See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
March 23, 2010. 5:03 am.
West Oakland, California
Jamilah had never imagined such pain. Like a squid, it spread its tentacles over her brain and inked out her thought processes. It felt like an abdominal cramp that went on and on without surcease. Compared to that, the pain in her wounded cheek – which ordinarily would have made her weep – was like a mosquito bite.
She could think clearly enough, however, to see that Hassan was bleeding to death. He lay flat on his back, his eyes closed and his skin white as a sheet. Blood poured from his leg like a river through a levee breach.
Jamilah had never even taken a first aid course, but she’d read enough novels and seen enough movies to know how to tie a tourniquet.
She looked around wildly, then ran to Sarkis Haddad’s dead body. Frantically, her hands shaking like leaves in the wind, she removed his belt, rolling his dead body to do so.
Scrambling back to Hassan, she looped the belt around his leg above the wound, threaded it through the buckle ring, then sat on Hassan’s leg and pulled as hard as she could. Thankfully – alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah – the bleeding slowed to a tiny trickle. She couldn’t pull on the belt forever, though. It was far past the latch holes, with no way to secure it.
She could barely think through the pain. She let out a loud, involuntary groan. Trying to concentrate, she remembered something. Releasing the belt for a moment, clutching her gut as she moved, she hurried to the small table next to the steel operating table and yanked a pair of pliers from the Crow’s case of torture tools. She inserted the pliers between the belt around Hassan’s leg and twisted. One twist, then two, and the belt was even tighter than it had been before. Someone would have to hold it in place with one hand, though, or it would unwind.
“Hassan!” she called, but he did not respond. If it had been someone else, under some other circumstances, she might have smacked him in the face to wake him up. But Hassan was in bad shape. The left side of his face was bloody and swollen, his nose was bent at an unnatural angle, and his mouth, beard and neck were stained crimson with half-dried blood.
“Hassan!” she cried, pushing on his chest. “Wake up!”
Nothing. If not for the shallow motion of his chest rising and falling, she would have thought him dead.
Her heart thundered in her chest, and her breath came in gasps. She bent low, putting her mouth near Hassan’s ear. She spoke in as normal a voice as she could manage.
“Hassan, please. I need your help. I can’t do this alone.” She began to cry, and angrily forced herself to stop, wiping the tears away with a closed fist. Hassan did not need her tears. “Hassan, you were a captain, right? You’re my captain now. I need you to wake up. Wallahi, you’d better wake up captain, or I’ll put you in the brig!”
Hassan opened his eyes, and, to Jamilah’s amazement, he smiled faintly. “Brigs are on ships, dummy.”
Jamilah laughed through relieved tears, before the pain hit her with a blow like a molten hammer and she gasped.
“What is it?” Hassan’s voice was slurred and weak. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Jamilah lied. “Just worried. We have to get you to a hospital. I don’t know what to do. There are armed guards out there.” She indicated the door with a nod of her head.
Hassan’s eyes swam in and out of focus. “Find a phone. Check pockets. Call 911.”
Of course! Jamilah mentally kicked herself. Why hadn’t she thought of that? She put Hassan’s hand on the pliers, instructed him to hold them in place, and when she was convinced he understood she ran to Sarkis’ body. Along the way the agony in her stomach doubled her over. It was like a chemical fire burning inside her. She fell to one knee and clutched her belly.
But Hassan needed her. She had no time for pain. She willed the hurt away, forcing it back as a lion tamer pushes back the savage beast. Her hands came away from her belly crimson. She wiped them on her jacket and went to Sarkis.
Averting her eyes from the blood and brain matter that fanned out behind Sarkis’ body, she rifled through his pockets. Nothing but his wallet and a wad of cash. His jacket lay nearby, scorched and in some places burned all the way through. She found a cell phone in the breast pocket. It was half melted and fully dead.
The gunman called Emil had a phone in his pocket, but the screen was smashed. He must have fallen on it when he died. She tried it anyway. Nothing. In his coat pocket she found a FREE PALESTINE pin that looked exactly like her own. She stared at it dumbly for a second, then dropped it.
When she’d put on a show of bravado earlier and predicted to these men that they would all end up dead, she had not known it would come true. She’d only been trying to rattle them. She certainly had not expected it to happen this way, with everyone in the room, herself and Hassan included, either dead or badly wounded.
The Crow was her last chance. She didn’t know if she had killed him when she struck him with the chair. She hoped so. She had heard Hassan calling him Charlie, and had been stunned when Hassan dropped his own weapon and allowed himself to be shot. He must have been delusional in his exhaustion, pain and stress. And even if somehow – in some bizarre and inconceivable twist of fate – this was his brother Charlie, it wouldn’t matter. This man was a monster. Though she had not shown it earlier, the Crow frightened her more than any childhood boogie man or horror movie slasher. The movie slashers were fake. This slasher was as real as death.
When she reached into his coat pockets, he groaned and opened his eyes. His dead green gaze settled on Jamilah, and she saw a promise of agony and death. She screamed and struck him in the jaw with the side of her fist, smearing her own blood on his face in the process. He blinked. She hit him again, and again, and again. Finally his body went limp and his eyes closed once more.
Jamilah pried the gun out of his hand and pressed the barrel to the assassin’s temple. She placed her finger on the trigger. Her hand quavered, and she gripped her own wrist to steady it. She wanted to shoot, but her finger seemed paralyzed. She told herself to just do it, pull the trigger. He deserved it. Hadn’t she screamed at Hassan to do the very same thing just moments ago? If she left him alive, she’d be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life, fearing the return of those dead-green eyes.
But the Crow had been fighting then, trying to kill them both. Now he was unconscious and completely still. To shoot him now would be murder. She couldn’t do it.
She shouted in frustration, and stuck the gun in her waistband, well away from the gunshot wound in her belly.
The Crow had no phone. In fact, there was nothing at all in his pockets. His wound, she noticed, was hardly bleeding.
As she stumbled back to Hassan, she picked up her hijab and hastily tied it on. Even here, in these insane circumstances, donning it grounded her and reminded her who she was.
Hassan was conscious and still holding the pliers in place, thank God. He looked ghastly. His eyes swam as if he would lose consciousness. Jamilah grabbed his shoulders and shook him slightly. “Hassan, we have to leave! I couldn’t find a phone.”
He focused on her. “Consulate guards. There are at least two armed guards. We can’t get past them.”
“You could shoot them. I know you can do it.”
“I…” Hassan moaned in pain. “I took a vow not to kill.”
Jamilah closed her eyes and covered them with her hand. She dug her fingers into her own temples, the pain distracting her slightly from the fire in her abdomen. “I respect that, Hassan. Wallahi, I admire you for it. But we’re going to die if we don’t get out of here. There’s no other way. Even a vow can be broken when it’s life or death, right?”
Hassan opened his mouth, apparently about to speak, then closed it again. “Charlie,” he said finally.
Jamilah exhaled through clenched teeth. “I don’t believe that’s Charlie. You’re not thinking clearly. Even if it is, he’s fine. He’s wounded but not fatally. But he’ll kill us if he wakes up, Hassan, please!”
Hassan nodded. “Help me up.”
Jamilah pulled on Hassan’s arm as he pushed off the ground with the other and sat up. From there he came up onto one knee. He turned to look at the Crow.
Jamilah held out the Crow’s gun, but Hassan did not take it. His gaze remained fixed on the Crow.
“I’m not delusional,” he whispered. “It’s Charlie. He could have killed me, but he only shot me in the leg.”
Jamilah pursed her lips. “Okay, Hassan. I’ll do it. Really. I’ll take care of the guards, then I’ll come back for you.”
“No.” Hassan’s voice was stronger now. Surprising Jamilah, he clambered to his feet, swaying like a palm tree in the wind. “These guys are trained. They’ll kill you. Give me the gun.”
“And your vow?”
Hassan’s expression was iron. He held out his hand, and Jamilah placed the gun in it.
Hassan studied it and hefted it in his hand. “Sig Sauer. Good gun.” He looked at Jamilah. “How’s your cheek? Is the pain bad?”
“It’s okay,” she said. In reality it was the pain in her belly that made her want to fall to the ground and curl up in a ball. But she didn’t tell Hassan that. It would only distract him. She was covered in blood from head to toe, it was true, but so was he and everyone else in the room.
“Get the pin.”
Jamilah was baffled. “What pin?”
“Free Palestine. In the Armenian’s pocket.”
This made no sense. Did he mean her pin? Why would it be in the Armenian’s pocket? Jamilah wanted to growl at Hassan that she was injured, shot, in terrible pain, and to forget the stupid pin! But she didn’t want him to know she was shot because it would handicap his thinking when he needed to be lucid; and she didn’t want to waste time arguing. She retrieved the pin.
“Pin it on my chest.”
She did so, fumbling with it, puncturing her own finger in the process and barely registering the pain.
Hassan regarded her. “You’re so strong, Jamilah. Alright. Let’s do it.” Still holding the tourniquet in place, walking in an awkward crouch and favoring his injured leg, he advanced haltingly toward the door. “Stay behind me. Follow like you’re stuck to my back.”
“Won’t they have heard the shots?”
“If we’re lucky they thought it was us being tortured or executed.”
Looking at Hassan’s broad back, she noticed something. “Hassan, there’s something in the back of your shoulder.” She touched it gently, and he flinched. “Oh my God, it’s a piece of metal. Stand still, I’ll pull it out.”
“Leave it. If you take it out, the wound will start to bleed and I can’t afford that. Now say the shahadah.”
Jamilah did so, quietly.
Hassan opened the door and stepped out, and Jamilah followed.
They were in a warehouse. Jamilah saw a supply closet, a restroom, and beyond that rows of metal shelves holding a variety of goods, some in wooden crates and some shrink wrapped in plastic. The place was redolent with the smells of tobacco and spices. The scents were welcome after the stink of blood and death in the torture room.
One of the guards stood at attention beside a door thirty feet to their right. As soon as he saw them he drew his gun. Without hesitating, Hassan fired once. Jamilah did not see where the bullet hit, but the man crashed against the door, fell and was still. Jamilah thought the gunshots in the other room had been loud, but out here, without the soundproofing material, the sound was like a giant slapping his palm on a table. Her ears rang.
They heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the warehouse. A guard ran into view from behind a forklift, his gun already out. He fired twice as he ran, but the bullets went high, hitting the wall behind them. Hassan fired three times rapidly, and the man tumbled through the air, landing on one of the front forks of the forklift.
“Sorry,” Hassan muttered. “Can’t see through my left, or I would have stopped him sooner.” He proceeded toward the door and Jamilah followed. No one else appeared, and no voices were raised in alarm. When they reached the door, Hassan bent and pulled the dead man aside. Jamilah saw now that the guard’s left eye had been replaced by a dark hole. Hassan stuck the Crow’s gun in his waistband and went through the dead guard’s pockets, presumably looking for a phone.
Jamilah noticed a roll of packing tape sitting atop some boxes. She hurried to it, clutching her belly and grimacing. Returning to Hassan, she told him to stand still, then taped the tourniquet in place so that he wouldn’t have to hold it. Hassan groaned in pain, swayed on his feet and grasped the doorknob to steady himself.
“Easy,” Jamilah said. “I’m done. Did you find a phone?”
“You want me to check the other guy?”
Hassan shook his head. “He won’t have one. Probably an operational security measure.”
Outside, in the warehouse’s parking lot, Jamilah sucked in the cold night air as if it were nectar. She looked around but had no idea where she was. She saw the outline of a row of hills in the distance. A few miles in the other direction she saw bright lights and what looked like shipping cranes.
Hassan stumbled and fell. “I can’t.” He shook his head. “We’re free. You run and find help.”
“No! I don’t even know where we are.”
Hassan lifted his head and looked around. “We’re in Oakland, near the port.”
“But where should we go? We have to get you to a hospital.”
“Can you see any street signs?”
Jamilah looked around frantically. There were no cars on the street at all. It seemed to be a half-abandoned industrial district. The area was so dark she could barely see the ground. But the street signs were reflective and she managed to read one. “We’re on 5th Street and… Mandela! 5th and Mandela.”
Hassan’s head fell back onto the cold asphalt. “Then the BART station is close by. Look around. West Oakland station is elevated.”
Jamilah saw it. An elevated platform about a block away. In fact, she noticed now that the parking lot across the street was BART parking. But the lot was deserted.
“I don’t think the trains run at this time, Hassan.”
“Trains start…early.” His voice was weary and barely audible. “Mo would know.” He closed his eyes.
Jamilah wanted to scream. At any moment the Crow might recover and come after them. She kneeled beside Hassan. The pain in her belly felt like an electric eel had crawled inside her and discharged a million volts into her stomach. For a fleeting moment she wondered whether, if she survived this, she would be able to have children. Had the bullet damaged her reproductive organs? Would a man still want her – would Hassan still want her – if she were barren?
She let the thought go. Such fears were inconsequential if she and Hassan died in this miserable parking lot. The gusting wind that a few minutes ago had seemed so fresh, now robbed her of precious body heat. She began to shiver, her body wracked with tremors from head to foot. Her heart galloped out of control. The pain went up a notch, and she let out a groan. A part of her wanted to curl into a ball and lie down beside Hassan. But only a small part. She was a fighter. Surrender was not in her nature.
On top of everything else, she was afraid he would lie on the piece of metal embedded in his shoulder and drive it in further. She resisted the impulse to roll him onto his side and pull it out. Even if it slipped in further and caused permanent damage, it was better than pulling it out and starting more bleeding. She would trust his judgment on that.
She didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t stay here.
“Hassan…” Her voice was a plea.
Without opening his eyes, Hassan spoke in a whisper. “I didn’t tell you…about Layth. He was shot. So many people hurt…because of me. Broke my vow. I’ve done…everything wrong. Can’t…do it anymore. Go to BART. Trains…running soon. Station agent…”
Jamilah already knew about Layth, of course. She had seen him in the street, whether alive or dead she did not know. She considered doing as Hassan said – running to the station and alerting someone. It would mean leaving Hassan alone here in the street, helpless.
No, that was out of the question. She bent low over Hassan and spoke urgently, trying to still her chattering teeth. “Hassan, what would the Prophet do right now?”
“Don’t know…I’m not the Prophet.” She could barely hear him.
“Okay…” She wished she had more Islamic knowledge and could recite some verse from the Quran that would inspire him. “What about the Sahabah? What would Abu Bakr do, or ‘Umar?”
Hassan did not move or reply. Looking at him, he could have been dead.
Maybe it wasn’t a matter of knowledge. Knowledge was of the mind. She needed to reach his heart. “Hassan…” She tried to think of who mattered most to him, who could touch him and bring him to life. “What about your father?” she said finally. “What would your father say right now? What would he tell you to do?”
For a moment Hassan did not respond, and Jamilah thought he would not, and that it was all over. He would die here, on the cracked and cold asphalt of this parking lot. Then he opened his eyes and stared up at the stars, or at nothing. “He would forgive me. He would tell me that I did what I had to do. He would say…he would say that it’s not my time yet.”
Jamilah seized on that and bellowed like a drill sergeant. “Then GET UP, son! Listen to your father. On your feet, get up!”
He did. In a quiet voice he breathed, “Ya Wahid, Ya Qahhar,” and rose to his feet. His face was pale as a cloud in the darkness. Jamilah pulled on his arm to help, but she had little strength to give. They began to walk clumsily toward the BART station, Hassan limping badly, almost dragging his leg behind him.
With every step, the pain in Jamila’s center mounted until it became her entire world. Step, blinding pain. Step, agony like tracer fire in her stomach. Her breathing grew louder and more ragged, and she began making little moaning sounds with each step.
Hassan stopped and examined her closely for the first time since their escape. “What is it?” He saw her hand clutching her belly. “He shot you? Ya Lateef, Ya Allah. I thought he missed. How are you still walking? Let me see.”
Jamilah shook her head vehemently and spoke between clenched teeth. “I can handle it. You’re hurt worse than me.”
“I’ll carry you.”
“Stow it.” He could barely move himself and there was no time to argue. “Keep moving, brother.” She seized his arm and pulled him forward, forcing him to walk.
Before they were halfway across the parking lot he began to fade. The blood loss was simply too great. His gait became increasingly unstable. As they neared the station he stumbled and would have fallen on his face if Jamilah had not caught him. Throwing his arm over her shoulders and gripping him around the waist, she held him up and dragged him forward. His eyes closed and his breathing became shallow, but his legs still functioned. Step by step she found herself carrying more and more of his weight. Her leg muscles trembled, her arm ached, and sweat poured down her face. She would have called to someone for help, but there was no one in sight.
As they neared the station, the pain in her midsection exploded upward to a level of agony she had not dreamed possible. It felt like she was being cut in half. She froze in place and screamed. Hassan did not wake, and she did not drop him. Somehow – she would never know how – she remained on her feet, holding him up. She heard her father’s voice saying, “Palestine is under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!” She realized she was saying it out loud, chanting it like a battlefield hymn.
A strange thing happened to Jamilah then. She felt herself becoming detached from physical sensation. It was almost as if she were rising out of her torn and pain-wracked body. She knew it was only her imagination – what else could it be? – but suddenly she felt as if she could see everything more clearly than ever before. She saw the distant outline of the Oakland hills and it was as if she were there, walking beneath those tall oaks and redwoods, hearing the footfalls of the forest creatures and the running of the streams.
From this new vantage point she looked down at Hassan and saw how truly heroic he was, and why men had fought and died at his command – why even an enemy like Emil the Armenian had given his life to save Jamilah herself, and by extension to help Hassan.
Hassan had come here this night to die for her. Jamilah had always hoped or expected that one day a man would love her. Some of her hopes had been girlish fantasies, and others hard-bitten practicalities. But she had never expected such monumental selflessness and courage on her behalf. She saw now how deeply Hassan loved and needed her, and she realized how utterly foolish she had been with her “Shamsi test”, and her constant weighing whether Hassan was good enough for her. It was not a question of whether Hassan was good enough for her. It was a question of whether she was good enough for him, not in the shallow physical sense, but on the level of the soul.
It was as if the crushing pain had become a crucible in which all her illusions were burned away. The pain in her belly and back was so great that she had no energy for anything at all except putting one foot in front of the other. She had no energy remaining for self-deception, pretension, or anger. Especially anger.
Looking down at herself, she saw the useless, self-harming anger she had hauled around for so many years, seething like a mass of snakes inside her. Anger over her father’s death, her grandfather’s murder, the death and displacement of so many relatives at the hands of the Israelis, and the theft of her people’s very nation from under their feet. She saw the ugliness of her anger, and the way it would, in time, poison and twist her into someone she didn’t want to be. Maybe it already had.
She saw her faith like a young tree, growing straight and true, but vulnerable, not yet rooted in the natural soil of her soul. She saw her determination to do good in the world and help her people, her reverence and gratitude to her late father, her deep love for her mother and brother, and her love for Hassan, twinkling like a far off star, but strengthening and brightening like a sun even as she watched.
She saw these things and shaped them, molding them like hot glass. She was a sculptor, freed from the moorings of her body, liberated from the shackles of the past, able to choose her path by the will of Allah. She imagined a different and better way to live, and in imagining it she conjured it, shaping the molten glass into something beautiful. She saw herself still working for justice – but not out of rage, not bitter, not hateful. Instead she could fight with faith as her engine. She could fight with the immense and full-blown power of love. Love would be her sword of light. She would be a warrior fee-sabeel-illah, as well as a daughter, sister, and wife.
Jamilah saw all this and knew that Allah would not abandon her or Hassan. Their story was not complete. Allah would save them, for when He wanted a thing He only said to it, “Be”, and it was.
The hallucination or epiphany ended and she was back in her body, trembling. She felt every kilojoule of the pain, but she could bear it for now. She moved forward, pulling Hassan with her.
They reached the entrance to the station and stumbled into the light. Jamilah half-carried Hassan toward the station agent’s kiosk. As they neared, she saw a middle-aged African-American man on duty in the booth, his head buried in a book. A feeling of immense relief flooded through her.
She called out to the agent. With a look of shock, he exited the booth and ran to them.
“My God! What happened?”
“We’ve been shot,” Jamilah replied. “Call 911.”
“Yeah! Okay!” The man dashed back into the booth.
Now that help was on the way, Jamilah’s superhuman strength ebbed away, as did her ability to withstand the pain. All the heat seemed to leave her body in a rush, and she shook with cold. With a cry, she fell to her knees, as did Hassan beside her. She managed at least to lay him on the ground gently, so that he did not strike his head.
“The paramedics are on their way!” It was the agent. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m so cold,” Jamilah said.
The agent unzipped his jacket. “Take my – ” His words were cut off as a gunshot rang through the station, the report echoing off the tiled floor and walls. The station agent screamed, took two stumbling steps and fell.
Jamilah gaped at the body for a moment, stunned. Then her eyes flicked to the station entrance and the man who now limped into the light, remorseless and unstoppable as a missile in flight: the Crow.