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Hassan’s Tale, Part 12 – It’s Not What You Say

I was a wreck. I’d forget customers’ orders, drop things, and once I came to work barefoot. I was afraid to look in the faces of the customers.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

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

“I went to the dojo and took out my frustration on the heavy bag, working it with punches and kicks, elbow and knee strikes, short stick and long staff, and even with wooden training knives, until I was dripping sweat and my muscles were sore. Then I washed up, put on a change of clothes that I kept in a locker, and went to Masjid Beyazit for Maghreb. Praying in the masjid always calms me and gives me the feeling that Allah is with me, keeping an eye out for me, and shepherding me where I need to go.

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I came home with an idea. I would start my own martial arts dojo. I’d been promoted to black belt in Jujitsu and I had years of prior martial arts training. I’d have to invest everything that Lena and I had, but I was confident that I could get students in the door quickly and start turning a profit, Insha’Allah. I just needed Lena to believe in me and trust me.

Buoyed by this new idea, I entered our little apartment with a bounce in my step. I opened the door and called out to Lena, but she did not respond. I figured she was still mad at me over the fight we had earlier, but I wasn’t going to let that get me down. I’d hug her and kiss her and pretty soon she’d forget all about our argument.

I shed my shoes, walked into our small living room and stopped in my tracks. Lena lay dead in a lake of blood. Her eyes were open and staring, and her face was set in a rictus of terror. Her  throat was cut from ear to ear. The blood had soaked into the square green rug, staining it almost black. It had gotten into the floorboard cracks and run along them, creating crimson lines up and down the floor.”


Jamilah studied Hassan’s face as he exhaled slowly, then sipped his glass of lemonade. She didn’t think she’d ever seen someone look as tired as Hassan did in that moment, and it wasn’t just lack of sleep. His mask of confidence had slipped, and what she saw was a man haunted by the past to the point of exhaustion. His next words confirmed her impression and almost broke her heart.


“I said to Jamilah recently,” Hassan continued, “that the challenges we face in life make us I stronger, and that our faith in Allah gives us the means to cope, because we trust that Allah ultimately wants good for us. I believe that. But my heart still hurts sometimes. I wish, I wish, I wish I’d been able to bring Lena to Islam.

Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning beneath the weight of my regrets. I dream that I’m sinking into the earth and I call for someone to save me. People are walking on the surface and I reach up. I continue to descend until finally only my hand is above the earth. I’m suffocating, but somehow I manage to call, ‘Save me, help me.’ But no one does.

Other times I dream that I’m in a prison cell, but the bars are deep and dark red, and they’re fluid, running and changing shape, and finally I realize with horror that they are not bars at all, but Lena’s blood, spreading out like it did along the cracks in the floorboards.

I’ve heard that the Bible says that the lifespan of a man is seventy years, or eighty if one is strong. It looks like scientists are set to prolong that, but I don’t think they should. I think that at some point death becomes a release from the accumulation of loss. If life continued indefinitely, the piled up sadness would become unbearable. I’ve seen old men become silent or bitter and I used to wonder why. I thought it was a reaction to the knowledge of impending death, or resentment against the deterioration of their faculties. But I’m beginning to think that it’s just the weight of the “might-have-beens” and “why-did-I’s” that becomes too great to carry.

I don’t have an answer. I think this is why I practice martial arts – because when I’m on the mat, and moving, I don’t think about anything else. All the demons and ghosts are banished from my mind.

People say that we should hand over our regrets to Allah. I haven’t quite figured out how to do that. The closest I come is when I’m reciting Quran, and when I’m in sujood. When I’m reciting Quran I feel comfortable and secure. But sujood is the ultimate. When I’m prostrating before Allah, everything disappears but me and Him. If I could take that moment of Allah-consciousness and expand it so that it filled my days and nights… I guess I’d be a saint. Or maybe I’d just be happy.


Layth cleared his throat. “I’m really sorry, akhi. You’ve been through some terrible things.” He put his hand on Hassan’s shoulder. “I don’t think any of us know what to say. We all feel for you.”

Hassan nodded his head and smiled, but the corners of his mouth never lifted. “I appreciate that. But it was a long time ago.”

“But you say you’re drowning in regret,” Layth said, “and that you’re glad life is short. I never knew you felt that way. You don’t go around smiling like daisies, but I thought you were okay with yourself, for the most part.”

“You know what. I am okay, most of the time,” Hassan said. “I know that Allah is Merciful. I know there is a wisdom in everything He does. Laa ilaha il-Allah is in me to the marrow. I apologize if I’m sounding like a heretic tonight. It’s because I’m exposing old wounds. It’s bringing up a lot of pain. And I’m tired.”

“It’s good that you’re getting it out,” Kadija said. “You’re among friends. You can share anything with us. And I’m sorry for your loss, Hassan.”

Hassan nodded his head. “I appreciate that.” He sat silently for a moment, then resumed. “I didn’t go to Lena. I didn’t hold her in my arms, or cry. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. A thought entered my mind: Mr. Black, with that very same cut across his throat. And Sarkis, with his cruel, contemptuous eyes. Hadn’t I seen them hiding around corners and slinking away down dark alleys? They had done this. They’d found us and killed my wife and unborn child. My child!

Hassan dropped his head into his hand and rubbed his temples. He was calm, but his gaze was far away. No one spoke. Finally Hassan continued.

I know what happened next only because Mehmet told me. Apparently I went to the Western Door and sat in the ashes and rubble. Mehmet found me there, sitting and staring, He spoke to me and I did not respond, so he called an ambulance, thinking that I might be injured.

I was taken to Karanlik. It’s a huge psychiatric hospital in Istanbul, holding thousands of patients. I… I don’t like to think about what I saw and experienced there. I don’t want to talk about it.”


Hassan fell silent.

Layth put his hand on Hassan’s shoulder. “That’s alright, akhi. Ma’lish. You don’t have to talk about it.”

“Let me get you some water,” Muhammad said, rising. He returned with a glass of water with a lemon slice on the rim. Hassan drank deeply, his hands trembling.

Jamilah had never seen Hassan shaken up like this. There was a haunted look in his eyes that might even have been fear. Somehow she’d always thought of Hassan as being invulnerable, or at least beyond the terrors that other people felt.


Hassan set down his glass. “Jazak Allah khayr. I’ll just say that human rights violations at Karanlik are so bad that it was one of the reasons listed by the EU for denying Turkey admission. I’ve never been able to reconcile the generally warm nature of Turkish people with what goes on in Karanlik.

I was released six months later. I never saw a judge or had a hearing. My weight had dropped to one hundred and five pounds – by comparison I’m one hundred and eighty now – and it was years before I regained full function in my hands. I came out of Karanlik a broken young man.

I was too frightened to return to my old home – which had certainly been cleaned out and rented to someone else anyway. I was frightened even to return to my old workplace, but I had nowhere else to go. Mehmet was so apologetic, pleading with me to forgive him. He actually cried. He said he thought I would just get a medical check up. The cafe had been rebuilt and Mehmet gave me my old job back as well as let me sleep on a cot in the storeroom. He even sent me to a private clinic to have my injuries from Karanlik tended to. The biceps required surgery.

I was a wreck. I’d forget customers’ orders, drop things, and once I came to work barefoot. I was afraid to look in the faces of the customers. Afraid that I’d look up and see Mr. Black’s blank, reptilian eyes staring at me. After a while I couldn’t work at all. But Mehmet let me keep on sleeping in the back room.

This was a low point for my iman. I wasn’t doing my daily prayers, I wasn’t reading Quran, I gave up martial arts, obviously… I kept going to Jum’ah, but that was it.

I had fasted the previous Ramadan and it had been a good experience. I’d felt the weight of my past sins slipping away, as if being carried away by a river. And there was such a sense of camaraderie and excitement everywhere I went.

This time, however, Ramadan came and went and I did not fast. I tried the first two days but I became so weak that I got dizzy every time I stood up. I spent most of the month sleeping on my cot in the back room, feeling defeated.

I avoided all my old haunts – the dojo, Masjid Beyazit and the university. I thought about Lena constantly. I had no doubt that her death was my fault. Sarkis and Mr. Black had come looking for me, found her instead and murdered her. The thought seemed to pin me to the ground, preventing me from thinking or moving. I went to the department of records to find out where her body had been buried, but they had no record of her. I feared she had been dumped in a pauper’s grave, without even a death certificate.

I never contacted the police. There was nothing they could do against the likes of Sarkis and Mr. Black. I didn’t even know Black’s real name. Plus, I was terrified that if I spoke to a policeman for any reason, he would look up my record and send me back to Karanlik.

I went to Jihad, my old Kurdish friend who worked at a clinic. I thought maybe he could speak to one of the doctors and get me a prescription for my nerves.

Jihad said that my problem was not medical but existential. He said it would be best if I left Turkey, not only because of the people looking for me but that since I had been in Karanlik, if I had any future scrapes with the law they would return me there automatically, and could keep me there indefinitely without due process.

Where could I go? Bulgaria? Greece? Or east to Iraq or Iran? The idea of traveling to yet another new country where I didn’t know the language or customs and would be a complete stranger, was too much for me. In my condition, with my body wasted and my nerves jangling, I didn’t think I would survive. I needed someplace familiar. But Lebanon and Syria were out of the question.

I talked to Mehmet and he said, “Why don’t you go home? Your first home, where you grew up. Go back to the USA.”

For some reason I hadn’t considered that. But it made sense. I spoke the language, and I could surely find a job, even if I had to pick fruit or clean toilets. I’d be thousands of miles from Lebanon. I could change my name again and disappear.

You may be wondering why I wasn’t consumed with rage over Lena’s murder. The answer is that Karanlik burned all that out of me. The real Hassan had been destroyed, and I was his shadow. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that the real Hassan had been forced deep down – buried beneath a mountain of pain and fear.

The more I thought about America, the more I imagined that I could find peace there. I could leave behind all my memories of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, and simply live. And maybe I could find what my father had hidden, if he indeed that was the meaning of his words. (Author’s Note: See Hassan’s Tale, Part 5). “Beneath the garage”, he had said. Had I even heard him right? Maybe he had said, “Your mom’s in the car,” or, “Keep a watch,” as in, keep a watch on Charlie.

I thought back to the day I had died in that field in Syria, when I’d seen my father in a garden. He had not actually repeated those words about the garage. I had. But he would have told me if I’d gotten it wrong, wouldn’t he?

I had no way to get to America, however. I couldn’t waltz into the American embassy and claim I was a citizen. Without documentation, they would toss me out like a rotten fruit. And I was unwilling to tell them my true name.

I went to Lena’s old Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I had always just waited outside, but a few times I’d seen her, after the meeting, talking to a man on the front steps. I remembered that he was a thin Turkish man in his thirties perhaps, with long hair and a long beard, and dark sunglasses that were always pushed up onto his head.

I waited outside the meeting until I saw that man exit, then I followed him. When we reached a dark section of Tailor’s Street – it was late, and the tailor shops were all closed – I closed the distance between us quietly, then seized him from behind and wrapped my arm around his neck. At the same time I drove one knee into the small of his back to unbalance him, so that he was practically hanging from my arm.

“Who is your heroin smuggling contact?” I demanded.

The man gasped, trying to speak, so I eased up on the choke.

“I don’t do that!” he shouted. He lashed out at me, trying to punch backward over his head.

I wasn’t nearly as strong as I used to be, but the position gave me leverage. It didn’t take a lot of strength to apply a rear choke. I held on tightly and ground the knuckle of my index finger into the depression beneath his earlobe – a technique that I knew would be extraordinarily painful but not damaging. The man screamed.

“You tried to set Lena up as a drug mule! Who is your smuggling contact?”

“Are you… are you Lena’s husband?” the man moaned. From his tone I gathered that he’d heard a few things about me.

I changed my tone, speaking in a soothing voice. “I’m not going to hurt you,” I said. “Just give me the contact’s name, then I’ll let you go.”

I felt the man’s shoulders sag in resignation.

“Anton,” he said. “The smuggler’s name is Anton. He’s a Greek – “

I released the choke and dropped the man, turning on my heel and walking away without another word.

If I’d been thinking right I never would have done what I did next. But I was confused and nearly hopeless, and I made yet another bad decision in a long line of poor choices.

Anton was not so easy to find this time. He’d moved up in his organization, apparently, and was a crew boss. I finally located him in a dingy pool hall on Tarlabaşı Bulvarı. He had an office in the backroom with a small black and white TV mounted in a corner of the room, playing a porno movie. Anton reclined in a leather office chair with peeling upholstery, his feet up on an old metal desk, drinking vodka from the bottle and watching the porn flick while a muscular thug with a Greek cross tattooed on his forearm counted and sorted stacks of rumpled currency.

He didn’t recognized me at first. When I told him what I wanted he waved his hand and said, “Beat it. We don’t work with junkies.” I told him firmly that I wasn’t a junkie and I guess there was something in my voice that alerted him. He looked up sharply and came limping around the desk. I saw a combination of hatred and fear in his eyes. He quickly reached into a bottom desk drawer and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun. I recognized it as old Huglu – a Turkish-made hunting gun that had to be reloaded after every shot. I’d seen a few newer model Huglus in Lebanon, but this one was ancient. The grip was cracked and the sight was broken off. At this range, however, the sight was superfluous. That thing would cut me in half.

Anton hands trembled as he pointed the Huglu at me. He was terrified. He might pull the trigger by accident and kill me where I stood.

“Easy,” I said. “I came here with a proposition.”

Anton stood and walked around the desk, then jabbed the shotgun at my face, striking me. I fell to the ground, blood streaming from a gash on my cheek.

I didn’t try to stop him. I’d been expecting a violent reaction of some kind, and I knew that if I were to achieve my goal I would have to take whatever punishment he meted out.

He and his money-counting friend kicked and stomped on me for a few minutes. Anton stomped on my right leg repeatedly. Luckily it was not the one I’d fractured in Karanlik. I curled up and tried to protect my head and face. Finally Anton pressed that same old switch blade against  my cheek – the one I’d used on him.

“I should kill you,” he said. “But I’d rather make some money off you first.”

I couldn’t stand. My face was swollen and my right leg felt wouldn’t hold my weight. Anton threw a canvas bag over my head and taped it around my neck. He and the money counter literally dragged me by the heels through a back door, then tossed me into the back seat of a car.

I recovered somewhat during the ride. I could move my leg, so it wasn’t broken, just badly bruised. I had to struggle to breathe through the bag. I was dragged into another building, where I smelled hospital smells. For a moment I thought I was back in Karanlik. I panicked and lashed out, striking someone who uttered a groan. I was struck in the face and I fell, then I was dragged back to my feet.

When the bag was removed from my face I was in a small examination room with a dirty floor. A tall, angular nurse with close-cropped black hair and a long nose chastised Anton. “You idiot,” she said. “We can’t send him through like this. They will search him for sure. He will need a few weeks recovery time.”

Anton shrugged. “So keep him a while. Patch him up. Then get him on his way.”

I was kept in a small dormitory-style room with a single barred window. A half dozen cots occupied most of the floor space in the dimly lit room. A television mounted on the wall in one corner droned incessantly with Turkish soap operas and game shows. Twice a day the long-nosed nurse brought me a small meal and a fruit. She seemed kind enough and I wondered what she was doing working for a sleaze like Anton. Or maybe she and Anton both worked for someone else, someone higher up and more dangerous.

In the two weeks I stayed there, a handful of other men and women came and went. They never stayed more than a day, or in some cases only a few hours. Some lay silently on their cots. Some wept. One, a woman in her twenties, told me that her husband owed Anton 100,000 lira, and that the debt would be forgiven in exchange for her doing this.

“I’m not a criminal,” the woman kept saying to me. “I’m really not.”

I couldn’t muster the energy to care. I slept day and night. I prayed perhaps once a day. I barely had the strength to push myself up from sujood. Once, as I was praying, a middle-aged man in a suit laughed at me. “A religious drug mule,” he said. “Now I’ve seen it all.”

The nurse examined me one evening and said, “Your wounds have healed. We we can send you the day after tomorrow.” She tousled my hair. “You look so much better.”

The next day I was not fed. I received no breakfast, lunch or dinner. The morning after that, Anton showed up, limping on his bad leg, with two of his Greek thugs in tow. The thugs seized my arms and hustled me to the examination room where a steel tray was piled high with dozens of tapered pellets. They looked like large wax bullets with soft points on both ends. I knew what they were. Heroin balloons.

My stomach felt empty as a drum, but I still I found it impossible to believe that I could swallow all of those balloons. It was crazy. I said as much, and one of Anton’s big henchmen slapped me in the back of the head hard enough to give me an instant headache.

“There’s no need for that,” the nurse objected, reaching a hand toward the man as if to restrain him.

“Shut up, Stefania,” Anton growled. “You’re replaceable. Don’t forget that. And as for you, you dirty Arab” – this was addressed to me – “you’ll do what you’re told. This amount is nothing. We’ve sent experienced mules with three times this much.”

“It’s true,” Stefania said. “The gastrointestinal system is amazingly flexible. We sent one young man with 200 fingers. This is only fifty. It should be easy.”

I began the process of swallowing the pellets, one by one. It was painful and laborious. I had to fight my gag reflex and my desire to throw up.

“What happens if one of these balloons breaks?” I asked.

“They’re not balloons,” Stefania explained. “They are fingers from latex gloves. We pack them with compressed heroin, then knot them. After that they are wrapped in food plastic, then a second layer of latex, then wax. We developed this process by trial and error. Our success rate is quite high now.”

“But what if one did break?” I persisted. I was trying to stall, to give my system time to adjust.

“Then you would die happy, bonehead,” Anton said. “Now shut up and swallow.”

Anton gave me a Turkish passport in the name Berke Emir. An ordinary Turkish name. It looked real to my untrained eye, and I said so.

“It is real, idiot,” Anton said. “We have an ally in the passport office. You are Berke Emir now. When you arrive in Los Angeles my contact will be waiting. Don’t mess around and don’t make mistakes, or you will regret it, I promise you.”

As I waited to pass security and board the plane, I felt beads of sweat on my forehead. My stomach felt swollen and painful and I had trouble walking properly. I imagined that everyone could see exactly what I had done. But I passed through security and boarded the plane without difficulty.

I felt deeply confused and ashamed. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. Heroin had ruined Lena’s life. I knew that it destroyed millions of lives all over the world. And here I was, becoming part of the evil. I could not explain or justify my actions.

But what choice did I have? I had to get out of Turkey before Sarkis and Mr. Black found me. There was nothing for me there but terrible memories and ashes. Worst of all, Turkey was the home of Karanlik, the haunted house of my nightmares. The idea of ever ending up back in there was more terrifying than death itself. In fact death did not scare me – what would it matter, anyway? – but Karanlik made me tremble. I had to get away, and this was the only way I knew.

I had not failed to notice Anton’s words. “I should kill you, but I’d rather make some money off you first.” I knew what might happen on my arrival in Los Angeles. Anton’s compatriots would retrieve the heroin fingers, then kill me. Or perhaps they would simply send me back to Turkey to repeat the process under a different name.

It occurred to me that I didn’t need to meet up with Anton’s contact. I could take a laxative and pass the balloons in a restroom somewhere. Avoid Anton’s contact at the airport, and get away into the city. Then I could go on with my life. Find a job, try to find what my father had hidden, if it even existed.

I sat there on the plane feeling like I’d swallowed a komodo dragon that would attack me from the inside at any moment. The nurse – Stefania – had said that the balloons, or fingers, or whatever they were called, rarely burst. But my body felt heavy and tense. If anything should happen – if one of the time bombs in my belly should go off – I wanted at least to pray first. I made wudu’ in the restroom then did my salat unobtrusively, rocking my body forward slightly for ruku’ and sujood. Even that slight rocking motion was painful.

The prayer helped to relax me a little. I realized that I was exhausted. I put my head back on the seat, closed my eyes, and slept.

I dreamed that I was on a battlefield beside a river. On the other side of the river the land rose gently to a butte, while on my side it was mostly desert. A wrecked ship lay in the sand behind me, its sails long gone and its wooden hull bleached by the sun. On both side of the river, men fought furiously with swords, spears and bows.

Out of breath and needing a quick break from the battle, I retreated to the wrecked ship, where I squatted with my back against its ancient hull. Another man squatted there, sipping water from a metal cup. He had intense eyes, a black beard and wore a green turban. I realized it was the Prophet Muhammad, sal-Allahu-alayhi-wa-sallam.

(* Author’s note:  I would not feel comfortable inventing a dream about the Prophet. This dream is one that I myself had several years ago).

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) offered me the cup and I drank. The water was cool and refreshing. Then he looked at me and said, “It’s not what you say that matters, but what you do.”

I awoke with the realization that I could not do this thing. If called myself Muslim then the shahadah had rights, as my father had said to me on the day I died. I couldn’t continue like this. What did it mean to say laa ilaha il-Allah and then to wallow in despair? What did it mean to call myself a Muslim but to commit terrible deeds?

The words of the Prophet – ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam – in my dream had been critical, but just the fact that he had appeared to me – had spoken to me! – meant that I was not beyond hope. I must not give up my faith. I must not give up who I was as a man. I had to wake up from this living nightmare. And the only way I could do it was by making hard choices, and trusting Allah.

When the flight attendant passed by, I motioned to her.

“I have something to tell you,” I whispered. “I’m a drug mule. I have heroin balloons in my stomach. But I don’t want to deliver them.”

The flight attendant’s eyes widened. “Oh my goodness! I must inform the captain. Stay in your seat, please.”

Back in those days they didn’t have flight marshals. The flight crew simply let me remain where I was, unrestrained. They instructed me not to eat or drink, and not to use the restroom.

I relaxed into the seat, my body so limp it felt boneless. All the tension of recent weeks was gone. Finally I’d made a decision that I could live with. I remembered reading a hadith that if someone intends to commit evil but does not follow through, the sin is not counted against him. I asked Allah to forgive me, and to help me survive whatever would come next.

It would be okay now, Insha’Allah.

My intestinal system had other ideas, however. Somewhere deep inside, I felt something change. Something was not right. A second later, it hit me.

Next:  Hassan’s Tale, Part 13 – Zero One One

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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.

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



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                  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

                  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.

                  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.


                  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.


                  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

                  * * *

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


                  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

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                  Continue Reading


                  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
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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.

                  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.


                  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

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                  Continue Reading


                  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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                  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?”


                  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.


                  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

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