See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
Jamilah frowned. “What do you mean you died?”
Hassan exhaled loudly and rested his back on the sofa cushion. “Muhammad, do you think you could brew some coffee?” he said. “There’s a coffee maker in the -“
“I know where it is. Coming right up.”
“Jazak Allah khayr,” Hassan said. “I’m wiped out. But I want to finish this story.”
“You died…” Jamilah prompted.
“I died,” Hassan affirmed. “Kicked the bucket. The numbness disappeared and I felt as if I were lifted up, followed by a rushing sensation, like I was sailing against a strong wind. I opened my eyes and found myself sitting on a white stone bench in a small garden, lush with wild grasses and yucca. There was a raised bed planted with aloe, agave and rosemary, and I realized it was our backyard from the house in Downey. My mom used to make her own lotion from the aloe.
Except that the colors in this yard were brighter than life, and the butterflies and bees flitting about were larger, and the water from the fountain in the center sparkled as if it were liquid crystal.
Our backyard in Downey had included a small Japanese-style sand garden with a rake for creating patterns, and this otherworldly version also had one. A little boy sat in the sand, playing marbles. He looked at me and I saw that it was Hassan Amir, my childhood friend. I mentioned him earlier, remember? He was killed by a drunk driver when he was eight. He smiled and I saw that he was happy and at peace.
Someone said, “You’re early.” I turned my head and there was my father, sitting beside me, looking healthier and stronger than I had ever seen him. It wasn’t that he was more muscular or fit. It was something in his eyes. An absence of fear or worry. It transformed him. He seemed to shine with life.
I exclaimed, “Baba!” and leaped up to hug him but he put out a hand to stop me.
“My beautiful son,” he said. “I’m so proud of you. But you are early. You have much left to do.”
I was confused. What did he mean? Where was Mom? And Charlie?
“It’s okay to remember,” my father said.
I stared at the ground and the memories began to return. My parents’ death. Beirut. The war. The horror of Tel-Az-Zaytoon. My flight to Syria, and then… I’d been shot. My eyes widened and I stared at my father.
“I failed everyone,” I said. And I began to cry.
“No, Simon,” he said. “You are a hero. I love you more than I can express. I am the one who failed. But Allah is Ar-Rahman. He is everything. Remember that words have rights. Words are promises, and promises must be fulfilled. Do you remember the other thing I said to you?”
I stared at my him in confusion. “Beneath the garage?” Until that moment I had completely forgotten him saying that. It just didn’t seem that important. But here he was reminding me of it again. So there must be something to it.
He nodded. “Go back now.”
He and the garden began to recede. I tried to hold on to it, the way you try to hold on to a sweet dream even as you’re waking up, but I felt myself retreating quickly, as if I were rushing backward through a dark tunnel. The coldness returned, and a sensation of extreme pain. I convulsed and coughed up water, and someone said in Arabic, “La hawla wa laa quwwat il-la billah. He’s alive!” Then I fell into darkness.
When I woke again I was flat on my back in a room lit by candlelight, gazing up at a stone ceiling.”
Layth interrupted. “Can I ask a question, akhi?”
“Do you think that was really your father?”
Hassan answered without hesitation. “Yes. How, I don’t know. But absolutely, that was my father.”
“What do you think he meant when he said that words have rights?”
“He was talking about the shahadah,” Hassan replied. “He was telling me that it’s not just an expression to be shouted at moments of danger. It’s an obligation that must be fulfilled.”
Layth nodded. “Okay. SubhanAllah.”
Hassan continued. “My chest felt as if a horse with spikes for hooves was standing on it and nailing me to the bed. Someone murmured something I couldn’t hear, and squeezed water into my mouth from a wet cloth before I passed out again.
I was in a farm house on the far side of the same valley in which I’d been shot. The owner of the farm was an old man named Abu Yahya Sulayman. He lived there with his ten year old grandson Hamada. The day I’d been shot, the two of them were out in their olive grove, clearing debris from the irrigation ditches so that the farm would not flood. As soon as Sarkis and his men departed, Abu Yahya and Hamada hitched a donkey and came to get me. They managed to roll me onto a sled, and pulled me back to the farmhouse.
Abu Yahya told me later that I was dead when they found me. I wasn’t breathing, my heart was not beating, and I was pale as a sheet from blood loss. He was already thinking he’d have to pray Janazah and bury me. But when they rolled me off the sled, I coughed up water and began to breathe.
I rose and fell in and out of consciousness for a month. Hamada fed me and told me jokes and folk tales, persisting even when I did not reply. He was an amazing boy, so cheerful and hard working. When I was well enough to speak, Abu Yahya asked my name. I knew I could never use the name Simon again. It was too dangerous. I remembered my vision, and little Hassan smiling at me. So I told Abu Yahya that my name was Hassan.
I didn’t take Hassan’s last name, at least not at that time. Just the first name. Still, it continues to bother me after all these years. I feel like I stole his identity. Do you… Do you think I did something wrong?”
Layth put out a hand and rubbed Hassan’s shoulder. “You did what you had to do,” he said. “Who’s to say that he didn’t appear to you for exactly that reason?”
Jamilah herself found it to be slightly macabre. To take the name – first and last – of a dead friend? But she knew Hassan had been desperate. His entire life, she was coming to realize, was a tale of struggle. It didn’t matter where his name came from. He would always be Hassan to her.
“Abu Yahya never asked me where I came from, or why the gunman shot me. Maybe he didn’t want to scare me off, or maybe it was part of a culture of not prying into dangerous affairs. He made me a cane, and when I could sit upright and walk haltingly, he invited me to join him for salat. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how, so I claimed that I’d forgotten. Abu Yahya nodded sagely and said it must be because of my “accident”. So he taught me, step by step, and after that I prayed with him and Hamada, five times a day.
Abu Yahya was illiterate, but he knew some of the shorter Makki surahs and taught them to me. Learning the Quran was like a door opening to another dimension. I had learned only the Arabic of the street and the soldier, but the Quran gave me a glimpse of true Arabic, with its ancient eloquence, and changed my view of the world.
Surat Az-Zalzalah tells us that a time will come when the earth will be inspired by Allah to pour forth all her secrets, and that every human being’s deeds will be exposed, down to the smallest atom of good or evil.
That was something I needed to hear. I needed to know that all the atrocities I’d seen would not go unpunished, and that Boulos Haddad, who had placed himself above any law, would have to submit one day to the Judge of all.
Hamada taught me to play backgammon. He always won, and took great delight in it. I sensed him becoming attached to me, and it worried me. I couldn’t be responsible for another child. I didn’t need another Charlie. I didn’t need to redeem myself. I didn’t want to think about the past, and I didn’t want to mimic it.
I began helping with chores on the farm, tending to the goats and hens. One day Abu Yahya sent me and Hamada to An-Nabi Houri to sell eggs and cheese, and buy supplies.
I noticed some of the townspeople eyeing me strangely. Some crossed the street when they saw me coming. I heard a few mutter, “Aoothoo billahi min ash-shatyan ir-rajeem.” I asked Hamada about it and he looked down in embarrassment.
“Some of them think you are a jinn,” he said. “Because you were dead and you came back to life.”
I regarded the impoverished town, with its one poorly paved road, low stone buildings, and a small but ancient-looking masjid that dominated the town skyline. What if word spread to nearby towns that a young man with a Lebanese accent had returned from the dead? What if it spread further than that?
I pointed to the mountains to the north. “Is Turkey over those mountains?” I asked.
“Those mountains are Turkey,” Hamada said. “The border is right at the foothills. But it’s closed. The road doesn’t even go through. No one goes that way.”
I stared at the mountains. They were green now, but winter was coming, and those peaks would become snow-covered and impassable.
When we returned to the farm, I told Abu Yahya and Hamada that I could not stay. Abu Yahya looked crushed. I think he’d hoped that when I recovered my strength I would help with the farm. Hamada began to cry. I felt guilty and ashamed. But I it wasn’t safe for me to remain, and it wasn’t my home. I didn’t belong there. As much as I cared for Abu Yahya and Hamada – and I did care for them – they were not my family, and I could not pretend otherwise. And this small town with everyone looking at me cross-eyed… I simply could not stay.
Abu Yahya rose and began to pack a bag with cheese, nuts and smoked meat. He gave me a warm sheepskin coat, hat, and mittens, and told me that I would always have a place in his home.
I embraced them both and set off south, toward Aleppo. When I looked back they were both there, hand in hand in front of the farmhouse. It was late in the morning and their shadows were long on the road, stretching toward me as if wanting to pull me back. Abu Yahya waved, but Hamada did not.
I hung my head and walked on. When I’d gone far enough south to be out of sight, I went off the road, cut through another farmer’s wheat field, and turned north. I took my bearings on the mountains, and resumed my journey to Istanbul.
The trip took longer than I expected. From Aleppo to Istanbul is 900 kilometers through country that is alternately mountainous, desert and forested. If the road had actually gone through, it would take perhaps three days driving. But I was on foot for a good portion of the way. I ate when I could, bathed in streams, caught rides when possible, and kept on performing my prayers.
Two months later a truck driver dropped me off in the eastern suburbs of Istanbul. The Sublime Gate, as the Ottomans used to call Istanbul, was everything I imagined it to be. Towering minarets everywhere, and the sound of the adhaan echoing over the city five times a day. There are places in Istanbul where you can literally hear the adhaan from a hundred different masjids at once.
I saw the Blue Mosque, looking like a great living creature, with domes atop domes. The Grand Bazaar – biggest covered suq in the world – where you can buy everything from hand woven carpets to rare pink diamonds under one roof. Restaurants everywhere serving exotic cuisines, or simple Turkish meatballs and honey tea. Hilly, cobblestoned streets, and one district after another, as big as half of Lebanon it seemed to me.
Beirut was provincial by comparison and I was lost, feeling awed but trying to find my bearings. I remembered what Lena had said about wanting to study at the University of Istanbul, so I used that as a reference point. I learned that the university was in a neighborhood called Fatih, so I made my way there.
Fatih is a crowded, working-class area, quite conservative. You see bearded men wearing heavy coats and turbans, and women in black abayas. Not what people think of when they imagine Turkey.
It also has crime, as I discovered. I visited one shop after another, trying to find work. I tried a tea shop called The Western Door, next to Beyazit Mosque and very close to the university. My clothes were tattered, my shoes were worn through at the toes, and my beard was growing. The owner looked me over and turned me down flat.
A small group of middle-aged American tourists sat at an outdoor table, drinking tea and eating Turkish delight, and perusing a map of Istanbul. One had his wallet sitting on the tabletop, in the open.
To my surprise, I could understand them. I hadn’t spoken English in years, but I suddenly remembered that English was, in fact, my first language. Of course I’d always known that on some level, but I’d made such an effort to banish the past from my mind. It was a surreal moment. Like remembering that you can fly, or that you are psychic.
The shopkeeper approached to shoo me away, and in that moment a young man snatched the American’s wallet. A split-second later a helmeted rider zoomed up on a motorcycle and braked quickly. The thief leaped onto the motorcycle and the driver began to accelerate away.
I snatched an empty tea glass from the table and hefted it in my hand. Someone at the table shouted, “Hey! Stop!” The motorcycle was about ten meters away and would soon turn a corner and be gone. I cocked my arm, took aim and let the tea glass fly. It sailed through the air, catching the sun at the top of its arc, and struck the thief in the head just as the motorcycle was slowing to turn. The thief tumbled from the bike with a cry, and the rider kept on going.
I took off after the thief, and caught him as he was struggling to rise. I pinned him to the ground and seized the stolen wallet. A bit of blood stained his hair where the glass had hit him. He was talking in Turkish – his tone was pleading – but I couldn’t understand him. The American who owned the wallet came trotting up, breathing heavily, with the shopkeeper right behind.
I handed the wallet to its owner. “Here you go,” I said in English. “What do you want me to do with this guy?”
The American stared at me. “Your English is perfect,” he said.
I nodded my head. “Thanks. What about this guy?”
The American checked his wallet. “Everything’s here. I don’t want to get the police involved. Besides, it looks like he’s suffered a bit already. Let him go.”
I did, and the thief ran off with a hand to his head, cursing me as he gained distance.
The American said, “You know kid, you should be playing for the Yankees with an arm like that.”
The shopkeeper eyed me curiously. “Why you can speaking English?” he asked.
“I’m American,” I replied, then I switched to Arabic. “Wa bakallam ‘Arabi kamaan.” (I speak Arabic as well).
He gave me a job. I needed a last name of course, so I borrowed Abu Yahya’s last name and I became Hassan Sulayman.
The shopkeeper’s name was Mehmet – the Turkish version of Muhammad – and he was a good man. The problem, however, was that I didn’t speak Turkish. The university’s Turkish language department offered an intensive night course for foreigners, and I signed up. Meanwhile, Mehmet fronted me a little cash to buy new clothes and rent a bunk in a cheap hostel.
A few days later after work I made my way down to the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and is the dividing line between Europe and Asia.
I arrived in the evening, after Maghreb. I stood on the promenade beside an ancient masjid with a blue dome and two tall minarets that blazed with light from two illuminated platforms. The water was a perfect azure hue. A bridge soared across the strait, lights shining on its topmost cable. Across the water, the mountains were almost black against a navy sky, with lights twinkling on the hillsides. The cool wind blowing off the water smelled of salt and sargasso and dried the sweat on my brow. I’d never imagined anything so beautiful.
I took Daniel’s dogtag from my pocket and held it by the chain. The light from the minarets caught the raised lettering on the tag:
Daniel B. O Pos
4th Battalion, Comp B
I drew my hand back, then flung the dogtag as far as I could over the water. It fell silently and was gone. Daniel’s head rested on a mountain – if only a sketch of one – and his tag lay in the sea. With that thought, one of my father’s poems coalesced in my mind. He’d recited it when one of my fish had died, years ago. I’d been very grateful to him for that. Still facing the water, I repeated it:
White, for us, is the color of home.
White are the snows of Mount Lebanon
and the sands of Ramlet Al-Baida.
White is our hair, altered in grief.
We send you, beloved, into the deep.
Will the next mountain
be lovely as Lebanon?
We will find you there
to feast on honey and zaytun
and never weep again.
Two years passed. I completed the Turkish language course, and spent another year getting a high school equivalency diploma. Then I enrolled part-time at the university, studying English literature. I wanted to be literate in my first language. I also found a martial arts school in a back alley that taught a Japanese style called Jujitsu, and once again immersed myself in martial arts training. Four nights a week I sweated it out in this little dojo, hitting the heavy bag, learning the intricacies of joint manipulation and ground fighting, practicing sword and stick techniques…
After I’d been there a while my sensei gave me a key to the front door. I’d stay late after everyone had left, and practice ghosting in the mirror. It was the most difficult skill I had ever tried to master – a huge leap beyond anything I’d ever done, as it involved moving in ways that were utterly unnatural for a human being. That unnaturalness was exactly what made ghosting so unpredictable, and therefore so effective.
I would not even have believed that such a skill was possible if I had not seen it myself, and if I had not used it myself – with mixed success – against Sarkis in that cold field outside An-Nabi Houri, in Syria.
I’m the best shot I know, and yet I’d missed Mr. Black at fairly close range in the alley in Tel Az-Zaytun. True, it had been night time, and I’d hit him with my second shot, but for me to have missed at all was extraordinary.
So I practiced relentlessly, repeating the movements thousands of times, watching myself in the mirror to find the footwork and angles that would make me hardest to hit. In time I became very good at it – perhaps better than Mr. Black himself. If I ever had to put this ability to the test again, I wanted my skill to be foolproof.
Martial arts were, and still are, a lifeline for me. When I’m training I don’t think about anything else. All my problems and anxieties disappear. There’s only the movement. Reading my opponent’s body, and learning all the ways that one can destroy another human being. For those few hours, I’m totally at peace. I guess that’s ironic in a way. Finding peace in the study of combat.
I became a help to Mehmet. I created English and Arabic versions of the menu, and little flyers that we posted in the local tourist hostels. Business was good.
Friday nights I attended Islamic studies class. I was coming to see how truly amazing Islam is, not only in practice but in design. So complete, and so inspiring when you read about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, and the Sahabah. When I heard the stories of Suhaib Ar-Rumi and Salman Al-Farisi, I felt like they and I were members of the same tribe. I’m not saying that I’m on their level, astaghfirullah, not at all. But I no longer felt so alienated. Those sahabah had experienced everything I had, and more, and it only strengthened their faith.
Some would say that Islam is beautiful in design, not in practice, but I had been treated well by Muslims. The PLO commander, the old Palestinian man who gave me refuge in the camp, Abu Yahya, and now Mehmet. That’s what brought me to Islam. The kindness of Muslims.
With all that, I struggled to be happy. I felt as if my spirit were leaking from some hidden puncture in my heart, and I’m not talking about my bullet wound. I was living Lena’s dream without her. There I was, studying at the very university she wanted to attend. Where was she? Istanbul was full of beautiful women – really, the most beautiful women in the world – but I didn’t want any of them. I wanted Lena. She was the only woman in the world. All others were shadows or illusions.
I was aware that I had changed – I was Muslim now, and Lena was not – but she’d been so open to the idea of learning about Islam. I believed that we could work it out.
Jamilah’s mouth was set like a knife. She didn’t want to listen to Hassan talk about how Lena was the only woman in the world. So I’m a shadow, am I? she thought.
She didn’t know what would happen between her and Hassan, but she loved the creep – she couldn’t deny that – and she knew he had feelings for her as well.
Take it easy girl, she told herself. You’re being irrational. He’s talking about the past, when he was eighteen years old. A different lifetime.
Still, Hassan could at least respect her feelings and not blather on about another woman.
Was she deluding herself regarding Hassan? He’d told her once that he was no good for her, but she had discounted his words as mere self-pity. She looked him over as he continued his story. Did he still pass the Shamsi Test? “When I can picture myself waking up every morning for the rest of my life and seeing his face, then I’ll know it’s right.”
Yes. He still passed. Jamilah breathed in deeply, and let it out, and told herself to simply listen. Sabr, as Kadija sometimes said.
“I’d made efforts to contact Lena,” Hassan said. “I knew it would be a huge risk, but I couldn’t bear not knowing. Six months after my arrival in Istanbul I bought a phone card and called the University of Beirut. The university clerk informed me that Lena Ayyoub no longer studied or taught at the AUB. The clerk would supply no further information.
I began chatting up Lebanese tourists who visited the cafe, and would sometimes casually drop Lena’s name. No one ever reacted.
Finally I took the dangerous and foolhardy step of sending a letter to Hatem Ayyoub, Lena’s uncle who I’d worked for in Homs. I knew that General Nader Ayyoub, Lena’s father, had supplied my location to Boulos. But I did not believe that Hatem had willingly betrayed me.
I’ll never know if my letter was received or read, as no reply came. But I think that one of my inquiries eventually reached the wrong ears, with disastrous consequences. But that was still years away.
At night I’d sit on my bunk in the hostel, thinking about Lena. Was she alive? Did she still want to marry me? Should I return to Lebanon to find her? Maybe I’d locate her and discover she no longer loved me. Worse, maybe she would not remember me at all.
I also had nightmares, to the point that some of the other hostel residents complained.
One night I dreamed that I sat on the back patio of a house overlooking a lake. A group of people sat around a large table in the shade of a canopy, chatting and laughing. My parents were there, and Charlie, Gala, Daniel and Lena. The table was covered with dishes like hummus, babaganoush, marinated red snapper, french fries, stuffed grape leaves, and turnip turnovers. I was ecstatically happy. All the people I loved, in one place, having fun. It was the happiest moment of my life.
But as I looked around at these wonderful people, a doubt began to creep into my mind. How could these people be here? My parents… my parents were dead. And – No! – Charlie was dead. Gala, Daniel, Lena, all dead. A sense of panic expanded in my chest like a gas cloud, and I woke up choking on my own saliva. A realization hit me with the force of a sledgehammer: such a gathering would never happen, could never happen. All those people – the only people who had ever mattered to me – were either dead or disappeared.
I began to sob, and I couldn’t control it. I had never cried like that in my life. I curled into a ball on my bunk and I sobbed so hard that my shirt became stained with tears and my body shook. Someone turned on the light and people began to wake. There were fifteen other people in my dorm, all men of various ages. A few had complained about my nightmares in the past, because I sometimes shouted or screamed. But this time no one complained. They gathered around me, murmuring sympathetic comments. A middle aged Kurdish man named Rami wrapped his arms around me and held me tightly. I continued to cry until my nose ran and stained Rami’s shirt, but he did not pull away.
That’s how the Turkish people are. They’re warm, open people. I love them.
Finally my tears subsided. One of the men asked me what had happened, but I could not speak, partly because I was still breathing in hitching gasps, and partly because I did not know what to say.
A few weeks later, Mehmet asked me to take some flyers down to Istiklal Avenue. Istiklal is a touristy pedestrian thoroughfare that runs through the Beyoğlu district. It has bookstores, art galleries, theaters, cafes, chocolatiers, night clubs… No cars – just a streetcar that runs on rails down the middle of the avenue. Tons of street performers. I’d been there once, but it was too crowded, and everything was expensive.
I slung a leather satchel over my shoulder and went from one establishment to the next, leaving flyers or pinning them to cork boards. I reached Galatasaray Square at the heart of the avenue. Among the other street performers, a young woman sat at a folding table, drawing caricature sketches of tourists. A shabby looking man in his late twenties sat beside her, drinking beer from a bottle at 10 am in the morning.
The woman was Lena. She was thinner, and her skin had an unhealthy, yellowish cast. Her eyes looked tired. A faded bruise on her cheek was partially concealed by makeup.
A wave of relief and joy swept through me. Lena was alive. I had found her.
In spite of my excitement, I did not go to her right away. In fact I took a step back into the shade of a building. Thoughts swirled in my mind. Was she ill? Who was the man with her? Was he responsible for the bruise on her cheek? How long had she been in Istanbul? Where had she been for the last three years?
A family approached her table, then seemed to think better of it and turned away, perhaps scared off by the sight of Lena’s companion. He was terribly thin and wore jeans, a dirty t-shirt with cut-off sleeves, and boots. He had a tattoo on the side of his neck – I couldn’t make it out from where I stood – and sores on his arms.
I took a deep breath and strode forward to Lena’s booth.
She squinted up at me and spoke in moderately good Turkish. “Would you like me to draw you? I can do a funny picture or a portrait, whatever you like.”
She didn’t recognize me. To be fair, the morning sun was in her eyes, and the last time she had seen me I was fifteen years old and only slightly taller than her. Now I was almost nineteen and four inches taller. I’d put on some muscle as a result of my nightly Jujitsu training, and my beard had grown out, though I kept it trimmed short. Even my voice had changed.
“Here we are, Lena,” I said in Turkish. “In the capital of the world. We made it.”
She looked up at me, startled, and shaded her eyes against the sun. Was that fear I saw in her eyes? She stared at me for a long moment, then said in a voice that was barely a whisper, “Simon? Is that you?”
I smiled at her, and reverted to Arabic. I didn’t know what I was going to say until the words came out of my mouth.
“I walked a thousand miles to get here,” I said. “Through desert and snow. I died in Syria, and came back. But all I ever wanted was to see you again, Lena.”
“Simon!” she shouted. She stood so quickly that her chair tumbled over and cracked her friend on the shin. He cursed as Lena ran around the table and threw herself at me, hugging me fiercely. Of course in Islam we don’t embrace non-mahrem women like that, but it wasn’t the time for me to explain such things. She pulled back and looked at me again, seeming to marvel at my appearance. “I can’t believe it’s you,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
Suddenly she staggered back as her friend yanked at her shoulder.
“Who the **** are you?” he demanded in a high-pitched voice that reminded me of a mosquito. He tried to approach me but I extended my arm, palm out. Even from a few feet away I could smell his body odor and beer breath.
I didn’t know how to answer. What was I to Lena? I had no idea. “I’m a friend,” I said finally. “Who are you?”
He sneered at me. “I’m her boyfriend, that’s who.” He tried to push my arm aside, presumably to press his chest up against mine the way some men do, or to stare me down face to face. I pushed him back.
Without warning he swung a fist at me in a wild, looping arc. I ducked beneath it and his punch continued past me, leaving him off balance. I shoved his side lightly and he staggered and crashed into Lena’s table, then fell to the ground.
“Anton!” Lena cried. She ran to his side and tried to help him up but he pushed her away.
Her boyfriend, he’d said. This pitiful bum was her boyfriend. He had attacked me, and Lena seemed more concerned for his welfare than mine. What a fool I’d been. I’d been living in a dream world, thinking that Lena still loved me, and that if we could only find each other we’d live some kind of fairy tale romance.
“My name is Hassan now,” I said, but no one heard me. I still had a handful of flyers in my hand. I set one on Lena’s table and walked away.
San Francisco General Hospital, 3rd Floor. 8:30 pm.
Alice tried to open her eyes, but her eyelids seemed stuck together. She tried again, making an effort, and her eyelids parted slowly, like a machine that hasn’t been lubricated in years.
She looked up at a white plaster ceiling. She attempted to speak and heard her own voice emerge in a croak. Someone called out for a nurse, and a few moments later a young African-American woman in a green smock appeared beside her bedside.
“Don’t try to talk,” the woman said gently. “I’ll get you some water.”
A moment later a small cup was placed against Alice’s parched lips. She drank the cool water greedily. Where was she? What had happened? She tried to remember but her mind was covered in a cool fog. She should turn on the fog lights. But fog lights always made things worse. Someone should invent an anti-fog ray…
She woke up again. Someone was shaking her gently. The nurse again, but this time a beefy blonde man in a uniform was there as well. A police officer.
“Miss, can you tell me who attacked you?” the police officer asked in a voice like a bassoon.
Attack? Alice tried to think. Someone had hit her in the back. She’d been in her apartment. Burning sage… Oh, Lord. It was Mo’s father. He’d stabbed her. Stabbed her! He was crazy. And dangerous. What if Mo was in danger and didn’t know it?
Alice spoke in a whisper. “Did you catch him?”
The police officer leaned in. “What was that?” he boomed. His big voice hurt Alice’s head.
“Back up,” the nurse said firmly, addressing the big cop. “Give her some room. She’s asking whether you caught him or not.” The nurse took Alice’s hand and winked at her conspiratorially, as if to say, “Don’t mind this big ox, he’s harmless.”
Alice was glad for this woman’s presence. She was so kind. She tried to focus on the woman’s nametag, and after a moment made out the name: Dempsey.
“No miss, we haven’t caught him,” Officer Bassoon said. “Who was it? Who attacked you?”
“More water,” Alice murmured. Nurse Dempsey gave her more of the lovely water, and Alice began to speak.
To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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Gravedigger: A Short Story
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.
She never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.
Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?
And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.
She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.
Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.
Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.
She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray. Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.
Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.
Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.
One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.
She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.
She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.
Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.
A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.
Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”
“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.
“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”
Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.
She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.
On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.
For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.
This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.
On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.
The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.
Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.
* * *
She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.
The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.
Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.
The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.
As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.
They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.
“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.
Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.
“I’ve said it all.”
“So you two are good?”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“You’ve changed since you started here.”
“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”
“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”
She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”
Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”
“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.
She said nothing.
“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”
“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”
“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”
“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”
It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”
“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”
“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”
Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”
“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.
She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”
Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.
* * *
“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”
Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.
Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.
Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.
She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.
What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.
Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.
The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.
Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”
* * *
Of Dreams and Shadows
A short story
By Saulat Pervez
Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.
That night, she wrote in her journal,
We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.
“So, how were the latest test results?”
“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”
“And, how old did you say she was?”
“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.
He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?
“Anything new today?” she asked.
He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.
He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.
Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.
She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.
The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.
She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive?
She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.
She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.
Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.
She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.
It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.
It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).
Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).
They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.
She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.
Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.
It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.
“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”
“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”
“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”
“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.
She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.
Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.
The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?
Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.
As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.
She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.
She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.
She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.
Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.
As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.
Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com.
This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel.
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