat at the small table and set the briefcase and messenger bag carefully at his feet.

There had been a time in Hassan's childhood when he and Motaz had been great friends. They had learned to skateboard together, played stickball in the street, and defended each other from bullies.

Though Hassan's family was Christian and Motaz' was Muslim, and though Lebanon was embroiled in a bloody civil war between the two faiths, neither Hassan nor Motaz cared about that. Their fathers were childhood friends, and Hassan's father was utterly ecumenical in his beliefs. As Hassan later learned, his father's entire life had been dedicated to evangelizing the idea of racial and religious harmony in Lebanon.

As Hassan became increasingly involved in his martial arts and weapons training, however, he and Motaz drifted apart. Then everything shattered, with the deaths of Hassan's mother, father and brother striking in succession like falling bombs. Hassan did not see his friend again until many years later, and by then Motaz had just been diagnosed with a degenerative disease called Freidreich's ataxia. It caused muscle weakness, speech problems and curvature of the spine. In the last several years Motaz's health had deteriorated rapidly. He was now confined to a wheelchair.

Ironically, Hassan was Muslim by that time, while Motaz considered himself an agnostic. Dr. Basim and Tant Nisreen were not practicing Muslims and had never taught Motaz and Dalya even the basics of Islam. As for Dalya, she opened a wine bar, became wealthy, and joined the Church of Scientology. Lost children in the city of Lost Angels. To lose your health was bad enough, but to lose Islam on top of it… he felt so sad for Motaz.

“You know how it is,” said Dr. Basim as he began pulling breakfast ingredients out of the refrigerator. “Motaz is having a hard time. He's back at the rehab center. Dalya's business is thriving. She has three locations now. She and her boyfriend bought a new house.”

Hassan didn't know what to say. Motaz's illness was progressive and incurable. Hassan had not been back to see him as often as he should and he felt guilty about that. In part he had not visited because of the distance. There was also his need to minimize connections with the past – it was safest for everyone that way. And he had to admit that it made him deeply uncomfortable to see his friend –  who was almost exactly the same age as Hassan – slouched over in a wheelchair, his hair entirely white, and his hands trembling with palsy. It was depressing. Hassan knew that was a weak excuse. He constantly berated himself over it.

“I have something for you,” Basim said. He disappeared through the side door into the garage, and returned a moment later with a letter-sized wooden frame, which he handed to Hassan.

“I was going through some old boxes, throwing things out, and I found it,” said Basim.

It was a poem, hand-printed on what looked like cotton paper, and lovingly framed. Even if it had not been personally signed at the bottom, Hassan would have recognized his father's poetry anywhere:

23 Responses

  1. Shurufa

    whoa. This is ought to be a novel. I would buy it. Great job brother, mA. :)

  2. iffat sharif

    Oh my Allah !! THIS IS SOOO EXCITING!! First of all Alhamdolillah this part has 10 chapters..that means it will run for a long time !! :) and secondly,this story is like more than ma’sha Allah !! I never thought a thriller can be so beautiful just bcoz of the Islamic content :) What’s the name of this novel as a whole ??

  3. talibeilm

    Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger! :O The suspense is getting unbearable! Once again, barakallahu feek Br. Wael!

  4. SnJannah

    Hassan story is the most suspense of all!! =D thanks author for the nice read. :))

  5. Safa

    Amazing. The pace, the suspense, the detailed imagery… Jazakumu Allahu khairan.

  6. Khalida

    As-salaamu ‘alaikum,
    I’m so scared for Hassan and the other couriers!!! But I love Hassan’s determination and courage in facing his challenge.
    Knowing that you will have this published this in shaa ALLAH, I noticed just two mistakes as I was reading, 1. “and kiss his the rough stubble of beard on his cheek”; 2. “‘No!’ Dr. Mustafa (Dr. Basim?)interjected.”
    I can’t wait for the next chapter. BaarakALLAHu feek.

  7. Wael Abdelgawad

    Jazakum Alllah khayr everyone for your kind comments. It’s hard sometimes finding time to write between all the usual obligations of family, work, etc, but your encouragement keeps me going.

  8. Amina Malik

    I too have always wanted to ask you, what is the name of this novel as a whole?

  9. Salma

    Really enjoying reading this story. Always look forward to the next episode.

  10. Sulayma

    Assalamu Alaikum Br. Wael, Masha’Allah an incredible piece once again. The suspense is unbearable, but that’s exactly what will keep us coming back for more.
    I’m currently in editing mode as I’m reviewing another friend’s story, so I hope you don’t mind me just pointing out one very small misspelling. Haddad’s name was spelled as Hadded here: “Though Hadded had never run for political office…”

    Barak Allahu feik for your work and efforts.

  11. Gabriella

    Wow this is crazy!! I hope Hassan comes back before the partridge can do any damage to the others. Is this based on true events? And are those assassins real? They sound like the winter soldier! Also when will we get to see what happens to Alice and Mohammad and his father?

  12. shehudankwarai

    بركاء دا صلاح. نسأل الله أن يتقبل كل ما تبذلونه من التضحية، وله يبارك ش وأحبائهم اور مع الرحمة وسنوات جيدة في المستقبل. أمين.


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