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Hassan’s Tale, Part 10 – Gaze on Istanbul

“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.”

Istanbul, Turkey

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.

 

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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?”

“Sure.”

“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:

Iskander
Daniel B.   O Pos
4th Battalion, Comp B
Maronite

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.

Next:  Hassan’s Tale, Part 11 – A Tragic Flaw

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDMWael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches 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.

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                        #Culture

                        Day of the Dogs, Part 4: You Are the Miracle

                        Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did?

                        Goat standing on a cow's back

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

                        This is chapter 4 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                        Krägä Bianga

                        “Fear no one.” – Samia

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                        Hospital IV bagLIGHTS IN HIS EYES AND PAIN EVERYWHERE… warmth pouring into his veins like liquid honey… his mother’s face close to his, saying his name… darkness…

                        His mother and a doctor talking… everything blurry… his face hurt. He tried to touch his face, but his mother grabbed his hand and stopped him… sleep…

                        Someone sobbing… why?… pain everywhere in his body. He moaned then fell into darkness…

                        A nightmare, hands dragging him down into a well, and at the bottom of the well, sharp teeth and claws. He struggled, until a warm hand took his, and he settled into silence…

                        An old woman in a red Ngäbe dress standing over him, singing. Her skin was walnut colored and deeply seamed. Her long ebony hair hung free, falling below her waist. She spooned something into his mouth and he swallowed. It was bitter, but as it slid into his stomach he felt it nourishing and strengthening him. The woman’s night-black eyes stared unblinking into his as she whispered a single word in a language he did not understand. His eyelids came down like shuttered doors, and once again he was asleep…

                        The next morning he was somewhat aware. It was the third day after surgery. His mother and a doctor spoke at his bedside. He tried to eat something but could only manage a cup of pudding.

                        “There was a woman,” he said, and his voice sounded like radio static. “Singing.”

                        His mother touched his forehead. “A krägä bianga. A healer of my people.”

                        “But we’re Muslims.”

                        “Hush,” Mamá said. “She is a krägä bianga, not a curandera. Medicine, not magic.”

                        That evening, Omar’s mind was completely clear for the first time. The doctor spoke to him personally about his surgery and recovery. He was able to eat some solid food. Samia came for a visit as well, and he learned about what had happened to her. At some point, as Samia was speaking, he fell asleep.

                        The Old Nightmare

                        The fourth day, the old nightmare returned. The spiders.

                        Red boxing spiderTHE SPINIFLEX RUBIROSA LARVAE WERE IN HIS BODY, and they were hatching. They ate their way out, chewing through muscle and cartilage, fat and veins, destroying his body as thoroughly as if he’d stepped on a landmine. There was no point calling out for his mother. She was nowhere to be found.

                        The spiders burst out through his skin, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and through a crimson curtain of pain Omar saw that they had the bodies of spiders, but the heads of vicious dogs. Dewed with his blood, they growled, thousands of tiny dog voices joining into a single rumble.

                        He rolled onto his back and saw that he lay on the muddy, putrid stretch of beach below the Panama City seawall. The ground was littered with rotting seaweed, plastic bags and used diapers. Above the seawall, the city was burning. Flames engulfed the tall towers, pouring from shattered windows. Smoke darkened the sky. Not a soul could be seen. The metropolis was dying.

                        The Spinifex hatchlings advanced up his body toward his face, intending to eat his eyes. Their little dog eyes were solid ruby red, as if filled with blood. Omar thrashed, slapping his own face and crying out in terror.

                        Where was Mamá, where was Papá, where were Samia, Halima, Hani, anybody? Anybody anybody the Ruby was killing him…

                        Eighty Seven Bites

                        “Hey. Wake up.” Someone touched his shoulder.

                        Omar’s eyes flew open and he gasped as he shot up to a sitting position in the bed, looking around wildly. His racing heart began to slow as he realized that he was still in the hospital, of course.

                        Samia sat in a chair beside his bed, wearing a fluffy gray robe and an orange hijab, and still reading Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. One side of her face and head were completely bandaged, so he could only see her mouth, nose and one eye. Her skull had been fractured in two places from the attack. The doctors had shaved her hair, she had told him, but she wore her hijab on top of the head bandage, which made her head look about the same as usual.

                        “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

                        “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

                        Omar’s mother slept next to Samia in a chair, her head tipped back against the wall, her mouth slack. She wore black pants and a dark blouse rather than her traditional dress, with a gray hijab. She looked exhausted, with purple circles beneath her eyes.

                        He groaned and sank back. He hurt everywhere. It was not the pain of the Ruby hatchlings burrowing out of his body, but of the wounds from the eighty-seven bites he’d received in the dog attack. It must be almost time for his pain medication.

                        He’d been here for five days. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, his organs had been on the verge of shutting down due to massive blood loss. He’d been in surgery that entire first day and halfway through the night, they told him.

                        It hurt even to breathe, as he had a tube in his nose to prevent his nasal airway from collapsing, as Dr. Medrano had explained to Omar and his mother. A jaunty, heavyset man with thick black hair, Dr. Medrano had smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels as he detailed Omar’s injuries and the surgeries that had repaired him.

                        A stent had been placed under Omar’s left eye. It drained out of his nose to keep his tear duct system from collapsing as well. He’d lost a piece of the upper half of his left ear. He had lines of stitches everywhere, like Frankenstein’s monster. Several parts of his body, including his face, had required primary reconstruction during surgery, to repair or replace flesh and skin that had been torn away. Much of his body was still purple and swollen with bruising. He was receiving aggressive antibiotic treatment to prevent infection from the many deep punctures. His left forearm might never recover to full strength.

                        He would require multiple follow-up procedures, including secondary face, hand and calf reconstructions, as well as fat grafting to fill in depressed areas, cartilage grafting to reconstruct his nose, and ongoing scar treatments.

                        Goat standing on a cow's back“Hey,” Samia said, interrupting Omar’s morose mental review of his Frankenstein-like reconstruction. Samia had been in his room daily, when she wasn’t in her own. “Remember we were talking about unlikely things? You know what else is unlikely? A goat standing on a cow’s back. But I saw that once.”

                        Omar turned his head to look at her. The girl was certifiably crazy. He felt a laugh begin to form inside him, but it hurt to laugh, and it came out sounding like a cross between a chuckle and a moan.

                        Bruises

                        The sound awakened his mother. She stood with a soft exhalation of, “La ilaha il-Allah.” She came to his bedside and bent over him, gently stroking his cheek, taking care to avoid his injuries. “¿Cómo estás mi amor?”

                        Omar began to reply, but then, seeing his mother’s face up close, noticed something. The discolorations beneath her eyes were not the result of exhaustion. They were bruises. Her cheek was bruised as well, and she’d made an effort to conceal it with makeup. She’d been beaten.

                        Tio. Omar’s face settled into a hard mask. He seethed, wishing he could leap out of this bed and go thrash the little rat, taking the man apart limb by limb. For a moment these thoughts surprised him, as he had never been inclined to fight back against Nemesio in the past. Something had changed inside him.

                        Beating up Nemesio was not the solution, however. Omar had bested him that last time because Nemesio had been drunk. But the two of them fighting sober would turn into an all-out brawl. He needed another solution.

                        Mistaking his expression, Mamá said, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll be as strong as ever. And these scars will fade.”

                        Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

                        “I’m going to go to the cafeteria,” Mamá said. “Can I bring you some guava juice?”

                        The doctor had prescribed a post-op dietary regimen for Omar, but it was so bland it was like eating paper. Normally Omar would have said yes to some tasty tropical juice, but he was too angry right now.

                        “I don’t want anything.”

                        Mamá hesitated, looking between him and Samia. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll be back soon.”

                        When she was gone, Omar spoke to Samia without looking at her. “You should leave now.” His fists were curled into balls beneath the blanket. Seeing the bruise on his mother’s face had brought it all back, pushing his rage to penetrate his very bones. His nightmare of a life just went on and on. Oh, you need something to break up the routine? life said. How about a dog attack? Okay, now back to the daily mess.

                        It wasn’t only his foul excuse for an uncle he was angry with, but everyone who was supposed to have been responsible for him, who was supposed to have cared. He resented his mother for not being strong enough to protect herself, or him. The principal and teachers at his school had surely seen the bullying directed at him year after year, and had done nothing. Even his father he blamed for dying and leaving him. Why had his father done that? Why had it been more important to stop the mugging of some stranger on a bus than to survive for his own family? And lastly, Omar blamed himself for being a victim. His father would have expected more from him.

                        He had to do something. Life could not continue like this. He heard Sensei Alan saying, “The only failure is the failure to act.” But what could he do here, in this bed, with his body torn half to shreds?

                        Fear No One

                        “I’ve been reading Surat An-Najm,” Samia said, hefting her book. “You want to hear?”

                        He had forgotten she was there. He wiped his tears with jerky motions. “No, I told you-”

                        Samia recited:

                        “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses, and Abraham who fulfilled his mission; That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another; And that there is nothing for man but what he strives for; And that his effort will be seen, and then he will be rewarded for it generously?
                        And that to your Lord is the final return; And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep; And that it is He who causes death and gives life…”

                        A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Al-Ghazali says,” Samia went on, “that we must recognize Allah’s power over everything, and know that no man can control another’s fate. There is nothing for man but what he strives for. If you want something, make a plan and go after it. Fear no one.”

                        “Do I even have to tell you this?” she continued. “Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did? How many did? Nobody. Only you. You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant.” A tear ran down one cheek and she wiped it away.

                        She finished in Spanish, something she almost never did: “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Rolling her Spanish r’s hard, sounding almost like Halima, and almost bitter. How strange.

                        “Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.” Samia commanded.

                        Omar did so, then Samia stood and shuffled away slowly, one chubby hand grasping her book.

                        Omar felt like Samia had taken a hammer and smashed the diamond-hard shell of fury that had encased him, shattering it. She was somehow able to see through his emotional walls as if they did not exist. Was she like this with everyone? And had she really just happened to be reading that surah, or had she chosen it specifically for him?

                        Alone in his room, Omar began to think. He was still angry but it was cold anger now, the kind that did not interfere with his ability to reason. Make a plan. The only failure is the failure to act.

                        Friends

                        When Mamá returned from the cafeteria with cups of mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese for him – he could only eat soft foods for now – Omar said, “Tell Nemesio to come see me.”

                        Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

                        “Just tell him.”

                        “He will not come, I think.”

                        “Tell him I know a way to profit from this thing.” He waved a hand to indicate his ravaged body. “I want to consult with him.” That’ll get him here.

                        She studied his face uncertainly. “Your friends are here again. The doctor says you are ready for visitors now, but only two at a time, and only ten minutes each.”

                        He nodded his head, and his mother and Samia withdrew.

                        First in were the three Muhammad sisters, all with large black eyes and rings in their left nostrils. Nadia and Naris were decked out in colorful shalwar khamees outfits,  looking like young mahogany trees hung with bright fabrics for a festival, while Nabila wore jeans, a band t-shirt and hi-top sneakers. One or all of them wore a musky, jasmine-scented perfume that filled the small hospital room.

                        Many of the teachers and students at IIAP could not tell the sisters apart, but Omar always could. Nadia was quick to laugh, goofy and wide-eyed, as if constantly surprised. Naris was solemn, and asked hard questions, or gave uninvited criticism. Nabila – she of the band shirts and hi-tops – couldn’t stand still. She danced to her own music, ran when other people walked, and rarely spoke. Even now she was swaying her hips and rotating her hands Bollywood style. She had her own Youtube channel where she showed off dance moves. Omar had heard she was making money with it.

                        “I thought it was only supposed to be two at a time.”

                        Nadia grinned. “We dazzled them with our triplicate identicalness.”

                        “They wanted to know,” Naris said seriously, “if we were Hindu princesses.”

                        “Did you tell them you were Muslim princesses?” Omar asked. Nadia giggled, while Naris looked at him solemnly, as if he’d said something profound.

                        “We’re sorry about what happened to you and Samia,” Nabila broke in, ceasing her dancing momentarily. “Our family’s been praying for you. Everyone has.”

                        “Thanks,” Omar said, and he meant it. “So what’s new?”

                        “Árabe Unido beat FCDeeeeee,” Nabila sang, and she did a little dance that ended in a victory pose, her fingers in Vs.

                        “Halima and Hani are here to see you too,” Nadia said. “And the principal, and a couple of teachers, and the TV news people.”

                        Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

                        “And if you’re wondering if Tameem is out there,” Naris added, “he’s not. He wouldn’t dare show his face. He and his coward sidekick Basem.”

                        Not surprising. Tameem would never bother visiting him. “Why do you call them cowards?”

                        “He was the one who said to run, wasn’t he?”

                        “Didn’t you all run too?” Omar was not accusing, just trying to understand.

                        Nadia let out an explosive laugh. Naris shot her sister a chiding look, then said, “Yes, but we came back. Tameem and Hani kept going. I think they ran all the way to the main road. We haven’t seen them since the Day of the Dogs.”

                        When Omar raised his eyebrows she added, “That’s what we’re calling it now. You know what, I heard they were laughing about it later. If I ever see them again I’ll stick kebab skewers in their eyes.”

                        Omar sighed and adjusted his head on the pillow. His pain level was increasing, and he was tired.

                        “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

                        Omar thanked them for coming, and asked them to send in Halima and Hani. He was exhausted just from this short visit, but he needed to see those two. His memories of the attack were a mayhem of images and sensory impressions as overwhelming as a fireworks show. Teeth and claws, pain, slick blood on his skin, the hot metallic taste in his mouth, the smell of dog fur, the sound of Samia screaming, others shouting… a knife and a gun. People standing around as if they’d just witnessed a massacre. And Halima and Hani right there, above him. He needed to talk to someone who’d been there.

                        Panama Rainforest

                        Halima and Hani would not meet his eyes. Hani with his long face and nose that reminded Omar of a horse; shoulder-length greasy hair, and persistent acne. Halima, as lovely as a daydream, her eyes as green as the Panamanian rainforest.

                        Omar remembered his fantasy of marrying Halima one day. If she’d been out of his league before, how about now? He was a mangled mess.

                        He tried to put such useless thoughts out of his head. “What’s the matter with you two?”

                        “We’re sorry about what happened,” Halima said. “I’m the one who pressured you to come. If I hadn’t done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

                        “If you hadn’t done that, Samia might be dead,” Omar countered, then immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing by reminding them that they had done nothing to save Samia.

                        “It was all Tameem’s fault,” Hani said, glancing up to meet Omar’s eyes, then looking away again.

                        Omar said nothing.

                        “I know what you’re thinking,” Hani went on. “I’ve been following Tameem like a robot. You and I were friends, and I abandoned you. I’m sorry. I know he’s no good. I can’t explain, man. He’s rich, and everyone admires him, and when you’re around him you feel important. But I’m done with him now. My eyes are open.”

                        “Hani,” Omar said kindly. “My memories are mixed up, but I remember you standing there at the end with a bloody knife in your hand. What happened?”

                        “Hani killed the one dog,” Halima said fiercely. “And the cop shot the other.”

                        “But I ran away first,” Hani said dejectedly.

                        “You were there when it counted. Whatever happened in the past, a lo hecho, pecho. And you, Halima, are a good soul. I remember you standing beside me when everyone else ran away. The Day of the Dogs is done. Let’s look forward.”

                        He began to realize that he had changed. In his mind he heard Samia saying, “You might be short, but you’re a giant.” He was not speaking as one in need, but as one who held power, and therefore possessed the ability to forgive. He felt a core of iron within himself, yet strangely enough, from that iron flowed benediction. Cowardly Tameem and Basem didn’t matter. Omar saw now how meaningless they were, how petty.

                        He thought of the verses of Surat An-Najm: That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another... And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep…

                        Let Tameem and Basem bear their own burdens, laugh their own laughter, cry their own tears. Omar would be his own man, in the universe of his own soul.

                        A nurse came with Omar’s medication, and instructed his visitors to leave. On the way out, Halima turned back with a quizzical expression and said, “Day of the Dogs?”

                        Omar shrugged. “That’s what we’re calling it now.”

                        Get Out

                        He was awakened by a rough thumping on his shoulder. Nemesio stood there with his short, barrel-body and gold teeth, dressed in an expensive but rumpled yellow suit, the broken veins in his nose betraying his alcoholism. His breath stank and his cheeks were shadowed with a week’s growth of beard. A fat canary on a bender.

                        “What’s this nonsense ‘bout making money?” Nemesio demanded. “You thinking to sue? The dog owner is a policia nacional captain. Sue him, you bring a heap of trouble on your head. Stupid boy.”

                        In spite of Nemesio’s words, the man must have thought the possibility of a lawsuit held some promise, or he wouldn’t have come. Omar was going to have to disappoint him.

                        “You know,” Omar said casually. “The police captain came to see me. The one whose dogs attacked me.” This was not true, but Nemesio would not know that. “He was extremely apologetic. He said if I ever need anything, I should only ask.”

                        “Ah, I see.” Nemesio nodded knowingly and stroked his chin. “You wanna ask for compensation for the attack.”

                        “No. I want to ask him to investigate the fire that burned down your gas station.”

                        “Whaaa?” Nemesio’s eyes bugged and his cheeks turned beet red. He seized Omar’s bandaged wrist. “Watchu talking, you little bastard?”

                        Omar ignored the pain flaring in his wrist from the puncture wounds there. He kept his tone calm, and began a carefully rehearsed speech. “I seem to recall that gas prices were at rock bottom around the time your station burned. And you were always complaining about your employees stealing from you. You couldn’t have been making much of a profit. What did the fire inspectors say? An electrical problem? Did you bribe someone to say that?” This was pure speculation on his part, but he saw Nemesio’s eyes widen and knew he’d struck pay dirt. “Then you had a huge insurance payout, but you didn’t restore the station. You abandoned it. I think the police captain would find all this very interesting. And you don’t have anything left to bribe him with, do you? You’ll end up rotting in La Joya for fraud.”

                        Still gripping Omar’s wrist, Nemesio raised a fist.

                        “Go ahead,” Omar said. “The captain can add assault to your charges.”

                        Nemesio released Omar’s wrist and stepped back, looking as if he’d just released a viper. His chin trembled and a speck of spittle dribbled from his bottom lip as he spoke. “Watchu want?”

                        Man walking away, leaving Omar brought his voice to a low hiss, letting some of his rage show. “I know you’ve been beating my mother again, Nemesio.” Normally he would never dare to call the man by his given name as it would bring a terrible beating, but now he spat it like a curse. “I want you gone, today. Pack your things, leave and never come back. If I ever see you again I will beat you to a pulp myself. If you don’t think I can, wait and see. Then I’ll report you to the police.”

                        “I-” Nemesio stuttered. “I don’t got nowhere to go.”

                        “That’s your problem. Leave today, you understand? And don’t you dare touch my mother again. Now get out.”

                        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 5:  Sorceress of the Forest

                        * * *

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

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

                        Avatar

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

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

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

                        Continue Reading

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                        Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

                        The dog spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face…

                        Doberman pinscher

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

                        This is chapter 3 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                        Stop Pitying Yourself

                        “I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” – Samia

                        Playa Santa Clara, Panama
                        Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

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

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

                        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                        OMAR DID NOT FIND A SEASHELL. At one point he heard the sound of muffled sobbing, and followed it to where Samia sat in her cabana. She had her face tucked into her knees, her forehead pressing against the book she’d been reading. When Omar said, “What’s the matter?” she looked up with a startled, tear-streaked face.

                        “Nothing.” She wiped her face with her scarf.

                        Omar shifted his weight and looked at the ground, unwilling to either press her or leave her alone.

                        “My parents are getting divorced,” she said finally.

                        “Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought you guys were a perfect little Islamic family.”

                        “Yes, well. Things are not always what they seem.”

                        That sure was the truth. “Will you go back to Malaysia?”

                        “No. My dad’s going back. I’ll stay with my mom.”

                        That struck Omar as odd. Wasn’t it usually it was the man who traveled to work and the woman who accompanied him?

                        Seeming to read his mind, Samia explained: “She’s an executive for Petronas. She interfaces with oil company executives from all over Latin America. My dad owned an electronics shop back home, which is fine, you know, it’s a good, halal business. I just think…” Her mouth twisted to one side as she tried to hide her distress. “I think he was happier back home.”

                        Omar pointed with his lips to her book. “What are you reading?”

                        “That’s so Panamanian. Pointing with your mouth.”

                        “I am Panamanian.”

                        A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Oh yeah. It’s Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. Hey, can I give you a little advice?”

                        Uh-oh. Omar’s shields went up. Samia always thought she knew best. Before he could say anything, she went on: “You should stop pitying yourself.”

                        He glared. “Excuse me?”

                        “How long have I known you? You think I don’t see you’re miserable? I know there’s something wrong.”

                        “That’s not your business.”

                        Samia sighed. “Would you listen? I’m trying to say that you’re so strong and smart. Almost as smart as me.” She grinned. “Whatever’s going on, you’ll get through it if you stop pitying yourself and just keep on working. You’ll come out on top. You’ll see.”

                        “Unlikely.” She sounded like Sensei Alan, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

                        “Is it? I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” Seeing his quizzical look, she added, “Halima told me you were reading Alice in Wonderland.”

                        He wasn’t reading it. And if he recalled correctly, the White Queen believed in six impossible things before breakfast. But whatever. “That’s fine for you and Alice. You don’t have my life.”

                        “Oh really?” Her voice was sharp. “Where’s your imaan, akhi? Allah always makes a way, don’t you know? You want to know something else unlikely? I’m unlikely!”

                        “What do you mean?” he muttered, chastised.

                        “One: My family comes from Kedah province, on the coast of Malaysia. On December 29, 2004, my father, who was not my father yet, was invited by my grandfather to go sailing on a boat he had bought. They were boarding the boat when my father received a mobile call from the wife of his best school friend. The man had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital at Jitra, an inland city. My father said goodbye to my grandfather and went to see his friend. One hour later, you know what happened?”

                        Omar shook his head.

                        Indian Ocean tsunami

                        Indian Ocean tsunami

                        “The Indian Ocean tsunami. One hour later! You may have heard of it? It killed a quarter of a million people, including my grandfather, who was never found.”

                        Omar made a sympathetic face, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” he managed.

                        “Two.” Counting on her fingers. “My father’s taxi was buried in mud, and he should have died, but the mud left his face exposed. He was able to breathe, and to lick rainwater that ran down the inside of the crushed car.

                        “Three: He was rescued by a volunteer relief worker. She was my mother. Soon they married.

                        “Four: My mother’s pregnancy was difficult. The doctors said she might lose the baby. I was born premature. In fact I was not breathing, but the doctors revived me.

                        “Five: I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

                        “Six: When I was five I had bacterial meningitis. My body didn’t respond to treatment and at one point the doctors told my parents I would die by morning. I remember hallucinating that the doctor was a wolf with a muzzle and huge black eyes. I tried to scream but didn’t have the breath. It was terrifying. My mother told me later that she spent that entire night making dua by my bedside. In the morning my fever broke and by noon I was walking. No one could explain it.”

                        Seven.” She paused, touching index finger to index finger, then shrugged. “I don’t have a seven. But my point is, you say it’s unlikely that your life might improve? My entire existence is unlikely. But Allah does what He wills.”

                        Omar hadn’t known any of that, and didn’t know what Samia was trying to tell him.

                        Samia snapped her fingers. “I’m saying, the unlikely happens every day. And you know what else? Ramadan is coming. Ramadan is about not only the unlikely, but the impossible. Miracles. Angels pouring out of Jannah by the millions. The battle of Badr. Think about that, akhi. Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.”

                        Omar said it.

                        “Go back to your wanderings.”

                        The Gate Opens

                        It was funny how people kept telling him to go away. What was he, a bad smell?

                        At noon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, the kids ate at a beach restaurant that served only fish and chips. Omar didn’t have enough money for that, but that was okay. He sat in a cabana eating the peanut butter sandwich from home. It was smashed into a trapezoid and the bread was soggy, but it tasted fine.

                        They prayed Dhuhr in congregation, with Tameem leading. Omar didn’t mind. It was not about who stood in front, but about his personal connection with Allah. Though sometimes he wondered about that connection. Not about Allah, but about his own heart. The Creator felt distant sometimes, and Omar knew that was his own fault. But he didn’t know how to fix it.

                        The group headed back up the road at two o’clock, wanting to make it to the highway before the afternoon rains came. As they passed the house with the vicious dog, the creature was nowhere in sight. Tameem kicked the gate and shouted, “Oye perro estupido!” and the dog came running, barking like firecrackers going off.

                        Doberman pinscher

                        Doberman pinscher

                        This time a second dog, a tall doberman pinscher with alert ears and a black muzzle, rounded the house as well and sped toward them on the other’s heels. Drool flew from its mouth as it growled and bared its terrifying teeth. Again the kids screamed and ran, except for Omar, who only shook his head and trotted away quickly, and Samia, who was not a fan of running.

                        A few houses further up the street they stopped and watched a massive silver-colored 4×4 truck cruising down the road. It might have been three meters tall, jacked up on oversized tires, with chrome running boards, and a top-mounted light bar that could probably turn night into day. On the front were bull bars that could be used to ram another vehicle.

                        As it passed they saw it bore the logo of the National Police, and had a rifle mounted in the cab, though the driver was not wearing a police uniform. He was a youngish man, in his late twenties maybe, sporting shades and a cowboy hat. Spanish gangster rap battered its way out of the truck’s speakers. Heading right for the awestruck kids, the truck blasted its horn. The kids jumped out of the way, a few of them cursing the driver.

                        The truck stopped in front of the house with the dogs, and the driver must have hit a remote control, because the gate began to roll quietly open.

                        The two dogs came flying out, snarling, and charged straight at the kids. The German shepherd was in the lead, its large fangs flashing white in the sun, but the doberman was gaining ground. Both dogs were enraged, in full attack mode. The driver yelled at the dogs to stop, but they were so inflamed by Tameem’s provocations that they ignored him.

                        The hair raised up on Omar’s arms and neck. He stood rooted, unsure what to do. Watching the dogs come was like watching a pair of nuclear torpedoes shooting at him. Living torpedoes of bone and claw, muscle and sinew, burning brain and vengeful heart. Their feet flew across the dirt, and their eyes were filled with rage.

                        The Attack

                        SAMIA HAD STOPPED TO CATCH HER BREATH after her brief trot and was now at the tail end of the group, closest to the dogs, with Omar just ahead of her, and Halima beyond him. All the kids froze utterly for one second, as if they were playing a game of red light green light where the losers would be shot dead. In that numb, dumb moment, the dogs covered half the distance from the gate to their motionless victims. Then Basem made a wordless whimpering sound, and Hani whispered, “Oh my God.” One of the girls screamed.

                        Halima started to say, “Nobody run,” but was cut off as Tameem bellowed, “RUN!”

                        Omar shot a glance in the direction of the group and saw they were all fleeing in a panic, led by Tameem and Basem. Only Halima was hesitating. He turned back toward the dogs and saw instantly that Samia wasn’t going to make it. She was jogging toward him but her run was little more than a fast waddle. The dogs were almost on her as they blazed forward with ears tucked and teeth bared. They would kill her.

                        He could not let that happen. It was not even a decision – there was no decision to make. The believers are a single body. The only failure is the failure to act. He ran toward Samia and the charging dogs.

                        Seeing him running toward them, the dogs hesitated, slowing just enough to buy Omar the time he needed. Samia’s eyes were wide with terror, and she looked like she might have a heart attack.

                        Just as Omar reached Samia, the German shepherd leaped at her from behind. Omar tackled Samia, taking her to the ground. The dog sailed over them where they lay in the dirt. He shrugged off his backpack and thrust it at Samia, shouting, “Shield your face!” Then he turned toward the other charging dog and started to rise, bringing his arms up defensively, with a crazy idea that he could use his copper bracelet to block the dog’s teeth – then the animal was on him, crashing into him with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking him back to the ground.

                        German shepherd

                        German shepherd

                        Pain exploded in his forearm as the dog’s fangs stabbed deeply into his flesh. He grunted in shock, but remained clear-headed. Falling back to his years of karate training, he used his free arm to deliver powerful elbow strikes to the dog’s nose and eyes. Not releasing its bite, it snarled and shook its head as if trying to rip the meat loose from Omar’s arm. He screamed as he felt the muscles in his forearm begin to tear.

                        The doberman, meanwhile, had overshot. It turned and charged back. Samia lay on the ground just behind him and to the side, calling out loudly for help. Goaded by her cries, the doberman aimed not for Omar but for Samia.

                        As the doberman raced past him, Omar shot out his good arm and made a desperate grab for the dog’s spiked collar. He caught it! But the dog’s momentum stretched his arm out until he felt something pop in his elbow. Between that and the spikes digging into his hand, he could not hold on. The doberman pulled free, and an instant later Samia cried out again. This time it was not a cry of fear, but a chilling wail of pain, shock and horror. Omar turned his head to look. Oh God. Samia must have begun to roll away before the dog reached her, because the beast straddled her side, and was biting the top of her head as she clutched the backpack tightly to her face.

                        Desperately, with every shred of strength he possessed, Omar struck the German shepherd repeatedly in the face with his wrist, using his copper bracelet as a weapon. Dazed, the dog released its bite and stood over him, swaying. Anguished over Samia and given fortitude by this outrage, Omar pushed, flinging the monster off him. He turned and scrabbled toward Samia. The doberman straddled her, not biting once and clamping down like the shepherd had done to him, but biting repeatedly about her head and shoulders, and sometimes biting the backpack as well.

                        The neighborhood Omar lived in was poor, and there were plenty of stray dogs, many of them hungry, rabid or vicious. He’d seen dog attacks, and knew what to do. He seized the doberman’s sleek black tail, and pulled it backward and up as hard as he could. The big black dog gave a yelp of surprise as it was dragged away from Samia’s weeping form. Then it spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face, penetrating his forehead and cheek. At the same moment the German shepherd, recovered now, bit his calf, its teeth sinking into the muscle like the jaws of a bear trap. The pain was so shocking that he could not even draw a breath to scream.

                        They were both on him. He rolled and fought as best he could, punching, kicking, clawing at the dogs’ faces, even biting the shepherd in the neck at one point. And the whole time the dogs were biting him. He felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood.

                        The blood in his eyes blinded him, so that he saw the world faintly, through a sheet of stinging red. He tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

                        Some of the kids must have come back to help, because he heard voices shouting and crying, men and women, but above them all he heard Halima very near, screaming, “What do I do, Omar? What do I do?”

                        “Knife,” he managed to croak. “Hani’s knife.” Then louder, mustering his panic and fright, “Get me Hani’s knife!”

                        The dogs continued to bite and tear at his flesh, and he fought, but his strength was giving out. His arms wouldn’t work properly. Then the doberman yelped in pain and was gone, pulled off him. The shepherd was still on top of him, its teeth deep in his upper arm. Omar put a thumb in its eye and it yelped and released his arm, then went for his throat. He turned, and felt its teeth sink deeply into his shoulder. His body went slack. He couldn’t fight anymore. Cold seeped into his body and mind. Even the pain was beginning to recede.

                        Drifting Out to Sea

                        A tremendous blast rang through the air. The shepherd wailed in agony and released his shoulder. Another blast, and the dog was gone. Not on him anymore. He heard terrible, anguished weeping, and realized after a moment that it was him. Tears flooded his eyes, clearing the blood, and he saw people standing over him, their faces registering horror and disbelief. Halima and Hani were closest. Hani’s knife was in his hand, and the blade was bloody to the hilt. His eyes were wide with shock.

                        A man in a cowboy hat also stood over him, and Omar saw that the man was carrying a pistol, and that smoke wisped from the barrel. The man’s face was drained of blood, white as a bone. Who was he? Omar couldn’t think. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore, or why he was lying here on the ground, burning with agony and covered in something wet.

                        “Samia,” he managed to say, and wasn’t sure why he said that. Then his body began to shake. His teeth chattered and his limbs convulsed, and he couldn’t stop. He was cold, and didn’t understand why. Panama was not supposed to be cold. His heart raced and he could hear it thrumming in his ears, pulsing and crashing like ocean waves.

                        He was half-conscious through all that followed. Hands doing something to him. Sirens. Someone wrapping him in something and lifting him up. Moaning rhythmically, asking for his father. A ride in the back of a vehicle, rocking. The pain going away, ebbing like the tide, to be replaced with a feeling of warmth and comfort, and a deep drowsiness. Something over his face, forcing air into his lungs.

                        Then he was gone, lying on the deck of a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, drifting out to sea, borne on the back of a giant, warm wave. He would live on this sailboat, and Allah would provide for him as He had provided for Maryam, and he would be content. He would sail the world with Alice and Halima and Niko and the white rabbit, and…

                        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 4:  You Are the Miracle

                        * * *

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

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

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

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                        Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

                        He felt a need for Allah, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he prayed Isha’ on the grass that bordered Avenida Balboa, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

                        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

                        This is chapter 2 in a multi-chapter novella. Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                        A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

                        “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you.” – Sensei Alan

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

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

                        Old tennis shoes shoesAFTER GRADUATION OMAR TOSSED HIS GOWN INTO THE DUMPSTER in the school parking lot and went walking through the streets of the city, still wearing his school uniform of navy pants and white shirt, along with a pair of ratty old sneakers that were separating between the uppers and the soles.

                        He had a little money in an envelope that his mother had given him as a graduating present. Remembering what Halima had said about Black Panther playing at the cinema, he took a bus to Multicentro mall, bought a large bucket of popcorn and sat in the very front row, letting the noise and light of the movie drive all thoughts from his head.

                        After the movie he wandered into an electronics shop in the mall. Árabe Unido was playing Alianza on the large screen TV, and a knot of men were gathered. Árabe Unido, founded by Arab immigrants to Panama, was Omar’s favorite football team. He stood wedged between a burly man with the forearms of a construction worker, and a middle-aged man wearing shorts, flip flops and a polo shirt. They watched as Leslie Heráldez lofted a high shot to the brilliant Carlos Small, who stopped it with his chest, deftly steered the ball past two defenders, then banged it into the goal. All the men cheered, and Omar threw up his arms and shouted, “Goaaaaal!”

                        A moment later a grasshopper-faced salesman, decked out in a cheap suit and obviously trying to mask his utter lack of interest in the game, stepped in front of the TV to begin his pitch.

                        “You see how amazing this television is? Doesn’t it feel like you are right on the pitch? It includes built-in wifi and the highest LCD picture quality. You can own this TV today with a monthly payment of only $49.95…”

                        The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

                        “Sorry,” Omar offered, consoling the salesman. “It’s a nice TV, though.”

                        The salesman waved him off.

                        Stepping outside the mall, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon. The sun would be down soon. Was it a coincidence that malls had no windows? He prayed ‘Asr in the small grassy area outside the main entrance, leaping over a low wall to do so. In the middle of his prayer, a mall security guard walked up to him and said, “This area is off limits, kid. Move along.” When Omar did not respond, the man keyed his radio. “Pereira here. I need backup. I got a kid doing yoga or a protest or something.”

                        By the time Omar was on the last rak’ah another guard had arrived.

                        “I’ll grab his hands,” the original guard said, “and you take his feet.”

                        “Wait,” the newcomer said. “He’s not causing any problems.”

                        “At least let me taser him.”

                        No, Pereira.”

                        “It’s not fair,” the first guard grumbled. “We never get to do anything.”

                        Omar finished his prayer and stood. The original guard, a thin young man with a scowl that looked superglued into place, stepped back, startled. The newcomer, a fit black man in his fifties, merely raised his eyebrows.

                        Omar smiled. “I was praying. You wouldn’t want to stop a kid from getting into heaven, would you?”

                        The older man laughed. When Omar hopped back over the wall and strolled away, the younger guard shouted after him, “You better not come back!”

                        Karate is Life

                        DojoHe took another bus down to the Carolina district, and walked into the karate dojo as class was bowing in. The dojo was small, with pear-colored tatami mats on the floor, traditional weapons mounted on racks, and a Japanese flag on one wall. At the moment there were fifteen students training in the cramped space, ranging from thirteen years old to twenty-five. The dojo had no air conditioning, and the room was ripe with the tang of sweat. Shedding his shoes at the door, he bowed to Sensei Alan.

                        Sensei was a muscular, smooth-faced man in his forties, with an oddly contrasting head of white hair. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Spanish. “I thought you were taking the day off for graduation.”

                        Omar shrugged. “Graduation is crap. I’m only graduating tenth grade, it doesn’t mean anything.”

                        Sensei addressed Evangelista, a short woman in her 20’s who sported a blue mohawk and was one rank below Omar himself. “Get class started. Forms one to five.”

                        Sensei took in Omar’s school uniform, the popcorn butter stain on his shirt, the bruises on his face… Sensei Alan had known Omar’s papá, and since his passing had witnessed the changes in Omar’s life.

                        “You will always be you,” Sensei said without preamble. “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you. If you live in an abusive situation, with people who do not care for you, you are still you. Not in relation to them, but in the chambers of your heart. When you leave that abusive situation behind, as I guarantee you will, and if you end up wealthy, or happily married with kids, you will still be you. Not as others imagine you, but as you exist in the sanctity of your own mind. I could say that I admire you, and I do, seonbae-nim. But if your happiness is dependent on my admiration then you have failed, because what if I did not respect you? So the question is, who are you? Not in relation to anything else. But alone, in the universe that is your soul.”

                        This was the longest speech he’d ever heard Sensei give. And why did the man address him as seonbae, an honorific given to a prized student? Usually he just called him Omar.

                        “That is not to say,” Sensei continued, “that the outer world does not exist. It acts upon us. But you know how to handle that.”

                        Normally Sensei did not like questions, but this statement seemed to invite one. “I do?”

                        “Karate is life. When an attack is imminent?”

                        “Hit first and hard.”

                        When the attacker pushes forward…”

                        “Yield and counter.” Sensei had repeated these aphorisms many times.

                        “The only failure…”

                        “Is the failure to act.”

                        Sensei waved a hand. “Come back when you have considered my words.”

                        Omar was confused. The dojo had classes every day except Sunday. “You mean…”

                        “You will know.”

                        The discussion was over. Omar bowed. “Oss!”

                        It was fully dark outside now. He walked around the city thinking over all that had happened that day. As he walked, women of the night propositioned him, calling out, “Oye, chiquito! Quieres dulces?” Gangsters shouted out insults, street vendors tried to sell him mangoes or cigarettes, and always the traffic ran through the concrete gulches of the city like great schools of fish in the sea: swarming, racing and pulsing, though unlike fish the traffic was never silent, but hooted and blared perpetually.

                        He puzzled over Sensei’s statement. You will always be you. Was that a Zen thing Alan had learned in one of his visits to Japan? Like the story about the man who came to a wide river that had no bridge or ferry, and called out to an old man on the opposite shore, wanting to know how to get to the other side. And the old man said, “You are on the other side.”

                        But Omar didn’t want to be on this side.

                        Night rainLightning flashed, thunder rolled across the city like a steamroller, and the skies opened like the floodgates of a dam, dropping water by the ton onto the rich and poor, bloated and starving, arrogant and desperate. Within a minute he was waterlogged, water squeezing out of his shoes with every step. But the rain was as warm as blood, so he walked on.

                        He felt a need for Allah, a need to be comforted, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he made wudu’ with the rainwater and prayed Isha’ on the grassy strip that bordered the Avenida Balboa embarcadero, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain percolating into his skin and maybe into his bones, washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

                        Rogue Planets

                        HE ENDED UP IN CASCO VIEJO, TO HIS OWN SURPRISE. Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived nearby, and he realized that his feet had been taking him there of their own accord. But it was late, he was dripping wet, and he did not want to drop in on them unannounced. So he walked down to the tip of the small peninsula, where the seawall looked out over the entrance to the Panama Canal.

                        Casco Viejo, Panama

                        Casco Viejo, Panama

                        The rain had stopped, and he stood watching the gargantuan ships queued up in the bay, waiting their turns to enter the canal. Fog lay upon the water, so that Omar could see only the lights of the ships hanging in the darkness. He pretended that each ship was its own rogue planet inhabited by jinn, elves and fairies. They only appeared at night, in the fog, and would disappear by day, or so he imagined.

                        If he could swim out to one of those ships, and climb up onto its deck, the strange inhabitants would welcome him as a refugee from the crumbling civilizations of humankind. They would grant him asylum, and set him up in a job tending to the elfin gardens, or teaching karate to the young fairies. He would become a part of their world, their rogue planet, and over time the memories of his past life would fade. Flashes of his mother’s and father’s faces might come to him now and then, but they would be like images in a dusty book, yellowed around the edges, the paper flaking away.

                        He would be a unique figure – the only human in an inhuman reality. Some would hate him and plot against him, but many would love him. He would become advisor to the fairy king, and marry a fairy princess. And if he ever heard the word Panama, he would pause, his head tilted to one side, trying to recall where he had heard that name before.

                        He sighed. It was late, and he was far from home. He had enough money left for a taxi, so he flagged one and closed his eyes, letting the motion of the vehicle rock him. The driver left the windows open, and the night air hit his wet clothing and chilled him. By the time he arrived home he was shivering.

                        He lived in a rundown seaside barrio on the eastern edge of Panama City. It was called Panama Viejo, named after the ruins of the original Spanish settlement of 1519. It was the kind of neighborhood where a stranger would be robbed in the first ten minutes. But Omar knew everyone here, and knew which streets to avoid, and when to duck into the shadows.

                        The front gate of his home was secured with a combination padlock, and the front door had two separate locks. When he let himself in, Mamá emerged from her bedroom, wanting to know why he was so late.

                        He told her of his day’s travels. He hoped that she would say something to assure him of the future. Some promise, even a hollow one, that life would be different. But before she could say anything, Nemesio came barging out of his room. His open shirt revealed a mat of curly chest hair and a belly that hung over his waistband. He reeked of alcohol and dried sweat.

                        “You little bastard,” Nemesio snarled. “Stay out late, worry your mother. Watchu doin’? Selling drugs? Gimme the money.” He came forward, arms outstretched to seize Omar. Always Omar had let him do so, willing to be the object of Tio’s aggression as long as the man left Mamá alone. But this night, Sensei’s reminders were fresh in his head: When the attacker pushes forward, yield and counter. The only failure is the failure to act. So when Nemesio came at him, Omar sidestepped deftly and gave the man the slightest push, adding to the momentum he already had.

                        Nemesio careened past Omar, out of control. He tumbled into the sofa, which overturned, dumping him over the other side where he crashed head-first into the wall, and was knocked unconscious. Mamá screamed and ran to him. She probed his skull, then said with relief, “He is fine, I think. Just knocked out, or maybe passed out from the alcohol.”

                        “Who cares?”

                        “Omar!

                        He looked at Nemesio’s sorry form, lying crumpled against the wall. His head had made a dent in the plaster. The man would be on a tear tomorrow, ready to commit serious violence. But at that moment, Omar was beyond caring. He was tired, and wanted only to go away and never return. He imagined himself sitting on the beach on one of Panama’s Pearl Islands – a place he’d seen on the map but never with his own eyes – sheltering in the shade of a tree. Like Maryam when she retreated from the people and clutched a palm tree, and Allah provided her with water and fresh, ripe dates, so Allah would provide for him too.

                        But he was not Maryam. He was a kid that no one wanted. He trudged to his room, stripped off his wet clothes and dumped them on the floor, then toppled into bed.

                        Spiniflex Rubirosa

                        That night, Omar awoke with a terrible burning on the back of his neck. He knew instantly what was happening. Anyone would. There had been nothing else in the news for the last two months.

                        A new and deadly spider had appeared in the world, perhaps a mutation, or perhaps something ancient uncovered beneath the melting ice of the glaciers of Asia or Europe. It was a tiny thing, less than half the size of a fingernail, pink and red, and almost pretty if you didn’t know what it could do. It was called Spiniflex Rubirosa, though most people just called it the Ruby.

                        Red boxing spiderThe Ruby reproduced by crawling onto a sleeping or unaware human, extending a tiny tubule from its abdomen, and injecting a spray of thousands of eggs into the human’s skin, preferably on the back of the neck or between the shoulder blades. Sensing the warmth of their host, the eggs hatched immediately, and the larvae burrowed down into the hypodermal layer, where they fed on rich blood and tissue fat, growing larger.

                        As the larvae burrowed in, the infected human experienced a terrible burning sensation, as if the affected area were on fire. It was not uncommon for sufferers to scrape away the outer layers of their skin with their fingernails or even with knives. This, however, only prompted the Ruby to burrow deeper.

                        Once they were in place, however, the larvae secreted an anesthetic, so that the pain faded, and sufferers often thought their initial symptoms had been a false alarm.

                        The larval stage lasted three days, after which the larvae would cocoon for a week then hatch. Thousands of spiders would emerge from the cocoons and – using sharp pincers – chew their way out of the infected person’s body, resulting in massive blood loss.

                        Panicked crowds fled at the rumor of infestations, carrying the spider or its eggs all over the world. In a matter of weeks, half the world’s population was dead or dying.

                        Now the Ruby was on Omar. He felt it on the back of his neck, the scorching pain flaring higher and higher as the larvae burrowed into his body. He cried for his mother and she came running, but froze in place when she saw him frantically clawing the back of his neck, scraping away his own skin until his fingernails came away bloody.

                        “Do something!” he pleaded. “Get it off of me!” But she only stood and stared, her expression wide-eyed and stunned. Why wouldn’t she help him? She could not become infected unless the Ruby laid eggs on her. She had to help him, he was dying!

                        * * *

                        He woke thrashing in bed, reaching for the back of his neck, panting in terror. But he made no noise. He’d learned over the years that waking up loudly from nightmares would bring beatings from Tio, so he had somehow taught himself to dream silently, even when the dreams were visions of darkness and dread.

                        It was early, just a glimmer of pale blue light easing through the window. He’d shed his clothes last night before bed but had not showered, and somehow the scent of rain had transferred to the bed sheets, so that his bed smelled like ozone and musk. The house was silent but for the hum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner in Nemesio’s room. Mamá preferred not to use the AC at night to save money, but Nemesio insisted he could not sleep without it. What did that bum care? He didn’t pay the bill.

                        Omar dressed quietly, putting on a pair of old jeans and his blue and white Árabe Unido jersey bearing number 58, Carlos Small’s number. He performed wudu’ and prayed Fajr, then quietly made himself a sandwich, stuffed a towel into his school backpack, and slipped out the door.

                        Chicken Heart

                        Panama Viejo was a long walk from Albrook. Omar could have taken a bus, but he’d found that sustained exercise cleared his mind and settled his spirit like nothing else. Two hours later the sun was hot enough to fry a fish on the pavement as he arrived at Albrook Mall, which doubled as the national bus terminal. Scores of buses departed constantly for every part of Panama and beyond, even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Playa Santa Clara was two hours and twenty minutes away. You had to take a $4 bus to Santiago, then a $4 taxi to Santa Clara village, then walk. It was a lot, but Halima said Playa Santa Clara was the best beach on the Pacific side of Panama. A hidden gem.

                        The group boarded one of the buses. Omar sat alone in the back, taking a window seat. He hadn’t been out of Panama City in years, and wanted to see the sights.

                        Aside from Omar and Halima, Samia was there, the three Muhammad sisters, Tameem, and two other boys named Hani and Basem. Nine kids altogether. Hani, a thin Egyptian boy with long hair and bad skin, was Omar’s age and from the same neighborhood. When they were younger they used to play football together in the street, or chess on rainy days. They’d been good friends back then.

                        Tameem was the real games expert, though. His game consisted of playing people against people, shaming them for their choices of friends, and forcing them to compete for his attention. Eventually Hani, embarrassed to be friends with the “Patacon,” had moved into Tameem’s orbit and cut Omar out of his life.

                        Basem, a chunky Emirati boy with a surly attitude, had arrived only last year. He laughed at everything Tameem said, bought the same brands of clothing as him, and copied him in bullying Omar. Interestingly, when Tameem was not around, Basem ignored Omar completely. Either way, Omar wanted nothing to do with him.

                        Those three boys – Tameem, Basem and Hani – sat together now, speaking loudly over the reggaeton music pounding from the bus’s speakers. The five girls sat in a group as well, chatting and laughing. Samia did not acknowledge Omar, but Halima and the Muhammad triplets turned and waved to him. The triplets were Fijian Indians, slender and chestnut-skinned, with shining black hair that cascaded to their waists. They could have passed for indigenous Panamanians, Omar thought. Because they were all identical, they drew looks wherever they went.

                        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

                        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

                        Pressing his forehead to the window, his breath condensing on the chilled glass, Omar watched as the bus threaded its way past El Chorrillo, where his Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived. Then they crossed over the Puente de Las Americas, and he gazed down at the navy blue water of the canal, surrounded on both sides by thick emerald jungle.

                        A gargantuan container ship – perhaps one of the same ones he’d seen in the queue last night – was traversing the canal, piled with thousands of shipping containers. Omar had heard that these vessels were run by skeleton crews, since most of the ships’ processes were automated. For a moment he wondered what it must be like to work on such a ship, hardly seeing a human face, wandering alone through the decks, hearing your voice echo off the vast steel bulkheads. Then he realized he knew exactly what it was like.

                        He’d worn a light windbreaker in case of rain. He zipped it up all the way to ward off the chill of the bus’s AC, which must have been set on “Mt. Everest” or “Viking Warrior.”

                        At Santiago they crowded into two taxis, boys in one and girls in the other. Hani sat in the front passenger seat, while Omar was in the back seat next to Basem, with Tameem on the other side. “Don’t worry, Patacon,” Tameem sneered. “I’ll pay for the taxi. My father is rich, unlike yours who – oops!”

                        Basem sniggered at this.

                        Hani turned around in the front seat, said, “Hey, that’s not cool, man. That’s going too far.” Hani shot Omar an apologetic look, but Omar ignored him. They may have been friends once, but Hani was just another of Tameem’s toadies now.

                        “Shut up, Hani,” Tameem said roughly. “Or you can get out and walk the rest of the way.”

                        Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

                        “I’ll pay my share,” Omar insisted. “And as for my father, he’s in a place you’ll never see, you ghoul.”

                        Tameem shot Omar a look of furious rage, then pretended to laugh it off. “Good one, Punching Bag.”

                        “I may be a punching bag, but I’ll never be your punching bag, chicken-heart.”

                        Tameem made no response, as Omar knew he would not. The boy could toss out whatever insults he liked, but it would never be more than that. And that was fine, Omar told himself. He could handle insults. Sticks and stones, and all that. But then why was he so full of anger?

                        The Blue Express

                        The taxis took them as far as the end of the paved street. From there it was a fifteen minute walk through the village of Santa Clara and down a dirt road. They trooped along, Omar bringing up the rear. The village homes were traditionally Panamanian: small, cement-block houses with tiled floors, shuttered windows and corrugated zinc roofs painted red.

                        Many of the doors stood open, the inhabitants sitting in plastic chairs on the patios. The older women were attired in colorful pollera dresses, while the men sported straw hats. The younger women wore t-shirts and jeans so tight he wondered how they even managed to put them on. Children played marbles in the dirt, rode bicycles, or kicked soccer balls. The smells of cooking food filled the air- arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, tostones, grilled fish with garlic and tomatoes.

                        People greeted the teenagers, wishing them a good morning. If anyone thought Samia and Halima’s hijabs were strange, they didn’t show it. One middle-aged man in a rocking chair called out to Omar in Spanish: “Go Árabe Unido! We are having a good season, eh?”

                        Omar pumped his fist. “El Expreso Azul!” The Blue Express, the fans’ nickname for the team.

                        Mango treeThe road was lined with thick-limbed mango trees. The mangoes were in season, hanging heavy on the branches like Ramadan lamps. Many had fallen into the road and lay there, whole or split, exuding a scent so rich you could almost see it, like a sweet orange mist in the air.

                        Omar watched Hani pick up a mango, rub it on his shirt, then stab into it with his little pocket knife. Omar remembered that knife. Hani had received it as a gift from his father on his tenth birthday – one of the few gifts the boy had ever been given by his dad, who paid him little attention. It had a wooden handle into which Hani had burned his own initials, and a dull little blade that could barely cut.

                        Hani sliced the mango with some difficulty and passed pieces to the other boys (Omar not included) and they ate as they walked.

                        In front of a house with peeling paint and listing window shutters, an anorexic woman smoked a cigarette and argued into a cell phone as her dusty-faced toddler sat in the dirt. As the teens walked by, the little boy watched them. When Omar approached, the toddler stood and reached out his arms to be picked up. Omar’s feet faltered. Why was the boy reaching to him?

                        Noticing him, the smoking mother said, “¡Piérdase!” Get lost.

                        Omar wanted to move, but his feet wouldn’t budge. The boy’s eyes were brown and pleading. His little arms reached skyward. From the corner of his eye, Omar saw the boy’s mother begin to move toward him. She was shouting something.

                        A hand tugged on the sleeve of his windbreaker and the spell was broken. He looked at the person pulling him forward, expecting to see Halima. It was Samia. She was breathing hard just from the exertion of this walk. The girl seriously needed to exercise more.

                        “You can let go,” Omar said.

                        “That wasn’t very funny what you did with the cockroaches.”

                        “What do you mean?”

                        “The cockroaches in my school bag yesterday. I thought we were past that kiddie stuff.”

                        “Oh!” Omar said indignantly. “Naturally you accuse me?”

                        “Well…” Uncertain now. “I’m sorry, I just thought-”

                        “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

                        Samia’s mouth fell open. “You jerk! You had me feeling sorry for you.” She stalked ahead to join the others, leaving Omar in the rear again.

                        The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

                        Peace be upon the bringer of light
                        his turban black, his jubbah white,
                        when round the ka’bah he turned,
                        by his people mocked and spurned,
                        while others came in the depths of night,
                        whispers they’d heard
                        of a Prophet
                        reciting Allah’s word.

                        Just before they reached the beach, they passed a cluster of wealthy homes with landscaped gardens and fountains in the yards. Many were weekend homes for rich Panama City families. One had a high brick wall with an arched steel gate topped by a family crest. As the three boys in the lead passed the gate, a huge German shepherd came running up, barking ferociously. The dog was tall and barrel-chested, with lustrous golden fur on its chest and legs, and a black face and back. It wore a collar studded with metal spikes that gleamed in the sun, but this didn’t restrict its voice, which was explosive and penetrating.

                        The girls screamed and darted away. Tameem laughed and kicked the lock, enraging the dog who threw itself at the gate, snarling and baring his teeth. Tameem bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it into the dog’s face. Rather than shy away, the beast went into a frenzy. It lunged, trying to force its head between the bars to bite Tameem. Saliva flew from its mouth.

                        “Stop that you idiot!” Samia shouted. “What if it gets out?”

                        Tameem laughed. “Okay maestra chub-a-lub.”

                        Omar shook his head as he gave the dog a wide berth. Why had he agreed to come on this trip?

                        This Time for Panama

                        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                        The beach was deserted aside from a few families whose parents sheltered in the free cabanas set up in two long rows, while the kids built sand castles or played at the edge of the surf. Omar rolled up his pants and strolled on the wet sand, squinting against the light that reflected off the sea. He could not swim, and contented himself with enjoying the cool water on his feet and the smell of salt in the air, and looking for shells. The other boys ran into the waves.

                        The Muhammad sisters changed into knee-length shorts and t-shirts and played in the shallows. Halima wore an Islamic style swimsuit, what did they call it? A burkini. She dove into the water and swam powerfully to the deeper water past the surf break, cutting through the water like a swordfish. Omar watched her. He hadn’t known she could swim like that. She was amazing. As for Samia, she spread out a towel in the shade of a cabana and sat cross-legged, reading a book.

                        Maybe Samia was right about Ramadan. Maybe it was a time of miracles. Only a few days away now. But Omar could not imagine what shape a miracle might take. Why was Samia suddenly so concerned about him, anyway? Did she like him? He tried to imagine himself, five or ten years from now, married to Samia. Ugh. No. It wasn’t her pudginess that bothered him, but her pedantic bossiness, as if she were an Imam or life coach on a world tour, making a side stop in this Central American backwater to set Omar’s life straight.

                        Halima, on the other hand… He could definitely see himself married to her. Whew! What an intriguing and exciting trip that would be. He chuckled at his own foolishness, knowing that Halima was out of his league. Might as well try to marry Shakira. Waka waka eh eh. This time for Panama.

                        He remembered a trip to another beach with his parents when he was small. He built a sand castle with Papá, then went beachcombing with Mamá. Mamá found a perfect conch shell. She squealed with excitement and blew into it, but nothing happened. But when Papá blew into it, a sound like a ship’s horn burst forth. Little Omar was in awe. They took the shell home and put it in a display case in the living room.

                        But after Papá died, and before Nemesio came, Mamá sold the shell to buy food.

                        Omar hoped he would find another such shell today. He pictured the way his mother’s face would light up. Or would it make her sad, remembering that long-ago day? As he searched, the waves pounded in, undeterred by their failure to mount the land and claim it all for their blue depths. Your time is coming, Omar thought. You’ll drown us all like the people of Nuh one day. He imagined the waves were speaking to him, exhorting him in thunderous tones to do something dramatic. CHANGE, they were saying. And then shhhhhhh, as the water receded across the sand. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. But he did not know what change they demanded.

                        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 3:  The Attack

                        * * *

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

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

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

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