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Hassan’s Tale, Part 13 – Zero One One

The judge stared at me for a long moment through bushy white eyebrows, then said, “I believe you, young man. I see a lot of desperate people in this courtroom. For most, their desperation brings nothing but loss.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

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

 

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A feeling of euphoria engulfed me. I felt like I was sailing on a sea of warm, amber light. As soon as I had the thought, there I was on a sailboat on the bright Mediterranean, a warm wind ruffling my hair. The sun sparkled on the water like gold. Daniel piloted the boat while Gala set a tray of mezze on a folding table. A boy sat beside me, gliding his fingers through the water. It was Charlie. I somehow knew that wherever we were going, my parents would be there when we arrived. This was the happiest day of my life.

Suddenly the boat began to sink. The ocean turned gray and I began gasping for breath. I wasn’t even in the water yet but I was drowning. The blood rushed to my head and my face turned hot. I broke out in a sweat and began to shake. Everyone else on the boat had vanished. It was just me and the gray sea and the sinking boat. My chest felt like it was being squeezed by a python. I heaved for breath, trying to get oxygen.

At the same time, I felt almost peaceful and so warm. The hot sea called to me. “Let it go, come to me, sink down into me and let go.” The boat listed and began to slip beneath the water, and me with it. I knew that I could drown happily. It would be comfortable and warm. All I had to do was open my mouth and let the water into my lungs. Give up.

But what would my father say? He would be disappointed in me. And the Prophet, peace be upon him, who had cared enough to come to me in my dream, what would he say? I could not give up. After everything I had survived, all the battles I had fought, I couldn’t die like this.

I fought to get to the surface, using sheer willpower to stay alive. I felt something strike my face, and heard someone say, “Stop that! Let me through, I’m a doctor. I felt air rush into my lungs, and pressure on my chest.

I woke up on my back, staring up at a white ceiling with a long crack running along one side. I was covered in a white blanket. An IV tube ran into my left arm. My stomach ached as if it had been used as the football for the World Cup. My face itched, but when I tried to scratch it, I discovered that my right hand was restrained. I tried to shake it loose and heard the clatter of metal. I was handcuffed to the bed.

I tried to call out, “Hello!” but it came out in a whisper. No one answered, and I felt the veil of sleep descend over me like a black sheet.

I was awakened by a sharp pain as a young Filipino nurse removed the IV and reinserted the needle in a different vein.

“Where am I?” I rasped.

The nurse looked up at me in surprise. “Sam Prancisco General,” she said. “Heroin pinger pop in your stomach. You almost die.”

I remembered the boat, and the sea of warm light. Charlie gliding his fingers through the water. How peaceful it had been. Now I understood why Lena had been unable to fight the heroin dream song. The lure was strong. I was strong enough to see through the siren song to the mask of death on the other side. Perhaps Lena had seen the reality of heroin as well, but had not been strong enough to stop. When the balloon had burst in my gut, I had seen all the people I loved. What had Lena seen when she was high? What idyl had she been unable to resist?

The FBI were curious about the fact that I spoke American English with no accent. I told them that my real name was Hassan Amir, not Emer Berke, and that I had been born in Los Angeles. The two FBI agents who interviewed me were skeptical at first, accusing me of inventing a fiction to gain American citizenship. But Hassan and I had sometimes celebrated our birthdays together, because he was exactly one year and one day younger than me. And I knew place of his birth – Good Samaritan Hospital, where we’d both been born. I gave the FBI this information, presenting it as my own, of course.

The FBI told me that they would check my information and return.

As I lay alone in the hospital room, my mind raced. When the FBI returned, I could see from the looks on their faces that they were halfway convinced.

“There are no adult records for you,” one said. “How do you explain that?”

I explained that my parents had been killed by a drunk driver when I was young. I’d been raised by an aunt in Burbank, then had become homeless after she died of breast cancer.  Eventually I made friends with a Turkish drug dealer who recruited me to smuggle American currency to Turkey, and return with heroin.

None of this was true, of course. My friend Hassan himself had been the one killed by a drunk driver. I happened to know that his parents had returned to Iraq after his death. The aunt in Burbank was a complete fiction.

But I embellished the story with honest details of Hassan’s youth in Los Angeles, attending Rio Hondo Elementary, playing guitar in the school band, and whatever else I could remember.

The FBI bought it. I entered the criminal justice system as Hassan Amir. It was a lie, and Islam tells us not to lie. But I could not use my real identity. It was too dangerous.

I pled guilty to the charge of narcotics trafficking. The prosecutor asked for a twenty year sentence, saying that drug smuggling was destroying the fabric of American society. My public defender pointed out that I had voluntarily admitted that I was carrying drugs. The judge asked why I had confessed. I hesitated, took a breath, then told the truth in a quavering voice:  that I had loved someone whose life had been destroyed by heroin addiction. I’d agreed to smuggle the drugs out desperation, but had realized midway through that I could not justify it morally.

The judge stared at me through bushy white eyebrows. “I believe you, young man,” he said. “I see many desperate people in this courtroom. For most, their desperation brings nothing but loss. But it’s been said that desperation fuels change, and I believe that you are ready to become a better man. Still, there must be a consequence to your actions. I sentence you to eight years in federal prison. That is the lowest sentence I can give you under the federal sentencing guidelines. Be grateful, and try to find some peace.”

***

Inspector Katrina Sanchez spat a gob of brown saliva onto the Lower Haight sidewalk. Her husband hated her habit of chewing tobacco and nagged her about it constantly. But a woman had a right to her vices. When you spent your day chasing down the dregs of humanity, you had to relax any way you could.

She considered the strange case she’d been tasked. A beautiful redhead – Alice Munro – had called 911 to report that she’d been stabbed. At first she’d spun a bizarre tale to one of the uniformed officers. She claimed that she had picked up a homeless man named Mr. Saleh – the father of a co-worker – and brought him home. The homeless man had stabbed her in the back and disappeared into the night. But when Sanchez had shown up to re-interview her, she had reversed, claiming that nothing of the kind had happened, and that she’d simply fallen from her bike onto a fence post.

Sanchez had seen a photo of the woman’s back. She knew a knife wound when she saw one.

Even though the victim did not want to press charges, Sanchez had a feeling there was more to this story than met the eye.

Her husband complained about the long hours she worked. And it was hard on her daughter Cecilia, she knew. Cecilia had just turned seventeen and was at that age when she acted like she didn’t need her parents for anything, but in reality needed them more than ever, whether she knew it or not.

But Katrina was a junior inspector in the Mission precinct’s Personal Crimes division, she was a woman, and she was a Latina. Everything was stacked against her. She came to work every day to find a dead mouse wrapped in a tortilla in her desk drawer, or a clipping from a porno mag on her locker, or a chihuahua bobble-head on her desk.

She was fed up, and she knew the only way she would smash through this racist, misogynistic cop culture was  to crack cases like walnuts. She had a habit of latching on to cases and not letting go. In the male-dominated and racist police precinct they called her the Mexican Pit Bull, and she took it as a compliment, though it was not always intended it as such.

She reminded herself of one of her mother’s proverbs: El perro ladra y la caravana pasa. The dog barks, but the caravan passes by. Let the men have their petty jokes. Katrina Sanchez had earned her gold star, but her caravan would not stop until she made lieutenant, then captain, and maybe more. Cecilia might not understand or appreciate that right now, but once day she would understand that her mother was fighting for better opportunities for all women and Latinas, Cecilia included.

She walked up a short flight of steps to an apartment with a round sticker on the door that bore some sort of foreign writing. Persian, maybe? She rang the doorbell three times, knowing full well that the occupants might be asleep, and not caring.

She rang again, and again, until finally the door was opened by a sleepy-eyed young man with brown skin. He identified himself as Khalil, a Bangladeshi student at SFSU.

“Yes, Muhammad lives here,” he said. “But he’s not home yet.”

“Is that usual, for him to come home so late?”

“It’s only eleven.”

“Uh-huh. Is he a party type? Out clubbing ‘til the wee hours? Or maybe he’s into something criminal? Selling a little weed to help make the rent?”

The Bangladeshi student waved his hands in alarm. “No, nothing like that! He is usually home by this time. But he is an adult. It’s not my job to police him. No pun intended.”

“Uh huh.” Katrina spat tobacco juice into the hydrangea bush beside the steps, hitting one of the flowers dead on. “Where do you think he might be?”

The young man stared at the hydrangea bush, then frowned at Sanchez. “I don’t know. Maybe at his friend Hassan’s house.”

The Bangladeshi disappeared inside the apartment and came back with a phone number written on a slip of paper, and a flyer for a martial arts class.

“What’s that sticker on your door, Mister Ka-leel? Some kind of code?”

“Code?” The young man shook his head. “No, Detective.”

“Inspector. San Francisco doesn’t have detectives.”

“Pardon me, Inspector. It says, ‘Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem’. In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”

Sanchez spat into the flower bed again. “What’s wrong with God bless America?” she demanded. “Or home sweet home?”

The young man held his hands out, palms up. “Well… nothing.”

Sanchez walked back to her unmarked car. Truthfully, she did not care about the sticker on the door, and had no problem with foreigners or Muslims, which this young man obviously was. As a victim of discrimination herself, she was wary of perpetuating stereotypes. But sometimes when you pried at the things people valued, they revealed hidden aspects of themselves. That hadn’t been the case with Khalil, but it was time to turn her attention to this Muhammad Saleh, and see what she could pry loose.

First, however, she’d make a quick trip home. It was almost eleven o’clock and her husband and daughter might not be asleep yet. She’d chat with them about their days, say goodnight, have a bite to eat, then get back to the case.

***

Hassan stood and stretched. Layth suggested that they all break for ‘Ishaa, and they did. Then Hassan continued his story.

“I won’t bore you with the details of my life in prison. The many institutions that I was transferred to, the amazing and despicable people I met, the constant waiting for everything – waiting for food, waiting for laundry, waiting for doors to open or close, waiting so long to get out into the free world that it starts to feel like an impossibility, or like Jannah. And then there’s the explosive violence, like lightning out of a blue sky. I was given a prison number – I still remember it. 101747-011. To the guards, I was a number. I was expected to write my number on any property that belonged to me. I was identified on paperwork by my number, and addressed by my number. Zero One One, they’d call me.

I could write an entire book about those years, and maybe one day I will. For now, I just want to tell you about my friend Jamil, because I wouldn’t have survived without him, physically or spiritually.”

***

“The male version of me!” Jamilah said. “I’m glad he was a friend.”

Hassan smiled. “Yes. I didn’t meet him right away, though. When I was first incarcerated I was terrified, because of… my experience in Turkey. In Karanlik. But it was utterly different. I learned that prisoners – aside from having to work and adhere to prison schedules – are largely left to their own devices. Yes, there are some evil and sadistic hacks – guards, that is – but for the most part it’s not the administration you have to fear in U.S. prisons. It’s the other prisoners.

I ended up in a high security federal prison situated on the prairie outside of Oklahoma City. Nothing around but miles of tall grass in every direction, with a single tree casting a shadow about a quarter mile to the south. A strong wind blew constantly, but the sky was huge and cloudless.

The prison itself was old – the stereotypical grouping of massive brick buildings with wings radiating in every direction, holding multiple cellblocks containing stacked tiers, steel staircases, and cramped cells with steel bars that slid open and shut. It housed almost two thousand prisoners, from mafia bosses to counterfeiters to drug dealers of all stripes.

The yard was big, with three separate weight piles – “

***

Muhammad interrupted Hassan’s narrative. “What’s a weight pile?” he asked.

“Ah. Sorry. You get so used to the lingo that you forget it’s not understood by everyone. A weight pile is an open-air weight lifting area, typically a large cement slab with a few dozen machines, benches, and racks for free weights. At El Reno there were three piles. One was open to the sky and the other two were covered by awnings. The open air pile was run by whites, another by the blacks, and the third by Hispanics. If you didn’t fit into one of those neat classifications, or if you weren’t in a gang, you’d have a hard time making use of the facilities. That was true also for the music rooms – again, there were three – and for the factory jobs, which paid better than standard prison jobs and were in high demand. If you weren’t hooked up – connected, in a gang – you’d be run out.

That’s what got me in trouble, in fact. I applied for one of the factory jobs – the El Reno factory was a huge metal fabrication plant that employed over 300 convicts – and got it. My first day I was being trained on an assembly line that made steel tubing. A muscular white convict with a moustache, a shaved head and a swastika tattooed on his scalp came up to me and said, “Who you with?”

“No one,” I replied. “What do you mean?”

He sneered at me. “You need to quit this job. This factory is for hooked-up cons only. I see you on this line tomorrow, I’ll bust you up.”

I looked away and made no response. I wasn’t frightened, exactly. I just didn’t have the energy to argue. I wanted to keep my head down, do my time, then get out one day and go on with my life.

I was still at a low point in my imaan. I was hardly praying at all. I remembered Allah with my tongue. I woke up and said, ‘All praise is due to Allah who gave us life after we were dead, and to Him is the return.’ I said Bismillah before I ate, and Alhamdulillah when I was done. But I was like a sleepwalker. I had no fight in me, no drive, no ambition. I’d left all those behind in room where Lena died, and behind the closed doors of the Karanlik mental institution.

There were dozens of Muslims at El Reno, mostly African-Americans but also some Arabs, Pakistanis and even a few white and Hispanic brothers. I’d see them around the compound, wearing kufis and sometimes praying Maghreb in jama’ah on the yard. But I stayed away from them. I was so low spiritually. I felt like a fake Muslim. Those brothers would expect me to join them in Islamic activities and to be strong, and I didn’t have that in me.

I quit the factory job like the man told me and went to work in food service, sweeping the floors of the chow hall and picking up trash after meals. The job paid eleven cents per hour, which went into my commissary account. The money could be used to purchase items like toothpaste, canned tuna fish or cookies at the prison store.

A few days later the same mustachioed con approached me as I was picking up litter during the lunch hour. Lunch had consisted of ham, spinach, grits and an orange. Some of the men had left orange peels on the floor.

“Get me a bag of extra oranges,” the man said.

I told him that I was just an orderly and didn’t work in the kitchen. Besides, if I were caught I would go to the hole.

***

“What’s a hole?” Muhammad asked. “Is it a real hole in the ground? That’s crazy!”

Hassan chuckled. “No. It’s what convicts call the detention unit. Administration calls it the Special Housing Unit, or “shoe”. It’s a separate cellblock wing where you’re locked in isolation around the clock. When you break a rule you go before a lieutenant who can sentence you to any length of time in the hole. Some men are confined there for years. They lose their minds, some of them.

Anyway, the man cursed me. He told me he was an OG – a senior gangster, and that if I didn’t do what he said he’d shank me. Stab me, in other words..

Again, I did what the man said. I snuck into the pantry, stuffed some oranges into my pockets, and delivered them to the man in his cell just before the four o’clock count. He laughed and said that I was his punk now, and that I would do whatever he said.

I was shocked and infuriated. In my naivete I’d thought that if I did him a few favors he’d leave me alone. Instead he now seemed to think I was his slave. I told him that he could forget about getting any further favors out of me, and not to talk to me again. He stood up and seized me by the neck, and I went into combat mode. Ever since Lena’s death I’d let the world push me around, humiliate me and control me. No more. I’d finally hit my breaking point.

I grabbed the hand that seized my throat, pinning it to myself, then applied a wrist lock that dropped the muscular man to his knees in pain. I smashed him in the face with a powerful knee strike and heard a crunching sound as his nose bone shattered. Then I walked away. I hoped that I had sent a message and that I’d be left alone after that. If I hadn’t be so green, I would have known that the opposite was true. I had made a lifelong enemy, one who was part of a powerful gang. I’d started a war.

I returned to my own cell. My cellie, a hugely muscled and profusely tattooed young Samoan nicknamed Tuna, sat on his bunk with a notebook on his lap, drawing, as usual. He was a generally sullen and angry young man who didn’t know how to read and write and had never showed much interest in conversation. He spent much of his time drawing pictures of fantasy figures like dragons, ancient warriors carrying broadswords, muscular warrior women in skimpy outfits – that kind of thing.

The cell had a small steel writing desk with a stool bolted to the ground. I sat on the stool and put my head in my hands. I felt utterly lost.

I heard a knock and looked up to see a tall, lean African-American standing in the doorway of the cell. He wore a black kufi with gold embroidery and had a musalla folded and draped over his shoulder. He nodded to Tuna, who nodded back and said, “It’s your world, Jamil. We just walkin’ through it.” I was surprised. I’d never heard Tuna offer a kind word to anyone. He was normally as reticent as one of the Easter Island statues.

Jamil then smiled at me and offered salam, but I only said, “What’s up?”

He held out a plastic bag. “The brothers put together a welcome bag for you,” he said. “We always do this for newcomers. It contains a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, shower shoes, snacks and other items. Also, this prayer rug. So you don’t have to use your t-shirt.” He grinned and held the musalla out toward me.

The gift bag sounded good. I could really use those items. But instead of accepting it, I said, “I don’t know you. How did you even know I was Muslim?” I knew I was being rude, but life in Karanlik had made me wary and paranoid. I knew that no one ever did anything without a motive.

“I’m Jamil,” he said. “One of the brothers saw you performing salat the other day. What’s your name?”

“Hassan,” I muttered.

“Ma-sha-Allah. Well I have to inform you Hassan, you’re off to a bad start. The word is you made an enemy in the AB.”

“What’s the AB?” I said reluctantly. I didn’t want to get into a conversation, but I needed to know what he was talking about.

“Aryan Brotherhood. White supremacist gang. The thug you put down – Cutter – is one of their OGs.  I’m not trying to frighten you or pressure you. I’m just telling you the facts. If you join the Muslims we can protect you. If you stay on your own, the AB will kill you. Count on it.”

I felt a surge of resentment. Everyone in here seemed to want me to do something or join something. I just wanted to be left alone.

“I don’t have a problem with them,” I said. “One guy tried to pick on me and I stopped it. They should leave it at that. And I don’t need your gift bag.”

“It doesn’t work like that, akh. But suit yourself. Let me just tell you one thing. Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are. He’s still with you, caring about you, keeping your heart beating. You’re here for a reason. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said that this world is a prison for the believer. So what’s one prison inside another? It’s still just prison. This is all temporary.”

“I guess so,” I said.

He nodded. “I’m your brother. I’m not looking to manipulate you. It’s not like that with the Muslims in here. If you need me, I’m here. Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to do it alone.”

The Aryan Brotherhood came at me the next day. I was walking through the yard, on my way to circle the track. I was staying off the weight pile like Cutter had ordered me. My head felt full of storm clouds. I couldn’t close my eyes without remembering Lena on the floor, her blood soaking into the rug… or the horrors of Karanlik… How would I get through these eight years? It seemed impossible.

The yard was crowded. Men waited their turn to play handball or use the weight pile. Others sat around on benches, or stood in knots, talking. Suddenly I sensed a bubble of silence around me. I looked around and men were retreating from me, walking away in different directions. I looked behind and there were three white cons making a beeline from three different directions, forming a wedge that would converge on my position.

There was nowhere to go. I was in a part of the yard where it narrowed as it passed between two cellblocks. Ahead was only the track, which was a quarter-mile closed loop with no exits. I would have no cover out there. The track was within sight of the gun towers, but I’d be as likely to get shot as the ABs. Better to make my stand here. I continued for a few yards then ducked behind the corner of the cellblock. As the first of the three men turned the corner, I attacked. It was Cutter, his nose bandaged and swollen. I flicked my fingers into his eyes as I seized his knife arm with my other hand. I elbowed him in the face, directed the knife into his own ribs, twisted his head rapidly one way then the other, and let him drop.

I’d gained some weight since I’d been incarcerated, but I was still much lighter than I am now. I weighed maybe 130, and I had still not recovered fully from Karanlik. But my body reacted from years of training, going into combat mode.

The other two men stared at me. “You broke Cutter’s neck!” one exclaimed. He was about my height, bald, with a thick handlebar mustache.

The other man looked like a barbarian warrior. He stood six and a half feet tall and wide as a tree, with long blonde hair and a long beard plaited into two braids. Both men brandished wicked looking homemade knives.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” I said. “Your man here tried to punk me. You’ve got the wrong guy for that. Just leave me alone.”

The smaller man came at me rapidly, thrusting the blade at my belly. I ghosted, changing angles and sidestepping. I slapped him hard across the eyes then punched him in the kidney, dropping him to one knee.

I was prepared to engage the larger man but he held back. The smaller one rose to his feet and came at me again. This time I parried his knife thrust, seized his arm, and snapped his elbow with a palm strike. He fell to the ground with a scream, and I kicked him hard in the temple with the toe of my boot. He was out like a light.

The bigger man regarded me. “Cutter says you insulted him.”

“That’s not true,” I gasped, breathing hard. “He tried to make me do things.”

“His neck really broken?”

“I don’t think so. Whiplashed.”

“Where’d you learn to move like that?”

“Beirut. I was a soldier.”

The big man raised his eyebrows and ran one hand down his beard. Then he tucked his knife into his waistband. “People call me Viking,” he said, then turned and walked away.

No one witnessed the fight, and no one reported me. I returned to my cell and sat on my bunk. My legs trembled from the adrenaline. I hoped that was the end of it, and the AB would leave me alone after that.

They did not. Three white cons came at me on the catwalk hardly five minutes after the cell doors opened at six a.m., in full sight of hundreds of men and at least two guards in the control booth down on the floor. The AB must have been insane with their desire for revenge. These were all different men from yesterday. I put them all down, breaking teeth and noses, separating one man’s shoulder and crushing another man’s ankle with a hard stomp. But one of them stabbed me deeply in the side and blood poured down my side and leg.

I was taken to the prison infirmary and patched up under tight security – two beefy guards stood watch the whole time – then sent to the hole, where I spent the next six months in isolation.

I thought a lot about what Jamil had said to me. “Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are. He still cares. You’re here for a reason…” The words touched me deeply and I sometimes found tears welling in my eyes.

That’s where I met Wolf, by the way. Remember, Jamilah? The homeless man on the street the day your bike was stolen? He was in the cell across from mine.”

***

“You claimed you didn’t recognize him!” Jamilah exclaimed.

“I know.” Hassan turned his palms up apologetically. “Wolf used to pass the time by making jokes and telling funny stories about his crazy childhood in Atlanta. His parents were drug addicts and never had any food in the house, so he’d sneak into neighbors’ kitchens and steal whole cooked chickens and pies off their stovetops and dinner tables. His whole childhood was stealing and running like mad. In high school they put him on the track team because he was so fast. He might have gone to the Olympics if he hadn’t started smoking crack.

Wolf was… I don’t know. He was born to lose, as some convicts say, but he was also indomitable. I often ignored his banter, but he kept it up. Anyway, I made it up to him later. For ignoring him that day, I mean.”

“I wish you wouldn’t lie so much, Hassan.”

“And I wish you would try to understand my situation. If I’d admitted I knew him it would have raised questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer. I didn’t lie because I like it. I lied to protect myself and the people around me.”

“It’s fine, akhi,” Layth said. “Go on.”

“That was a bad time. When you’re alone like that your demons come rushing in a mob. I found myself reliving all the horrors of the past, and it was too much. I stopped eating, and spent twenty hours a day sleeping. I began wasting away, losing weight again, and mumbling to myself, just rambling, having conversations with people from the past.

A week after I entered the hole,” Hassan continued, “a Muslim chaplain came to see me. AbdulQadeer was an elderly African-American brother with a slight frame. As a contractor employed by the Bureau of Prisons, he serviced a dozen prisons. He was concerned about my condition. He told me he would see me once a month if he could. He gave me a white kufi, a musall, and a paperback copy of the Quran with the Yusuf Ali translation.

Those things were nice, but best of all was that he spoke to me man to man. He didn’t talk to me like a free man to a prisoner, and he didn’t judge. He related to me as if I were any other Muslim in the outside world.

He could see I was in pain. I was haunted by Lena’s death, still mentally and physically debilitated from my stay in that place in Turkey, and still spiritually crippled. I didn’t tell AbdulQadeer any of that, but I didn’t have to. It was plain.

On his second visit, AbdulQadeer put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Listen, Hassan. I’m not going to tell you that prayer will heal your heart and take away your hurt. You’ve walked a long, rough road, and you’re in a bad place. But Hassan, you’re heading for an early death. I mean both a spiritual death and an actual, physical death. So I’m asking you, are you ready to surrender right now, lay down and die? If yes, then you don’t need me. Just go on like you’re doing, and one of these times when I come back here, they’ll say, “No need to visit inmate Amir, he’s dead.”

If you’re not ready for that, then live. I’m not saying get over it, be happy, or even be grateful. I’m not offering a solution to your problems. I don’t have answers. But Allah does. Wallahi, I swear by the One in whose hand is your soul and mine, He has answers. To receive those answers, you must live. Eat. Exercise. Stay sane. Don’t give up on Allah. Your journey is not done, or you’d already be dead. Survive and stay sane, and let Allah do the rest.”

Somehow his words penetrated the fog of my despair. I began eating my meals and exercising slowly at first. My bones had healed but my arm still ached where I’d torn my biceps.

***

“You did what?” Muhammad interjected. “When did that happen?

“Oh… That happened in, uh… in Karanlik. Anyway… I thought a lot about Jamil’s words as well. “Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are. He still cares. You’re here for a reason…”

I’ll tell you something I’ve learned. It’s become fashionable among some Muslims to say, ‘All you need is Allah.’ But that’s not really true. You need someone to believe in you. Not everyone. It doesn’t matter what most people think. But someone. Even the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, had Khadijah.

Gradually my exercises began to consume more of my time, until I was spending up to five hours a day doing squats, push ups, dips and burpees, and practicing martial arts. I was aware that I had turned a corner. I was still haunted by the past, but the pain was no longer incapacitating.

Of course it’s not allowed to practice martial arts in prison but the good thing about the hole is that most of the time no one is looking. In that place, you have to stay busy or you will literally go insane. I could hear other men talking to themselves all day long, babbling, screaming… Some men would deliberately provoke confrontations with the guards, then strip naked and cover themselves in vaseline or excrement, so that when the Special Tactics Squad came in to grab them they wouldn’t be able to get a hold.

“That’s awful,” Kadija said. “What a nightmare.”

“Some men attempted suicide, and some succeeded. Some reverted to a wild state, growing their hair and nails and refusing to shower.

“You had a shower?” Layth asked.

“Not in the cell. Once every three days you’re handcuffed behind your back and taken to a shower that’s also behind bars. Once you’re inside they un-handcuff you and watch while you shower.”

“That’s humiliating,” Kadija protested.

“That’s how it is. There’s no privacy. Whenever you’re transferred or you get a visitor, you’re subjected to a very invasive strip search. You have to shut off your thinking mind and just go through the motions, otherwise yes, it’s dehumanizing and humiliating.

I began reading the Quran, and finally I resumed praying. The time began to pass quickly, and soon I was out of the hole. I wouldn’t say I was back to normal – I still had nightmares – but I’d regained my strength, and I was… sound. I’ll put it that way. I was sound.

I’d thought that maybe the AB would have let the whole affair drop. I should have known better. Prisoners have long memories.”

Next:  Hassan’s Tale, Part 14 – Positive Assumptions

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDMWael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

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              #Culture

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

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

              Goat standing on a cow's back

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

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

              Krägä Bianga

              “Fear no one.” – Samia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              “But we’re Muslims.”

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

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

              The Old Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Eighty Seven Bites

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

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

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

              “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

              “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Bruises

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

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

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

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

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

              Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

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

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

              “I don’t want anything.”

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

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

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

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

              Fear No One

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

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

              Samia recited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Friends

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

              Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

              “Just tell him.”

              “He will not come, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

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

              Panama Rainforest

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Omar said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Get Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              * * *

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

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

              Avatar

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

              Support Our Dawah 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.

              Continue Reading

              #Culture

              Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

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

              Doberman pinscher

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

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

              Stop Pitying Yourself

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

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

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

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

              Playa Santa Clara, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              “I am Panamanian.”

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

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

              He glared. “Excuse me?”

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

              “That’s not your business.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Omar shook his head.

              Indian Ocean tsunami

              Indian Ocean tsunami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Omar said it.

              “Go back to your wanderings.”

              The Gate Opens

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

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

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

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

              Doberman pinscher

              Doberman pinscher

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

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

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

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

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

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

              The Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

              German shepherd

              German shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Drifting Out to Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

              * * *

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

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

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

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              Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

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

              Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

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

              A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

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

              The salesman waved him off.

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

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

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

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

              “At least let me taser him.”

              No, Pereira.”

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

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

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

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

              Karate is Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              “Hit first and hard.”

              When the attacker pushes forward…”

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

              “The only failure…”

              “Is the failure to act.”

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

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

              “You will know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Rogue Planets

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

              Casco Viejo, Panama

              Casco Viejo, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              “Who cares?”

              “Omar!

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

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

              Spiniflex Rubirosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              * * *

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

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

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

              Chicken Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Puente de Las Americas, Panama

              Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

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

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

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

              Basem sniggered at this.

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

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

              Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

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

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

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

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

              The Blue Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              “You can let go,” Omar said.

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

              “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

              “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

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

              The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

              This Time for Panama

              Playa Santa Clara, Panama

              Playa Santa Clara, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              * * *

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

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

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

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