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Hassan’s Tale | Part 4 – The Dalai Lama Goes Into a Pizza Shop

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Jamilah looked wildly around at the others. Muhammad stood dumbly in the kitchen, holding the extra-large pizza. Layth and Kadija sat on the sofa, holding hands. Jamilah realized that they were all watching her.

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“Isn’t anyone going after him?” Jamilah demanded. “He said he was in danger.”

Layth shook his head. “Hassan is like a force of nature when he makes up his mind. But you might be able to bring him back.”

“Why me?”

“Come on. You know why. You broke his heart, Jamilah.”

“You don’t understand my family history!”

“What about me?” said Layth. “I killed men in Iraq, before I became Muslim. Do you hate me? You’re hung up on things that have nothing to do who Hassan is now. You have to decide what’s more important to you: love or hate. Can you live a life based on hate? What does that do to your heart? Is that who you want to be?”

Layth’s words struck Jamilah like thunder. Was she truly a hateful person? She’d hit Hassan, made him bleed, called him a Nazi. That was the last thing he would remember of her. The thought made tears well up in her eyes.

She sprinted out of the apartment, not bothering to put on her shoes. She reached the elevator just in time to see its door closing. Glancing at the digital display on the wall, Jamilah saw that the other elevator was stopped at 36.

She ran for the stairs. Her bare feet slapped on the tiles as she dashed down four flights of stairs, then barreled through the door at the 35th floor landing, where a larger bank of elevators ran to the lobby. No sign of Hassan. She pressed the elevator call button repeatedly. When the car arrived she hopped in. As it descended, people entered and exited, making the trip excruciatingly slow. A man in his twenties with thick glasses and a curled-up moustache noticed her bare feet and said, “Hang ten!” A well-dressed young woman looked Jamilah up and down and sniffed, as if she smelled something bad. When the car hit the lobby Jamilah leaped out.

There was Hassan, walking through the richly decorated lobby with its comfortable sofas, contoured light sconces and abstract art, heading for the front door.

She caught up with him at the door. She saw a blind panhandler on the sidewalk outside, carrying a sign that said, “God bless.” His head was tilted to one side, as if he were listening to some far-off music.

“Hassan, come back upstairs and let’s talk.”

“There’s no point,” Hassan replied flatly. “Go to Madera like you promised. That’s all I need from you.” He turned to walk out the door.

Jamilah grabbed the messenger bag that was slung over Hassan’s shoulder and yanked hard, stopping him in his tracks and causing him to almost stumble backward.

“But that’s not all I need from you,” she said vehemently.

Hassan faced her. “Are you going to hit me again?”

Jamilah’s vehemence collapsed, replaced by shame. “I’m so sorry about that. I swear it will never happen again. Please. I don’t want you to get hurt. Come on, don’t make me beg.” She heard a cough and saw that the doorman was covering his mouth, trying to hide a grin. She wanted to kick him in the shin, but restrained herself.

She tried another approach. “It’s rude to walk out when food is being served. Isn’t there anything in Islam about that?”

Hassan smiled. “Not that I know of. Though the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa-sallam, did say, ‘Eat together and not separately, for the blessing is with the group.’”

“See,” Jamilah said. “There you go.”

***

The Crow watched Amir and the Palestinian girl disappear into the building after their apparent argument.

“Help the blind,” he said to a group of tourists making their way up Market Street. A heavyset middle-aged couple stopped in front of him. They wore knee-length shorts and matching ‘I (Heart) San Francisco’ t-shirts.

“You could get a job, you know,” the middle-aged man said loudly.

“Harry, the poor man is blind, not deaf,” the wife said. “It’s true though,” she said to the Crow. “My second cousin’s brother Robby is blind and he’s a cook, can you believe it? Though I don’t know how he can tell the salt from the sugar, since they’re both white…”

“You know why blind people don’t skydive?” the husband said.

The Crow replied coolly. “No, why?”

“It scares the heck out of the seeing-eye dog!”

The couple moved away, not putting anything in the Crow’s change cup. He felt a powerful urge to follow the dolt and choke him. He could easily crush the man’s trachea with the cane he carried as a prop. It wasn’t the joke that bothered him, but the stupidity. Inferior people offended him. He was a Phoenician and a Kopis. It was repugnant that he even had to breathe the same air as such idiots.

To calm himself he closed his eyes and conjured an image of Hassan Amir strapped to his steel table. He would begin his work with a number 11 scalpel – a fine instrument for small, precise cuts. He would start at the feet and work his way up, taking his time, and he would make the Palestinian girl watch. The image was relaxing. Yes, yes, he knew he had been ordered to simply kill the man, but where was the fun in that?

He would have his victim sooner or later. Patience was perhaps the most important tool in the assassin’s kit, for though patience was tedious, the fruit was sweet.

***

Jamilah had never tried a Zach’s pizza, but she had to admit, they made a fantastic vegetarian pie. Strangely enough, the tomato sauce was on top. But it worked. The veggies were plentiful and the sauce was thick and spicy. Muhammad put a slice on a plate and took it to his father, who had settled in the closet like a badger in a hole. They ate in silence, each no doubt pondering the events of the day.

There was an uncomfortable air of tension in the room and it began to spoil Jamilah’s appetite. She wondered if the others were judging her, maybe blaming her for striking Hassan. Had she lost their respect? She cursed her own wild temper. If she had ruined her friendships with these kind people she would never forgive herself.

Finally Muhammad spoke up. “The Dalai Lama goes into a pizza shop and says, ‘Can you make me one with everything?’”

No one laughed, though Jamilah smiled. You could always count on Muhammad to make things better in his unique way.

“Get it?” Muhammad said. “One with everything?” He made a circular motion with his hands. “Okay… then the waiter tries to give the Dalai Lama his change, but the Lama says, ‘Change comes from within.’”

This time Layth chuckled, and the tension in the room eased.

“Hassan, I’d like it if you continued your story,” Jamilah said. She spoke without looking up, embarrassed by everything that had happened.

“Zoinks! Does this mean I don’t get the apartment?” said Muhammad.

“That’s enough now, brother,” said Kadija.

“Where was I?” said Hassan.

“Born in East Beirut,” Jamilah reminded him.

“Right. My father had been born in the USA when Antoine and Layla, my grandmother, were graduate students at Harvard. So he was a dual Lebanese-American citizen, and I was too, even though I was born in Beirut. He was a writer. He published three novels, a political non-fiction book, and several collections of poetry.”

A light bulb went off in Jamilah’s head, and she looked at Hassan in a new way. “Your father was Kamal Haddad,” she breathed.

“Yes.”

“I studied his writing in my world literature class in college. Somehow it never occurred to me that he could be the son of Antoine Haddad. They are so different.”

Hassan nodded. “He and my grandfather were always at loggerheads because my father totally rejected the anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian ideology of the Phalange. He was a pacifist in a country where such a thing was practically unheard of, at least among men.”

“My mother was a different story. Before she met my father, she was a fighter with the Numur – the Tigers militia. She drove an M41 Walker Bulldog tank, if you can believe it. Her name was Evelyn Aoun.”

Inwardly, Jamilah winced. Yet another infamous name – Aoun. Founding members of the Tigers. Hassan’s ancestry was a Who’s Who of Lebanese militia leaders.

“She was quite beautiful,” Hassan said. “Slender, with blonde hair and green eyes. Her grandfather was French, and my mom looked it. And yes, I know I don’t look like her. I take after my dad.

“My mom began her training at the age of ten and was a sergeant by the time she graduated high school. These were unregulated militias, not state armies. They were largely family run. There was an anything goes, Wild West mentality. Imagine this slender, blonde teenager driving a tank through the streets of East Beirut. She could operate everything from an MBRL – that’s a multiple rocket launcher – to a recoilless rifle, and she could drive an armored car, personnel carrier, cargo truck, you name it.

“My mom and dad met at a wedding – a cliché, but true. My dad was thirty years old and my mom twenty, but he said it was love at first sight. Mom wore a burgundy dress with ruffled sleeves and had her hair in a French braid, so imagine how surprised my dad was – my dad the pacifist – to learn she was a gung-ho militia fighter. My dad started seeing her, talking to her. I honestly don’t think that my mom had ever given any thought until then to why she was fighting, except that her father was a Tiger, and she was a Tiger, and it was what she was bred to do.

“Things happened in quick succession. The war began in April ‘75, though I’m sure my mother fought in skirmishes as early as the late 60’s. Late ‘75 brought the Black Saturday massacre, when the Christian Phalange went on a rampage and murdered hundreds of Muslims throughout East Beirut. Then came Karantina. Karantina was a Muslim slum in East Beirut, controlled by the PLO. In January 1976 it was overrun by Christian forces, including the Tigers. 1,500 people were slaughtered – mostly Palestinian refugees. I was not born yet, but I’ve read the histories.

“How much did my mother know? I can’t say. She was very secretive.”

Like mother, like son, Jamilah thought bitterly, then immediately regretted it. It was just that at the very mention of Karantina she felt her blood pressure rise. Give him a chance, she told herself. He’s speaking about his mother, not himself.

“I do know,” Hassan continued, “that my mom was haunted by the past. I never saw her laugh, can you believe that? Not once. She used to say that she had a thousand sorrows, and that every impulse to laugh cancelled out one sorrow. One day, she said, all the sorrows would be used up and we’d see her laughing like a clown. But that day never came. Ultimately, I choose to believe that she was not involved in any atrocities. She was not an evil person. She was…”

Hassan sucked his lower lip into his mouth and held his hands up. “She was my mother,” he concluded.

“All this time, I believe, my dad was talking to her, making her see how the war was  destroying Lebanon. My parents got married and my mom got pregnant with me right away. Shortly after my birth my father was shot multiple times by two masked attackers outside the American University of Beirut, where he used to teach. He was badly crippled – he walked with a cane for the rest of his life – but he survived.

“My parents took me and left Lebanon. They moved to Los Angeles and bought a house in Downey. We kept our first names, but went by the last name of Ibrahim. I didn’t find out until much later that my true last name was Haddad.”

“My father brought this briefcase with him from Lebanon – “ Hassan motioned to the battered black briefcase beside the sofa. “I don’t know how he obtained it, or why he took it. It contains… Never mind. I won’t tell you, for your own sakes, except that it would be very damaging to the memory of Antoine Haddad, and more importantly to Boulos Haddad, and to the reputations of other world leaders, living and dead. Not that I care about their reputations. I care about your safety.

“He also brought quite a bit of cash. My impression is that he took his personal share of the family wealth, and got out.

“My mother brought weapons, without my father’s knowledge. I would guess that she paid to have them smuggled in by boat. She kept them in cases that she stored in the basement of an abandoned railway station in the desert east of Los Angeles. Many years later I learned that she purchased the station and set up a trust fund to keep the property taxes paid. I don’t know where she got the money. She told me once that she needed to be able to protect her family, in case we were discovered, and that’s why she kept the guns. But sometimes I wonder if it was just that she had never lived without a gun in her hand, and couldn’t break that attachment.”

Jamilah looked at Muhammad sitting on a folding chair, and at Layth and Kadija on the sofa next to Hassan. They looked as bewildered as Jamilah felt.

“Hassan,” Jamilah said, holding her hands out toward him. “Stop.”

“What is it?”

“Your story is… well, it’s fantastical. It doesn’t sound real.”

Hassan nodded and smiled ruefully. It was not the reaction Jamilah had expected.

“What’s so funny?” Jamilah demanded.

“It’s not funny,” Hassan said. “It’s just that truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. And the story gets stranger. So if you’re having trouble now, hold on to your hijab…”

“Still,” said Jamilah. “A briefcase with the power to change the world. Secret money hoards, and weapons caches in the desert… It sounds like a spy novel.”

Hassan shrugged. “Forget the briefcase,” he said. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. The railway station was purchased under the name Evelyn Ibrahim – our assumed name. You could probably verify that with an online records search. The cash and the weapons are in storage down by 3rd Street -”

Kadija interrupted. She looked appalled. “You still have them? What are you thinking, brother?”

“I know,” Hassan sighed. “I dumped all the heavy stuff. But my mother treasured those guns. And she drummed it into me for so many years. ‘Your gun is your life.’ That was her motto. You know what?” He pointed to Kadija. “You’re right. As soon as all this is over I’ll dump the lot. I don’t want them anymore.

“Here’s the thing, Jamilah,” Hassan continued. “My grandfather was a power broker, militia founder, fascist, banker, drug runner, murderer, billionaire. That’s public knowledge. No one related to him could have a family history that would not sound like a spy novel.”

“How do we know you’re telling the truth about who you are?” Jamilah challenged. She was annoyed that none of the others were challenging Hassan’s story as she was. But she had to believe that they were troubled by the same questions.

Hassan held out his palms in a gesture of surrender. “You’re asking me how do you know that I’m not a psychopathic liar. There’s nothing I can say to that, except that if I were a master liar, I’d tell a better lie. One that would not cause you to despise me.”

Jamilah considered. This entire situation was more than she had bargained for. She’d known that Hassan had some secrets, but she’d thought that maybe he’d been in jail at some point, or that he’d sealed himself off from human contact because of the loss of his parents and brother. Never in her wildest dreams – or nightmares – would she have imagined that he was a Haddad, of all things. And not just any Haddad. He was heir to the throne, if he was telling the truth – and her gut told her he was. This was all too strange to be a lie. And it explained so much. She looked at the others, settling on Kadija. She held out her hands, as if to say, What do you make of this?

No one spoke. Kadijah shrugged – a gesture that could mean anything. Jamilah frowned and crossed her arms.

Hassan was silent. She was coming to see that he was a proud man, not used to being challenged. She was about to ask him to continue, when Layth spoke up.

“I believe you, akhi,” Layth said, “And I want to hear.”

Hassan was silent for a moment, then he continued. “Our first few years in Los Angeles were ordinary. My mom started a mail-order business selling purses, and my father – my Baba, as I called him back then – bought a gas station. He had a doctorate and had been a university professor in Lebanon, but as I said we were living under an assumed surname, and keeping a low profile.

“Mom started me in martial arts when I was four, though looking back I can see that even before that she was teaching me through ‘martial games’ like tumbling, duck walks, arm drags, things like that.

“We didn’t socialize much and I had few friends. A Muslim Lebanese boy named Motaz, a friend from school named Hassan, and an American boy from across the street. That was about it.

“When I was five our house was burglarized. Mom was pregnant with Charlie at the time. No one was hurt in the burglary – it was a Saturday when it happened, and we were at the beach. They took the TV, VCR, the usual. I don’t think it was anything but a common burglary – though I can’t say for sure – but it had a profound effect on my mom. She began carrying a small handgun in a waistband holster. It wasn’t visible unless you knew what to look for, but me and my dad knew, of course. They argued about it, but my mother was immovable.

“She began checking beneath the car every time we had to drive somewhere. She’d say there was a leak and she’d get down on the ground and examine the undercarriage. The car was always leaking something according to her: oil, wiper fluid, antifreeze, or water from the radiator. But I never saw anything.

“Her driving patterns became erratic as well. She would take a different route to school or home every time, and claim she had forgotten the way. I thought she was simply absent-minded. I did notice that her strange behaviors lessened when Baba was around. Whether his presence had a dampening effect on her craziness, or whether she was deliberately hiding it from him, I don’t know.

“It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that it occurred to me that my mother might have been mentally ill. I think whatever she experienced in the war twisted her mind and left her confused and displaced. I used to feel deeply sad for her, but I hope – I pray – that she is at peace now.”

Layth cleared his throat. “To be fair,” he said, “those are standard operational behaviors in wartime. Checking your vehicle for bombs or IEDs, and randomizing your driving patterns to make your movements harder to track and prevent ambushes. Your mom just had trouble adapting to civilian life. A lot of vets do.”

“It sounds like a crazy way to live,” Muhammad said.

“Crazy times breed crazy behaviors,” Layth pointed out. “And when you go through years of life where your very survival depends on certain habits, it can be very hard to give them up later.”

“Sure, I know all of that now,” Hassan said. “But as a child it was disconcerting and embarrassing. I used to hope that no one I knew would see her.”

Hassan continued his tale. “It bothered Mom that we didn’t attend a Maronite church. My father was considered a traitor by the Phalange, and my mother was out of favor for quitting the Tigers. So we attended an African-American Methodist church just down the street. I liked it, myself. We’d sing gospel hymns and clap our hands.

“But my mom was sad every Sunday. She spoke little of Lebanon, but I know she missed the Sunday rituals of her childhood. Even more, she missed Saint Maron’s day, with the entire family in one place, all feasting together. She told me that she had failed me in not allowing me to grow up with those experiences.

“I remember asking her if she disagreed with my father’s ideas about Arab unity, and supporting the Palestinians, and being against the civil war. I said that it seemed like it was Baba’s fault that we had to leave Lebanon.

“My mom became quite serious, and said that she agreed with my father one hundred percent. She said Baba was a brilliant man, exactly what she needed, and what Lebanon needed as well, but that our people were too narrow-minded to see it.”

“Several months after the break-in my mother gave birth to Charlie, and things got even stranger. I mentioned that my dad ran inventory and bought supplies for the station every weekend. My mother told him that she had joined a new mothers’ support group that met every Saturday, and that she would drop him off at the station, go to the group with me and Charlie, and pick him up on her return.

“Except that was a lie. We didn’t go to any support group. Instead, my mother began teaching me to shoot. We’d drive to the desert where my mom had her weapons cached. Back then she kept the guns in a mini-storage in Burning Springs, out past Riverside. I remember being surprised the first time we went, but also excited. I was very young – only five years old. If my mother said that this was what I should learn, then that was that. She also told me not to tell my father. She made it sound like it was something we would surprise my father with at some point. It was our little secret.

“She started me on the Ruger 10/22. It’s a good practice weapon – easy to handle. We’d drive to an abandoned railroad facility out near Joshua Tree State Park – the same property that my mother later purchased. Nothing out there but saltbushes, creosote, and saguaros. The facility sat at the base of a butte, with a low circle of hills all around, so that the geography muffled the sound of the shooting. The station included a large storage building, a loading dock, a prefab office, and a trailer. To me it was like a movie set, or something out of the old West.

“It turned out I was good with a gun. Mom said I was a natural. I started close, moved out to twenty yards, and by the end of a year I could put a tight group in a target from fifty yards. I learned to assemble and disassemble the Ruger and the Browning 22. I could clean them, oil them, clear a jam and reload.

“We did this every Saturday, even after Charlie was born. Mom would put wax earplugs in his ears and headphones on top of that and carry him in a sling. She was a strict but kind instructor. She knew when to praise and when to demand more, and she never belittled me.

“While I trained, she would lecture me. ‘Your gun is your life. Your gun is your best friend. Care for it and it will never fail you. People may desert you, but your gun will never abandon you. You and your gun are protectors of your family and your people. Shoot straight, don’t hesitate’ – that was one of her favorites. Can you imagine growing up with this poison poured into you from the age of five? But to me it was normal.”

“Dude,” Muhammad interrupted, “your mom was a fruit salad.”

Hassan shot him an angry look, then relaxed and nodded. “Yeah. Like I said, she was mentally ill. That’s what I think now, anyway. I hope… I hope you won’t judge her.”

“We won’t,” Kadija said. “Don’t worry, brother. We’re not here to judge you or your family. Right, Jamilah?”

Jamilah was so transfixed by this strange story that she didn’t realize at first that Kadija was speaking to her. When she did, she hurried to agree. “Absolutely. No judgment.”

 

Next: Hassan’s Tale, Part 5 – Rough Way, Smooth Way

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. hassanzawahir

    May 7, 2014 at 1:35 AM

    Next part will definitely bring more suspense..

  2. SZH

    May 7, 2014 at 1:37 AM

    Now, the Hassan’s tale seems to pick up a rhythm. All his childhood was guns and trainings. Now I see why he have been so perfect sharp shooter and fighter.
    Looking forward for Hassan’s teenage story, when he joined militia.

  3. abdulhakeem

    May 7, 2014 at 1:46 AM

    breathless, motionless, speechless..wow..great work akhi

  4. iffat sharif

    May 7, 2014 at 2:24 AM

    Oh my Allah ….now my confusions are clear!!! This is so awesome….never in my life have I read something like this!! I am an Indian,and I had no idea abt the Palestine Israel conflict until last year…. But this novel made it all the more clear abt it!! Plus the writing is amazing too!! And u know what adds to the thrill of reading this story??? The wait … :)

  5. Safa

    May 7, 2014 at 6:14 AM

    Jazakumuallahu khayran. More answers yet even more questions to unravel…

    Hassan’s tale is one of the best parts in this series, really enjoying it but nervous about the partridge situation

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      May 7, 2014 at 3:41 PM

      Safa. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. A few more parts telling the story of Hassan’s life up to now, then we’ll get back to the modern-day action, Insha’Allah.

  6. Bint Rashid

    May 7, 2014 at 3:47 PM

    Salam alaikum,

    As usual, brilliant, just brilliant! MashaAllah. i was wondering about the title, you brought in Muhammad’s jokes perfectly, and they were really funny too :-)

    Cant wait for next week. And wonder if there are people like Hassan in real life?

    Salam

  7. Mahvish

    May 8, 2014 at 12:53 AM

    Great job with the suspense, I love the details you add, can’t wait for the next part =)

  8. Sarah B.

    May 29, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    Subhan’Allah! Hassan sure did have an interesting upbringing! I couldn’t imagine what a childhood like his must have been like then changing completely and becoming Muslim?! I’m sure his conversion story must be a doozy! :)

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