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Good Muslims Do Bad Things Too

Umm Zakiyyah

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Inaya’s Struggle

Inaya is sixteen years old. She’s memorized Qur’an and is an inspiration to youth and adults alike. She’s inspired other girls to wear hijab and respect the rules of Islam. She even teaches Qur’an to children on the weekend. But there’s only one problem. When her mother isn’t looking, she removes her hijab after leaving for school, and she hides her Islam from teachers and classmates…and she likes a non-Muslim boy.

In other words, Inaya is living a double life.

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And to make matters worse, Inaya’s mother, who converted to Islam when Inaya was a child, thinks the only real Muslims are those who favor women wearing all black and niqaab (the face veil). When Inaya’s Arab stepfather asks Inaya’s mother Veronica to consider making exceptions to covering her face in America, Veronica becomes indignant and vents to a friend. Incidentally, Inaya overhears part of the conversation after she returns home from school, where she’d secretly removed hijab for the first time:

“What about Inaya?” Veronica said, the question halting Inaya’s steps after Inaya closed the front door and stepped inside. “If I take off my face veil, how do I explain that to her?” Veronica groaned. “Next thing you know, he’s going to ask me to start wearing colored hijabs.” Silence followed for several seconds before Inaya heard her mother moan in exhaustion. “I know, ukhti,” Veronica said. “I’m not saying it’s haraam. I’m just scared he might ask me to take off hijab eventually.”

Inaya dragged herself to the kitchen, sadness weighing on her.

“I’m not overreacting,” Veronica said defensively. “Why should I uncover my face? Even if niqaab’s not obligatory, what’s the point of taking it off? I fear Allah, not the people.”

Inaya glanced at the clock. It was almost four o’clock, and she hadn’t even prayed Dhuhr, the early afternoon prayer, and it was almost time for Asr.

“Because that stupid Arab culture made Sa’ad ashamed of his wife.” Veronica’s tone was indignant. “And now I’m supposed to feel ashamed for practicing the Sunnah?” She huffed. “They can keep their on-off hijab crap to themselves.”

How Could You Portray a Good Muslim Like That?

The above excerpt and storyline are taken from my latest novel Muslim Girl, and although the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, the story has received its share of criticism. How is it possible that a Muslim author could take such a praiseworthy act like memorizing the Qur’an and associate it with a girl removing her hijab behind her parents’ backs, hiding her Islam at school, and liking a non-Muslim boy?

Well, it’s not the memorization of Qur’an that is being linked to Inaya removing her hijab and living a double life. It’s her humanity. It’s just that this particular human being happened to have also memorized Qur’an and is generally viewed as a “good Muslim” in the community. The point of this complex scenario is simply that our humanity and obligation to strive against our faults and sins does not magically disappear just because we happen to love reading Qur’an and inspiring others to do good.

But more than that, in my view, presenting real-life struggles—which often include pretty shameful behavior—demonstrates on a practical level why we do righteous acts like memorize Qur’an and wear hijab in the first place. We do not engage in righteous behavior because we are already pure. We engage in righteous behavior because we hope to be purified.

However, we live in a pretty confusing time, especially for Muslim youth, who are often thrust into contradictory environments simultaneously. On the one hand, their parents teach them to be good Muslims, have righteous companions, and put Allah first in everything. On the other hand, their parents leave Muslim lands and communities and enroll the youth in public schools and secular colleges, and they genuinely expect actions like wearing hijab and memorizing Qur’an to act as fool-proof shields against any human weakness and sin.

On top of that, even when these youth seek out Muslim company and environments, whether online or in their local communities, they find that the culture of “religious” Muslims is often cliquish, uppity, and hostile. The Muslims who consider themselves more knowledgeable than others feel free to dictate not only what “weak” Muslims should be doing, but also what “good” Muslims couldn’t possibly be doing.

On the surface, it might appear as if these practices are aimed at simply commanding good and forbidding evil. But in practical reality, this is not what is happening. Many of these “religious” Muslims announce and publicize others’ faults. Many storm social media sites and Facebook pages by posting Qur’anic verses, hadith, and threats of Hell Fire to “advise” those they disagree with—even regarding matters in which there are legitimate differing opinions. Many spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the “right” hijab such that even women who are already fully covered are subjected to constant criticism and harassment. And even when Muslims are doing nothing visibly wrong, these Muslims dig for evil to forbid. Then they openly question and reproach others for trivial decisions like having a profile picture or posting a status or link unrelated to the suffering in Palestine and Syria.

Why then does it come as a surprise that some youth who are genuinely striving to be good Muslims stay away from other Muslims, avoid Islamic activities, and minimize their trips to the masjid itself? For certainly, if those who are committing no clear sin are berated for being “bad Muslims” just because someone holds a different fiqh opinion than they do, where in the world do youth go who are committing clear sin and merely want a spiritually safe environment to get back on track?

What Is It That You Really Want?

In this suffocating environment, it often feels as if the decision to become visibly Muslim is simply a public announcement to other Muslims that they now have the right—and “Islamic obligation”— to make your life miserable until they appoint themselves as overseers of every detail of your life, from your decision to wear a certain scarf pin to your decision to pursue a certain career path or even marry (or not marry) a certain person.

What is it that you really want? I think this is a question that each of us must honestly ask ourselves. Do you want your brother and sister to live a life dedicated to pleasing and serving Allah? Or do you want them to live a life dedicated to pleasing and mimicking you?

This might sound like a rhetorical or even sarcastic question, but it really isn’t. Most of us, myself included, would like to think that we genuinely want our brother or sister to dedicate his or her life to pleasing and serving Allah when we “advise” them on certain matters.

But what do our hearts and actions attest to?

This is a difficult question to answer, at least for those who truly wish to be honest with themselves. Many of us have enough Islamic knowledge and life experience to understand that, outside of adhering to foundational and clear, indisputable requirements in Islam, pleasing and serving Allah simply will not “look” the same for each individual Muslim. Why then do we keep perpetuating “Islamic” environments that are more focused on creating clones of ourselves than on fostering close relationships with Allah?

No, it isn’t right for a girl to memorize and teach Qur’an then turn around and remove her hijab, hide her Islam, and try to hook up with a boy. But it also isn’t right for us to tell Muslim girls and boys that they can’t wear hijab or memorize Qur’an if they have these struggles or inclinations. Being human is a part of life. And our humanity doesn’t disappear simply because we love doing righteous deeds.

Yes, we need to remind and advise each other toward good and away from sin. But we also need to understand that as we strive to do good and avoid sin, we should feel free to memorize Qur’an, wear hijab, and engage in any righteous action, even as we’ll always have faults and sins to tend to. These righteous actions just might one day be the means through which we overcome the very faults and sins that people say a hijabi or memorizer of Qur’an couldn’t possibly be doing.

And yes, we could even benefit from more Muslim Girl-type fiction stories in books. Because we have more than enough Muslim girl [and boy] true stories in real life. And given that so many Inayas of the world feel suffocated by modern “religious” culture, castigated by Islamic preaching, and unwelcomed in masjids, I think they at least deserve the opportunity to sit alone in their homes, open a book, and learn that yes, pleasing and serving Allah is possible after all—and that even if you’re a “good Muslim,” you’ll sometimes do bad things.

And, even then, so long as you don’t give up on your soul altogether, Paradise is for you too.

 

 

 

 

 

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy. Her latest novel Muslim Girl is now available. To learn more about the author, visit ummzakiyyah.com or subscribe to her YouTube channel.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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Daughter of American converts to Islam, Umm Zakiyyah writes about the interfaith struggles of Muslims and Christians, and the intercultural, spiritual, and moral struggles of Muslims in America. She is the internationally acclaimed author of more than fifteen books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the newly released self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, with contributions by Haleh Banani, behavioral therapist. Her books have been used in universities in America and abroad including Indiana University-Bloomington, Howard University, University of D.C. and Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. To learn more about the author, visit uzauthor.com.

33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Joyce Larsen

    August 7, 2014 at 2:25 AM

    All glory be to Allah…this article spoke so much truth. Love it, so much to think about.

  2. Avatar

    Tadar Jihad Wazir

    August 7, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    As-Salaam-u alaikum, Read in the name of your Rabb: Surah An-Nisaa’, 4:28, then in its context 4:26–32. We are His representatives to His creation as guided by the Lights of His Qur’an and the lifestyle, not just the ahadith, his uswah is what we are to be emulating, of His final Messenger to “man”, study the meaning of that word, Muhammad ibn Abdullah of Arabia some 1,400 years ago. We perfect ourselves through sincere practice and repentance to those we harm and to Allah for being disobedient, this purification prescription allows Allah to fulfill His statement in 4:28.

  3. Avatar

    Hyde

    August 7, 2014 at 9:15 AM

    “The problem with religion is that it only helps religious people”

    Really good post. One thing does stand out: if a girl likes a boy, then she is considered of “loose moral” yet if a hafiz fell for a girl, it would be he was tempted: why the double standards ?

    And there is nothing wrong with liking the opposite gender (thank God). I have liked girls all my life and will continue to do so.

    • Avatar

      Fahim Abdullah

      August 10, 2014 at 6:40 AM

      Because guys fall in love 100000 times easier than girls. You keep a Tom Cruise in 100 girls. Perhaps 2/3 will glance. You keep a Megan Fox in 100 guys. 99 will ogle their eyes out.

      • Avatar

        Not so simple!

        August 10, 2014 at 1:36 PM

        To Fahim:

        As Salamu Alaikum!

        I just wanted to note that love/lust/infatuation amongst the sexes is much more complex than can be summarized with simple statements…

        Yes, conventional wisdom tells us that men fall in love (I would say infatuation) easier than women…

        But…have you ever attended a rock concert with a ‘hot male lead’ or ‘a boy band’ – whether its the Beatles, or Justin Bieber or whoever the latest ‘crush’ of the day is?

        The crazy screaming reactions of the girls in the audience is much more than glancing, and much more than ogling!! They totally loose it…

        The Quran actually highlights this bizarre behavior in Sura Yusuf…when the ‘ladies of the town’ go absolutely crazy when they see Prophet Yusuf and start cutting their hands with their dinner knives!

        Anyway, whatever the reality is regarding the sexes and lust/love, the Quran and Sunnah do not endorse double standards when it comes to llicit loves/relationships, and neither should we. Its wrong for both sexes, and thats that.

        Of course, we are all prone to error…we all need to turn to Allah and repeatedly ask for him to forgive us and purify us…and we all need to remember generosity and forgiveness amongst ourselves….

    • Avatar

      Hyde

      August 10, 2014 at 11:42 PM

      This article will do well in this discussion…
      http://bloggingtheology.org/2014/08/10/they-mess-you-up/

  4. Avatar

    Sarah

    August 7, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    Assalamu alaikum,

    I’m a religious teenage/college-age girl who has already lived away from home and been placed in many positions of trust by my family, and I can testify to the truth of what is written in this article about how Muslims often ‘search for evil to forbid’ – if you protest and say this is untrue, kindly take one look at the type of websites that a person my age, interested in their deen, will encounter when trying to search for information.

    Having seen life in both Muslim and non Muslim countries, I want to sharply emphasize something to ALL parents – these problems with youth (taking off hijab, going behind your back) would NOT go away if you attempted to protect them through controlling them. It does not matter if they go to a segregated Islamic college in Saudi, or a community college in the USA – they WILL encounter haram (I saw MANY example of things happening in Muslim countries that would make elders’ hair curl – they simply don’t see them). My mother has taught in an Islamic school for years and years, and she constantly complains that parents seem unable to find a balance – you can’t forbid everything (haram! no! never!) OR be completely lax and leave your children to their own devices. Both these parenting styles simply mean one thing – you will be wringing your hands when your kids grow up and they rebel. The true solution is to be flexible, and to give your children the tools they need to make those hard decisions, and understand the societal issues that are around them – because when they grow up, no matter if they live in the safest, most comfortable bubble ever – they are going to have to make those hard decisions.

    • Avatar

      Hyde

      August 7, 2014 at 3:43 PM

      Excellent response with clarity and truth :)

    • Avatar

      Tadar Jihad Wazir

      August 7, 2014 at 5:31 PM

      What was the picture of the environment that all of the early Muslims lived in? They did not have TV or the radio they saw everything in living color and sometimes people living as the “Hippies” of the 1960s in the USA lived with no shame. And Allah states that He did not prescribe for people to become “monks” withdrawn from the temptations of the world. How else can one perfect one’s faith, and trust in Allah, Whom they are to be His willing, obedient, representatives agents to His creation? WAKE UP, AND STUDY AL-QUR’AN as Allah instructs us to? Ameen.

  5. Avatar

    Hurt but Hopeful

    August 7, 2014 at 5:30 PM

    You teach them what you consider the truth but the day will come when they must make their own choices. And sometimes those choices are much different than you choose for yourself!! It hurts like hell to see your children leaving Islam when you fought so hard to become and stay a Muslim. Just remember Guidance comes from Allah!! It is not transfered thru DNA or even a wonderful home enviroment or even an Islamic school.
    People will judge you by what your children do..it does not help!! InshAllah We can be more kind with each other.

    • Avatar

      Sidra

      August 10, 2014 at 1:15 AM

      Kindness and compassion are more effective in changing a person or at least making them want to take steps in the right direction than harshness and condemnation.

    • Avatar

      Sara

      August 10, 2014 at 10:49 PM

      As Khalil Gibran said: “Our children are not from us, they merely come through us”

      Our children are souls on their own unique individual journey

      Would anyone say that Prophet Nuh did not do a good job preaching Islam for so long?

      And in the end, his wife and his son denied the message of Islam ie Oneness of Allah.

      So many muslim youth leave the religion and eventually come back. Keep the doors of your love open for them.

      And mashallah this was an amazing article with amazing insights

  6. Avatar

    UmmHady

    August 8, 2014 at 9:06 AM

    If someone does not do good and right from their own heart but in fear of parental punishment then ultimately there wil be a point when they choose to go against what they are told, either openly rebel or by sneaking around. Many parents focus on teaching their kids memorizing Quran and praying because they are told they HAVE to. Few delve deeper into teaching understanding Quran and loving Allah SWT and Prophet SAW for his sacrifices and amazing character. Obedience is never true without love. The modern Ummah has focused far too much on rules and less on the nia (spirit) of Islam. They are both important but if one does not do good out of love and fear of Allah SWT then we are missing the most important point of all. We all sin. We all have chances to redeem ourselves. If there is not mercy in that then I don’t know what else to say.

  7. Avatar

    Saf

    August 8, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    loved your comments Umm HAdy. FInally the most important lesson to teach kids and ourselves is, it always between me and God. Because God decides whether u need punishment to put u on the right track or be forgiven right away. In my opinion, the carrot the stick comes to us, and both are in AllahuSubhanaWataala’s Mercy. And we must consider ourselves to have received Allah’s mercy, when our heart turns towards Him, whether out of fear or favor or just plain love. Kids need to be taught that what if u do not get forgiven right away and end up being punished,before you get forgiven? So teach them enough fear,and yet give them hope of compassion from Allah, and their conscience will take it over from there. We cannot control anybody, not even ourselves by just berating or spying really

    • Avatar

      UmmHady

      August 10, 2014 at 6:07 AM

      Alhamdulillah, we do not know the state in which we will die. The ” religious” who judge another may fall out of grace and the other rise to a purer state of iman. It is better to sin and sincerely repent and beg Allah SWT for forgiveness than to do good and feel pride in it. Allah loves to be asked for forgiveness. Likewise He afflicts those He loves with adversity in this life I imagine so that they may be given a chance to face it with patience and earn Jannah after having been purged of their sins with such adversity.

  8. Avatar

    sayf

    August 8, 2014 at 6:13 PM

    But who on earth is really in the position to make the call that someone is a good muslim, yeag we give benefit of doubt, byt even Rasulillah sallallahu 3layhi wa salam, warned muslims be careful in your praise of others. Is not Allah the one who will decide who is good and not, and do think the salaf would have married their children to a girl who doesnt do the fardh of covering? Im not judging her, but the fact is she is not doing the fardh, and thats not the worst thing ever she could be a lot worse in her practices. And to completely memorize the quran doesnt makr someone good, I knoe many of the youth in my local masjids quran class, that say themselves thr didnt wish to enroll in that, not that they hate it, but it was really only the8r parents choice. Good muslims do bad things too, we alreadt know the only perfect human was rasulillah, this sounds like a statement to please and make people content with their sins, or please the west I dunno

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  10. Avatar

    Abu Haazim

    August 9, 2014 at 5:38 PM

    Masha Allah good article! My teacher teaches me not to judge other people(Muslims and non-Muslims included) and the time spent searching and fixing one’s own mistakes and shortcomings is time worth spent.

    This has helped me tremendously given the fact that I consider myself practicing(Alhamdu lillah) and my wife wears a niqab and somehow in my head I used to consider sisters who didn’t wear a hijab less Muslim. May Allah Ta’ala forgive me! I hope I had spent that valuable time fixing my own shortcomings instead of commenting(to my wife) about other Muslims.

  11. Avatar

    Yasmine

    August 10, 2014 at 11:16 PM

    Great article mashallah

    Jazakallah khair for that

    But as someone who has published a few books on amazon, let me say that your Kindle price of $9 is too high.

    In fact, we can see from your books ranking that you are only making a few sales a week

    I am sure that the content of the book is great, but to stand out your marketing efforts should be just as good

    I would suggest lowering the price of the Kindle version to $2.99. And you also need a better book cover.

    Finally, as you already may know….the Kindle format allows you to offer the book for free for 5 days every 3 months

    I urge you to use that to boost your rankings. Amazon will then feature your book more prominently and you will make more sales inshallah

    Finally…when you do offer your book for free for those 5 days, make sure you list them on websites that feature free kindle books

    one of those sites is http://www.worldliterarycafe.com

    I wish you success in this life and in the next inshallah

  12. Avatar

    Qasim

    August 11, 2014 at 4:18 PM

    Mashallaah great article from an excellent author I enjoy reading from. I however disagree with this premise.

    “We do not engage in righteous behavior because we are already pure. We engage in righteous behavior because we hope to be purified.”

    Looking at the backdrop of the article, it seems to suggest many Muslims are dealing with insecurity issues.

    While I agree that some Muslims are over zealous in calling others to the deen… we shouldn’t lose sight that while the methodology may be wrong and flawed, the are often correct in their criticism. Often I see people talk about the “Nosy Uncles” and “Nosy Aunties” but we don’t often talk about what got the “Nosy” people irate in the first place. I havent read your story I would love to inshaallaah.

    But A question I would ask is… Why would some that memorized the Quran… a real Haafidah “fall” for a non-Muslim… She most likely was coerced to memorize or didn’t understand what she’s been memorizing and reading on a daily basis (Retaining Memorized verses is easier than the first memorization). This is a major problem we have… our disconnect with the verses that we read.

    • Avatar

      Sarah

      August 11, 2014 at 7:01 PM

      I agree with your statement that ‘memorization without understanding’ is a big problem for Muslims – but saying “Why would a REAL hafidha fall for a non-Muslim” demonstrates the very problem that the author is trying to point out. Why would Allah SWT order us in the Quran to not marry non-Muslims, if this was something SO unthinkable to the everyday Muslim? Also – just because one has memorized the Quran, doesn’t mean that a person cannot get a crush. Crushes are blind – your hormones don’t say “Authubillah! A non-Muslim!”, they say – “Hm, someone attractive who can provide companionship”, whether pursuit of that attraction is right/good in the long run or not.

      • Avatar

        Qasim

        August 11, 2014 at 11:56 PM

        Baarkallahu feek Sr Sarah

        An Haafidhah is not an everyday Muslim… Some that have memorized (protected) an Ayaah that says the NonMuslim are impure or has memorized(protected) that marrying a slave is better than a Mushrik, wont fall for a Non-Muslim. Someone that has memorized restraining their gaze and their desires. The key is having memorized and understood what was memorized.

    • Avatar

      ZAI

      August 11, 2014 at 11:22 PM

      Br. Qasim,
      I agree with Sarah.
      You’re setting up hafiz e quran e sharif as an abstract ideal.
      They are human beings like anyone else and susceptible to whatever the rest
      of us are. Even if they UNDERSTAND it does not mean they won’t make mistakes or
      just have feelings man. They’re insaan…not robots. Understanding Quran
      has nothing to do with encountering attraction, temptation or any struggle. Ultimately we USE
      Quran and other sources of the deen to overcome the temptations and struggles…doesn’t
      mean we will never have them. Imam Ahmad(R) DIED while combating his ego. Many
      Sahaba made mistakes. That’s what tawba is for.

      I’ve had non-Muslim girls attracted to me, etc….and it if I said knowing the Quran’s
      stance on extra-marital relationships meant I wasn’t tempted, attracted or ever
      considered it, I’d be a liar. Fact that I overcame in the end doesn’t mean it wasn’t
      a struggle or thought never crossed my mind. Quran and hadith are clear that
      only the act is judged as wrong if carried out..and even then there is tawbah.. and thank God for that. Why are
      we expecting angel-like perfection from people?

      • Avatar

        Qasim

        August 12, 2014 at 12:05 AM

        Br Zai… An Haafidhah is not an ignoramus….If we read Surah Yusuf, we see that Yusuf was inclined if not for the fact that he didn’t want to be among the Jaahiliyeen.
        As portrayed by the abstract..this had a little more than a mere inclination…
        We cant compare the actions of an ignorant and that or a learned person.

      • Avatar

        Qasim

        August 12, 2014 at 12:36 AM

        Additional Br Zai, I’ll understand why non Mulsims are attracted to you… You are Muslim… so you should be Honorable, trustworthy, honest…. all the many desirable qualities in a responsible man.

        What qualities will attract a non-Muslim to an Haafidhah… Kufr?

      • Avatar

        Hyde

        August 12, 2014 at 11:48 AM

        Hmm, what Zai is a handsome chap ? Or drives a sports cars ? Or is eloquent in speech ? inclination ? It could be super real attraction and even worse !

  13. Avatar

    Farheen Ghaffar

    August 13, 2014 at 2:26 AM

    Jazak’Allah! Needed to read this SO much right now! Love your blog/website. Indeed, Allah knows best the matters of the heart and He alone will judge – what we need to remind ourselves ALL the time.

  14. Avatar

    Mursaleen

    August 14, 2014 at 7:30 AM

    Jazak ALLAH for such a Great Article :)

  15. Avatar

    Isa

    August 16, 2014 at 8:40 PM

    Thanks Umm Zakiyyah, Inayah’s case definitely applies to many people I know, and your perspective is totally true. Why categorize people as either ‘good Muslim’ or ‘bad Muslim’ when all that does is if you’ve commuted sins that ‘good Muslims’ don’t do then you’re branded as a ‘bad Muslim’ and you fall into a spiral of not caring about sins anymore. People may do many good deeds but will also commit bad ones because they’re human, and we should help each other as best as we can.

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  17. Avatar

    Kamran Khan

    October 19, 2014 at 4:03 AM

    You teach them what you consider the truth but the day will come when they must make their own choices. And sometimes those choices are much different than you choose for yourself!! It hurts like hell to see your children leaving Islam when you fought so hard to become and stay a Muslim. Just remember Guidance comes from Allah!! It is not transfered thru DNA or even a wonderful home enviroment or even an Islamic school.
    People will judge you by what your children do..it does not help!! InshAllah We can be more kind with each other.

  18. Avatar

    simin

    October 25, 2015 at 3:32 PM

    Nice…Mashallah.. Really an inspiration fr the younger generations….

  19. Avatar

    modifikasi motor

    April 23, 2016 at 6:46 AM

    Quality articles or reviews is the secret to be a focus for the users to go to see the web page, that’s what this web page is providing.

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Tocumen International Airport

Back in Panama, pulling his wheeled suitcase along behind him, Omar walked out to the long-term parking lot at Tocumen airport. It was a hair past noon, and the sun poured forth its fire as if the earth were a morsel of meat it wanted to cook for lunch. Knowing the weather in Panama, Omar had changed his clothes in advance in the airport bathroom, putting away the linen suit and slipping on a pair of knee-length basketball shorts and a t-shirt. He was glad he had. After the chilly skies of Bogota, being back in Panama was like stepping into a sauna.

When he came to his car, he found the driver’s side window shattered. He shook his head in disgust. Why would anyone break into his car? It was a five year old silver Toyota sedan with no frills. It didn’t even have a CD player, just a basic AM/FM radio. He could have afforded better, but he drove this old beater for exactly this reason: it didn’t look worth breaking into.

Searching the car, he found nothing missing. There hadn’t been anything worth stealing anyway. Just the manual in the glove box, a little LED flashlight, a pack of cinnamon chewing gum, and some napkins. Oh, wait – they’d taken the Quran CDs. Arabic recitation with Spanish translation. Maybe the thieves would listen and be guided.

When he inserted the key and turned it, he got nothing. Not even a click. Opening the hood, he discovered the reason: the thieves had stolen his car battery. So that was what they’d been after. Now he was angry. Where was airport security?

Car with shattered window

Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he considered who to call. He needed someone to bring him a battery. His wife didn’t drive. Fuad didn’t drive either, because he never knew when he might have an epileptic attack.

Fuad’s crazy wife Ivana did drive, but Omar didn’t want to deal with her. If Fuad somehow convinced her to come out here, she would either want to be paid, or would expect Omar to take her and Fuad to the most expensive restaurant in Panama. Ten times! Omar laughed at the thought.

He could call Nadia Muhammad, his old friend from IIAP. She was married and sometimes came to visit with her husband and two kids. She was a goofball, always telling jokes and making his son Nur laugh. But even though they were just buddies, and his wife thought nothing of it, he didn’t want to push the boundaries of trust by spending half a day driving all around Panama city with her.

It Burns!

Deciding that there was nothing left to steal, and that it wouldn’t hurt to leave the car alone for a while, he trudged back to the taxi stand in front of the terminal. Ignoring the touts who snatched at his sleeves, desperate to put him in a limo or town car, he found a 60ish, balding taxi driver with forearms like German sausages. The man sat disconsolately in his cab, filling out a crossword puzzle. The two of them negotiated a price of $40 for the whole business, and took off.

As they headed into the city with the windows open and hot air whipping through the car, Omar reclined his head against the seat and closed his eyes.

Apparently not noticing or caring that Omar was trying to rest, the driver called out, raising his voice to be heard. “Oye, jefe. You some kinda tuna fat foreigner?”

“I’m Panamanian.” Omar opened his eyes and studied the road, and was dismayed to see that the driver had taken the slow midtown route. Avenida Domingo Diaz was an interminable road lined with auto shops, plant nurseries and love motels – known as pushbuttons in Panama, because all you had to do was drive in and push a button. You never had to see any clerk or staff face to face. “Hey, why did you go this way? I would have paid the tolls on the Sur.”

“Well I din’ know that, no?” The man’s sped-up slang Spanish marked him as having been raised in Colon. Omar could barely understand him. “Just because you a tuna fat Colombian. You might be a biter. You ahuevao foreigners is welcome if you bring some flus. Otherwise we don’ need you.”

Ignoring the fact that the man had just called him stupid – he’d understood that much – Omar, repeated, “I’m Panamanian.”

“Then where the president live?”

“Palacio de Las Garzas. I’ve been there.”

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

There were a lot of Chinese in Panama, true, but they didn’t take jobs. Just the opposite. They opened stores, restaurants, internet cafes and electronic shops, and employed Panamanians. Omar explained this.

“Then the mascabola Venezuelans! Ñangara Comunistas!” The driver hawked and spit on the floor of his own car. “They spray the word taxi onna side of a car and steal my fares, don’ even have licenses.” He pounded the dash with a meaty fist. “It burns!”

“I see how that’s bad for business, but they’re our neighbors. We have-” Omar stopped talking as the driver abruptly swerved across two lanes of traffic and pulled up beside a love motel called Lady Finger.

“Get out!” the driver demanded. “Ain’t drivin’ no mascabola Communist-lover. And I ain’t votin’ for you!”

Omar pursed his lips. It would be hard to find another taxi out here. He considered offering the driver more money, but the guy was a nasty piece of work. As much as the man wanted Omar out of his cab, Omar wanted to be done with him too.

He collected his luggage and paid the driver a quarter of the normal fare, which under the circumstances he felt was generous. The driver cursed at him and peeled out with a squeal of burning rubber.

Allah blessed him. Omar had only begun to contemplate his options when another taxi pulled up to the Lady Finger. A 60ish man in a business suit and a young woman in a skin-tight dress headed into the pushbutton. Omar called out to the driver and half-ran, pulling his bag behind him. A minute later he was on his way – again – with a driver who kept the windows rolled up, the AC on and a Cuban jazz CD playing softly. Alhamdulillah.

Do the Right Thing

Three hours later, with a new battery in his car, Omar navigated his way out of the airport parking lot. He noticed several other cars with shattered windows. Useless airport security officers walked around making notes, and two cars were being lifted onto tow trucks.

Corredor Sur, Panama

Corredor Sur, Panama

He headed home along the Corredor Sur, the express toll highway that led along the Pacific waterfront. The area bordering the highway had once been an expanse of impenetrable mangrove swamps, but now it was Costa del Este, the most expensive seaside neighborhood in all of Panama. Two-hundred meter skyscrapers glittered in the tropical sunshine, their glass sides reflecting sky and sea, while construction cranes marked the sites of future towers.

These million dollar apartments were occupied by business people, wealthy expatriates and even crime cartel bosses, mostly hailing from neighboring (and less stable) countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. And, of course, by Fuad, who – pushed by his Cuban beauty queen – had purchased an apartment he really could not afford.

The mangroves that had been drained and filled to make Costa del Este possible had been one of the richest wetland habitats in Panama, home to dozens of endemic species. Such was the way of his country. No one valued nature, nor even old things of human make. It was all about what was new and sleek.

At least people like Naris Muhammad were out there fighting to protect what was left. Naris, the serious-minded member of the Muhammad triplets, was one of the most prominent environmental activists in Panama.

He exited the freeway into the leafy district of San Francisco. It was an upper middle class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of gated homes, all bordering Parque Omar, the largest urban park in Panama.

Passing by Parque Omar, he eyed the spot where, last year, he’d intervened to stop a man from beating a woman. He’d been out for a morning jog and had seen a tall, thin man with hollow eyes punching a young woman in the face.

For a good portion of his childhood he had been the one beaten while the person who should have protected him stood by helplessly. He’d always promised himself that he would not be that impotent bystander, allowing someone to be abused before his eyes.

So when he saw the man punching the woman, he instantly ran forward, wrapped the man’s neck from behind and pulled him off the woman. The woman, instead of thanking him, screamed, “Leave my boyfriend alone!” She picked up a broken tree branch and struck Omar on the head, and the pair of them dashed off. Omar went home with his scalp bleeding, expecting a tongue lashing from his wife. But she cleaned the wound, kissed him and made him one of his favorite foods: an apam balik pancake filled with banana slices, sesame and sugar.

He returned his eyes to the road. He couldn’t be responsible for the choices people made. But he could do the right thing.

As he approached a large, sky-blue home fronted by a high brick wall and a steel gate, he hit a remote control and the gate slid open. The house had a circular front driveway that curved around a bubbling Islamic style fountain shaped like an eight-pointed star, covered in green tiles. The crisp water sparkled as it poured out of an upper bowl and into the larger basin below.

Nur liked to play in this pool, while Omar’s wife enjoyed sitting beside it after sunset, listening to the Quran on a little cassette player. Omar had offered to buy her a portable CD player, but she said she couldn’t tell one side of a CD from the other.

Tall trees flanked the front yard, with a pair of mango trees anchoring east and west. Around them grew passionfruit trees, guava and berry bushes. Nur often came out here with his mother and ate the berries straight from the bushes, until his cheeks and chin were red from the juices.

Something For Everyone

When he opened the door, Nur came running. Omar dropped to one knee to catch the boy. He was a handsome tyke, with sturdy limbs, a strong nose and square face. His eyes were dark and his black hair was straight, like his mother’s. Omar’s love for him was a deep river that would never run dry.

He found his wife in the kitchen standing at the stove, garnishing a red snapper for the oven. The split AC in the corner hummed, its cool air circulating the scents of lemon and parsley. The space was large and comfortable, with a cooking island in the center, and teak cabinetry all around. A matching rustic teak table occupied one side, beside a low, molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall and was covered with cushions. The family spent a lot of time here.

His heart surged at seeing his wife again. Her face was dewed with perspiration from the heat of the stove. Even so, she looked beautiful, with a slender, strong form, and her long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He went to her and she turned to embrace him, saying, “Careful of the stove.”

Putting his arms around her, he could feel the muscles in her shoulders and arms. The two of them ran five kilometers every morning in Parque Omar, and two evenings a week he taught her karate in an upstairs bedroom they’d turned into a training studio.

Labrador retriever He felt something cold touch his hand and looked down to see the dog, Berlina, nuzzling him with her wet nose. She was a young labrador retriever, well trained as a guide dog. She was a gentle creature, intelligent and good with Nur as well.

He reached down to scratch Berlina’s head. Her tail thumped happily against the kitchen cabinet. Nur grabbed his other hand. “What did you bring me, Papá?”

Standing in the middle of the family mob, Omar laughed. “I have something for everyone, okay?”

They sat at the kitchen table and Omar parceled out the gifts: for his wife, a pair of silver earrings shaped like crescent moons and fashioned in the uniquely Colombian “momposina” style, with finely woven silver threads. For Nur, a set of coloring pencils with a small leather carrying case.

“What about Berlina?” Nur wanted to know.

In answer, Omar stood, grabbed the plastic jar of beef jerky sticks from the top of the refrigerator, and tossed one to the dog. Berlina caught it in mid-air, settled down and went to work, her wagging tail brushing the floor.

Drawings

Later that evening Omar sat at the kitchen table with his son, watching the boy draw. He could hear the shower running upstairs.

Papers were scattered across the table, covered with drawings of ocean waves, leaping dolphins, a squid brandishing a scepter, and a mermaid wearing a crown. Nur had always been fascinated by the ocean and all its creatures.

Nur held up a picture of a tsunami arching over a small town. He’d even drawn tiny cars on the roads and stick figures of people. “Do you like it, Papá?”

Omar raised his eyebrows. “It’s drawn very well.” He leaned close to his son’s ear. “But let’s not tell Mama that story. We don’t want her to be sad for the people.” Nur’s mother could not see the drawings, so normally Nur would describe them to her in detail, telling the drawing’s story.

Nodding, Nur tucked the sketch beneath a pile of others as his mother came down the steps, tying a towel around her hair. Omar was always amazed at how confidently she moved. A stranger would never guess she was blind, at least not here inside the house, where everything was laid out precisely in its place. Though her vision was not 100% gone. She could sometimes make out broad outlines and colors.

“Sad for what people?” she asked.

“Nothing, just drawings.”

Omar’s wife sat on his lap, resting an arm around his shoulders. She ran a hand through his hair, playing with the curls, taking care to stay away from his mangled ear, as he was sensitive about that. He kissed her on the cheek, happy to be home with the loveliest woman he knew. He was blessed, alhamdulillah.

A Scarcity of Friends

“I missed you,” his wife said. “But I’m glad you found your friend Hani. You don’t have many friends.”

It was true. He had Mahmood, Fuad, and Nadia. That was about it. Nadia’s sister Naris could have been a friend if she weren’t so engrossed in her work as an environmental activist. As for Nabila, she’d moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on her Youtube stardom, and ended up becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Was this scarcity of friends the reason he’d been so excited to see Hani again? And why he had overlooked the brother’s disconcerting negativity?

“What’s his wife’s name, by the way?”

“He never told me. She works as a house cleaner.”

“Do you think it’s wise to invest with him? He sounds unstable.”

Omar pulled her hand out of his hair. It was too close to his ear, and was making him nervous. “Does he?”

“The way you describe him.”

“Hmm.”

She ran a hand over his face – her way of reading his expression. “You’ve already decided to give him the money, haven’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Then why make him write a business plan?”

“For his own benefit. To help him succeed.”

“I think you just wanted a reason to see him again.”

As a reply, Omar pulled his wife close and kissed the side of her head. Her black hair smelled of the papaya shampoo she favored. She knew him too well, and never failed to let him know it.

He watched his son working on a new drawing of a squadron of flying fish. Each fish wore a beret and had a cigar in its mouth. As the boy drew, he chewed on his upper lip.

Nur was an intense child, but was he happy? Omar thought back to his own early childhood, training in martial arts with his father, watching football games, attending the masjid for Jumah prayer; and going on hikes with his mother, or visiting that amazing ice cream shop on Avenida Central that sold a giant scoop of mango sorbet for a quarter. They had been poor, but Omar had been happy because he was loved by his parents, and what more did a child need?

That’s all we have to do, he thought. Love him. He reached out and stroked the back of Nur’s neck. The boy did not even look up. “All we have to do,” Omar said out loud.

“Do what?” his wife asked.

“All we have to do is love each other.”

His wife settled into him, resting her back against his chest. “Yes. That’s all we have to do.”

Put Your Hand Down

Karate class “I KNOW YOU WANT TO EARN A BLACK BELT ONE DAY,” Omar said as he strode up and down in front of the line of kids. One girl – an especially enthusiastic eleven year old green belt named Tabina who was always asking when she’d get her next promotion – raised her hand frantically. Some of the kids nodded their heads.

“Put your hand down, Tabina. It wasn’t a question. Fix your stances.” His own son Nur was leaning too far forward in his horse stance, and Omar showed him by giving him a slight push, which nearly toppled him. Technically Nur was not old enough for this class; it was for kids aged six to twelve, but being the instructor’s son had privileges. Not that Omar went easy on the boy. Just the opposite. He demanded much from him.

Omar loved these kids at the Centro Islamico, which everyone called the Centro. He volunteered twice a week, teaching this class and another for teens.

“There are three things you must do,” he went on, “if you want a black belt. One, come to class. Two, practice at home. Three, don’t quit. If you do these things, week after week, month after month, year after year, I guarantee you will get your black belt eventually, inshaAllah.”

He cast a glance at the clock on the wall. It had been a month since his return from Bogotá. Hani and his wife were supposed to arrive today. In three hours, actually.

“Line up,” he ordered the class. “Respect Allah, your parents and yourselves.” With a command of, “Sensei ni rei!” he bowed the class out. “Domo arigato gozaimusu,” all the kids intoned in Japanese.

His own wife was teaching a Quran memorization class in one of the upstairs rooms. He called Nur over and kneeled to give the boy a hug. “Run upstairs and tell Mamá we have to go.”

Refugees

As the three of them exited into the audacious Panama sun, unmitigated by any trace of cloud, they saw a scene unfolding in the empty lot across the street. A group of refugees – Venezeuelans no doubt – were camped in a large weed-ridden field, which was muddy and spotted with litter.

One family hunkered in the shade of a patched-up tent, while a thin woman with frizzy hair in a ponytail sat beneath two pieces of corrugated metal that had been leaned against each other and covered first in cardboard, and then with a tarpaulin. Her two small children kicked a deflated soccer ball in front of the shelter. A toothless old man with a cane sat on a plastic milk crate, out in the open, with only a gray baseball cap to shield his face from the sun. There were about a dozen people altogether, mostly women and children. They were a doleful, dejected group. It broke Omar’s heart to see such scenes, but Venezuelan refugees were everywhere in Panama these days.

Now, however, a group of young Panamanian men and women – in their late teens or early twenties, perhaps – had pulled up to the lot in two tricked-out Japanese cars. They began shouting at the refugees, telling them to go home, and calling them leeches and scum. The well dressed youths, consisting of five boys and two girls, exited their cars and began throwing stones at the refugees.

Omar had witnessed scenes like this before. With over one hundred thousand Venezuelans in Panama, resentment was rising among those who chose to scapegoat the refugees for all of Panama’s problems – like the taxi driver.

The little boys who’d been kicking the soccer ball ran to their mother in the lean-to. The old man with the cane yelled at the youths, who shouted insults in return.

“Papá,” Nur said in alarm, “why are they doing that?”

“What?” Omar’s wife wanted to know. “What’s going on?”

Omar gave his wife’s shoulder a squeeze. “Kids misbehaving. Go back inside the Centro with Nur.” She did not have Berlina with her, as dogs were not welcome in the Centro, not even guide dogs. It was a bad policy, but one that Omar had not succeeded in changing. But she had her cane, and of course she had Nur.

He strode across the street, mindful that if these youths chose to fight he’d be badly outnumbered. An idea came to him. Taking out his wallet, he opened it and held it above his head. “Stop!” he commanded loudly. “Policia Nacional! You’re all under arrest.” He did not have a badge of course, but the kids were several meters away and probably would not notice.

Indeed, the youths scattered, dashing back to their cars, jumping in and peeling out, tires squealing.

Omar strode across the muddy field to the refugees, who all looked frightened. “Easy,” he told them, making a calming motion with his hand. “Are you okay?”

A woman in her forties, her brown face weatherbeaten and lined, stepped forward. “It’s nothing new,” she replied bitterly. “But thank you anyway.”

Omar looked the group over. He wanted to do something, say something, but what? In the end all he said was, “Do you have enough food?”

“No,” the woman replied bluntly.

Omar’s wallet was still in his hand. He took out $60, which was all the cash he had on hand, and held it out to the woman.

Her eyes flicked to the money, then to Omar’s face. Her mouth was a grim line. “We did not ask for anything.”

“I know. But you’re my neighbors. Maybe Panama will be in trouble one day, then I’ll come to your country and need your help.”

The woman’s mouth quirked upwards into a smile. “I don’t think so. You are rich, and you don’t know it.” But she took the money.

When Omar went back across the street, his wife and child were still there, to his consternation. “I told you to go inside,” he said.

“Excuse me?” She was annoyed. “Number one” – counting on her fingers – “Nur wanted to see. Number two, you don’t tell me to go inside like I’m a child.”

Omar wasn’t the type to give orders, and he knew it was her blindness that brought out the protectiveness in him. But sometimes his wife had to trust him to lead. He tried to explain this, and saw her growing angry. It might have turned into an argument, but Nur spoke up.

“Papá,” the boy said solemnly. “You lied.”

Omar twisted his mouth to one side in embarrassment. “Yeah,” he started to say, “I know, but-”

“It was cool!” Nur broke in. “Did you see how those bad kids ran away?” He held up one hand, pretending to be Omar holding up his wallet, then marched in a circle. “You went, ‘Policia!’ and they went, ‘Oh no!’”

“Okay, okay.” They walked to where their car was parked a half a block down the street. As they drove home, his wife patted his knee. “You did good, mashaAllah. I’m proud of you.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 10:  The Girl With the Goldie Gum

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 8: Rich and Poor

A security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly. Omar frowned. Why would the security staff be suspicious of him?

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Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

“Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.” – Omar

A Small Price to Pay

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
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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.

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

After high school, Omar attended Florida State University’s Panama campus, on the northern edge of the city near the Miraflores Locks. From the library’s second floor you could watch the ships rising and falling in the canal. It reminded him of his childhood, when his mother used to take him to the locks, then to Avenida Central for a snowcone.

What would he say now if his mother wanted to do that? Not that she would. No longer a battered widow, she was now the CEO of a successful company, and had little free time. Omar lived on campus, and rarely saw her.

He encountered old friends, made new ones, and founded the karate club. After graduating with a B.S. in international affairs, he went to work for his mother’s company, which had forty five employees by that time. He started in shipping, and rotated to other entry level positions, as his mother wanted him to learn the day-to-day operations.

Word came that Nemesio had been imprisoned for murder. He’d lost his temper and killed a prostitute who tried to steal his wallet. Omar thought he should feel satisfied at this news, but he only felt sad for the man, which surprised him.

He fell in love and married an extraordinary woman. Fuad was a witness at his wedding. No one who knew Fuad from high school would have recognized him that day. Gone were the inch-thick glasses, replaced by contacts. His formerly shaggy hair was expensively cut, and his beard neatly trimmed, and he wore a beautiful blue suit that made him look like a Bollywood celebrity. He’d attended medical school in Cuba, then returned to Panama and joined a major medical group specializing in brain disorders.

Unfortunately, from Omar’s perspective, Fuad brought something back with him from Cuba: a beauty queen. He’d met and married the former Miss Cuba, of all things. Ivana was certainly beautiful, with flawless mahogany skin and flowing raven tresses that spilled over her shoulders; but she had the personality of a vampire bat. Greedy and materialistic, Omar watched helplessly as the woman pushed Fuad to spend money he did not have on luxuries he could not afford.

The other witness was Mahmood, a Palestinian brother Omar had met at Florida State, and who now taught history and English literature at IIAP, Omar’s old school. The Muhammad triplets were there as well, and even Mahboob came, as he and Omar had long since patched things up. Though Mahboob still joked that the only way they’d truly be even was if Omar went headfirst into a trashcan. To which Omar would reply, “Save that for the politicians,” or, “My name is Omar not Oscar,” and once, concocting an admittedly awful English-Spanish pun, “That would be an interesting sucio-logical experiment.”

Omar was eventually promoted to executive vice president of Puro Panameño. He bought a house, and his wife gave birth to a son. At some point, the nightmares that had plagued him after the dog attack stopped coming. He realized this only later, and could not pinpoint exactly when they had stopped, though he thought maybe the turning point had been his marriage.

He taught karate to kids at the Muslim community center, and ran three times a week at Parque Omar – something the doctors had told him he would never do again.

Fuad was always calling to complain about his psychotic wife. Okay, not psychotic, but Ivana wore a pound of gold to the grocery store, insulted Fuad in public, and had a vicious temper. Omar had once seen her lift an ice cream making machine over her head and throw it against a wall hard enough to crack the plaster. Aside from that, she spent Fuad’s money like it was her life’s purpose, and neither worked nor cared for the house. Spent all her time at the Coronado beach club, or out with her friends at night, doing nobody knew what. Though she had not converted to Islam, she’d promised to give up drinking when she married Fuad. But she would stumble home at 3 am so drunk she had to be carried to bed.

Fuad wanted Omar to talk to her, guide her, help her change. Omar tried one time to talk to Ivana about at least moderating the drinking, and she threw a table lamp at him. Omar suggested to Fuad that he and Ivana were simply not compatible.

But Fuad would have none of it. The woman had flawless dark skin, curves like a ripe peach, and a face that might have been molded by angels. Fuad could not give her up.

Not Omar’s problem, he decided.

Overall, life was good, and he was grateful. If his body was sometimes stiff in the morning, if the old wounds still ached when he ran or practiced karate – especially his left leg – so be it. It was a small price to pay for the life he lived. Alhamdulillah.

TEN YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

Bogotá, Colombia WHY WAS THE SECURITY GUARD STARING AT HIM? Omar was in Bogotá, Colombia, for a business conference where experts presented seminars on subjects ranging from marketing in China, to label design, to ensuring ethical treatment of laborers.

Now it was the morning of the second day of the conference, and as he approached the rotating doors at the building entrance, a security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly.

Omar frowned. He knew security was always a concern in Colombia, so it was not surprising that this event was staffed by a score of burly red-jacketed security guards. But why would they be suspicious of him? In his tan-colored bespoke Panama suit, light blue shirt and navy tie, he was just another businessman. Maybe the man wanted to search the leather laptop case he had slung over one shoulder?

The guard half-reached toward him with one meaty hand, pointed to the copper bracelet Omar still wore on his right wrist, and blurted, “Omar? Omar Bayano?”

Tipping his head, Omar studied the man. There was something familiar about that elongated face and nose. SubhanAllah! It was Hani. He would have walked right past him. Gone was the acne and the long, greasy hair. Hani was the same height he’d been in high school, but his complexion was a clear, burnished olive, and his hair was shorn to a crewcut and receding at the temples. His shoulders were huge, and he looked like he could lift a horse.

Omar knew that he too looked different. In tenth grade he’d been the shortest boy in his class; but now, at the age of twenty-eight, he was a relatively tall 182 cm. His formerly full head of curly hair was now just long enough to cover the tops of his ears, hiding his disfigurement. The scars on his face were faded, though you could still see the white lines if you stood close. Even his limp had disappeared.

Grinning widely, Omar stepped forward and embraced his old friend. He felt unaccountably excited, as if he’d just found someone he’d spent years searching for, even though the reality was that he’d thought of Hani only now and then in passing.

Hani gave a surprised laugh at Omar’s warm greeting, then beamed like he’d just won the Copa América. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet that night.

Rich and Poor

Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia Omar was staying at the Click Clack, an ultra-modern hotel in Bogotá’s trendy Chico district. When Hani arrived, Omar was already seated in the hotel restaurant, a funky place that served dishes based on famous paintings. The food was actually crafted on the plate to resemble the painting.

Omar steered clear of the Jackson Pollock pollock – would it be chum on a plate? – and instead ordered the Fernando Botero cod, on the theory that even an unconventional place like this would not disrespect a revered Colombian artist like Fernando Botero.

Hani looked at the towering lobby fountain and plants literally growing on the wall, like a vertical garden. “You’ve come up in the world. I don’t know if I can afford to eat here.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the company expense account.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“My mom’s company. Puro Panameño, remember? It’s grown.”

“Man. That’s great.” Hani kept shifting in his seat, picking up the menu and putting it down. It occurred to Omar that maybe Hani was uncomfortable having someone else pay for him.

“Hey, you know what?” Omar offered. “We don’t have to eat here. We could go for a pizza or something.”

Hani frowned. “Why? You don’t think I’m good enough for this place?”

Omar was taken aback. “I didn’t mean that at all. I want you to be comfortable.”

“Then don’t patronize me.”

Omar didn’t know what to say. The silence grew, until Hani blurted out, “Why are you being so nice? You’re acting like I’m your best friend.”

“Well… you were, once. You still are my friend.”

“I was mean to you. We used to call you Patacon because your father was a security guard.”

Omar heard the unspoken continuation of the sentence: And now I’m a security guard. How ironic life could be. Did Allah teach lessons on a decade-long scale? Why not? A decade, a century, a millennium, an age, these were nothing to The One with no beginning or end. But Omar had never held a grudge against Hani. He’d never felt the boy – now the man – had anything to atone for.

“That,” Omar said firmly, “was Tameem, not you.”

“I participated. Then I barely talked to you before we moved away, because I couldn’t face you.”

Clearly, Hani had never gotten over the way he’d behaved in high school. And now there was an obvious wealth gap between them. In Latin America that was a big deal. Rich and poor lived in different worlds. The power imbalance between the classes colored every interaction. People were supposed to “know their places.” Omar had to alter that balance, and he had to do it with something true, because you could never achieve an honest rapport with a lie.

Honesty Between Strangers

Omar ran a hand through his hair and chose his words. “I admit, I was hurt by the way you went along with the bullying. That was a terrible time for me. I felt like no one was on my side, no one was helping me. My father was gone, Nemesio used to beat me every day-”

“Who?”

“My so-called tio.”

“He beat you?”

“All the bruises, remember?”

“I thought that was from karate.”

Omar shook his head. “Mostly Nemesio. It went on for years. There were times when I contemplated suicide.” Omar had never said these things out loud to anyone, not even his wife. Why was he sharing them with a man he hadn’t seen in twelve years? Maybe because it was safe, in a way. Hani knew him but did not know him at the same time. A familiar stranger.

“Oh my God. I didn’t know, man. I’m so sorry.” Hani leaned forward impulsively and gripped Omar’s forearm, giving it a squeeze, then settled back into his seat.

Omar was moved by this. “You know, Hani, my most vivid memory of you is during the dog attack, when I saw you standing there with the knife. That little thing would barely cut a mango. You took a huge risk. The dogs could have turned on you.”

Hani shrugged, but Omar could see the words pleased him. “I did what I had to.”

“You could have done nothing.”

Hani shook his head. “You were my friend.”

Omar snapped his fingers and pointed. “Exactly. I could buy you a thousand dinners and it would be nothing. I’m breathing because of you.”

“You’re breathing because of Allah.”

“You were Allah’s instrument. But it must have been terrifying for you.”

“I peed my pants, actually.”

“For real?”

Hani nodded, and suddenly the two of them were laughing, and the tension was gone.

Nobody Uses Ice

They ate and talked. Omar told Hani about his family. His wife worked with him at Puro Panameño. She was his dream wife, and he was crazy about her. Their son Nur was four years old and a quiet child, but very smart ma-sha-Allah.

As for Hani, he’d gotten married nine years ago. Omar did the mental math. Hani had married at nineteen! He tried to ask about this, but Hani skirted the subject. Omar wondered if maybe Hani had an affair with a girl and was forced to marry her.

Hani’s father had early onset dementia, and his mother suffered from depression. His wife worked as a house cleaner. Life was a struggle. They wanted kids, but it hadn’t happened yet.

"Still Life With Fruits" by Fernando Botero

“Still Life With Fruits” by Fernando Botero

As it turned out, Omar was right about the Botero cod. The fish was served with a pear glaze, pea soup, a baguette and a watermelon slice. All items from Botero paintings, but grouped appealingly.

By ten o’clock the table had been cleared and Omar was tired. Hani kept brushing the tablecloth with his fingers. His high forehead was beaded with sweat. Omar flagged a waiter and asked for ice water for Hani.

The waiter stared at him blankly. “Ice?”

Omar made the shape of a square with his fingers. “Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.”

Hani laughed and waved the water away. “Nobody uses ice in Bogotá, man. We’re at 2,700 meters. We’re cold enough already.”

The thought of living without ice boggled Omar’s mind. In Panama ice was like the blood in your veins. You couldn’t live without it. “It’s just,” he said, “you’re sweating.”

“Oh.” Hani mopped his brow with a napkin. “I want to ask you something.” He went on to say that his security guard salary barely paid a living wage. He was struggling to support his wife and parents, and always on the edge of being broke. He had an idea to start a security business of his own.

“I know I can succeed.” He’d balled the napkin in one hand and kept squeezing it as if trying to wring water from it. “I’ve been a guard for five years. I know everything about the business. But it takes financing. I was wondering if you could loan me the money. I hate to ask, but I don’t know where else to turn.”

Omar nodded slowly. For a split second he thought that maybe Hani had joined him for dinner only to make this request. But he brushed that thought aside. He should give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

He told Hani to write a business proposal. Projected income and expenses, how he intended to acquire clients in a highly competitive market, that kind of thing.

Hani frowned. “Why are you making me do all that, man?”

“It’s for your benefit. You need this kind of analysis if you want to succeed.”

“Fine. So should I email you all that?”

Hani didn’t sound happy, but Omar plowed ahead: “Why don’t you bring it in person? I would love to have you and your wife visit us in Panama. Let me know what date works for you and I’ll reserve the tickets.”

Gheerah

Later that night he sat on a towel laid on the floor of the hotel room, having just prayed Ishaa’, and thought about the encounter with Hani. It occurred to him that Hani had told him almost nothing about his wife, not even her name. That seemed odd, especially since Omar had told Hani everything about his own family. But some Muslim men – especially the Arabs – were secretive like that when it came to their wives. For a long time Omar had not understood this cultural trait, but he’d mentioned it once to Mahmood, his Palestinian friend.

Mahmood was knowledgeable in the deen and said that this type of protective behavior was called gheerah, and that it required a man to ensure that the women of his household wore hijab, did not mingle inappropriately with men, and were shielded from lustful gazes. Not to do this, Mahmood explained, was considered shameful in Arab culture.

Islamic mashrabiya balcony “You see it in architecture,” Mahmood explained, steepling his fingers like a professor giving a lecture. “Islamic mashrabiya balconies allowed women to watch the street without being seen. Islamic Spain adopted the mashrabiyyah, so you see it in Latin America too.”

Gheerah was not about distrusting women, Mahmood said, nor about punishing them. Rather it was about shielding them from those who harbored ill intentions.

In which case it seemed to Omar that it should be a two way street, with husbands and wives both protecting each other. Anyway that was probably the reason for Hani’s silence on the subject of his wife. Hani’s ancestry was Arab and he would have been brought up that way.

Omar stood, stretched, then set about packing his bags. He’d be returning home early in the morning, inshaAllah. He’d spoken to his wife and son on Skype earlier that day, before the dinner with Hani. He was glad the conference was over, not only because he was eager to see his family, but also because if it had not been over, he might run into Hani again. Yes, he’d invited the man to come visit him in Panama, but for some reason he felt uneasy at the idea of seeing him again. Why should that be?

The World School

The world was covered in an unending school building. For a few days he would travel through crumbling, abandoned classrooms and auditoriums, sleeping on the floor when he couldn’t walk anymore. He never knew if it was day or night, since windows and doors opened only onto more hallways and rooms. Once he came to a staircase and climbed it through twenty floors, until he came to a floor in which the ceiling had crumbled, and the sun shone through. The sun! He sat on the dust covered floor and bathed in the warm rays, astounded at how good it felt. Dust had accumulated on the floor until it became soil, and shrubs grew. It was a different world up here.

He tried traveling on the upper floors for a while after that, but some rooms were occupied by masses of birds or bats, and the structure was so heavily rotted and mildewed at that level that he feared he might fall through a hole in the floor. So he returned to the ground level.

Sometimes, as he journeyed through the unending, purgatorial building, he came to sections that were better maintained. Occasionally, class was in session. But when he looked into these rooms, the children were like automatons, staring blankly at a chalkboard on which words and numbers appeared by themselves. When Omar spoke, no one turned to look at him. He was not even sure they were human.

In some places, a stream or river ran through the school, and bridges crossed over it. Omar saw creatures in the water: chimeras with the fins of fish but the tentacles of octopi. Creatures that looked like small, pale children with the tails of dolphins; and immense crocodiles that drifted with the current, turning their unblinking eyes to watch Omar as they passed.

One night (if indeed it was night – in this area most of the lights did not work, and everything was shadows and gloom) he heard a familiar voice. He couldn’t put a name to it, but his heart sped up in excitement. Another human being! Someone he knew. The voice came from a dark classroom.

Dark, abandoned class room

Omar rushed into the room, and found Mr. Suwaylem, his old principal from IIAP, lecturing to a dark and empty room.

He glanced at Omar. “You’re late. As I was saying, the Byzantine empire was a… was a sprawling, tremendously influential nation that could be said… Could be said what? I think, to have been… have been… founded in 330 CE, when Constantine the First…”

As Suwaylem stuttered on, Omar took a seat. He saw now that the man’s normally immaculate suit was dirty and torn, and hung loose on his frame, while his usually well coiffed hair was tangled.

“Who can tell me,” Suwaylem said, looking around as if to a room full of pupils, “something… what was it…” He wrung his hands helplessly, then looked to Omar. “You.”

Before Omar could point out that he didn’t know the question, a terrible moan came from the back of the room. It was a drawn out, tremulous sound, somewhere between a groan of pain and a death rattle, and it made the hair on Omar’s arms instantly stand on end. He spun in his seat and looked behind him.

In the deep shadows at the back of the room, two figures stood. Omar stared, trying to make them out. Finally their forms resolved, and he saw to his horror that they were Tameem and Basem, exactly as they had been in high school, except for one thing: they were dead. Or they should have been. Tameem’s throat was opened from ear to ear. His skin was alabaster pale, and blood stained his clothing down to his bare feet.

As for Hani, his head was half crushed, flattened on one side and broken open, so that his brains were visible.

It had been Tameem who moaned, because he opened his mouth and did it again. The sound sent a shudder all through Omar’s body. The boy was trying to speak, Omar realized. Trying to answer the principal’s non-question, maybe. But he could form no words, because his throat gaped open like a papaya with a wedge cut from it.

Tameem and Basem’s eyes fixed on Omar, and they both stepped forward, their expressions sorrowful and pleading. Omar tried to leap to his feet but the school desk seemed to have shrunk and his legs were stuck. He yelled in terror and panic. The two dead youths took another step forward.

* * *

He woke up shouting. He lay in a strange bed, his legs tangled in the sheets. Looking around in confusion, he realized where he was: the Click Clack Hotel. He was still in Bogotá. The glowing digital clock on the nightstand said 4:16 am. His alarm would go off in an hour. Three and a quarter hours until his flight.

He thought about the dream. He hadn’t had a nightmare in many years. Seeing Hani again must have brought back memories of the bad old days at IIAP, before the Day of the Dogs. Now he almost wished he could cancel the invitation he’d extended. But that wouldn’t be right.

He rose from bed. Time to shower and pray Fajr. Time to go home.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 9:  All We Have to Do

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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