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Book Review: The Character Assassination of Malcolm X

Since I was a young boy growing up, the story of Malcolm X captivated me. Before I hit my 13th birthday, I had already read his autobiography, watched the Spike Lee movie and sat through countless hours of his recorded speeches with my African-American teachers – many of whom had reverted to Islam after meeting or learning about him. The fascination continued through college and Medical School, where a group of friends and I gave presentations on the life of Malcolm X at Universities across the UK.

Therefore, as you can imagine, I eagerly awaited the latest biography by Professor Manning Marable called “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” He had based his book on a decade worth of research and set out to reveal the man behind the legend. It would be a chance to get to know the character traits and morality of a person who had served as an inspiration to millions across the world. That Marable himself had died days before the book was published made it all the more interesting.

However, the emotion that I experienced whilst reading the book was not one of discovery or insight, but of profound disappointment bordering on disgust. Interspersed between slow and rambling passages, the book is littered with various accusations including that Malcolm X lied about his criminal past in order to sex-up his bad-boy image, that he was involved in a sexual relationship with an elderly white businessman, that he was a hypocrite who drank alcohol whilst calling others to be teetotal and that he carefully airbrushed all these parts out of his autobiography.

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An example of the unjustified extrapolation that Marable engages in to arrive at these accusations is how he uses a letter from Malcolm X talking about a rough patch in his marriage and the fact that he was constantly away on speaking tours to come to the wild-leap conclusion that he and Betty were “most likely” unhappy and involved in an extra-marital affairs. Such statements have little evidence beyond the fertile imagination of Marable himself and are more befitting the lowest rung of tabloid newspapers rather than a serious academic text.

Given the amount of speculation deceitfully presented as factual revelations, one would think that the book would be consigned to the garbage tip of history. Instead, the literary community has this week awarded it one of its highest honours – the Pulitzer prize in history. What were they thinking? Perhaps they just wanted to honour a Professor who died before he could see his work published. Perhaps they didn’t even read it. Or perhaps they wanted to pull the icon of Malcolm down a peg or two to the level of other great (but morally flawed) leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK.

To a jaded non-Muslim audience, these “revelations” are not shocking since it is possible for someone to engage in hypocrisy, adultery and lying on a grand scale in their private lives and still have their public image heralded as an example to millions. To Muslims and those who truly love Malcolm X, these accusations are a slur on the character of a martyred comrade, an inspirational leader and – most importantly – a brother in faith.

“A Life of Reinvention” was supposed to epitomize the amazing transformation Malcolm underwent from deep down in the gutter of humanity to one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Instead, this biography has ended up as a reinvention too far.

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Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - Doctor, Medical Tutor (Social Media, History & Medicine) - Islamic Historian - Founder of, and current board member to Charity Week for Orphans and needy children. www.charityweek.com - Council member, British Islamic Medical Association

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Avatar

    MW

    May 11, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    Jazakllah Khair for the piece; it’s shameless self-promotion on the late Marable’s part to try and formulate some new, provocative material – regardless of whether or not it’s accurate.

  2. Avatar

    Informed_Citizen

    May 12, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    Thank you for writing this article. The meager evidence used by Professor Marable is weak at best and completely circumstantial. This book is a blatant character assasination of a great American hero. What good is it to lash baseless accusations on a man who is 45 years past his death, and thus cannot respond?

    The truth cannot be tarnished. Let the establishment give awards to this book. History will prove that this book of lies will be ignored.

  3. Avatar

    burqa barbie

    May 13, 2012 at 8:56 PM

    “Or perhaps they wanted to pull the icon of Malcolm down a peg or two to the level of other great (but morally flawed) leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK.”
     
    The man went through an episode of black supremacy and other extreme activities until 1964 before he was assassinated so how in the world was Martin Luther more flawed than him? How was Martin Luther King morally flawed? It seems like you have no problem trashing other people because of their non-Muslim religious ties but conveniently ignore Malcolms problems because he was Muslim.
     
    “To a jaded non-Muslim audience, these “revelations” are not shocking since it is possible for someone to engage in hypocrisy, adultery and lying on a grand scale in their private lives and still have their public image heralded as an example to millions”
     
    This is very bigoted. You are placing Muslims above everyone else. Isnt it hypocritical to decry religious bigotry torwards Muslims and then inferiorize people because they arent Muslim? Not to mention, but Muslims know a thing or too about the above mentioned behaviors, if anything they are adding to it every day. Remember, people who live in glass houses shouldnt throw stones.

    • Avatar

      Baracus

      May 19, 2012 at 7:05 AM

      “so how in the world was Martin Luther more flawed than him? How was Martin Luther King morally flawed?”

      Martin Luther King was famous for having many extra-marital affairs. I believe the author was alluding to this well known fact.

      As for your other comments, I would urge you to spend more time trying to understand the author’s points, rather than participate in the very behaviour you accuse him of.

      One such point I feel you may have missed is the fact that while moral integrity and chastity is a quality that is universally appreciated and upheld, Islam places an even greater degree of importance on the matter, especially in its leaders.

  4. Avatar

    Abû Mûsâ Al-Ḥabashî

    May 13, 2012 at 10:18 PM

    This is an interesting blog entry. I haven’t read the book but I did hear about it when it was published and am aware of some of it’s accusations. I just wish this blog entry was longer and provided more examples of baseless accusations in the book and why they are baseless.

    • Avatar

      burqa barbie

      May 13, 2012 at 10:26 PM

      Agreed. It simply seems like the author is upset at any “negative” association with Malcolm rather than the merit or validity of the claims. I’m still confused as to what moral flaws she’s referring to regarding Martin Luther.

      • Umm Zakiyyah

        Umm Zakiyyah

        July 2, 2012 at 11:03 PM

        burqa barbie, I can’t speak for the author of this post, but what I understood was that the author disagreed with the negative accusations that were *not* based on sound evidence; he wasn’t referring to those negative traits that were revealed based on clear evidence.

        It is well-known that Malcolm X had many negative experiences throughout his life. His autobiography makes that very clear.

        I myself have a difficult time understanding the purpose of “revealing” negative speculations (which is the most we can say of something without clear evidence or sufficient trustworthy witnesses) if the person is not alive to defend himself. That goes for any person who’s dead, whether Malcolm X or Martin Luther King.

        That fact alone makes me not even read the book. It’s like throwing a punch in the boxing ring toward your opponent once they’ve already gone home. What’s the point?

        Only a person who is seeking something far removed from what is ethical in the eyes of God would attack a person’s character in this way.

        May Allah guide us to what is correct.

        Umm Zakiyyah
        themuslimauthor.com

  5. Avatar

    Ebmoosa

    May 15, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    I read the book too, and yes whilst there are some unfortunate conclusions made by the Professor, those cannot be used to write off an otherwise meticulous piece of research. If by any chance some of Malcolm X’s minor misdeeds were true, it just reaffirms that he was human like all else and could make mistakes. These however do not besmirch the lofty personality that he always was. After reading the book, I was left even more in awe at the greatness of the man and his deep foresight. Somebody who was not proud to admit that he was wrong, or change his deep rooted perceptions. And somebody who engaged across the divide in the promotion of justice. The book is also testament to the vicious FBI regimen of surveillance that began very early in Malcolm’s life, and which is still used to undermine our communities. Thus, whilst unfortunate conclusions may have been drawn, we should not use this to besmirch an otherwise momentous book

  6. Avatar

    Shahzad

    May 15, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    I always feel its dangerous to put any personality on a pedestal and tie our identity and self-esteem to that person. However, I also feel that disparaging role models that Muslims (or for that matter anyone) is a useful tactic towards disempowering that community. Notice how burqa barbie quickly got defensive when moral failings of Martin Luther King was suggested. Well, same thing goes for heros that other people identify with. 

    • Avatar

      Shahzad

      May 15, 2012 at 1:58 PM

      Sorry, meant to say, “However, I also feel that disparaging role models that Muslims (or for that matter anyone) identify with is a useful tactic towards disempowering that community.”

  7. Avatar

    Yaqub

    May 16, 2012 at 1:40 AM

    I don’t know if the book’s author’s claims are true…but hypothetically if they are true…why should the author be lambasted for the truth?

    If however the “reinvention” is carried out via lies about Malcolm X…then that is a whole different story.

    As for someone asking what moral flaws Martin Luther King Jr. had…well it’s well documented that he had various extra-marital trysts with women.

  8. WAJiD

    WAJiD

    May 19, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Walaikum Asalaam all,

    JazakAllah khairun for your comments. I thought I would deal with a few of the issues here inshaAllah:

    1. How was Martin Luther King (MLK) morally flawed as compared to Malcolm X?

    It is well known that Malcolm engaged in criminal activity before turning to the Nation of Islam. After all, that is what criminals do. However, after converting to the Nation of Islam he stopped all of this activity and never re-engaged. There’s no evidence from the police, FBI or any other source to prove it.

    Meanwhile MLK was a Baptist preacher ordained in a seminary. He was not a criminal, but someone who presented himself as a man of God and the spiritual leader of his congregation. Meanwhile (according to his close friend Ralph Abernathy, his biographer David Garrow and many others) he engaged in womanising, extra-marital affairs and other less-than-holy activities as a form of “anxiety reduction.”

    Such behavior is tolerated in the Western world with Presidents (JFK, Clinton) Entertainers (Pretty much every actor in Hollywood) Sports stars and others engaging in it on a regular basis… But, just because they are used to it does not mean they have the automatic right to say that Malcolm X did such things without any evidence.

    2. Why discount all of Manning Marables book when there were only a few points of contention in an otherwise well researched work?

    This is strange. On a legal level, if someone gave a testimony that was on the whole seemed true but threw in quite a few bits of wild conjecture then the whole testimony would be thrown out. Even on a emotional level, if someone was accurately recounting your fathers life in meticulous detail but decided to randomly throw in extra-marital affairs with both men and women, a secret drinking habit and other salacious information would you still be happy because the majority of it was a “meticulous piece of research.” No, you wouldn’t. So let us apply the same standards to our fellow Muslim and martyr Malcolm X – Al Hajj Mallik Shabazz.

    If we cannot even defend the memory of our heroes from false gossip, then we should not ask why Allah does not give us more of them.

  9. Avatar

    AzzamS

    May 20, 2012 at 5:34 AM

    Do not read books that engage in back biting and slander and they do not contribute to your increase in knowledge. You will incur the wrath of Allah

    • Avatar

      Gibran

      October 17, 2012 at 4:12 PM

      Asssalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

      Good advicde, JazzakAllahu khairan

  10. Pingback: WAJiD (wajid) | Pearltrees

  11. Avatar

    Ummiuzair

    June 3, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    Asak can u suggest me a good book Malcolm x for my teens .jazakAllah ummiuzair

    • Wajid

      Wajid

      June 4, 2014 at 8:54 AM

      asalaam alaikum sr ummiuzair,

      by far the best book about malcolm X is his own autobiography written with Alex Haley. It is in his own words (almost) and was named one of the top 10 works of nonfiction of the last century by TIME magazine.

      The problem is that most teens don’t read… so it may be that they need to watch a few videos maybe even the movie to get them into the mood to read the book.

  12. Avatar

    Ummiuzair

    September 24, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    JazakAllah for the reply can u also advise me some other books for teens. Ummiuzair

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#Culture

Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Africa

Top 10 Books On Black Muslim History

The history of Black Muslims seems to be trapped between Bilal raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) and Malcolm X. While these are particularly bright supernovas in the pantheon of giants from Muslim history, they are far from being the only stars in that history.

Recent events have meant that many Muslims want to actively close that gap in their knowledge of Black Muslims. This isn’t just an academic interest, it is one of the recurring pieces of advice given by Black Muslims themselves when asked what the rest of the Muslim community can and should do to actively fight against racism in all its forms.

When you don’t know the story of a people, it becomes easy to belittle or even dehumanise them.

So here, in no particular order, are my Top 10 books on the history of Black Muslims in the English Language.

  • Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles amongst the early pious Muslim by Dawud Walid and Ahmed Mubarak

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There are many reasons why tokenising Bilal ibn Rabaah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) is embarassing. One of them is because there are just so many other Black Sahaabas out there to talk about. This great book showcases so many of the greatest generation who, we may not have realised, were black. I actually did a prior book review on this that you can check out here.

  • The history of Islam in Africa edited by Levtzion & Pouwels 

This is less a book and more like a mini-encyclopaedia. This is for the serious student of history and a good reference book. If you want to tell the difference between the Songhai and the Sanussi or want to tell apart the different Tariqahs – this is your encyclopaedia. I mean book.

  • Illuminating the Darkness: Blacks and North Africans in Islam by Habeeb Akande

Habeeb Akande is one of the most prolific Black Muslim writers out there on a range of topics. This book offers a sweeping narrative dealing with history, social issues like interracial marriage and the concept of race as dealt by scholars such as Al-Suyuti. As expected, this book is well researched and well written so a good primer for those new to the topic.

  • Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa by Ousmane Kane

Timbuktu and West Africa was for a time one of the richest centres of Islam in terms of wealth and intellectual tradition. To read about this time read this book by the Harvard professor Ousmane Kane. To all those who believe in the idea of racial superiority, you’ll be quickly disabused of that notion when you realise that this is the intellectual depth of a book about the intellectual depth of Black Muslims in West Africa.

  • The Black Eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire: Networks of Power in the Court of the Sultan by George Junne

In almost every Muslim Empire, the Sultans and rulers might change but there is a constant presence just off centre if you look closely enough. Eunuchs, who were often but not always of Black heritage, were right there at the centre of power. While the institution that brought them there was horrific and inhumane, the power they wielded was serious and far reaching. This book goes through the lives of a group of Black Muslims who shaped the Muslim world in ways that may surprise you.

  • The African Caliphate: The Life Work & Teachings of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio by Ibraheem Sulaiman

In a part of the world that gave us the world’s richest known person, great kings and warriors – you have to be pretty special to stand out. Usman Dan Fodio was more than special. He was one of those people who excelled as a military leader, a teacher and a person. He revived the sunnah and stands as one of the giants in the history of Islam. Learn about the man they call simply “Shehu.”

  • The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader by Jean Boyd

History tends to be His story far too often. It is the history of great men doing great things. 50% of the world is missed out with women far too often playing cameo roles as femme fatales or spoils of war. Well, the story of Nana Asma’u bucks this trend. She was not just a towering figure. If her father conquered lands, Nana conquered hearts. Learn about her story. Herstory – get it? Just read the book.

  • Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylvaine Diouf

The story of how enslaved Muslims struggled to hold on to their faith and values, to not just survive but to actually thrive is fascinating and should be required reading. While there are other books that deal with the subject in a more detailed manner, this book is accessible and touches on all the main themes from revolts to literacy levels. Ms Diouf does a lot to shine a light on one of the darkest institutions in Islamic history.

  • Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser

It is a measure of the man that despite being the greatest sportsman of all time, it was still only the 2nd most interesting part of the life of Muhammad Ali. How this young scrawny kid from Louisville went from being Cassisus Clay to one of the most recognisable human beings on planet Earth is not just a biography of a superstar but the story of the struggle of a people, the many missteps on the road to that struggle and the ultimate redemption that awaited. Long after the name of the Presidents and Kings of his era will be forgotten, the name of Muhammad Ali will live on.

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley

For me, even though it speaks to a specific person, place and struggle, this is by far the greatest of all the books out there on the history of Black Muslims . This is the denouement of a centuries long struggle for the survival of faith against the greatest odds and how slavery, racism and enforced conversions all came crashing down when one man of rare intelligence decided that it was time to overcome “by any means necessary.” If you have not read it, what are you waiting for? It will change you.

As I argued in a previous article called Erasing Race: Problems with our Islamic history, the history of Islam without Black Muslims isn’t really a history at all.

Whether you decide to read any of these books or check out some YouTube videos or articles about the history of Black Muslims, let us all educate ourselves. Only then will we all be able to start helping to build a more just world. Only then will we all be able to breathe.

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#Culture

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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