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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.

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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: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches 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.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Hassan Zawahir

    August 27, 2014 at 12:43 AM

    American Prisons are dangerous ,you will get PUNKED

  2. umm habiba

    August 27, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    “But sometimes when you pried at the things people valued, they revealed hidden aspects of themselves”
    Very interesting.

  3. Abdullah

    August 27, 2014 at 7:08 PM

    Thanks for updating!!

  4. M

    August 27, 2014 at 8:18 PM

    “Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are. He’s still with you, caring about you, keeping your heart beating.”, something to always remember. Is it alright if I put this up on my social media accounts? I’ll quote you and leave a link to this story.

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      August 27, 2014 at 9:03 PM

      M, yes, feel free :-)

    • Amatullah

      August 28, 2014 at 12:58 AM

      This sentence brought me tears. It was so consoling.. Yeah! Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are..

  5. Rabya

    August 27, 2014 at 8:40 PM

    Yayyyy we’re back in the game!!! Alhamdulillah!!! In a way it was a good thing Hassan went to the hole, a way to get his head back on straight and return to Allah!
    Sniff…Wednesday seems soooo far away!! :-(

  6. Amel

    August 28, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    As-salamu Alaykum,

    When the FBI checked on the story, did they not attempt to link Hassan’s identity with a social security number? If so, was there no death record associated with this number?

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      August 29, 2014 at 2:17 PM

      I meant to respond to this earlier, then forgot. The “real” Hassan Amir died as a child and never had a social security number. Our Hassan also does not have a social security number – either in real life or in his fictional identity. In his fictional identity, he became homeless at a young age and never applied for one.

      As far as death records, during the 80’s and 90’s they were not computerized (Hassan’s arrest occurred in the late 90’s). Death records were kept on microfiche or literally in large bound volumes in the local Hall of Records. Even when they began to be computerized they were not automatically linked to birth records. Maybe they are now, I don’t know. It was not until the modern “Age of Terrorism” that the government began building comprehensive identity profiles on citizens.

      • Amel

        August 29, 2014 at 3:49 PM

        Thanks for such a comprehensive reply! It is interesting to think about how much these things have changed over the past couple of decades. Just the other day I was reading how the issue of identity theft is another factor that has contributed to the changes we have seen in recent years. Apparently, it used to be pretty easy to steal a dead person’s identity…but not so much these days.

      • Wael Abdelgawad

        August 29, 2014 at 6:34 PM

        Easy indeed. All you had to do back then was go down to the Hall of Records and browse the death books until you found someone who had been born around the same time as you but had died in infancy. You could then request a copy of the birth certificate, claiming to be that person. There was no cross-checking and you didn’t even have to show ID. Using that, you could get a driver’s license, then a SS #, and you would have a fully established false identity. Nowadays this would be impossible.

  7. Adama

    August 28, 2014 at 7:06 PM

    What happened with your facebook page?

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      August 28, 2014 at 7:13 PM

      You mean the MuslimMatters page? It seems fine to me.

  8. Umm Yasa'ah

    August 28, 2014 at 7:32 PM

    Did this chapter end at “I’d thought that maybe the AB would have let the whole thing go. I should have known better. Prisoners have long memories.” or am I missing something?

  9. Iman

    August 29, 2014 at 12:55 PM

    Mohammad’s question about the hole seems out of character…it’s a bit babyish sounding really. maybe you can change that. also in the first part about Insp. Sanchez – i think you meant to say “rep” instead of “habit.”

  10. Iman

    August 29, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    you should get this published with Anse Tamara Gray’s new publishing press.

  11. Halima

    August 30, 2014 at 9:31 PM

    I am an addict now! Gosh, it was fun reading continuously – till Ramadan – understandable because we needed to focus on Ibada – seriously. But now? Oh man! Waiting for another week is torture.

  12. UmmA

    September 1, 2014 at 12:38 AM

    Br. Wael, after reading the story and the comments, I’m more interested in knowing YOUR story! =)

    BarakAllahu feek for the wonderful series. You just made history much more interesting to read ^_^

    Oh, and coming across some names of places makes me want to google them – which I did :P

    JazakAllahu khairan katheeran.

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      September 1, 2014 at 2:45 AM

      My story… SubhanAllah. My story is not over yet, ha ha. Like Hassan’s Tale, my own tale is still running. I’m waiting myself to find out the ending. Truthfully, though, if you take Muhammad, Jamilah and Hassan and put them all together into one person, you have me :-)

      If a life comes down to what a man has learned, then I’ll say this: you may feel discouragement, anxiety or despair, but you never know what’s coming tomorrow. Never give up on Allah, and never give up on yourself. Allah brings life and light from darkness. A closed room opens and becomes a road to the sunrise. Miracles happen every day, and I am a witness to that.

      Take nothing and no one for granted. Remember to be grateful for everything – for health, breath, the heart in your chest, food on the table, rain from the sky, family, friends, the Quran, the Prophet (sws), everything. Gratitude is the first order of the day. Gratitude is the path to loving Allah. Gratitude is the only argument one needs against disbelief. It is the cure for sadness and materialism as well, and is the motivation to do better tomorrow.

      Second, know that you have nothing but what Allah has given you, and no protector but Him, so when you ask, ask from Allah.

      Third, forgive yourself and do better tomorrow. Everyone loses control sometimes, hurts others and feels regret, and has shameful experiences. Everyone.

      Fourth, forgive others. Be gentle and assume the best when it comes to people’s intentions. Everyone is struggling in this world. Other people’s anger or criticism is almost always the product of their own fear.

      Hassan has not fully learned the lesson of gratitude. He’s too consumed by the past. But his life is being shaken to the root, and I have a feeling that if he survives, he’ll come out of it a different person.

      • Iman

        September 2, 2014 at 10:26 AM

        you are rare. why do you think so few muslims have what you have in terms of your understanding of gratitude’s centrality? what are we doing wrong that we are missing out on this source of joy? i wonder about this when i see many nonMuslims more grateful than we are…and many Muslims who frown and gripe and always see what’s wrong with there lives…

      • Wael Abdelgawad

        September 3, 2014 at 7:44 PM

        Iman, I think one of the main problems is that we Muslims are a conquered people. Our lands were divided up by colonialists, we are ruled by tyrants and kings, and we are under siege or occupation by non-Muslim powers in many places. We watch as some of our most ancient cultures are reduced to rubble and conflict. At the same time, we’re dealing with major social issues like corruption, poverty, unemployment and inability to marry.

        All of that generates feelings of anger, frustration and resentment. We see that reflected in the discontent of many Muslims.

        Surely we are not meant to live our lives in a constant state of frustration. After all, there has always been – and will always be – suffering in the world. So the question is, how do we acknowledge the suffering of the Ummah, and work for the betterment of the Muslims, while still maintaining our own inner peace and sense of gratitude? How can we feel outrage while not allowing it to eat away like acid at our imaan?

        I don’t have complete answers to these questions. I think part of it lies in doing all we can for the sake of Islam, and leaving the rest in Allah’s hands. If we are at least doing something, then we do not have to feel impotent. There is value in saving one soul, or even helping one person in a small way.

  13. Hanadi

    September 2, 2014 at 5:48 PM

    Wael,

    It’s next week, when will you be posting the next part! Allah knows we are patiently waiting. =))

    But on a more serious note, MashAllah you have a very special skill to relay not just a story, but deen through the story. I am a visual reader and I have visualized not just the plot, but Hassan’s journey to Islam and the relativity to my own journey. I am sure we have all found a way to relate to Hassan and I wanted to thank you for bringing back the aspect of human nature to Islam that many seem to forget.

    I currently run a Muslim non for profit and my daily goal is to merge the very thing you write about. The importance of human nature, humanity, peace and every day life in Islam, especially as young American Muslims.

    If you have any pointers for me, I would truly appreciate them.

    JakakAllahu Khairan

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      September 3, 2014 at 8:20 PM

      Hanadi, jazak Allah khayr for your comments. Without knowing exactly what your non-profit does, I can only make general suggestions.

      * Help young Muslims find ways to work for the betterment of the Ummah and the world in general.
      * Connect them to our ancient traditions of Islamic art, architecture, and poetry.
      * Work actively to bridge cultural, national and racial barriers.
      * Include Muslim sisters in positions of leadership.

  14. Humaira Khan

    June 10, 2020 at 11:32 PM

    This showed up on my newsfeed on Facebook today and I realized I really miss these characters. Hope it’ll be published in book form soon!

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