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Drunk

 

By: Mehmudah Rehman

 

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The still night descended upon a pensive Fatima like a canopy of dark opportunity. She gazed blankly at the glass in front of her. The deep red wine caressed the contours of the glass, its soft bubbles leaving their trace on the goblet. She sighed and licked her lips as she held the glass up, staring into the ruby-red beverage. She brought the cup to her lips, but put it down again, not sipping the wine.

 

She wanted to get drunk; it was always a good escape. All she wanted was to soar far, far away into a place where she could be happy. Into a place where being the person she was didn’t matter.

And what was so bad about this little pleasure anyway? It wasn’t like her liver would curl up and die if she got tipsy every now and then. She smelled the wine — ah, how satisfying the smell was! Once again, she brought the glass to her lips only to put it down again, frustrated by her inability to drink.

Alcohol had been a very significant part of her life ever since she met Ali and his friends. The first time she had been drunk was divine, and from then on Fatima indulged herself with sweet ambrosia. Possibly no one but her roommate knew just how much liquor Fatima could consume in one night. But then Fatima stumbled across a YouTube lecture about drinking in Islam.

Not that she cared — she was as far off the path of Islam as a Muslim could be. She remembered praying many years ago alongside her mother, but now Fatima enjoyed herself by doing as she pleased. First there had been Ali, then a couple others, but thankfully, she’d never gotten pregnant. Drugs were crass, but she had tried them as well. Drinking was where Fatima really found her liberty. And yet she was plagued by the lecture that clearly forbid drinking in Islam. She slept with men for crying out loud! Why was drinking such a tempting glass of wine suddenly so difficult?

And then, for the first time in years, Fatima rose from her seat on the couch and purified herself by performing wudu. With every passing moment, she breathed better. With every movement of the water cleansing her body, she felt as though her heart cleansed itself. The wine still sat on the table, enticing her, and unable to take the sight of it any more, Fatima gathered her resolve and poured it down the sink. Peace filled her heart; a different peace than what the drink would have brought her. It was a sort of tranquility that she had never known.

But then she thought of herself and the way the past few years had been. What good was a single isolated incident in the eyes of God? Did it even matter? Looking for answers and assurances, Fatima searched the sayings of Prophet Muhammed (SAW). If she ever needed a sign that God was indeed with her, this was it.

 

“Allah says, take one step towards Me, I will take ten steps towards you. Walk towards me, I will run towards you.”

 

The words were magnanimous, simple yet powerful and suddenly, the tears fell. Fatima had never known how sincere tears of remorse could wash away the grime that encrusted a heart. She realized she had taken one meager step towards Allah, and, because of that, He, the Almighty had taken ten steps towards her.

Her effort was a drop of goodness in an ocean of darkness and sin, but the most respected Deity had taken ten steps towards her because of it. Tomorrow would be a new day, a new beginning. Who knew where one step in the right direction would lead her? Drunk with a feeling of contentment that she had scarcely ever experienced, Fatima settled into a satisfying slumber.

 

 

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27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Yasmin

    December 22, 2011 at 1:58 PM

    Mashallah, simply beautiful!

  2. Pingback: Drunk « Ummanaal's Musings

  3. Avatar

    Carlos

    December 22, 2011 at 5:14 PM

    Ah addiction, another favorite strawman opponent of religion. Of course, religion’s true nemesis is science, not addiction. Addiction is bad for you. You don’t need religion to tell you that.

    • Avatar

      Rifaie

      December 22, 2011 at 11:09 PM

      Still at it Carlos? Another attempt to show us the light?
      One might have thought you know enough not to make such statements. Your blanket definition of religion and of science are both disagreeable. But then , that’s your dogma now isn’t it?

    • Avatar

      saira

      December 24, 2011 at 1:52 PM

      Questioning is encouraged of course…but a scientist is no stranger to *informed* questioning, with the acknowledgment of holes in their knowledge (humility) being the impetus to pursue answers. Same is true with anyone pursuing any line of inquiry…you have to be something of a scientist to seek answers in religion.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj

      December 26, 2011 at 3:37 AM

      This isn’t a story about addiction, scientifically defined or otherwise.

      Siraaj

    • Avatar

      Maryam

      January 5, 2012 at 10:52 AM

      This story is not about addiction at all.

  4. Avatar

    Faisal

    December 22, 2011 at 5:51 PM

    Assalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah,

    MashaAllah, this is a very well written piece of writing. I had to just say. May Allah reward you, and increase you in your goodness. I think you should continue the story in another article.

    Wallahu alim.

    • Avatar

      Mehmudah

      December 23, 2011 at 9:57 PM

      Walaikumussalam wr. JazakAllah for the comment. I really would love to continue this story. Let’s see how fatima changes from a lost into a guided woman. Presently she is estranged from her parents whom she rarely ever talks with. The next part inshaAllah bi ithnillah will tell you what happens next.

      • Avatar

        Mehmudah

        December 23, 2011 at 10:00 PM

        Whoops I meant what happens after she realizes how badly she’s ignored her mom and dad who live back home in Pakistan.

  5. Avatar

    Halima

    December 22, 2011 at 6:13 PM

    Nice story. Good writing too. I liked how the story dealt with a topic not too many cover. Especially since she was a sister not brother. More short stories like this one would be cool.

  6. Avatar

    Infidelicious

    December 22, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    touching story… I have been battling addictions of my own, and I can relate to handing it over to the Most High. You don’t even have to be a believer for the Most High to take ten steps towards you.
    Salaam

    • Avatar

      Mehmudah

      December 23, 2011 at 2:00 AM

      I so agree with that thought. Glad you found it touching.

  7. Avatar

    Amjad

    December 22, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    Assalamu Alaikum,
    May Allah protect all the Fatima’s and Aisha’s and Zainub’s and Mohammad’s and Ahmad’s…………………….
    This reminder is good that Allah is there to forgive only if we are willing to take the first step.
    Wassalam
    Amjad

  8. Avatar

    Safyah

    December 23, 2011 at 2:38 AM

    Wooooowww!!! Totally touched the chords of my heart. The shining ray of hope and light that it brings could change lives forever. Well done!!

  9. Avatar

    Adeel

    December 23, 2011 at 4:56 AM

    Love the spirituality and serenity of this. Addiction is a reality j many of us face.

  10. Avatar

    Ramadan

    December 23, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    Mashallah,

  11. Avatar

    Aziza

    December 23, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    MashaAllah, what a beautiful story!!
    I could really feel Fatima’s utter joy and contentment at the end.

  12. Avatar

    Halima

    December 23, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    @ Carlos..I seen your comments from time to time..you seem to be an atheist? Well believe what you like but can you stop commenting on a predominantly Muslim blog. Don’t you have anything better to do. Like seriously speaking. Because it seems like something you put lots of effort into, reading and commenting something odd. Just wondering if this is like a hobby for you or just something you do to kill time when you’re bored..???

  13. Avatar

    June

    December 23, 2011 at 9:12 PM

    Assalamu alaykum,
    This hits a chord with me. I remember when I first started learning about Islam and started to feel a pull towards it. I poured a liter and a half bottle of high quality Japanese sake and three import beers down the drain. And I remember the wonderful feeling of relief I got from doing it. I’m at a low point of iman right now but it’s good to know the small things I am doing to bring myself back up are bringing me that much closer to Allah.

    • Avatar

      Mehmudah

      December 23, 2011 at 9:50 PM

      Thats wonderful June, I am glad you were able to pour it down the drain. Islam really is all about submission. Remember when alcohol was made haram the streets of Medina were full of alcohol. Same’na wa ata’na – we hear and we obey.

      Sometimes the low periods come to take us higher than before… Keep the faith.

      Mehmudah

  14. Avatar

    Carlos

    December 24, 2011 at 12:01 AM

    Dear Sister Halima,

    I like to think I am contributing to the improvement of humanity. There are many ways to do that. One of my ways is to present a counterpoint to those who are devoutly religious. I find Muslims particularly fascinating, because often their way of thinking is so different from my way of thinking. I write the things that people who come to this site probably rarely read. I give the opinions that most users of this site rarely hear. I let you know there are other sides to all the issues and opinions raised on this site. There are alternative ways of thinking. I question where others refuse or fail to question. I take the unpopular stance. I break the stereotypes. I challenge assumptions. I question ideas. I call bluffs. I defend those who are absent. I let those who disagree with the majority opinion know they are not alone.

    Yes, it’s a hobby too, and sometimes I am just bored, and looking for ways to pass the time. Sometimes I am just having fun, but I try not to get too silly. I still want to be taken seriously. I don’t want to be censored. Some of my best comments did not make it past the MM censors. Sometimes I know one of my posts will probably be censored, but I try anyway. My intention is not to alienate or hurt. I am trying to tear down walls and build bridges. I do not hate Muslims or religious people. I see all humans as having inate value and potential, including those with whom I strongly disagree. I used to have some religious belief myself, because, when I was a child, I was told that was what was good and right and true, and I believed it for a while, even into young adulthood. My disagreement is with religion (ideas) not religious people (human beings).

    Every once in a while, I am told I do not belong here, and that I should go talk to other atheists. I have said this before and I will say it again. What is the point in that?! Why would I talk only to people who agree with me? What does that accomplish? How does that change the world? How does that improve me? How does that improve anyone? I do not seek to reinforce my beliefs, I seek to spread my beliefs, and welcome challenges to my beliefs so that I can improve my own beliefs.

    Halima, even if you and I lived in the same city, I would probably never meet you or talk to you in person. I could not go to your mosque and discuss my opposition to religion with you. If you were a co-worker or a classmate, you probably would never speak with me or even look me in the eyes unless you absolutely must. This online site is my only forum and way to communicate with Muslims like you. This is my only way of making a human connection with a fellow human who is separated by an iron wall, a wall that, since 9/11/01, appears to have gotten thicker. Separation and isolation breed misunderstanding, stereotypes, mistrust, hatred, fear, inequality, injustice, inhumanity and sometimes even war. In reaching through a small crack in the iron wall, this wonderful open forum, I can work against all of these evils.

    If I sound like someone with delusions of grandeur, there might be some truth to that. I apologize for my occasional arrogance and vanity. I am not a genius, but I am smart. I am educated but not a scholar. I am not overwhelmingly successful in life, but I am above average in the ways most people define success. I am not close to being morally pure, but I respect everyone, obey laws and ethical rules, treat people fairly, keep my promises, try to be helpful to others and try not to hurt anyone. I am friendly, but not terribly popular. I am not fearless, but I am not a pansy. I have worthwhile things to say, but I cannot write a great book like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, because I don’t have the time, and nobody would pay to read it. My only way to change the world is by blogging, this site being my usual forum. I’m just Carlos, MM’s friendly resident atheist for as long as MM stays true to its commitment to providing a truly open forum.

    Happy New Year.

    Yours truly,

    Carlos

    • Avatar

      maryam

      December 24, 2011 at 6:39 PM

      Hi Carlos,
      What about poor illiterate people who cannot read/have access to Richard Dawkins books or internet atheists blogs/forums?

      To convince illiterate people that there is no god one needs to provide the luxury of education. Religion on the other hand has open doors be it a church/mosque/temple and doesnt require a high IQ to make sense. Just because religious understanding doesn’t require a high IQ, it doesnt make it inferior. Afterall religion needs to be accessed by all, since God needs to be accessed by all.

      To prove atheism one needs to be provide the education of science. So that means atheism can only be the”privilege” of the educated?
      Plz comment.
      ps:“Dear sister Halima”…looks like you are catching on the religious method of addressing.

      • Avatar

        Infidelicious

        December 25, 2011 at 8:02 PM

        “Afterall religion needs to be accessed by all, since God needs to be accessed by all.”

        A matter of semantices here: Every day I pray “Lord , give me faith don’t give me convictions”
        religion seems to make people enemies.
        Some Muslims hate me for being non-Muslim. Some atheists hate me for being to understanding of People of Faith. Couldn’t we just believe what we want to and not let it come between us as humans ?

        • Avatar

          maryam

          December 25, 2011 at 11:31 PM

          Well, thats how everyone functions anyways; keeping belief aside, collaborating, treading along the days tasks.

    • Avatar

      June

      December 24, 2011 at 9:59 PM

      I’m on your side as far as Halima shouldn’t have asked you to stop commenting. You have your right to comment here and ask questions. You seem just as convinced of your opinion as most of us are of ours, so I simply see the debates that come about from your comments as exchange of information more than a pressing need to convince someone of one thing or another. Your analyses can be insightful and by asking questions some of us may not have thought to ask you help others gain more knowledge as they seek the answers for you (and themselves) and post them here for all to benefit from.

      I simply want to bring up that I disagree with you on one point: “This is my only way of making a human connection with a fellow human who is separated by an iron wall, a wall that, since 9/11/01, appears to have gotten thicker. Separation and isolation breed misunderstanding, stereotypes, mistrust, hatred, fear, inequality, injustice, inhumanity and sometimes even war.”

      I disagree that this “iron wall” has gotten thicker. Muslims are more than ever blogging, writing articles for their local newspapers, speaking to people, etc. about what Islam is. Muslims are out there as much as they can be to break down the stereotypes and correct misunderstandings, build trust with the community, and improve the quality of life for everyone (in religious and non-religious ways.) Yes, there are some (sometimes entire communities) who do isolate themselves. However, while you have likely heard this defense before, these are the faulty actions of people and not an accurate representation of Islam. And sometimes the mistrust and hatred comes from the non-Muslim community towards the Muslims because they are in plain view and not conveniently tucked away and isolated (out of sight; out of mind.)

      The “iron wall,” if not thinner, is at least only as thick as it was before. You’re right that it should be broken down, that this wall shouldn’t even exist. Ideally it wouldn’t exist but we are always going to be tested with these walls. Honestly, I don’t want these walls either and I’m always trying to help harmonize relationships. But there are always just as many people on either side willing to talk and listen as there are people putting their fingers in their ears and going “LA LA LA! I can’t hear you!”

    • Avatar

      Infidelicious

      December 25, 2011 at 8:04 PM

      “My disagreement is with religion (ideas) not religious people (human beings).” hear hear.

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#Culture

Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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River Delta: A Love Story

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time.

Sacramento River delta

They both have the day off. Jimena takes him to the Sacramento river delta, where the muddy shallows stretch forever. Mile after mile of wetlands, some preserved for migratory birds and small, wild creatures, and others claimed as farmland, growing rice in vast acres of standing water. They take off their shoes and she drags him into the calf-deep water, laughing. She is tiny, a small-boned woman of Mexican ancestry, and the water comes up to her knees.

A crisp wind sweeps across the open water, lifting the clothes from their bodies and drawing tears from their eyes. The air is brilliantly fresh, like he imagines air must be in the middle of the ocean, or coming off a remote glacier.

“This is the safest rice,” Faiz says, his toes sinking into the frigid mud. “Asian rice nowadays is grown in industrial wastewater and sewage. It’s full of heavy metals. And most American rice is grown in the South, where the land is tainted with arsenic residue from the cotton growing era. Only California rice is not polluted.”

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But she’s not really listening, and why should she? He’s prattling. There’s no one else in sight and she is splashing in the mud, shrieking with pleasure, not caring that her leggings and even her dress are soaked. “SubhanAllah!” she exclaims, bending over to pick something up. It is a tiny seashell, curled in on itself, burnished copper outside and pink outside. “Que bonita! What kind of shell is this?”

Faiz smiles and shrugs. He should know, but does not remember. And he is worried about how they’ll keep from tracking mud into the car.

‘You know,” she says, “My father used to bring me here to fish. I know this area like my own living room. See that deep spot? You’ll find catfish among the tree roots.”

“You mean like our living room.” They’ve been married two months, but he still feels she is a bright macaw that he has somehow tamed, and if he doesn’t pay close enough attention she’ll fly away.

“Right.” She begins to sing in Spanish, and the sound seems entirely natural, as if she is a creature of these wetlands.

He almost asks, “What made you want to be my wife?” But he has asked this question before, and does not want to annoy her. She’s my wife, he thinks. He likes the sound of that. “My wife.” It occurs to him that this is an odd way of expressing things. “My” husband, “my” wife. Possessive. As if we do not all belong to Allah, carried in His hand. Do we truly own anything in this dunya? Not really. All this will pass, and only the presence of Allah will abide. Take a breath, he tells himself.

Sacramento River delta

Sacramento River delta

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time. Overall it is better than he expected, Alhamdulillah.

Back on solid ground, covered in mud like a riverbank otter, she takes a notepad from the glovebox and scribbles a note, her soaked hijab dripping onto the paper and smearing the ink. She slips it into his shirt pocket.

“I wanted to drown myself in the deep part,” she says with a laugh. Only later does he realize that she meant it. Beneath all the wackiness and laughter, her sadness is a wide river. He has seen it in flashes, when she talks about her father, who was killed in a street mugging when she was a child, and her mother, who died of uterine cancer when she was in high school. There is a terror in her too, a dark chasm that he has only glimpsed.

There are moments when she does not know he is looking, when her eyes go wide and distant. He watches her, holding his breath. Her skin is dark, and he thinks she must have some Mayan ancestry. But she has a sharp Castilian nose and wide-set green eyes. She is captivating, way out of his league. Then she catches him watching and gives him a quizzical look, or she doesn’t catch him so he goes to her and rubs her shoulders, and she returns from wherever her reveries took her, sometimes grabbing him and wrestling him playfully to the ground.

They go home to the little green house Faiz grew up in and inherited from his parents. In the front yard is a Japanese-style arched wooden bridge over a pond, and a Zen sand garden. His father, a practitioner of Japanese martial arts, was crazy for everything Japanese, but Faiz never took to it.

A New Land

Thai restaurantThey shower and change, toss their clothes in the washer, then walk to the country-style Thai restaurant a block away. It stands alone between a house with peeling paint and an empty lot, and is covered in vines, as if it has been there for centuries. The sign looks hand-painted, and the brass Buddha mounted in a niche above the door smiles beatifically, as if welcoming all visitors.

Sant, the owner, in his sixties but sporting a full head of black hair, brings a bowl of sticky rice and a platter of salmon with cashews in yellow curry. As he sets the food down, Jimena exclaims, “Wow, this looks amazing!” and touches the back of Sant’s hand. Faiz flushes, but says nothing. He knows his jealousy is stupid. He loves Jimena and trusts her completely. He is grateful that no one notices his reaction.

Sant smiles widely. “In my country we have story of man who cannot taste food. All his life he wonder what the fuss is. He is bony and thin, because he have no interest to eat. Then he get married. The first time his wife cook for him, he taste everything. He weep with surprise and joy.”

“What’s the moral of the story?” Faiz asks.

“What you think?”

“The family that eats curry together, stays together.”

Sant grins. “Correct.”

“Also, love changes you.”

“Correct!”

“It’s more than that,” Jimena offers. “Love pulls you into a new land. You enter a trance state, like a dervish, where everything is possible through the love of God. Then you lose balance and come out of it and you don’t know your name, and don’t recognize the country in which you stand. You realize you died and didn’t know it, and that the oceans of this new land go on forever.”

Sant’s smile falters. “Ehh… Not so sure about that one.” He wanders off.

Faiz watches his wife licking yellow curry from her fingers. He knows that some of his friends do not approve. She’s a Hispanic convert, and was married once before.

“You can’t trust converts,” one of his friends said. “They might be Muslim now, but leave the religion later. It’s not in their DNA like us.”

Faiz does not speak to that friend anymore. There is no place for arrogant fools in his life. Let them look, let them whisper. He does not care. He is a poor man, still pursuing a masters in environmental studies and earning meager pay as a teaching assistant. He does not consider himself handsome.

In his first year of college he attended an Islamic retreat that affected him deeply. One of the scholars spoke of sincerity, and how this simple philosophy – to be sincere with God, with yourself, and with others – could transform your life. Since then he has strived to always be sincere. That is all he really has going for him, he thinks.

And yet, this beautiful woman married him. She is gorgeous, and smart – a Stanford grad. She’s petite but so strong. Sometimes she seizes his arms and squeezes playfully and it hurts. What she sees in him, he does not know. Later he comes to understand that she is deeply insecure. Would she still have married him if she actually knew how smart and beautiful she was? Did it matter?

Still, her faith is as powerful as the tide, and she loves him. What a miracle. Like Jibreel striking the ground with his wing to produce water from the desert. What an unexpected blessing. He never saw it coming.

At home, Faiz moves the clothes to the dryer, and they pray the night prayer. His wife goes to bed – she gets up early for work and always sleeps before he does.

The Note

Sea shellWaking in the morning, he notices the little seashell that Jimena found in the delta. She has placed it atop their bedroom dresser. The morning light illuminates it, making it look like a museum piece. How amazing to think that something lived inside it once. Some tiny creature manufactured this shell as a home. That creature is long gone now, dead. No one but Allah knows what it was, or when it lived.

Looking at the shell, he remembers the note Jimena wrote. The clothes they wore yesterday are still in the dryer. He knows the note is in the pocket of his blue shirt, and may be ruined, or illegible. But he forces himself to fold the clothes one at a time, tapping his foot nervously. Finally he removes the note. The paper is crumpled and fragile. He unfolds it gingerly. The writing is faded and smeared, but to his surprise he can read it. “You will always be my hero,” it says. “Be patient with me. I love you.” He is so moved that his face grows warm and his eyes well up. He performs wudu’ and prays two rakahs out of sheer gratitude.

Two months later Jimena goes through her first serious depression, at least that Faiz has seen. She weeps, rocking back and forth, and will not let him touch her. Back when she found the seashell she wove a cord through it and hung it around her neck. Now, as she weeps, she clutches it tightly, as a drowning woman might clutch a life-ring. She draws the curtains and barely eats. It lasts almost a week.

Aside from her job as a nurse, she is an activist, always raising money for one cause or another. She paints, writes poetry and plays the guitar, singing Los Lobos songs in a lovely, clear voice. At dinner parties she is the center of attention, telling anecdotes and jokes, and laughing along with her audience. Faiz knows that some of the stories are exaggerated, and he thinks she laughs too loud, but he does not say so. People tell her she is an inspiration, the most positive and cheerful person they have ever known.

Those people are not there when she slashes her own paintings with a box cutter, or strides through the house raging and screaming at Faiz for not supporting her, or locks herself in the bathroom until Faiz has to break the door because he fears she might harm herself. Though she never actually goes that far.

These depressions come along every three or four months. Anything can trigger them. A criticism by a work supervisor. One of her experimental vegetarian dishes not coming out right. One time she is talking about a patient at work, a child who had been abused by a parent, when Faiz receives a text on his phone. He checks it, and that is enough to send Jimena spiraling into the howling tunnel of depression.

Faiz, in his typically rational way, tries reasoning with her. He praises her, pointing out her many good qualities, and tells her how many people love her, including himself. None of it works. Then one day he is texting with his cousin Saleem Haleem, who has dedicated his life to working with the homeless but also possesses a wacky sense of humor. “Try dressing up in a bunny suit,” Saleem suggests, “and run around hopping and shrieking, ‘stop eating my chocolate eggs!’”

Faiz laughs it off, but then thinks, why not? In a desperate fit completely unlike himself, he pulls on a swim cap, paints his face red with Jimena’s lipstick, and runs into her bedroom shouting, “I am alien. Where is leader? Bashooomdafaaaah! Oueeegamaaala!”

Jimena stares wide-eyed, looks for a moment like she might attack him, then bursts into uproarious laughter. And like that, she is back to her usual creative, bubbly, hyper-social self.

Faiz begins to think that this is why he was blessed to marry her. It’s a bargain that Allah has made with him. A trade. She is too beautiful for him, too witty and charming, it is true, but he is patient enough for her. He can bear the insults she flings. He can comfort her when she rages that life is dark and useless, and that she is ugly and alone. She may be the woman he desires and dreams of, but he is the man she needs.

She loves to sit on his lap and kiss him until his lips are sore. She cooks his favorite foods. She writes love letters that he reads again and again, saving them in a sandalwood box, along with the note she wrote at the delta. She brags to her friends about how smart he is. She prays with him, and asks him to teach her Urdu and Quran. And through it all, she does not lose her faith. Just the opposite. When all else seems bleak to her, she still believes in Allah, still prays.

Hard Times

Empty walletJimena becomes pregnant but miscarries. She is plunged into postpartum depression that continues for a year, during which she cannot work. An economic recession hits. Faiz loses his job and takes consulting work when he can find it. They buy used clothing at thrift stores, and shop for groceries at the dollar store. There are times when they have no money in the bank, and Faiz’s wallet is empty. He is reduced to selling his childhood baseball card collection and his father’s old coins. Jimena castigates him: “You’re not a man. A man provides for his family.” She blames him for her miscarriage, saying that the stress of poverty caused her to lose the child. This last accusation wounds him to the quick, but he knows she doesn’t mean it. It’s the depression talking.

He goes for aimless drives in the foothills, letting the curves and angles of the road rock him like an infant. Sometimes he stops the car and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes as hard as he can, so that his eyes ache and strange shapes appear. Dark hands reaching for him. Exploding suns. Ghosts with no arms. Jimena is big on healthy eating and will not tolerate junk food, but when Faiz is out driving he goes through the Taco Bell drive through and binges on nachos and soda. Then he stops at the car wash and vacuums away the crumbs, eliminating the evidence.

When he feels most frustrated with life and with Jimena, he opens the sandalwood box. Beneath all the letters is the note she wrote that day at the delta, the words barely legible. He reads it and thinks of all the love Jimena has given him. He holds a picture of her in his head, a shining image of the woman he fell in love with, and his love returns stronger than ever, like a river replenished with the spring melt. Holding that bright image in his mind, he goes to her and takes her in his arms.

Jimena’s depression passes, as does the recession. She goes back to work for the hospital, and Faiz gets a government job as an environmental compliance inspector. Jimena has one sibling left, an older sister named Mariela. One evening the phone rings. As Jimena speaks to her sister, her face goes pale. Mariela has breast cancer. The doctors don’t know yet how advanced it is. Further testing is needed.

Jimena cannot stop weeping. “I’m alone now,” she moans. “There’s no one left.”

Faiz urges her not to imagine the worst. “Maybe they caught it early. Be patient. Trust in Allah.”

It turns out the cancer is advanced. Mariela undergoes treatment, but in three months she is gone.

Things are never the same between them after that. Jimena has it in her head that he told her Mariela would be okay. “You always make promises you can’t keep.” She stops writing love letters, stops sitting in his lap. She works overtime, returning home late. Faiz orders takeout and eats alone. When Jimena’s depressions descend she checks into a hotel, telling him she can’t stand the sight of him. Whenever she leaves he checks to make sure she has taken the seashell necklace. It is the only thing that gives her comfort anymore. She holds it obsessively, kisses it like a talisman. As long as she has it with her, he believes, she will not harm herself, and will come back to him.

Goodbye

One day he comes home and the necklace is hanging on the coat rack by the front door. There is a note on the kitchen counter, scrawled on computer paper:

“Don’t come looking for me. You’re better off anyway. You know it. Let go of your worries and be clear hearted. Goodbye.”

Sandalwood boxHe takes out the sandalwood box. Her love letters are there. Also the old note, yellowed note: “You will always be my hero. Be patient with me. I love you.” Faiz does not know what to do. After all they went through together, she is gone. So what was it for? He thought this was his test, his bargain, his gift, all rolled into one.

He wants to burn the letters. He wants to go after her in spite of her warning, convince her that they belong together, prove his love and his patience. What does she want, for God’s sake? What does that mean, let go of your worries and be clear hearted? Is it a puzzle for him to solve? No one will ever love her like him, doesn’t she know that?

He decides to wait. He will be patient, and she will return. She has blocked him on all the social media networks, so he creates a fake profile and befriends her, and learns that she has moved clear across the country. There are photos of her with people he does not know, looking happy. She posts about her usual activist causes, shares messages from her favorite religious teachers. Nothing about Faiz. It’s as if he never existed. Her profile status says, “single.”

Every day he takes out the sandalwood box. He selects one of the love letters at random, unfolds it. Her cursive script is flowing, loose:

Rumi wrote, “This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.” I thought true love was a myth, but you, my darling Faiz, have caused the veils to slip from my eyes. The veils of cynicism, bitterness and despair, lifted by the wind of your love and carried away. Now I see the hidden heart that beats in the forest of bones, the intoxicating air that only lovers can breathe, the hushed and peaceful path that only reveals itself to four feet that walk as two.

How could someone say such things and not mean them? Or if she meant them, how could such love disappear? Shaking his head, he folds the letter carefully and returns it to the box.

Six months later he receives divorce papers in the mail. All this time he still believed she would return. He is dumbfounded. Why is Allah doing this to him? What terrible thing did he do, to be punished this way? Why does Jimena not love him anymore? How can she be happy without him? Who will love her as he did? In a fit of pique and resentment, he signs the papers and mails them.

He tumbles into his own emotional hole, where he has thoughts of suicide for the first time in his life. He imagines stabbing himself in the throat, or maybe taking some pills, that would be easier. He doesn’t do it, and would never do it, he knows that. His faith in Allah would never allow it. No matter what else he might be, he is still a Muslim.

A month later, he learns from a mutual friend that Jimena has married a wealthy restaurant owner with grown children. Faiz is shocked and angry, and blindingly jealous. He wants to find her and scream at her, insult her, but he knows this is useless and stupid. Instead he begins taking hour long walks before Maghreb, feeling the breeze in his face, exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods, admiring people’s gardens, thinking of nothing.

A week later he hears that Jimena and that man have divorced. He can make no sense of it, but feels bitter satisfaction. How is it possible that he loves her but is happy at the news of her failure? Does he really love her, then? He doesn’t know anymore. Love is all fake nonsense. He deletes the fake social media profile and shuts down all his own pages.

He is sure that one day she will show up at his door again, and he fantasizes about what he will do or say. In one fantasy, he spits on her and screams in her face. But he would never actually do that. In another, she starts to beg forgiveness, and before she finishes her apology he snatches her into his arms and embraces her, and they resume their relationship of adoration and madness. In yet another scenario, he invites her in and they have a civil conversation in which they agree to be friends.

Japanese Garden

His walks lengthen to two hours, then three. He stops at the masjid to pray Maghreb in the middle, then resumes walking, going on until his feet and calves ache. His legs grow muscular. His body feels light and strong. He thinks of Jimena every day, but he can live with the ache and loss. He has learned this. He hears that she has married again. A white convert this time, a sufi. Faiz feels some jealousy but not like before. If jealousy is a green-eyed monster, then what he feels is its pale-green ghost.

Six months later she is divorced again. Faiz feels only sadness and confusion.

He usually pays little attention to the Japanese garden, but one day he gets out a rake and begins drawing patterns in the sand. He remembers his father trying to teach him: “Don’t drawing anything real,” he’d say in his sharp Pakistani accent. “Just moving the rake in random patterns. Seek for symmetry.” Faiz does so, and is happy with the design he creates. Then, as his father taught him, he erases it and starts anew, ending up with something different but lovely.

As he gets into bed that night, a thought makes his breath catch. He used to believe that Jimena was a gift from Allah and a test. He imagined he was the man she needed, the man who could handle her. No one could love her like him. But how arrogant these ideas were! How insincere. She was not a wild animal, and he was not her caretaker. Nor was she a child. Who was Faiz? He was not some living key to Jimena’s joy. He was not Jimena’s god. He was just a man. She had a life before she met him, and she would have a life after.

This leads him to another thought: he too can be happy without her.

Two months later an old friend named AbdulMalik calls him. “Guess what I heard? Jimena-”

Faiz cuts him off. “I don’t need to know.” It is true. It’s not necessarily that he doesn’t care. But he has achieved some measure of hard-won inner peace. Why mess that up?

Four years pass. In the beginning he thinks of Jimena often, remembering intimate moments they shared, conversations, the way her chin dimpled when she smiled, and the curses and weeping as well, the accusations. And their lost child. That is the most difficult of all, for the pain it caused and for what could have been.

One day he realizes with surprise that he has not thought of Jimena in quite a while. He’s pleased by this, and rewards himself with a pint of premium vanilla fudge ice cream – something Jimena never would have let him get away with.

Be Sincere

At the masjid after Jumah prayer, the Imam signals him to enter his office. A sister has recently moved to town, a white American woman named Anamarie, with two small children. She converted to Islam a year ago. The father of her boys is in prison. Would Faiz be interested?

The offer is not exactly tempting. If his parents were alive it would be a non-starter, as they would give him blazes over it. Raising someone else’s kids? A frightening thought. What if he doesn’t love them, or they don’t love him? What if he has no idea how to treat them? What if he disciplines them and the mother gets mad because he’s not their dad? Stop, he tells himself. What’s the harm in meeting her?

He meets her in the Imam’s office, with the Imam present. She is his height, not fat but a bit chubby. She breaks the ice by inquiring about his work, and is surprisingly interested and informed about science and the environment. She has a slight southern accent, and eyes the color of a winter sky. He asks hesitantly about the kids, and what she would expect of him. Evan is three years old, and Ellie is one and a half. Anamarie can see, she says, that he is a kind hearted man. She would not expect anything more from him in the beginning than to be present in their lives. “Be sincere with them,” she says. “That’s all you have to do.”

They meet for lunch next time, still just the two of them. Being around Anamarie is strangely easy. Why is he so comfortable? Maybe because she is nothing like Jimena. With Jimena he was always giddy, nervous or dejected. Anamarie, on the other hand, is a calm summer sea. You could lay out on your boat and relax on a sea like that, and not have to worry about hurricanes or whirlpools.

Oh, there are things she is passionate about. She is a teacher, and loves her work. She is also an aspiring novelist, and speaks wistfully of being able to earn a living from writing one day. She is not an activist of any stripe, and Faiz likes that, as he has come to associate activism with instability.

Meeting the kids is easier than he expected. Evan is serious but friendly, surprising Faiz by taking his hand as they walk through the park. The boy’s hand is warm but dry. Ellie is wacky and easily entertained, ready to laugh at any funny face Faiz makes.

Their nikah is held on the shore of a nearby lake. There are only a dozen people in attendance: Faiz, Anamarie and the kids, the Imam, and a handful of Faiz’s friends and co-workers. He rarely thinks of Jimena anymore, but can’t help wondering on this day whether she is happy somewhere. He hopes so.

He has saved quite a bit of money over the last five years. He sells the tiny house and buys a modestly sized Mediterranean style home with arched doorways, a sunny breakfast nook and a large backyard.

A week after the wedding he takes a drive out to the river delta by himself. Squatting at the water’s edge, he burns Jimena’s letters one by one, watching the ash spill into the water and dissipate like breath on a cold day. He feels no anger. Standing, he takes the seashell necklace from his pocket. He studies it one last time, admiring the perfect smoothness of its inner curves. Something lived here once. But now it is gone. He draws his arm back and throws the necklace far out into the water. It floats on the surface, buoyed by the cord, then finally sinks.

* * *

A year later he, Anamarie and the kids are seated in the nook, eating spaghetti and meatballs for lunch. They are planning to visit the airplane museum tomorrow and Evan is excited about the planes they will see. Faiz smiles to hear him talk about wing designs and aerodynamics. A budding engineer, mashaAllah.

Spaghetti and meatballsEllie is on Faiz’s lap, and he is struggling to increase the ratio of spaghetti that goes into her mouth versus onto her shirt. “The flyer is returning to the mothership,” he says dramatically. The forkful of spaghetti swoops and dives. “Open the bay doors so it can land.” Ellie shuts her mouth tightly. “Open the mothership,” Faiz urges.

“I’m not a mother,” Ellie pouts, turning her face away.

“Ships in space don’t land,” Evan says. “They dock.”

The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” Anamarie offers.

Faiz waves her off. “No, I’m on it.” She is seven months pregnant. Getting to her feet is a struggle. He hoists the little girl onto his hip.

When he opens the door he feels the blood drain from his face. It is as if an angel, a devil and a ghost have all combined into one person and materialized on his doorstep.

“As-salamu alaykum,” Jimena says.

It has been five years since she left. He has forgotten how tiny she is. Yet she is as intense as ever, even just standing there. Her eyes are forest green, her teeth white. She wears an orange hijab, blue jeans and a “Save Gaza” t-shirt.

“Who’s this?” Jimena nods at Ellie and smiles, but there is tension behind it. Is that jealousy Faiz sees in the set of her jaw? Disappointment? Unconsciously, not knowing why, he shifts his hip slightly, moving Ellie away from Jimena.

A flash of anger crosses Jimena’s face, then vanishes. “You look good. You’re fit. Do you think we could talk? I have some things I want to-”

“I didn’t know if I would ever see you again,” Faiz interrupts calmly. Sincerity, he tells himself. That is all. “I am glad you are here so I can tell you that I am grateful for the love you gave me, for as long as it lasted.” His voice is soft, gentle. “I was angry, but not anymore. I only think well of you. I wish good for you in the dunya and aakhirah. May Allah bless you in everything. That is all I have. Please don’t come here again.”

He steps back into the house and begins to close the door. He is afraid she might throw a tantrum, maybe push her way in. But she stands in place. Her mouth turns down in an expression of utter dismay, and Faiz feels a terrible flood of guilt. He never could bear hurting her. He closes the door all the way. His hand trembles on the doorknob, and his breath is ragged. He locks the door.

Back in the nook, he takes his seat.

“Who was it?” Anamarie asks.

“Oh. One of those people, you know, the people who come to the door?”

“What people? Missionaries?”

“Daddy didn’t let her talk,” Ellie says.

“That doesn’t seem like you,” Anamarie remarks.

Faiz picks up the fork. “Open the bay doors. The flyer is coming in for a landing. I mean, to dock.” He glances to Evan, who nods approvingly.

Ellie turns her face, and the fork pokes her in the cheek.

The End

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

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#Culture

No, My Son | A Short Story

It was pure happenstance that Payedar Olan was sitting near the entrance of the masjid on the day the gunman entered and shot him. He had forgotten that here in America they changed the time twice a year…

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

It was pure happenstance that Payedar Olan was sitting near the entrance of the masjid on the day the gunman entered and shot him. He had forgotten that in America they changed the time twice a year, so he was an hour early for Friday congregational prayer. The little masjid at the top of a hill was almost empty, with only a few brothers praying, and one washing up in the ablutions room. So he sat with his back against the wall to relax and wait.

Such a strange thing, this time changing. The sun rose and set. How could men change it? But in America they believed they had power over all things.

Life here was bewildering. People zipped around on electric scooters, in Uber cars and in trains that rumbled beneath the ground. Skyscrapers blocked the sun. People wore strange costumes, and one could often not tell a woman from a man. The markets contained more food than anyone could need, much of it artificial, tasting too salty or too sweet. People smiled for no reason, while crazy people wandered the streets, shouting at nothing.

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This city and country had taken him in and given him shelter when his own homeland was being devoured by evil men; so he was grateful. Still, it was perplexing, and so far removed from his experience that sometimes he felt he was on a different planet.

The Kurdish Heart

A Kurdish village

Kurdish village

Payedar had been born in 1953 in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a mountain village called Gur-e-Sofia, reachable by traveling first on the Ruwandiz road from Erbil, then by a three hour climb up a mule track. His bav was a duck hunter, and his dê a midwife.

In his village, whitewashed homes were built into steep hillsides in tiers, facing the sun. The mud of the roofs had to be rolled anew every September, before the winter rains, because in summer it would crack. Sheep and goats dotted the slopes. Most people grew barley or bearded wheat, and tobacco in summer, using oxen to plow the fields. Every family knew precisely how much water they could take for irrigation, and no one took more than their share, for fairness was ingrained in the Kurdish heart.

Walnut trees grew everywhere, and Payedar would shake them to bring the walnuts down, then crack them between two stones. Because of this he was never hungry, alhamdulillah.

He remembered his bav, his father, sitting at the village coffee shop, smoking rich Kurdish tobacco from a hookah pipe, and shouting exultantly as he won a round of backgammon. At home his dê cooked spiced kofta meatballs, bulgur pilaf and flatbread, with figs and sweetened black tea for dessert. Payedar, his parents and six siblings ate on the floor, sitting around a clean cloth. At night Bev led them in prayer, reciting the Quran in his powerful voice.

It was life, and he was happy, until he was eight years old and the Kurdish-Iraqi war began. His three older brothers and one sister went to fight and never returned. The village was bombed. Many were killed and many homes were destroyed. Even the small masjid was reduced to rubble. His bav fell into despondency, and one day went out to hunt ducks and blew his own head off.

Payedar, the eldest remaining child, became the breadwinner. Twice a month he loaded up a mule with white grapes, tobacco and walnuts and traveled over the mountain to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he sold them at a good profit. It was hazardous work. More than once he was injured. Three times he was robbed.

These dangers were balanced by getting to see Erbil, a city of a million people. A million! Where ancient Assyrian and Roman monuments and citadels mixed with four-story buildings and a modern soccer stadium. Women went out with their forearms uncovered, people wore Western jeans and shirts, and music played from boomboxes sold in shops filled with electronic goods. At the same time, Erbil was a frequent target of Iraqi bombs, and it was not unusual to see bodies in the streets.

The Dying and the Dead

The war ended when he was seventeen, and began again when he was twenty one. This time he joined the Kurdish peshmerga and fought the Iraqi invaders, sending his salary home to his mother.

Female peshmerga fighters

Female peshmerga fighters

It was in the war that he met his wife, Letya. Her name, which meant tiny and womanly, matched her stature, if not her personality, for she too was a member of the peshmerga, and the first time he saw her she was in a soldier’s uniform with a Soviet rifle in her hands, her fierce black eyes promising death to the enemies of the Kurds, and her long black hair streaming in the hot southern wind.

He killed many men, and saw many die. Back home in Sofia-e-Gul one of his two younger sisters got married and moved away, while the other, out one day foraging for food, was kidnapped by Iraqi soldiers, raped and killed. Shortly afterward his mother died of loneliness and heartbreak. He returned home to bury her, his tears falling into the rich mountain soil atop her grave. Sofia-e-Gul was now populated only by old people waiting to die, and by the dead in the cemetery. The fields lay untended, many homes half-destroyed, the animals lost. He prayed, begging Allah’s forgiveness for leaving his mother alone. He did not ask for Allah’s mercy on his mother, for it was unnecessary. She was a saint, and if anyone in the world deserved Paradise it was her.

He left Sofia-e-Gul and never returned.

Payedar and Letya were married as the war raged, and when the Kurdish militias lost and the Kurdish region was overrun by Iraqi troops, they fled to the Kurdish border region in Iran. There Payedar worked as an assistant to a stone mason. He and Letya raised two boys and a girl.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

These were the things Payedar was thinking about as he sat with his back against the wall in the little masjid. Lately it seemed his mind dwelled more in the past than the present. Sometimes he found himself standing on a street corner in this American city, thinking about the feel of his father’s bristly mustache when he kissed Payedar goodnight, or the smell of his wife’s hair, redolent with the day’s cooking – or, if she had bathed, with the scent of fermented rice-water shampoo. Then someone would interrupt his reverie, some Spanish girl with green hair, or a goateed man with earrings and a baby in a belly sling, and ask if he was alright. And he would smile and thank them.

He had no complaints about the way his life had turned out. He’d lost so much, yes. But he’d been a fighter all his life, and what more could any man do? Everything was in Allah’s hands. Whatever had happened was always going to happen, and whatever had passed him by was always going to pass him by. There was nothing he could say in the end but alhamdulillah. And if he was fortunate, he would meet his lost ones in Jannah, and all would be well.

Boots On

The gunman entered with his boots on. That was the first thing Payedar noticed, glancing to his left and seeing the military boots on the plush carpet of the prayer room. His eyes shot up to take the man in: tall, white, with a powerful frame. Green eyes and a scattering of freckles across his cheeks. Brown hair in a buzz cut. Dressed in green army fatigues, and carrying a semi-automatic rifle. The gun was pointed toward the mehrab as the man’s head swiveled, taking in the interior of the masjid.

The man seemed confused. Maybe he too had been fooled by the time change, and was expecting to find a full congregation. Maybe his eyes were adjusting to the gloom, for the interior lights had not yet been turned on, and the masjid was all cool shadows and lazily spinning ceiling fans.

The gunman’s hesitation gave Payedar the time he needed. He leaped up and embraced the man tightly, throwing his arms over the man’s arms, pinning them to his sides so that the rifle pointed at the ground. “No, my son,” Payedar said intensely, whispering in the man’s ear as if telling secrets to a confidante. “No.”

“Get off me you goddamn terrorist!” the man bellowed. He struggled, nearly falling. He was strong, but Payedar also was strong, for though he was sixty seven years old he had been a stone mason for decades, and the work had given him a broad back and muscular arms.

“No, my son,” he said again, his voice rising. “I will not allow it. I cannot, I cannot.” He heard other men shouting in panic and confusion, but he did not turn to look.

“I’ll kill you!” the man drove forward, but Payedar held on. The gun went off. The sound ricocheted off the walls like the roar of a cannon. Someone screamed. Payedar’s foot exploded with pain. Starbursts appeared before his eyes. Yet he kept his arms clasped. “No, my son,” he said again, desperately. ‘No, my son.” He was pleading, but not for his life. He and death were old friends or old enemies – he could not tell anymore. Sometimes you hated a man but admired him. So it was with Payedar and death. No, he was pleading for this man to understand, to stop before it was too late.

“GET OFF ME YOU CRAZY OLD MAN!”

Again the gun fired, and this time it was as if a sword had been driven into Payedar’s thigh. He closed his eyes and groaned in agony, but held on. Again he pleaded, his voice filled with something that might have been anger but might also have been love, and this time it was a shout, driven by pain and desperation. “No my son!”

The gunman stopped struggling. Payedar felt the man’s body go limp within the circle of his embrace. He opened his eyes to meet a gaze filled with hatred and rage, but also confusion and shame. Now that the man had stopped struggling, Payedar seemed to have lost his own ability to fight, as if he had drawn his energy from the other’s seething will. His arms grew slack and the world turned monochrome, as if he were seeing everything on the old television he and Letya had purchased when the children were still small and still alive. Pain filled his mind, and he could not stand.

Arms seized Payedar and the gunman. Both fell. Men were atop them, shouting in Arabic and English. Payedar’s mouth fell open as his eyelids came down like steel doors.

His Young Prince

Hospital IV bag

Two surgeries and a week in the hospital, and he was on his way to recovery. People said he was a hero. Visitors from the masjid were allowed in two at a time, but Payedar found their visits tiring. Reporters wanted to see him, but his son Ekrem shielded him. Payedar had no desire for fame. Police came as well. He told the story in halting English, and picked the gunman out of a selection of photos on a card.

Sometimes he did not know where he was. A hospital, but he had been in many clinics and field hospitals. He had been shot twice before, bombed, struck with grenade shrapnel, and tortured in an Iranian jail, where he was accused of being a Kurdish separatist.

When he became confused he remained silent and waited stiffly. Eventually Ekrem would appear, sometimes with his beautiful wife Amirah, and Payedar would relax, for even if he did not know where he was he knew that Ekrem was his young prince, his joy and legacy, and that if Ekrem was there then everything was fine.

Later, he awoke on the sofa in Ekrem’s living room. Usually he slept in a tiny upstairs room, but he had a titanium rod in his thigh and a cast from knee to toe. He let out a groan. His leg and foot ached as if a lion were gnawing on the bones. He’d experienced worse pain in life. But he was old now.

Amirah stood over him, speaking. “Apê. Tu dixwazî hin çay bi şekirê dixwazî? Dem dema dermanê we ye.” Uncle, would you like tea with sugar? It’s time for your medication.

Payedar smiled at this princess, this beautiful African-American Muslim woman who had given him two grandsons and had even learned Kurdish!

Trying not to show how much his leg hurt, he rubbed his eyes and yawned. “How about some mast-aw?” he replied in Kurdish. It was an old joke. Mast-aw was a Kurdish favorite: heated goat’s milk mixed with sour goat’s milk to curdle it, then with cold water. Of course it could not be found in America.

“Honey,” Amirah called in English. “He wants mast-aw.”

“Coming up.” Ekrem emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray with a single glass of milk perched in the center, and four pills beside it. The boys trooped at his heels, grinning. Payedar looked at his son, with his curly hair and long, proud nose. He was sturdy, for he too was a stonemason, having learned at Payedar’s side.

Payedar smiled at this prank. The pasteurized, homogenized milk sold in America was a far cry from mast-aw. But he took the glass without complaint, and downed a few pills. His eyes widened. The drink was thick and tangy, rich with the flavors of his homeland. It was mast-aw! He had not tasted it in many years, and for a moment the flavor took him back, so that he was a child, sitting on the floor with his parents and siblings after a long day of trooping over the mountains with his bav. The children enjoyed mast-aw and boiled wheat with sugar, and when his older brother tried to talk about the war Bav shushed him. His sister told a joke about a cat that tried to ride a bicycle, and Payedar laughed.

Remembering this, he laughed again, and witnessing this, Ekrem and his family laughed as well, and Payedar returned to the present. “This is miracle,” Payedar said in English, and his family grinned and told him how they had sourced all the ingredients.

Moments like this were a barakah, and Payedar was filled with gratitude to Allah. If only… he faltered, his hand shaking, nearly dropping the glass, so that Amirah took it quickly. A tear ran down his cheek. Ekrem was beside him, touching his shoulder. “What is it, Bav? Is something wrong?”

Payedar shook his head. “You are the spirit of my heart, Ekrem. All of you.” He reached a hand to his grandsons and they piled onto the sofa. “I wish…” He could not continue. He wished Letya, his wife, could have lived long enough to see this new land. And Sara, his daughter, gassed by Saddam Hussein along with her husband and children. And Baz, his firstborn, a lifelong soldier.

Ekrem rubbed his shoulder. “I know, Bav.”

“Can I try the mast-aw?” This was Ibrahim, his youngest grandson, a wide-faced boy with curly black hair and dark eyes, only four years old. His mother gave him the glass and he took a sip, then coughed and grimaced. “Eww!”

Payedar chuckled. “You are American boy. You better stick to apple juice.”

* * *

An assistant district attorney came to see him. A rail-thin blonde woman with spectacles like tea glasses. The gunman, whose name was Amundsen, had so far refused to speak to the police. He said he would only speak to, “the old man.”

“Meaning you, Mr. Olan,” the ADA said. “You’d be doing us a favor.”

Good Crazy or Bad Crazy

They met in a room in the county jail building. It was painted steel gray, with a thick window beyond which a tall black guard watched. There were no cameras or listening devices, as far as Payedar could tell.

The gunman, Amundsen, sat across from Payedar at a metal table that was bolted to the ground. The man wore orange jail coveralls with “JAIL INMATE” printed on the chest and back. He was handcuffed, his ankles shackled, another chain connecting hands and feet to a belly chain, and the whole mess chained to a steel eye loop welded to the table. The man was unmarked. No bruises or burns. Back home he would have been tortured until he confessed. Here they had to appeal to him, negotiate, reason. America was crazy. But good crazy or bad crazy? Both, Payedar supposed.

Payedar wore the traditional clothing of his homeland: a dark vest over a white robe, a black turban, and boots. He did not always dress thus. Sometimes he wore typical Western clothing. He was not sure why he had chosen to dress this way today.

The gunman eyed him. There was some hostility in that look, but not as much as Payedar had expected. The man seemed almost curious. “You speak English?”

“Yes. I learn.”

The chains rattled as Amundsen gestured to Payedar’s leg. “You gonna be alright?”

Payedar nodded.

“You really messed me up.”

“You mess up yourself.”

“Yeah.”

Neither of them said anything for a while. Payedar studied the gunman. The man’s eyes were intelligent, his jaw set tightly. A forearm tattoo peeked out beneath the sleeve of his coverall. His torso was as wide as a barrel. Payedar was amazed he’d been able to hold the man. In fact, he could not see how it was possible.

“Why did you say that?” the gunman wanted to know.

“Say what?” Though he knew.

“You know. You called me your son. You kept saying that. Even when I shot you. What the hell, man? I’m not your son.”

Payedar flushed with embarrassment. But he had agreed to talk to the man, so he answered. “Sometimes I get confused. At that time I thought you was my son, Baz.”

Amundsen stared, then shook his head and laughed. “Unbelievable. I got stopped by a senile old kook. Do I look like your son?”

“Little bit. Big and strong. He was soldier, fighting the Iraqis. Seven years ago, when ISIS start to invade our land, Baz come to me, say he going to fight them. I did not want. I lose so many people already. So I hug him, I tell him, no, my son. Do not go.”

Amundsen frowned. “Your son was going to fight against ISIS? I thought you Muslims supported ISIS.”

“You are fool!” Payedar snapped. “Never say this. Do you understand what ISIS did to my people? They attack the Yazidi villages because the Yazidis are Christian, not Muslim. So ISIS kill the men, take the women and rape them. My son cannot accept this, so he go to fight, to protect them.”

“So…” Amundsen’s mouth hung open as he took in what Payedar was telling him. “Your son fought to protect Christians?”

“Muslim, Christians, one people. They are Kurds.”

“What happened to him?”

“What you think?” Not wanting to speak it out loud.

The room fell silent. Payedar looked around absently, taking in the clean floor and walls, the even light from the fluorescents embedded in the ceiling. He looked at the jail guard on the other side of the window, who stood calmly, watching them both. Payedar’s mind wandered, traveling through time, crossing borders and eras in an instant, feeling the touch of his wife’s lips on his cheek, whispering her love. She had loved him like a fighter, fiercely, unreservedly. Then his mind swept forward like a flash flood in a mountain ravine, and he was once again in the present, in this tiny room in a foreign city far from home. His gaze returned to Amundsen, who in turn studied him silently. No one spoke.

The end

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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