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Hassan’s Tale, Part 14 – Positive Assumptions

“A’aight,” Rashid said. “Just throw down like you do. They probly gon’ come at us on the mainline, so keep yo’ back to the wall. When it go off, don’ half step.”

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Jamil and a stocky African-American brother came to my cell hardly ten minutes after I was released from the hole and admitted back into the general population.

Jamil had a stack of magazines that he set down on the writing desk in my cell. As soon as Tuna – my Samoan cellie – saw that, he stood up and walked out, saying, “Ia manuia,” which means “good luck” in Samoan.

Jamil nodded to the stocky brother, who was short and barrel chested, but had a baby face. “This is Rashid,” Jamil said. “Some folks call him Big Wheel.”

Rashid nodded at me and said salam, and this time I responded in kind.

“Take your shirt off,” Jamil said. “We’re going to armor you.”

“Excuse me?” I was incredulous. “I told you before I don’t need your help.”

“Akhi, we’re way past that now. We’ve been battling the AB for the last six months over what they did to you. We have one dead on our side and three on theirs.”

“La ilaha il-Allah!” I exclaimed. “I never asked anyone to do that.”

“We didn’t do it, brotha,” Rashid said. His voice was incongruously deep for his size. “AB decided that if they couldn’t get to you, they’d come after us. Half the Muslim brothers been transferred out, and a mess o’ the AB too, but it’s still on. We tried parylayin’ a truce but the AB ain’t havin’ it. We down to twenty men, and they thirty strong. But they used to have sixty. After you clowned ‘em, they had a bunch of walkouts. It’s wild. They hate you, Hassan. Plus, we in talks with the BGF. They might come in on our side. They got thirty men.”

The BGF, I later learned, was the Black Guerilla Family – another powerful prison gang.

I was stunned. A Muslim had died because of me! Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la billah. I felt numb. Jamil pulled up my shirt and I cooperated passively. He held a magazine against my chest and Rashid used a large roll of duct tape to secure the magazine in place by wrapping the tape all the way around my body. They repeated the process with the other magazines, covering my entire torso.

“It may not seem like much,” Jamil said. “But it’s effective.”

“Who was the brother who died?” I asked.

“Older brotha from New York,” Rashid said. “Khalid. They bum rushed him in the shower.”

“It’s not your fault, akhi,” Jamil said. “It’s the nature of the beast. He’s a shaheed and he’s alive with Allah. Wa la tahsab annal-latheena qutiloo fee sabeel-illahi amwaata.”

And do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead. I’d heard the ayah before, but somehow it was like I was understanding it for the first time. What was I so afraid of? Why had I feared Sarkis and Mr. Black? Why had I allowed Cutter to intimidate me? And do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead.

I completed the ayah. “Bal ahya’un ‘enda Rabbihim yurzaqoon. No, they are alive with their Lord, enjoying His provision.”

Jamil nodded at me and spoke to Rashid. “The brother has some knowledge.”

“What about you?” I said, pointing to Jamil’s stomach. He lifted his shirt, revealing one plastic dinner tray taped to his flat stomach and another to his back. Taped to the front tray was a long, sharp piece of steel wrapped with duct tape at the base. A shank, as these homemade weapons were called.

Rashid took something from his pocket and extended it toward me. Another shank.

“I can’t… I don’t believe in killing,” I said.

“That was you that waxed Cutter out by the gap, right?” Rashid said. “And the other three the day after?”

“Yes, but I didn’t kill them.”

“A’aight,” Rashid said. “Just throw down like you do. They probly gon’ come at us on the mainline, so keep yo’ back to the wall. When it go off, don’ half step.”

I looked at Jamil, who grinned. “He means don’t hold back.”

Rashid slid the blade up into his shirtsleeve, and we moved out. Just three ordinary inmates, going to breakfast. Except that all the inmates in El Reno seemed to know what was going down. Everyone gave us a wide berth.

I wondered how it was that the Muslims had suffered only one casualty, while the AB, with their greater numbers, had lost three men. I was to learn the answer before long.

We made our way out of the cellblock wing and onto the mainline, which is a wide corridor down the middle of the cellblock on the way to the chow hall. Jamil walked in front of me and Rashid to my side. The tension in the air was palpable. There was a heavy guard presence in the hallway, Was all this because of me? It was unreal.

“Stay close to the wall,” Jamil said.

There was a commotion at the far end of the hall, behind us. A white con was scuffling with a Mexican. The prison guards on duty hustled in that direction, while the many prisoners in the hall seemed to vanish. Suddenly the three of us were alone, still moving toward the chow hall.

“This is it,” Jamil said.

A door opened in front of us – a maintenance closet – and twelve members of the Aryan Brotherhood streamed out of the room, not even bothering to hide the shanks, clubs and other assorted weapons in their hands. I recognized the bald man from the first attack a year ago – the one whose elbow I had broken – and two of the men from the second attack. Among them was a one-eyed man with a tattoo of a spider on his face. I later learned that he was the leader of the AB in El Reno and was known as – naturally – Spider. Cutter was not among them. It turned out he’d been in a wheelchair ever since I whiplashed him.

Viking was also not among them. I’ll tell you more about him later. I think you’ll be surprised.

A chaotic melee ensued. Rashid shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” in a booming voice that rang off the walls and seemed to freeze everyone in their places for a split second. For an instant it seemed that his shout alone would drive the ABs back. Then one of them let out a wordless yell and hurled himself at Rashid, swinging a short steel pipe. Rashid moved into the attack, slipped inside the radius of the pipe’s arc, and drove his own shank into the man’s chest. I heard the distinctive sound of breaking bone and knew that Rashid’s knife had either pierced the man’s sternum or broken a rib. I’d heard that sound many times in war.

The ABs mobbed us, weapons slashing and swinging everywhere. I threw a man into the wall head first and his teeth snapped shut on his tongue, severing the tip, which flew through the air like a bit of sausage. Then I launched a kick into the knee of an AB who was about to stab Rashid in the back. Men grunted, cursed and screamed. The metallic tang of blood filled the air. I almost slipped on the blood and that might have saved my life, as a skinny white con swung a knife through the empty air where my neck had been. I recovered my footing, ducked low and snaked an arm between the man’s legs, then lifted him onto my shoulders and threw him into the other ABs.

I shot a look at Jamil and saw something that stunned me. He was ghosting. That was the name I had given to the elusive style of movement that I had seen Mr. Black perform, and had spent years learning to emulate. It was not the typical bob and weave you saw in boxing, or the irimi-style movement of Aikido and Jujitsu. A man would come at him and he would seem to disappear, reappearing behind the man. It was unmistakable, and in all my martial arts and combat experience, I had never seen anyone do it except Mr. Black, in the Tel-Az-Zaytoon camp the night he’d murdered Daniel.

Where could Jamil have learned it? No wonder the AB had lost so many men.

In that moment of distraction I felt an impact to my back. I launched a back kick without looking and heard a grunt. I spun into the man behind me, palming his face and digging my fingers into his eyes. He fell and I moved closer to Rashid, putting my back to his and fighting like a machine.

It was over in seconds. Nine men lay around us, three dead and the rest badly injured. Three of the ABs were limping away, one being supported by the other two. Rashid had a cut somewhere in his scalp and the blood poured down his face. Jamil clutched his throat. “Not a stab,” he said hoarsely. “I got punched in the throat is all.”

As for me, I was gasping for breath and felt light headed. I felt like I was about to pass out. I fell to one knee, fighting for consciousness. I couldn’t understand why I was so out of breath.

Jamil and Rashid wiped their weapons clean and dropped them, then helped me to my feet. We began to walk toward the chow hall, but I stumbled. Rashid caught me, then looked me over and said, “SubhanAllah.” He indicated my back. Only then did I see that I had two weapons embedded in my body. A screwdriver had somehow slipped between the magazines and was stuck in my upper back, and a shank made from a sharpened toothbrush was buried in my hip. I later learned that the screwdriver had punctured my lung.”

***

Inspector Katrina Sanchez sat in her car, sipping coffee. It was one in the morning.  No doubt her husband had given up waiting for her hours ago, and gone to sleep. She hoped they would not have an argument the next day.

She looked over the flyer the young Indian man had given her. Silvertip Hapkido, it said. Hassan Amir, head instructor. She had actually heard of this instructor. One of the inspectors in her division attended his class.

She studied the image of Mr. Amir throwing another man over his hip. He was a handsome man. Broad shouldered and strong, though his hair was a tad long for her taste. Men should be men. That was one of the problems with the world today. Too many effeminate man, metrosexuals, and hipsters in skinny jeans… and the masculine men were either self-centered or irresponsible.

She thought of her husband Roberto. He was a blessing. Tall, a good earner, willing to lead, but also willing to let Katrina follow her passion. Yes, he complained about her hours, but who could blame him? She hoped fervently that she would never have to choose between her husband and the job. Doing work that made a difference in the world was vital. But her husband was her rock. Es cosa de dos, her mother would say. It’s a matter for two. Meaning life itself.

She brought her mind back to the case and considered the facts. One: Alice claimed she was stabbed by a man named Mr. Saleh, father of her co-worker Muhammad Saleh. Two: Muhammad Saleh was absent from his home. Three: he was possibly staying with his friend, Hassan Amir.

Sanchez turned on her dashboard computer and keyed in Hassan Amir’s name, checking for felony arrests or convictions in the last five years. Nothing came up. She accessed the DMV database and checked his license. The address given was down on Third Street, in an area that she could have sworn was entirely commercial. She ran a reverse check on the address, and learned that it belonged to Hammerhead Courier, the same messenger company that Muhammad Saleh worked for.

She had Muhammad’s telephone number, but if he were harboring his father then calling him would alert him and send him fleeing.

Returning to the SFPD database, she broadened her search to include misdemeanors, and got two hits. Hassan Amir had played a role in catching a purse snatcher four years ago. And last year he’d called 911 to report a woman screaming in an apartment on his floor. It had turned out to be a case of domestic abuse.

So Hassan Amir was a do-gooder. Perhaps the kind of man who would take in a friend in need, and his father as well?

The address given in the domestic abuse complaint was 640 Mission. The Palisade. Well. Someone was living in style. A martial arts instructor living in one of the priciest luxury towers in town? Another mystery. And it just so happened that solving mysteries was her forte.

Katrina Sanchez set her coffee in the cup holder, and started the car.

***

“Before we could make another move,” Hassan said, “the hall was filled with the sound of pounding boots. We were surrounded by the Special Tactics Squad, looking like futuristic soldiers in their body armor, helmets and shields.

“Lay down on your stomachs and put your hands on your head!” one of them shouted.

Jamil said, “We’re not resisting.” He laid down, and Rashid and I followed suit. We were all handcuffed, searched, and led away. The officers who took me away had to hold me up, as I couldn’t walk on my own.

I was taken by ambulance to Parkview Hospital in El Reno, Oklahoma. The wound in my hip was not serious, but the collapsed lung required surgery. I spent only two days at the hospital recovering, handcuffed to the bed with an officer outside my door as usual, then was transported back to El Reno and put in the hole. My back wound wasn’t healed and it bled through the bandages. I spent the first two weeks in the hole resting on my bunk, trying to ignore the pain. I used t-shirts as bandages. I’d wash them in my little steel sink and hang them on my bunk to dry.

I was sentenced to a year in the hole that time. Every day I thought about Khalid, the older brother who had been killed fighting my battle. I would not let his sacrifice be in vain. I would not wallow in self-pity and despair. I repeated Jamil’s words like verses of poetry: “Allah is still with you. He cares. You are here for a reason.”

Solitary confinement can be brutal. The federal government has tens of thousands of prisoners living in solitary confinement and many of them become permanently psychologically disabled. They become paranoid, they hallucinate and they harm themselves.

The ironic thing is that the guys who survive employ strategies that seen insane. I knew one guy who used his own blood to write complex math problems on the walls and solve them. Another guy composed plays in his head and acted out all the parts.

In my case, it was the Quran and martial arts that kept me sane. I memorized five Juz in that one year, and I developed many new fighting techniques, just practicing on my own on the cement floor, shuffling around barefoot so as not to make any noise, imagining my opponents and their reactions.

Also, Chaplain AbdulQadeer came to see me from time to time, and he was a lifeline. Those brothers who work in the prisons, they are my heroes forever, I’m telling you.

I will admit, however, that in the last three months I developed a habit of talking to a cricket.

***

Kadija laughed, then covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry brother,” she said. “Your story is serious. The bit about the cricket caught me by surprise.”

“You mean an imaginary cricket?” Muhammad said. “Like Pinocchio’s cricket?”

“Pinocchio’s cricket was real, not imaginary,” Jamilah corrected automatically, then wondered why she was participating in such a ridiculous conversation.

“But he was Pinocchio’s conscience,” Muhammad pointed out.

Layth spoke up. “Actually he was a Christ metaphor. Jiminy Cricket – Jesus Christ. Get it?”

Kadija shook her head. “The Prophet Isa depicted as a cricket. Astaghfirullah. American pop culture trivializes everything. But how do you even know that about the metaphor, honey?”

“I do a lot of reading in the cab, between fares,” Layth said. “Oh, no I remember now. I got that bit of trivia from a Disney writer that I drove once. Sorry, Hassan. Please go on. What about your cricket friend?”

Everyone laughed and Hassan rolled his eyes. “I never said he was my friend.”

“Oh, it was a boy cricket?” Muhammad said, grinning.

Hassan gave him a mock glare. “Yes. His name was Napoleon. Can I go on now? Somehow the cricket got into the walls of my cell. At first it drove me crazy, chirping all night when I was trying to sleep. At the same time it was comforting to have a living thing keeping me company. I began talking to it. I’d carry on a conversation, pretending that the cricket was answering. Then I began to worry that I was going insane, so I stopped. Then I felt guilty that i was ignoring the cricket and hurting its feelings, so I began making up haikus for it. I’m not much of a poet but I studied haikus in third grade. Five syllables, seven syllables, five.

Cricket in my cell:
On whom do you call? I know
you praise in your way.

I composed them in my mind and memorized them, one after another. Until one day the chirping stopped and I cried. I worried that he had died of starvation, or maybe had deserted me. All that was after only nine months in the hole. Imagine spending years in there.”

“I can’t imagine,” Kadija said, shaking her head.

“I know,” Hassan said. “I can’t either, and I’ve been there.”

“I came out of the hole to find that the war was over. The Aryan Brotherhood in El Reno was virtually finished. That battle on the mainline had been the final straw. Some members had been transferred out, and others had abandoned the organization. Meanwhile, the Muslims had received several converts. Most surprising of all was that Viking had become Muslim. SubhanAllah. Allah guides whom He wills. Viking actually became quite devoted. I learned years later that after his release he went to Mauritania to learn Arabic and study Islam. He’s quite well known now. His name is Lars AbdulHadi.”

***

“SubhanAllah!” Layth said. “I know him. He’s an Imam in Minneapolis. I watch his lectures on Youtube. That’s incredible, akhi. Why did he become Muslim? ”

“You’d have to ask him. But your story is no less amazing, Layth. So yes, that was good news. And Jamil was fine. He was actually the Amir or leader of the Muslim jama’ah in El Reno, as I learned. The one bit of sad news was that Big Wheel – Rashid – had been transferred to the new supermax facility in Colorado. The BOP knew that we Muslims didn’t start the conflict, but there were seven men dead and someone had to be blamed. Cutter and Spider were charged with first degree murder, and Rashid with second degree.

The evening I was released from the hole I sat on the outdoor bandstand with Jamil. We had just prayed Maghreb in a jama’at of thirty brothers. The wind was blowing as usual, but a few hardy mosquitos braved the breeze to try to bite me through my army greens.

I swatted at them. “Where did you learn to move like that?” I asked Jamil, echoing a question that I had been asked many times.

He looked away. “Like what?”

“You know what I mean. I call it ghosting.”

He nodded. “I learned that from an African-American brother in the Leavenworth pen,” he said. “He said he learned it from a Chechen named Abu Kareem. But I don’t know anything about him.”

This is not an important part of the story, but in the years since then I’ve met two other men – both Muslims – who could ghost. One in prison, and one out. Their stories were identical to Jamil’s. They learned it from someone who learned it from Abu Kareem the Chechen. But none of them ever met Abu Kareem in person. So, just a little mystery there.

Jamil was a practitioner of a style of Jujitsu called Danzan-Ryu. I would say that Jamil knew a lot that I didn’t know, but what I knew, I knew better than him. So he became my Sensei, and I became his. It’s not allowed to practice martial arts in prison, but I put in a request to share a cell with Jamil, and it was granted. So Jamil and I would practice in the cell after lockdown. He also taught me to breathe zazen – to meditate, basically – in order to calm my mind before battle.

I’m sure Tuna was glad to see me transferred out. I had nightmares almost every night, and sometimes woke up screaming. He’d complained about it more than once, but what could I do?

A side effect of my sharing a cell with Jamil was that he too became aware of my nightmares.

“What is it you’re afraid of?” he asked me one day.

I thought about it. I usually didn’t remember the nightmares in the morning. But I knew what I feared. I began to tell Jamil about my past, and how everyone I loved had been killed. I spoke of my shame at being unable to protect them, as well as my confusion as to the reasons for their deaths. I told him about the slaughter I had witnessed in Tel-Az-Zaytoon. Was I being punished? Were they? If Allah loved us – the Muslims I mean – and we were His people, then why did we suffer this way? I told him about the horrors of Karanlik, which I have never discussed with anyone else, before or since, and about the despair that had led me to become a drug mule.

Worst of all was Lena’s death, and the fact that she had died in fear, murdered in cold blood. Did she call out for me in her final moments? Did she wonder why I wasn’t there to protect her? And where had I been, in fact? I’d gone out because we had an argument. I had abandoned her, just as she always accused me of doing.

Jamil was a good listener. He let me get it all out of my system, then he put his arm around my shoulders.

“You have a lot of questions, Hassan, and they’re good questions. And I’m not a scholar. But I have a question for you in return:  Do you believe that Allah is the Most Just, and the Most Wise, and the Most Merciful?”

I nodded my head. “Sure.”

“Then you have to trust Him. You have to trust that His choices for us are not arbitrary or capricious. If you look at these issues through the narrow, periscopic view of this dunya, then the answers are elusive. But Allah’s view is vast and incomprehensible to us. His view includes Al-Ghayb and the aakhirah. His view includes not only what happened, but what would have happened and could have happened. You have to trust that Allah will give everyone perfect justice in the end. Not only Charlie, Gala, Daniel and Lena, and all those victims in the camp, but you as well. No one will be cheated or wronged. And on the other side of the scale, your uncle, your cousin, Mr. Black, and that drug dealer, what was his name?”

“Anton.”

“Right. They will receive justice as well. They won’t get away with anything. Allah sees and counts everything. Nothing slips through the cracks. Allah’s reward is huge, and His punishment is terrible.”

“Tell me,” Jamil continued, “What happened to the son of Nuh?”

“He refused to follow his father and was drowned,” I replied.

“How do you think Nuh felt about that?”

“I’m sure he grieved,” I said.

“Yes, but do you think he despaired? Do you think he doubted Allah?”

“No… Of course not.”

“What about Khadija, the beloved wife of the Prophet, peace be upon him? The woman who he loved above all others, and who believed in him and supported him when others stood against him, and shared everything with him? How did she die?”

I thought to what I had read of the Seerah. “She died of illness or malnutrition as a result of the boycott against the Muslims.”

“Uh huh. Do you think that was a punishment?”

“No, not at all. She was a shaheedah.”

“And what about Ibrahim, the Prophet’s son? Do you think that either the Prophet or Ibrahim himself were being punished through his death?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then why did he die? He was even younger than your brother Charlie.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“He died because it was the decree of Allah, for reasons that we can’t understand. Some things are beyond our ken. Everyone dies, Hassan. Some young, some old, some peacefully, some violently, but that’s only part of the story. We live on beyond the veil, and Allah gives us perfect justice and reward in the aakhirah.”

“Okay… but Lena was not Muslim. How can I accept that she’s being punished in the aakhirah, when she was a kind soul? And that she died in fear?”

“You don’t know any of that, akhi. Maybe she died courageously. She understood Islam, right? Maybe Allah opened her heart in that final moment and she went to Allah believing in him.”

“But tawbah at the time of death is not accepted. Fir’awn – “

“Fir’awn was insincere. He would have returned to corruption if he had lived, because he was taghoot, a false god. Do you know about the Jewish boy who used to serve the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam? He became ill, and the Prophet went to visit him on his deathbed, and told him to accept Islam. The boy looked to his father who said, ‘Listen to Abul-Qasim.’ That was the Prophet’s kunya. So the boy accepted Islam and died, and the Prophet said, ‘Praise be to Allah who has saved him from the Hellfire.’… That was a deathbed conversion. It’s a matter of sincerity.

“The thing is brother,” Jamil continued, “You’re making negative assumptions:-  Allah is punishing me. Allah is punishing them. I’ve lost everyone. She died a disbeliever. She died in fear. It’s unfair…

“Instead, you need to make positive assumptions, because we begin from the understanding that Allah wants good for us, and that He is Merciful and Just. So we say, Allah is strengthening me. Allah is testing me.

“As for the Palestinians, Allah took shuhadaa from among them, in order to honor them. Allah is purifying them in the dunya, in order to reward them in the aakhirah. And they have a role to play. If you help Allah He will help you, and make your feet firm. Events play out, until circumstances are right for Allah to bring about a change. And He will. Allah will not allow transgressors to continue forever. The Palestinians will have their homeland one day, Insha’Allah.

“About Lena,” Jamil continued, “she died bravely. She died with faith on her tongue. Positive assumptions. And if not, Allah will take into account the fact that she was a good soul, with a kind heart. The fact that such an unlikely match as you and her fell in love during a war, and that you found each other years later and thousands of miles away, that’s a miracle, akh. Allah doesn’t hand out miracles blithely. You have to believe there was a purpose behind it – one that transcends death itself.”

“What kind of purpose?” I asked. “She’s gone.”

“I don’t know, akhi,” Jamil said. “Allah knows. Maybe the purpose was to transform you. To soften your heart, to make your spirit strong, to bring you to your knees so that you’d be in a position to serve Allah. Or maybe for Lena, to take her out of that terrible state she was in when you found her in Turkey. Yes, she died, but there are things worse than death.

“Make positive assumptions about yourself, your loved ones, and Allah the Most High. It’s the only way to be a believer, and the only way to survive this darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. That’s how  Matthew Arnold described this world.”

“SubhanAllah, brother,” I said. I was stunned by Jamil’s eloquence, and by the truth that he was shining on me like a solar flare. “You’re very articulate.”

Jamil grinned. “Thank you. But I wasn’t always. I’ve been locked up since I was nineteen, and now I’m thirty five. I got my GED in here, then a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion and a master’s degree in anthropology. All by correspondence.”

“Wow. Ma-sha-Allah. What are you going to do with it?”

Jamil shrugged. “I don’t know. Write a book, maybe.”

I looked at him. “it’s not right that you’re still locked up.”

Jamil shook his head. “Tell me,” he said. “Who would you say is more successful in the sight of Allah, me or your uncle? Your uncle is rich and powerful, right? I’m not saying I’m any great believer, but what would you say?”

“Obviously you,” I acknowledged. “My uncle is corrupt and evil. I get it. I have to alter the way I measure failure and success, in life and in death.”

***

There were other incidents of violence down the road, but there’s no need to describe them here. Men killed and men died, but I stayed true to my intention never to kill again, and I never did, even when a few of the Muslim brothers accused me of being weak as a result. Jamil always supported me.

We had some good news a year later when we heard that the charges against Rashid were dropped for lack of evidence.

I lifted weights, practiced martial arts, memorized Quran, and began reading the books in the library. My English reading ability was rusty, but I improved. I taught an Arabic class for the Muslim brothers. Jamil and I had many long conversations about Allah, Islam, the suffering of the Muslim Ummah, and the hardships of life itself, and my understanding of Islam deepened and matured.

I grew into the name Hassan Amir. It was as if all my previous identities and masks fell away, and I discovered that Hassan Amir was who I truly was. I became myself, this man who inhabits my skin, who knows himself, who is still burdened by regrets – I think that’s obvious – but is at least real. There’s no despair in me now. I know that Allah is on my side. I know that He nurtures us, and I know that whatever befalls us or the people we love, Allah is just. He oppresses no one. Every man, woman and child is given his due, in the dunya or the aakhirah. These are things that I only came to understand when I became Hassan Amir.

With good time credits – and I know that might seem comical considering the battles I was in, but in the federal system up to sixty days of good time are awarded on an annual basis and cannot be revoked – and I was awarded ten months good time total – so I served just over seven years. I was released from prison on March 1st, 2002. I was twenty six years old. I was given a plane ticket back to San Francisco – they always release you to your sentencing district – and nothing else. I had a hundred and fifty dollars that I had saved up in my commissary account from my eleven cents per hour prison salary.

I’d been thinking a lot about what my father might have hidden for me, and that was foremost in my mind. I couldn’t imagine what it might be. An unpublished book? Maybe an autobiography or book of poetry? A letter for me, like a message from beyond? Some information about our family? Maybe even something about Boulos? Family photos? Whatever it was, I wanted to find out.

Somehow I had to get to Los Angeles, find my old house – which was undoubtedly inhabited by strangers – and dig up the cement floor in the garage. How I would accomplish that, I did not know.

Next: Hassan’s Tale, Part 15 – Buried Treasure

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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.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm bilal

    September 3, 2014 at 2:18 AM

    Subhaanallah brother, very interesting piece indeed. I especially loved the conversation btw Jamil and Hassan. There is a lesson for all in that, I think.

    • Avatar

      Safa

      September 4, 2014 at 11:59 PM

      Agree with Um Bilal and ditto to the rest of the comments left by the readers.

      This piece was uplifting and unique. Jazakumuallahu khayran for taking time & thought to make it so

  2. Avatar

    Hassan Zawahir

    September 3, 2014 at 5:12 AM

    Jamil the Jujitsu Fighter.

    • Avatar

      Abdullah

      September 3, 2014 at 8:14 AM

      Shbahanallah brother such inspiring words

  3. Avatar

    J K

    September 3, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    I would definitely buy your novel once it’s released just to reread everything all over again!

  4. Avatar

    Omrie

    September 3, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    Mash’Allah!!! The conversation between Jamil and Hassan uplifted my dampened spirits and Iman this morning. Great work brother Wael!!!

  5. Avatar

    Omer

    September 3, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    Salam Aliakom brother Wael,
    I have to admit when you started Hassan’s tale,I was pretty impatient and did not expect it to go on this long. With the impending danger posed by Mr Green literally sitting outside his building on the sidewalk, I got really anxious to see how the Hassan/Green confrontation would evolve. However you did win me over with the amazing intricate details and drama in Hassan’s life. Hassan’s tale in itself is an easily stand alone story and I am excited to see the next chapter.

    That being said it did go longer then I expected , and perhaps longer then you yourself expected, so I am just curious to know what your current plot plan is-if you are allowed to reveal it-. How many more chapters do you think Hassan’s tale will take and do you still need a few months before you start the next story?

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 3, 2014 at 5:17 PM

      Omer, you’re right, Hassan’s Tale came out longer than I expected. When the story is done I will restructure it for the text and e-book versions, Insha’Allah. Maybe as an autobiography or journal by Hassan.

      I believe the next installment of Hassan’s Tale will be the last. After that we will focus on the present-day action in the final story, Ouroboros. However, I might need a month or so to plot that story before writing it.

  6. Avatar

    sameera

    September 3, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    Subanallah I wait for Wednesday very eagerly to read the next chp. I loved the conversation between hassan and jamil. It sure made me reflect about my life.

  7. Avatar

    Humaira Khan

    September 3, 2014 at 8:46 PM

    Very nicely done! I didn’t realize I’d missed this many chapters and just finished catching up. Some passages really spoke to me like the one about positive expectations.

  8. Avatar

    M

    September 4, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    Jazak Allah khair brother, I really needed the Hassan-Jamil conversation, it helped a lot. I wasn’t expecting it. It’s really interesting how Allah helps you from unexpected places. Jazak Allah Khair once again. May Allah bless you.

  9. Avatar

    Amatullah

    September 4, 2014 at 6:26 AM

    “Positive Assumptions” indeed gave me positive vibes !! :) Allahumma Baarik Laka.

  10. Avatar

    Iman

    September 5, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    mashaAllah. that conversation was a homerun, Brother! thank you for serving Allah in this way.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 5, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      Thank you, Iman. I’m afraid the next chapter will be a walk to first base by comparison. But not every chapter can be a spiritual high note. Sometimes you just have to advance the plot :-)

  11. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    September 9, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    As-salamu alaykum guys and gals. I’m sorry, but I’ll need one more week for the final chapter of Hassan’s Tale. It’s two thirds complete but is turning out to be a long chapter. See you in a week, Insha’Allah!

    • Avatar

      H

      September 12, 2014 at 12:47 PM

      May Allah ease it for you iA. I must say, it’s well worth the wait! :)

  12. Avatar

    Omrie

    September 10, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    ohhhh yikes brother Wael. I was eagerly awaiting today’s read. However, i do understand that it takes time to produce such a masterpiece. I’ll be waiting for the conclusion insh’Allah and may Allah bless you abundantly.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 10, 2014 at 4:11 PM

      Yes, I’m sorry about that Omrie. I’m working on it as we speak.

      • Avatar

        Hafsa

        September 17, 2014 at 12:44 AM

        Can we expect an update tonight?

  13. Avatar

    Wazeed

    September 11, 2014 at 12:28 AM

    This was very unique! I know some basic intricacies in the US horrible Prison system but the Brotherhood, Iman and Jihad from the bothers in jail is truly inspiring. Muslim in Prison have NO LUXERY of being divided. The idea of a ummah really seems to connect now. These brothers barley knew each other and were willing to give there lives up for each other.

    PS: I know this is a fictional story but I’m 99% sure this would apply to our brothers in prison. May Allah SWT free our brothers and sisters who have been false imprisoned.

    bi-yadikal khayr. ‘Innaka ‘alaa kulli shay-‘in qadeer.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 11, 2014 at 12:31 AM

      The Muslim brothers in prison can be inspiring. They are among the strongest, most dedicated Muslims I know. Some say that it’s easy to practice Islam in prison, where you have no distractions, but that’s not true. You’re battling a hostile administration, the sense of powerlessness that comes with being incarcerated, and the daily challenges of loneliness and danger. It’s no accident that some of our greatest Muslim leaders spent time in prison.

      Oh, and although this story is fictional, Jamil and Rashid are both real people. I changed a few minor details but they are both described almost exactly as they are.

      • Avatar

        Wazeed

        September 23, 2014 at 7:47 PM

        the funniest part is that I only read the first page LOL. I finally noticed there was 3 other pages. SubahanAllah.

  14. Avatar

    um abdelrahman

    September 11, 2014 at 3:21 PM

    Great addition, mashaa Allah!

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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 7: The Underground Dream

Behind them, the city was burning. Omar and a thousand others descended into the cave, led by the red-robed Saviors.

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Caves of Borneo

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

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

“Not without you,” – Omar

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Omar’s mother flipped when she saw the bruising on his face – how could she not, when the whole right side of his face was the color of an eggplant – and demanded to know who had attacked him, but he merely told her he’d slipped and fallen in a pothole, which was true as far as it went. No point in freaking her out further with the details. Though Omar didn’t see why she should care. Nemesio had beaten him for years and she hadn’t stopped it. Why should it matter now? It smacked of hypocrisy.

He was not the type to give up on anything, so the next morning he ate the breakfast his mother prepared – scrambled eggs, corn tortillas with white cheese, and coffee – and set out again for Hani’s house. This time he made it without incident, although he was exhausted by the time he got there, and his shirt and hair were damp with sweat.

Hani lived in an orange-colored home with peeling paint and a high metal fence surrounding a tiny front yard. Curiously, there was a moving van parked in front of the house, and a stack of boxes on the front patio.

Hani’s mother, a thin Arab woman with a long face just like her son’s, answered the door.

“Omar!” she said warmly. “It’s been too long.” Then her eyes took in the scars on his face, his half-ruined ear, and the massive purple bruise on his face, and her smile faded. “What happened?” She pointed to her own cheek. “Is that bruising from the… the incident?”

“No. I fell down yesterday. But I’m fine.”

“I see. Be careful.” She seemed at a loss for a moment, then she said, “I saw you on television. Congratulations for the award.”

“Are you guys moving?”

Her smile faded. “Yes. We are moving to Bogotá. For Hani’s father’s work, you understand. I know Hani will miss you.”

“Oh.” Omar was taken aback. He and Hani had known each other since they were little. Now he was moving without warning? Omar doubled up his hands on the cane, resting more weight on it. “When are you leaving?”

“In a few days. Hani is not here. He went with his father to buy boxes.”

“Oh.” Knowing he must sound like a simpleton. “Should I come back later?”

Hani’s mother hesitated, emotions playing on her face like the shadows of rain clouds. “Maybe not. He will be very busy.”

Omar did not understand. He wanted to ask if she could give him a ride home, but was too embarrassed. He walked slowly home and collapsed into bed for a long afternoon nap.

Underground

Caves of Borneo Behind them, the city was burning. Not from bombs, but from the hands of citizens against citizens. But the bombs would fall soon, they were told, so they were led into the cave and down into the depths of the mountain’s roots, a thousand of them shuffling toe to heel in the shifting darkness, lit by the pale illumination of the hand-powered flashlights carried by the red-robed Saviors.

Omar craned his head at the barely seen walls and ceilings of the caverns they passed through. The cave was frigid and damp, and he could not imagine this as his new home.

They would be safe here, they were told, and would be fed. But they must work. Life would be hard. Such was the price of survival.

And oh, they did work. Not at farming, technology, communications, or tending to the sick. No, they worked at one thing: mining for gold. Omar was a digger, excavating shafts and spiral tunnels. Others were muckers, removing blasted materials, or mixers, using cyanide to break down the ore. Some died from the poisonous fumes. Others were killed by cave-ins, vanished into unseen pits or crevices, or died of malnutrition or exhaustion. The “food,” if it could be called that, consisted of freeze dried meals, holding as much moisture and flavor as cave dust.

A few objected to the unceasing work and terrible food. One in particular, a young man named Javier, stirred up a fuss. One day the Saviors seized him. They held a public trial, declared Javier a traitor, and dropped him into a bottomless crevice that everyone called the Pit. After that no one complained.

Omar saw Samia from time to time. She was lucky enough to be a dowser – one of the gifted few who had the ability to find veins of gold. The only tool she used was a small candle floating in a bowl of water, which she carried with her. Somehow it worked. She was better fed than the others but still thin, all her baby fat gone, and her skin had a grayish tint that worried Omar.

One of Omar’s co-laborers, a former Ngäbe-Buglé leader by the name of Toribio, had broken a rib when a supporting beam snapped. Omar covered for him, working twice as hard, doing Toribio’s work as well as his own. In return, Toribio gave Omar an entire loaf of flatbread. Real bread! Omar could not imagine where it had come from, and Toribio would not say.

That night, Omar slinked stealthily into the women’s sleeping area, where he found Samia jammed into a too-small sleeping hole. He woke her with a hand over her mouth, and gave her the bread. Her eyes widened and she nodded, and Omar departed as silently as he had come.

Toribio’s broken rib must have punctured his lung, because his condition grew worse, until one morning he would not wake. He was barely breathing, and his skin was ashen. Omar knew what would happen. The Saviors would throw the wounded man into the pit. His eyes flicked to Toribio’s boots. Toribio was small, about the same size as Samia. He would not need the boots where he was going. Omar unlaced them and pulled them off, feeling like a criminal.

That night, he slipped into the women’s area and gave Samia the boots. But one of the women must have seen him and reported him, because the next morning the Saviors yanked him out of the work line and beat him with a stave, until he was bruised and bleeding everywhere.

Omar knew that something was not right. If the Saviors cared about saving anyone, they would not treat people so cruelly. Also, the Saviors claimed that they met with other survivor clans and traded the mined gold for supplies. But if that were true, then why were they eating dreck and wearing rags? Why did they sleep in tiny rock chambers that they dug out themselves with hand tools?

Above ground, they were told, the world was a ruin. The cities were destroyed, the forests burned, the air poisoned. Only in these depths was there any hope of survival. But Omar wondered… The Saviors were robust, not starving like everyone else. And what would a ruined world need with gold?

Late one night, Omar followed one of the Saviors. If he were caught he’d be publicly beaten, and might not survive. He followed at the edge of the man’s light as the red-robed overseer sneaked up a narrow tunnel that led to a locked door. Omar memorized the route, knowing that if he came this way alone he would do it in darkness. The man unlocked the door and slipped through. Omar could not follow.

The next day, as he was carrying a wheelbarrow full of unprocessed ore, he bumped into that same Savior. The ore tumbled out. The man shouted in rage and beat Omar with a stick, splitting his cheek and bruising his ribs. But Omar had what he wanted: he’d slipped the key out of the man’s pocket in the chaos.

Late that night he crept out of his sleeping chamber and traveled up the long corridor in pitch darkness, walking with his eyes closed, relying on memory. He reached the door, unlocked it, and found no more than a continuation of the tunnel. But… wasn’t there a whisper of a breeze? He continued. Was the tunnel rising? And the air… it was fresher. Now he saw light ahead, not bright but a lighter shade of darkness than the inky depths below.

The tunnel emerged into the vast openness of the surface world. It was night, and the stars shone blindingly in the sprawling firmament. Had the sky always been so vast? Omar could not remember. The air was rich with the scents of leaves and soil. A night bird called, and it was the sweetest thing Omar had ever heard. He felt something on his face, wiped it away, and realized he was weeping.

The area was forested, except for a paved road that disappeared into the trees, and a squat stone building with firelight flickering through the windows. Omar heard laughter. He eased forward and peered through a window. Inside was a beautiful dining room with a wide wooden table, colorful fabrics hanging on the walls, and logs burning in a fireplace. At the table sat eight Saviors. Omar recognized their faces, though they looked different without their red robes, which hung on hooks along one wall.

They were feasting on dishes that Omar remembered as if through a dream: whole roasted chickens, platters of fish stewed with vegetables, fresh salads, fried plantains, and sliced mangoes and pineapples. Omar’s mouth was instantly full of saliva. But he must return before someone spotted him. The Saviors would kill him if they caught him. He stopped only long enough to pick up a freshly fallen leaf and thrust it into his pocket.

Back in his sleeping chamber, his mind raced. The people would not believe him. Their obedience of the Saviors was absolute. Every day they were told that they would be dead without the overseers’ vision and guidance, that the surface world was a wasteland, and that only through labor could they be saved. If the people reported him to the Saviors, he would be cast into the Pit.

He could simply leave. The key was burning a hole in his pocket, demanding to be used. There was no need to remain in this tomb of horrors. But… he could not leave without Samia. The two of them hardly spoke. But they were connected in a way he could not explain.

The next night he returned to Samia’s sleeping chamber, knowing someone might see him and report him. It was a risk he must take. In whispers, he told Samia what he had discovered.

She was skeptical. “The surface world is a wasteland, Omar. You were only dreaming. Go away before you get us both in trouble.”

He showed her the leaf. Her eyes widened. She felt it tenderly, smelled it, even bit a piece off and chewed it. She began to weep silently. Finally she thrust the leaf back at him, her hand shaking. “I can’t. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in the Pit. It terrifies me. I can’t, Omar, I can’t. You go. At least one of us will be free of this nightmare. You leave.”

He silenced her with a finger on her lips. “Not without you,” he said softly. Then he departed as silently as he’d come. What could he do? Her fear was more real to her than his promise of freedom.

He hid the key beneath a stone in a disused mining tunnel, and went back to work. He would not abandon Samia. If she wanted to stay and be worked to death in this abyss, then he would do the same.

* * *

He woke with his hands clenched into fists. His heart felt like a withered leaf. Why was Samia so stubborn? Then relief washed over him as he realized it was only a dream. He was not a beaten-down, kidnapped laborer in an underground tomb.

How strange that Samia should appear in his dream. That had never happened before. The eerie thing was that even awake, he could not shake a sense of responsibility and guilt, as if he had truly abandoned some version of her, some alternate personality that existed in that mine, sleeping in a hole in the wall and slowly dying.

Snow in Fiji

After that movie night at his house, Omar had hoped that maybe he’d have actual friends at school. He’d be one of the “in crowd”. Especially now that Tameem and Basem were gone. But with Hani gone as well, Omar was the only boy left in his grade. There was no “crowd” left to be a part of.

Fiji snow globe Sure, the Muhammad sisters were cheery and kind. They brought him little gifts, like homemade cookies, and a snowglobe from Fiji, which was funny, since Omar was sure it had not snowed in Fiji in about five hundred million years. Nabila brought him sports jerseys, a Buffalo Bills baseball cap, and once even a cool pair of navy wraparound shades – all more sponsor swag.

But Halima was remote, finding excuses to avoid him. That stung. Not that he imagined she’d become his girlfriend. He knew that was not allowed in Islam. But when she smiled at him and made witty banter in her Colombian slang, he felt like he was drifting in a rowboat on a clear summer lake, and never wanted the moment to end.

The one time he gathered up the courage to ask Halima why she was so distant, she only smiled ruefully and said, “You’re out of my league, hermano.” Then she walked away. Omar assumed she was being sarcastic, and was actually telling him that she was out of his league. And of course she was right. Chastened, he left her in peace.

As for him and Samia, they mostly went back to ignoring each other. Omar appreciated the way she’d stayed by his side in the hospital, and her words of wisdom. But the two of them had never really been friends, unless you counted the way they’d pranked each other relentlessly when they were little. Samia was too much of a know-it-all for Omar’s taste.

Still, a string of odd incidents made him wonder. Once at lunchtime, a bottle of Pepsi that had been in his lunch bag exploded as he opened it, fountaining all over his face and shirt. Some kids laughed, while others were horrified, hurrying with napkins to help him clean up. What made Omar suspicious was that Samia, who sat at another table with her back to him, did not even turn to look.

Another time, when they sat for keyboarding class, Omar’s computer mouse would not work, no matter how much he jiggled it, unplugged it, and re-plugged it. Finally he turned it over, and saw that someone had stuck a post-it note over the optical sensor. Written on the note was, “HA HA HA.” Omar’s eyes shot to Samia. A Spanish speaker would have written, “JA JA JA.” Using the “h” gave the person away as a native English speaker. But Samia’s eyes were resolutely fixed on her computer screen.

Omar confronted Samia, who only rolled her eyelids and said, “Come on, Omar. That’s kid stuff.”

The Next Person Goes in the Garbage Can

In the middle of that eleventh grade year, a new boy named Fuad arrived to join Omar’s class. Omar was pleased to have another boy to keep him company, but Fuad was an odd duck. The Indian boy spoke in a heavy accent that Omar could barely understand, his eyeglasses were so thick you could see nothing but a blur behind them, and a mass of black hair always hung down over his eyes. He was physically awkward, and would sometimes rush out to the bathroom without even asking the teacher. A strange boy, altogether.

Lightning-scarred oak treeShortly after Fuad arrived, Omar overheard a few 12th graders making fun of him. They were both new kids whose parents had just moved to Panama. Mahboob, the leader, was a heavyset, full-cheeked Pakistani youth who looked more like a brown refrigerator than a high school student. He was known for being physically rough in football games. His sidekick, Asad, had a thin face that looked like a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a mass of curly hair much like Omar’s own.

Omar was sitting with his back against a tree in his usual spot on the yard, while the older boys sat at one of the nearby picnic tables. As Fuad walked past, Mahboob called out to him:

“Hey mophead! You’re so skinny, if we need to clean the floor we could hold you like a mop and use your hair.”

Mahboob grinned at his own joke, and Asad let out a high pitched, giggling laugh.

Fuad turned and said politely, “I beg your pardon? You are saying what about my hair?”

But Omar was already on his feet, striding quickly toward the boys, not even using his cane. He stopped in front of Mahboob and glared at the large youth. The hulking 12th grader could probably have picked up Omar and used him as a conga drum, and for a moment Mahboob looked as if he might be about to say something, but in the end he averted his gaze.

Omar had experienced this with all the kids since the dog attack. They held him in awe, or at the very least respected him. Though these two had not been hear last year, they must have heard about it.

Omar touched an index finger to his lips then pointed sharply with it – an Arab gesture he’d picked up during his years at IIAP. “Wallahi,” he growled, “the next person who bullies Fuad is going in the trash can. Try and see, if you don’t believe me.” He stared at each boy in turn, then walked away.

It wasn’t that he had any great fondness for Fuad. He barely knew him. But he’d been the victim of bullying for years while others stood by, and there was no way on Allah’s sweet earth that Omar was going to become one of those silent bystanders, letting apathy make him complicit in cruelty.

Apparently the bullies didn’t believe him.

The next day, after school dismissal, the Muhammad sisters’ mother, Sister Farida, had offered Omar a ride home. He was about to climb into their SUV when he realized he’d forgotten his homework folder in his desk. The 9th to 12th grade classrooms were located in an outbuilding behind the main building, flanking the basketball court. He went out there, retrieved the folder, and had just exited the classroom when he saw a drama developing between Fuad and the two older boys.

Fuad was apparently retrieving books from his locker. As he did, Mahboob and Asad stood behind him, blocking his way. The yard was mostly empty at that point, with only a few younger kids milling about, and no teachers. No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

As he watched, Fuad said something to the boys and tried to walk away, but Mahboob stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fuad fell heavily on his face. His glasses skittered away, and his backpack opened, the books tumbling out.

The boys laughed. Omar saw Fuad put a hand to his mouth. It came away bloody.

Omar’s vision turned as red as a forest fire. His hands tightened into fists as he strode toward the bullies, not even hearing the clatter of his cane as it fell to the ground.

The look on his face must have been unmistakeable, because when Mahboob saw him coming he raised his hands in fists. His stance was terrible, however. He held his fists along the sides of his ears, as if he were one of the pre-Islamic Arabs trying not to hear the Quran. It was obvious he had no training.

Where the head goes, the body follows – one of the martial arts principles that Sensei Alan had drilled into him over the years. Omar could not lift Mahboob, but he could control the bigger boy’s head. Slapping Mahboob’s hands out of the way, he seized the boy’s hair in one hand and his throat in the other. Giving the twelfth grader no time to react, he used Mahboob’s head to drag him toward the trash can. Mahboob shouted, as did the others, but Omar paid no mind. With a heave, he chucked Mahboob headfirst into the trash barrel, which was brimming with the day’s food leftovers and chewed gum balls. The can could not hold him, and tipped over, dumping the trash onto Mahboob’s head.

Asad jabbed a finger at Omar. “You can’t do that!”

Omar seized the finger and bent it backwards, forcing Asad down to the ground, until he was lying on his stomach. Omar stepped on his neck. Mahboob was up by then, wet, sticky garbage clinging to his shirt and hair. His face was purple with rage and embarrassment. He and the other two boys glared at Omar. Comically, Mahboob took off his sandal and lifted it as if to slap Omar with it. Thank goodness he has no confidence, Omar thought. Or he would just pick me up and slam me.

“I can do this all day,” Omar said calmly. The red fog was gone. He knew what he had done, and didn’t care. Boys like this were wild dogs. His days of backing down to dogs were over. “So far it’s garbage and a bent finger. You want to move up to broken bones?” He turned a fierce stare onto Mahboob. Under the weight of his glare, the hefty boy dropped the sandal and slipped his foot back into it.

Asad screamed and thrashed beneath his foot. Omar removed his foot and stepped back.

“You know about those dogs that attacked me?”

“Yeah, we know!” Asad shouted as he rose to his feet. Tears filled his eyes. “So what?”

“You know what happened to them?”

“No.”

“They’re dead. If you bully Fuad again, I’ll come after you. You outnumber me, but I don’t stop. You’ll have to kill me, or I will kill you.”

Mahboob pointed a shaking finger at Omar, then – apparently remembering what had happened to Hamada – retracted it quickly. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. He turned away, and Asad followed. Mahboob kicked the basketball pole, then cried out in pain and limped on, pulling garbage out of his hair.

Someone touched his shoulder and Omar was surprised to find Fuad standing beside him. The boy had recovered his belongings. His lower lip was split, and he’d apparently wiped the blood away with his white school shirt. The bloodstains looked ghastly.

“You did not have to do that,” Fuad said. “But I thank you nonetheless.”

Omar suppressed a grin at Fuad’s oddly proper English. “It’s nothing.”

The main building’s back door opened, and Nabila stuck her head out. “Omar! We’re waiting for you.”

Omar slapped his forehead. He’d forgotten. Nodding goodbye to Fuad, he retrieved his cane and hustled out to the parking lot. As he settled himself in the van, Nadia said, “What took you so long? I’m writing a book called Rip Van Omar.”

“Oh.” Omar wiped sweat from his forehead. “I got caught in a parade.”

Neither a Miracle Nor a Brute

Omar was worried about the repercussions of the fight. He could be permanently expelled. Nothing happened, however. The other boys apparently did not report the incident. Still, word must have gotten out, because no one so much as spoke a slantwise word to Fuad after that.

Omar also noticed that the deference the other kids afforded him seemed to increase, to the point where he got more respect than the principal. Younger kids came running to him instead of a teacher when someone pushed them around. Some kids brought him fruit or chips. When he made his way down a crowded hallway it cleared in front of him.

Omar and Fuad began eating lunch together. Once Omar got used to the thick accent, he found Fuad to be smart and funny, though his sense of humor – all math and physics jokes – took some getting used to. (Two atoms are walking down the street. One says, “I think I lost an electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first one says, “Yes, I’m positive.”)

One weekend Fuad invited Omar to come to his house to play cards and have dinner. Omar didn’t know any card games, but he accepted. Aside from Fuad and his parents, there was a younger brother with equally thick hair and glasses – Omar had seen him at school, he was a fourth grader – and a little girl named Anika who continually charged around the apartment waving a toy lightsaber.

Indian rice and cauliflower dish When dinner was served, Omar started in on a dish of rice, stewed beef and cauliflower. He took two bites before his mouth began to burn. He gulped down water, but that only made it worse. His eyes began to water, and he was sure his face was cherry red.

Fuad’s mother was apologetic. In spite of Omar’s protests, she went into the kitchen and, ten minutes later, returned with a dish of rice and cauliflower sans spice. For the rest of the evening, nearly everyone teased him about his “tender tongue.” After dinner, Fuad taught him a game called hearts, then the entire family sat to play.

In the middle of the game, Fuad suddenly leaped up and rushed off to the bathroom. Omar laughed. “He does that at school too! Like it’s always an emergency.”

Fuad’s father, a gentle man with a thick moustache, touched Omar’s arm. “He has epilepsy. The medication stops the grand mal seizures, but he still gets petit mal attacks. He can feel them coming, so he runs away to hide. He’s very embarrassed by it.”

Omar was mortified. Fuad’s father must have seen that, because he touched Omar’s arm again. “You did not know. Fuad told us what you did for him. We are grateful.”

Omar visited Fuad many times after that. It was always the same: Fuad’s mom would make one meal for the family, and a separate meal for Omar. Then the family would either play cards, watch a movie or all go for a walk together.

Omar enjoyed these visits, but at the same time he felt like he did not belong. These people were part of something Omar had rarely seen: a happy family. The only other one he’d seen, in fact, was Tio Niko and Tia Teresa’s family. They at least were relatives, and were Panamanians, with all the familiarity, loudness and general nuttiness that implied. But Fuad’s family were polite and soft-spoken – even Anika, the sword wielder, who would charge around waving her lightsaber then lightly tap Omar on the shoulder and say, “Touché, dear sir.”

They were gentle, normal people. Omar had a feeling none had ever committed a violent act, or been a victim of one. Whereas his own life had been immersed in violence for years. His father’s murder. Nemesio beating him. Sparring in karate class. The dog attack. The mugging. He couldn’t escape it. When he sat with Fuad’s family he felt like a fraud. His voice was too loud, his hands too rough, his scars too visible. He was a brute, and he did not belong.

At times, during these visits, Omar felt almost overwhelmed by these feelings. When that happened, he often remembered Samia saying, “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Sometimes the memory of these words would bring tears to his eyes, and he would excuse himself and go to the bathroom to wash his face. As strange as this was to admit, a part of him felt like if anyone truly understood him, it was Samia. He didn’t think he was truly a miracle, as she claimed. But maybe he was not a brute either. Maybe he was something in the middle. Maybe he was just human.

A Lifeline in a Choppy Sea

Aside from the persistent, low-level pain from his injuries – particularly in his left leg, which had actually been broken by the dogs’ teeth – he felt better this year than at any time since his father’s death. Still, there were times when he was dizzied by all the changes, and fell into sadness. Part of him missed having Hani around, exchanging banter with Halima, and practicing karate.

And as crazy as it was, he almost – almost – felt like he missed the abuse and bullying he’d been subjected to. He felt baffled and angry at himself for feeling this way, and cursed himself for being an idiot. What was wrong with him? But the thing was, as terrible as the last four years had been, the viciousness had given his life purpose. Every day he’d awakened and known that the day would be a battle, and he could rely on no one but himself to survive it. Whether it meant keeping his head down and hiding, or turning himself into a stone, so that nothing affected him, his mission was to get through the day without letting it break him. He even missed having to run away to Tia Teresa and Tio Niko’s house when the abuse became intolerable. The constant struggle had defined him.

Now, he felt directionless. There were his studies, sure. And he helped his mom with Puro Panameño after school, boxing products and printing shipping labels. But what was he really doing? Where was he going? He’d never had the luxury of being able to think about these things before.

He’d always been attentive to his salat, but not rigorously so, and had often missed prayers. Now, though, he found himself turning to the salat as if to a lifeline thrown to an overboard sailor in a choppy sea. It wasn’t a conscious choice. The salat reminded him of his days as a small child, when his father had taught him what to say and how to move. It was a respite from confusion. A few still, calm moments in which he knew once again who he was:  not an abused boy entering each new day like a soldier at war, but a servant of Allah, a worshiper, and a member of a nation of 1.5 billion souls. If he had a mission and a purpose, then it must be tied to that, because in the end, nothing else was real.

Love Letter

The year went by, and the next. Every two or three months there would be a new prank. He did not feel bullied by them, though. They were a mystery to be solved. But in two years he never discovered the perpetrator.

He graduated high school with high honors. The scars on his face were much less noticeable, though his ear would always be disfigured. He’d pushed himself with physical therapy and had resumed karate class, though he had to make adjustments. He could not kick with his left leg, for example, and found himself relying more on hand techniques. Sparring was out of the question. He no longer needed a cane, but still walked with a limp.

His mother’s company, Puro Panameño, now had a small warehouse space on the Transistmica, and two full-time employees. Omar worked there part time, taking customer service calls. The customers were almost all women, and the regulars got to know him by name. Some had seen him on TV. They’d ask about his life, and flirt with him in the harmless way many Panamanian women did.

Pink envelope On the last day of school, Halima gave him a small golden envelope, telling him to open it at home. Later, sitting on the edge of his bed, he opened it to find an ornately folded letter. When he unfolded it, a pressed rose fell out. He picked it up, set it on the bed and began to read the  handwritten letter:

I’m sorry that I have not been friendly the last few years. After the Day of the Dogs, I found myself thinking of you all the time, and I had to admit to myself that I loved you. I have never known anyone so strong, brave and smart like you. And not only because of what you did that day. Even before that, I knew your life wasn’t easy, and I admired the way you never let anyone stop you from advancing.

I never told you this because there’s no point. I know you would not want to do anything haram, and I feel the same. Now my father is sending me to Universidad Nacional de Colombia, his alma mater. I will live with my aunt. So I will never see you again. Besides, I’m not good enough for you. I never was. Take care of yourself. I will always remember you.

Your dear friend,
Halima

Omar was stunned. Never in his wildest imaginings would he have thought Halima had such feelings for him. And what did she mean that she was not good enough for him? He wanted to rush to her house and say, “No, don’t leave, you are good enough for me. I love you too!” But did he actually love her? He wasn’t sure he knew what love was.

Sure, there was the Hollywood version where two people were caught up in a wonderful, heated passion. Those romances always ended in disaster, at least in the movies. One of them killed the other, or one was a con artist, or an undercover cop. Then there was the version where the straight-laced, boring man fell in love with the mad, hot, out-of-control woman. That didn’t seem to apply. Oh yeah, and the one where one of the pair was not who they were portraying to be. The prince who pretended to be a commoner, or the college professor who was mistaken for a spy. Omar didn’t see how any of those related to his situation.

He liked Halima for sure, but love? He guessed not. Plus, she was leaving, and it was probably true that they’d never see each other again. Shaking his head, he let out a perplexed sigh. Life was confusing. At times like this he wished his father was alive.

He slid the letter and rose back into the envelope, stuck it in the bottom of a shoebox that contained miscellaneous old letters and postcards, and did his best to forget it.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 8:  Rich and Poor

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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Podcast: The Fiqh of FIFA | Mufti Hussain Kamani

Zeba Khan

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It’s estimated that 3 billion people play some sort of video game, whether on a computer, console, or smart phone.  For the millions of Muslims included in this number, what’s the halal and haram of this? Is gaming a good thing? When is gaming a bad thing?

“I know a lot of kids in our community who play Minecraft to develop skills. I respect that because it’s now a tool being used for their education.” -Mufti Hussain Kamani

In this podcast, Zeba Khan talks to Mufti Hussain Kamani, a hafiz, scholar, and -surprise!- gamer, about the Islamic perspective on gaming, entertainment, and the fiqh of FIFA loot boxes.

“Do loot boxes and their contents carry any value or not? Is there a monetary value to that Messi card? If it’s all ones and zeros then you can’t technically classify that as gambling, but I believe that’s too simplistic. We live in a world of cryptocurrency. There are things that carry value beyond physical objects.” – Mufti Hussain Kamani

Is gaming halal? Are lootboxes haram? Does Mufti Hussain Kamani play FIFA, and can I join his league? Click To Tweet
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Then and Now: Rereading Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

Zainab (AnonyMouse)

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In 2007, at the brash, naive, and frankly moronic age of 16, I penned a scathing review of Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” for this very website, MuslimMatters.org. Thirteen years later, I read it again – only to find myself deeply, utterly in love with this book.

Khadra Shamy is the American daughter of Syrian immigrants, Wajdy and Ebtahaj, who dreamt of little more than dedicating themselves to the Da’wah in their tiny Muslim community in Indiana. Khadra grows up immersed in the culture of conservative da’wah: of the Deen being black and white, of certain rules followed scrupulously, of culture frowned upon in exchange for the purity of Islam. As she moves from a 10 year old child overwhelmed with guilt for accidentally eating gelatin-containing candy corn, to a black-clad, angry teenager who reads Qutb and supports the Iranian Revolution, to a college student who dutifully marries young, Khadra finds the foundations of her worldview slowly cracking. 

Going for Hajj was not spiritually revolutionary, but a dark glimpse of what Arab youth get up to in the heartland of Islam; after devoting herself to tajweed and hifdh, Khadra is told that she must stop reciting Qur’an in mixed gatherings and that Qur’an competitions are only open to men. Her ideal Islamic marriage begins to crumble when her husband evokes the Qawwam card to prohibit her from riding her bike in public – and when she gets pregnant, only to decide on an abortion, and then a divorce, Khadra creates a schism between herself, her community, and all that she has known. In the years that follow, Khadra breaks down and recreates her identity as a Muslim and her beliefs about Islam. 

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In many ways, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is both a love letter and a breakup note to conservative Muslims. Kahf’s book traces, with intimate authenticity, what it is to be a Western-raised child of parents immersed in the Da’wah; our quirks and eccentricities and ties to a back home culture that we don’t always understand; our hidden hypocrisies and our secret shames. She breathes into words the tenderness of our bonds of faith, the flames of our religious passion, the complexities of our relationships. She knows who we are, how we are, and she speaks to us in our own words. Perhaps ahead of her time, she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims, of the almost insurmountable distance between the theory of Islam for Muslim women, and the reality of what Muslim women experience.

Of course, it comes with a price. Kahf ends her novel by having Khadra follow the by-now-predictable trajectory that we have seen from many Muslims of a progressive bent: Sufism is the only acceptable fluffy-enough type of Islam; all paths, even outside of Islam, lead to God; conservative Muslims are embarrassing, suffocating, and are holding their communities back from true spiritual enlightenment. To be fair, Kahf doesn’t hold back from pointing out the hypocrisies of secular liberal types either, and she is far softer and more tender in her portrayals of conservatives as well. 

It is worth taking a closer look at how Kahf chose to take Khadra down the path of progressiveness. Khadra’s story is a mirror of so many true stories, of children from religious families whose resentment over their experiences pushed them to choose an easier way, one less rooted in following Shari’ah and more a vague idea of spirituality. This narrative portrays turning progressive as the only logical conclusion to such experiences, which is in itself deeply problematic. In truth, there are many Muslims – born Muslims and converts alike – who have suffered far worse than merely restrictive upbringings, or unhappy marriages, and who have chosen instead to commit themselves even more determinedly to orthodoxy. Spirituality is not the sole domain of Sufis or liberals; it is part and parcel of Islam itself, even in its most conservative form. To imply otherwise is a dishonesty that is found all too often amongst those who have their own biases and agendas against any form of Islam that does not feel flexible enough for their own tastes.

As a particularly ridiculous 16-year-old Salafi, I was too consumed in my outrage at Khadra leaving the aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jamaa’ah, and too busy agreeing with her ex-husband on the inappropriateness of Muslim women riding bikes in public, to understand or appreciate this deeply emotional journey. Fast forward 13 years, and 29-year-old me identifies far more with Khadra than my past self could ever have imagined. Little had I known, that first time, that I too would experience what Khadra and so many other Muslim women have: the painfully cliche toxic marriage to controlling Muslim men who use Islam to suffocate our souls and our spirits. (But really, 16yo Zainab??? You legit thought that Khadra’s husband was justified in stopping her from riding her bike??? You almost deserved going through practically the same thing, you idiot.)

Rereading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as an adult, having lived through my own traumas and growth, through spiritual crisis and rediscovery, was a very different experience. My own upbringing was very similar to Khadra’s: in a religious da’wah bubble, surrounded by an insistence on Islamic ideals, blithely ignoring Muslim realities (and occasionally denying them outright). The self righteous ignorance in my 2007 review has me dying a thousand deaths of mortification, and I am all too aware of just how much like teenaged Khadra I was back then. Thirteen years later, my cynicism knows no bounds, my bitterness sours all idealism, and I feel a deep urge to slap my past self upside the head. There’s some Divine irony in all of this, I suppose; certainly, it is cause for reflection on the value of personal growth and maturity, of how the years and one’s experiences can turn one into the very person they once derided. I relate far more to Khadra today than my teenaged self could ever have imagined, and in many ways, I only wish that I could have retained the blithe innocence (if not the ignorance) that I once had in abundance. Following Khadra on her journey was to retrace my own steps, to remember precisely how and when I, too, made the choice to become someone new.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim.Click To Tweet

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim. Kahf does not waste time explaining things to a non-Muslim audience, nor does she hold back from dishing out hard truths to Muslim readers. She knows us, inside and out, and it is this startling familiarity that pulls one in and doesn’t let go until we find ourselves shocked that we’ve reached the end of the book. In the era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Mohja Kahf was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of diverse fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a damned good book – one that will have you blinking away furious tears and lay awake at night, feeling your heart ache with unforgotten, unseen bruises.

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