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Ouroboros, Part 10 – A Western Sky

Now here they were, she and Hassan, beneath the western sky after all – you couldn’t get any more west than this, at the sharp edge of the world with nothing beyond but immeasurable water and sky. Here at Salsabil was the protective wall, the garden, and the sun like the personification of love. But Hassan would not wake up.




The California coast

Ouroboros, by Wael Abdelgawad

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

Previous chapters of this story: Ouroboros Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Parts 8 and 9

March 2012 (almost two years later)
Northern California’s Banana Coast

I think I might be in the grave. It’s as dark here as a prison cell without windows or lights. It’s almost suffocating at times, but it’s also comforting, because when I’m here, especially when I’m deep down in the pitch silence, I don’t have to think. I don’t have to be hurt by the memory of the people I’ve lost. I don’t have to feel guilty for not protecting them, and worse, for putting them in harm’s way. I don’t have to think about how much better off the world would be without me.

Am I drifting in circles? Does time pass? Or does something pass for time? Can pure thought, or even the primitive awareness that exists below thought – the slow passage of electrons from one hemisphere of the brain to another – be used to measure time? I’m sure I have been here for several nights at least, but it might just as easily be several years. I cannot tell.

Language has become an alien thing. Instead I see images. Perhaps I am sleeping, because these images are what, in life, I would have called dreams. Only in these dreams am I able speak. The rest of the time I am mute – in fact, my throat feels as if a snake has crawled into it and died.

My dreams take me around the world, from the city of Beirut as it burns and stumbles toward an untimely death, to the snowy Syrian countryside, to the sprawling capital of the ancient world – Istanbul. In the beginning – if there ever was one – I never knew that I was dreaming, and that was terrifying. More and more often, however, I do.

This time I dream that I am a small boy again, sitting cross-legged in front of my aquarium, gazing up in fascination at the blue streak wrasse as it zips through the hole in the coral, around the plants at the back, then beneath the filter, looping the tank as if training for a race. In contrast, the mandarin dragonet, with its round fins and stunning patterns of aqua and maroon, drifts slowly through the tank like a king.

It’s a fifty gallon tank, large and beautiful, and I have fifteen fish in all. Each is as unique and beautiful as a gem. Then I hear my mother’s voice calling me, saying, “Your gun… your gun is your only friend… your gun is your life.” I look away, and when I return my gaze to the tank, all the fish are dead, bloated and floating on their backs.

I used to flee from such dreams in terror. I used to run wildly down a circular staircase that spiraled deep into the ground. All around me was the silence of stone and a million tons of earth. The staircase would grow dark, but I went deeper and deeper. I did not stop until all thought ceased to exist, and even my anima was extinguished.

This time I retreat, but not in panic. A tiny light has entered the darkness of my grave, and it lessens my fear. I cannot identify the light or even see it, but I feel it. It gives me a miniscule measure of strength, so that I only step back into shadow, where the dream cannot hurt me, and I can find a measure of rest.


The Death of Abu Talib

When Abu Talib became ill and was near death, the nobles of Quraysh were worried. They feared that now that Hamza and ‘Umar had accepted Islam and Muhammad’s reputation was known among all the Quraysh clans, they would be robbed of their authority altogether. They decided that they had better go to Abu Talib before he died, and convince him to bring his nephew to to a compromise.

Several nobles of Quraysh – including ‘Utba and Shayba (sons of Rabi’a), Abu Jahl, Umayya bin Khalaf and Abu Sufyan – went to Abu Talib and said: “You are highly ranked among us; now that you are at the point of death we are deeply concerned. You know that trouble exists between us and your nephew, so call him and let us make an agreement that he will leave us alone and we will leave him alone. Let him have his religion and we will have ours.”

When the Apostle came, Abu Talib said, “Nephew, these notables have come to you that they may give you something and take something from you.” (In other words, they would give him wealth or power, and he would in return promise to stop preaching Islam).

“Yes,” the Apostle answered, “You may give me one word (i.e. you may speak one phrase) by which you can rule the Arabs and subject the Persians to you.”

“Yes,” Abu Jahl said, “and ten words!” (I.e. we will say whatever words are necessary for such an achievement).

The Apostle said: “You must say, ‘There is no God but Allah’, and you must repudiate what you worship beside Him.”

They clapped their hands (in annoyance or anger) and said, “Do you want to make all the gods into One God, Muhammad? That would be an extraordinary thing.” Then they said to one another, “This fellow is not going to give you anything you want.” So saying they departed.

Abu Talib said, “Nephew, I don’t think that you asked them anything extraordinary.” On hearing this the Apostle had hopes that his uncle would accept Islam, and he said at once, “You say it, uncle, and then I shall be able to intercede for you on Resurrection Day!” Seeing the Apostle’s eagerness he replied, “Were it not that I fear that Quraysh would think that I had only said it in fear of death, I would say it. I should only say it to give you pleasure.”

As his death was near, Al-’Abbas looked at him as he was moving his lips and put his ear close to him and said, “Nephew, by Allah, my brother has spoken the word you gave him to say.” The Apostle replied, “I did not hear it.”


Quran on a shelfJamilah closed the book and set it on the small, wheeled table. The paper dust jacket was tattered, but the morning sun streamed in through the tall window and illuminated the golden lettering on a black background: The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet. (Paraphrased and abbreviated here, and combined with excerpts from The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, by A. Guillaume. – Author).

She took a sip of water to soothe her dry throat. She’d been reading out loud, for Hassan’s sake.

This was her second time reading this book. She was always reading something in between her law studies. She’d developed a taste for Islamic classics – starting with the Quran itself and simple books like 40 Hadith, and moving on to include everything from traditional texts like Riyadh us-Saliheen and the works of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, to twentieth century authors such as Sayyid Qutb and Maudoodi.

Among current thinkers, she loved Imam Zaid Shakir of the Zaytuna Institute, right here in California. He was a classically educated scholar who nevertheless had his pulse on modern trends. He spoke up strongly for justice, both within the U.S. and internationally, yet somehow managed to bring a spiritual perspective to bear. That resonated perfectly with Jamilah’s own desire to work for justice with compassion, not anger.

Most of all, she’d fallen in love with the Prophet – not romantically of course, but in the sense of feeling deep gratitude to him for his tremendous sacrifices in the cause of his mission. She loved his humility, his persistence in the face of seemingly hopeless opposition, and his generosity.

She could almost picture his face when he said, “I did not hear it.” His expression might have held many emotions: sadness at the death of his beloved uncle; disappointment that Abu Talib had refused the guidance of Islam to the end; and hope that perhaps Al-’Abbas had heard correctly, and that Abu Talib truly did say the kalimah before death.

Now, thinking about this, she spoke to Hassan. She often talked out loud to him when no one was around.

“You know, I’m not sure what I used to think about the Prophet when I was young. I guess I imagined this fiery, righteous figure, preaching to the people, condemning their sins. But when you read the seerah you begin to see that yeah, there’s some of that, but he was also a deeply loving person. He cared about humanity to the core of his being. You know that hadith where he compares himself to a man waving his hands at moths, trying to keep them from flying into a fire, while we are the moths, determined to destroy ourselves? That’s a very vulnerable image. It’s like a parent who wants desperately to save his kids from doing something disastrous, but the foolish children won’t listen, and all the parent can do is watch, heartbroken. It’s love, you know? It’s not anger.

“That’s what I see in this story about Abu Talib’s death. This great love and vulnerability, where he’s practically pleading with his uncle to just say this word, this earth-shaking phrase, so that he can intercede for him and save him. It almost makes me want to cry. Is that silly? It reminds me of when I was a child and I used to flush my father’s cigarettes down the toilet because I knew they caused cancer and I wanted to save him, even if I got in trouble for it. I’m just saying that I see now that he didn’t act only out of a sense of duty, or some abstract Prophetic mission. It was a personal thing for him, you know? To save humanity. That’s a very loving motivation.

“I wonder, did Al-’Abbas really hear Abu Talib say the kalimah? Or did he only say that to spare the feelings of the Prophet, because he saw how much it meant to him? Or did he mishear? I wish that he did truly hear it. What do you think?”

Hassan did not reply, of course. Tomorrow it would be exactly two years since she had heard his voice. Two years since the night she was kidnapped and Hassan rescued her. Two years since she’d seen men killed, and shot a man herself. Two years since Hassan’s brother shot himself, so close to Jamilah that she could still feel the heat of his blood on her face. Two years since Hassan collapsed on the floor of the subway train, never to awaken or speak again. She remembered his last words: “It’s not too late.” She prayed, as she had many times, that his words were prescient, and that they applied to Hassan himself.

How many thousands of hours had she spent watching him lie here unmoving? How many days, weeks and months reading to him, talking to him, encouraging him, and waiting? Not that she was weary of it. Her hope was not nearly exhausted. But Shamsi said that the more time passed, the less likely it was that Hassan would come out of the coma. She said there was no way to know how much brain damage Hassan had suffered from the loss of blood when he was shot. His heart had actually stopped on the subway train, but the doctors at SF General managed to revive him. They’d given him a full four pints, which was a tremendous amount of blood. There was also no way to know how much oxygen deprivation he’d suffered when that miserable assassin tried to smother him.

Shamsi said that even if Hassan did regain consciousness – which was unlikely – his cognitive and motor functions might be severely impaired. He might not recognize anyone, and might even be unable to speak and move.

Jamilah didn’t believe any of it. Hassan was in there. She knew it. Three times, Jamilah thought. Hassan has died three times and come back. He’s a fighter. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever known. He’ll pull through.

His breathing never changed of course – he’d been hooked up to an artificial respirator ever since he stopped breathing on his own three months ago. Still, Jamilah’s eyes flicked regularly to the life signs monitor. There were times when Hassan’s pulse sped up ever so slightly. At these times, Jamilah sensed that he was rising to the surface from a deep, dark place, and that he was close, so close. If she could only reach down and seize him, and pull him up by sheer force, she would. But then his heartbeat would slow, and he was gone again.

She wanted to shake him, or whisper in his ear, “Hassan, we’re here. Don’t forget us. Don’t give up. Come back. We’re waiting. We love you. We’re here, Hassan, we have not abandoned you. Wake up.”

For two years she’d sat beside him, watching his chest rise and fall. Even as his body grew ever thinner and weaker, Jamilah’s feelings for him grew stronger.

Jamilah remembered the night – it seemed like a hundred years ago now – when they’d all sat in Hassan’s apartment, listening to the story of his life. Mo had asked him about love, and he’d talked at length about his soul connection with Lena, as he called it. How he stayed awake at nights thinking about her, how she dominated his inner horizon. That had been a night of such roller coaster emotions for Jamilah: anger at some of Hassan’s deceptions, sympathy for the hardship he’d endured, jealousy over his “monumental” love for Lena.

And then – she remembered the moment with crystal clarity – he’d looked her straight in the eyes and said that Lena was the past, and that maybe he could have another soul connection, and that his heart was ready for it. At the time she had blushed and turned away, wanting to pull her hijab down over her face. But inside she’d been thrilled, in spite of everything.

And now, here it was. The soul connection. Even with Hassan lying there unmoving, a perpetual dreamer lost in some other dimension, she could feel it. She could feel the love between them and the future they would share, Insha’Allah. It was as real as the sunlight beaming through the window.

A worm of doubt wriggled through the rich earth of her optimism. She remembered Sarkis Haddad telling Hassan that Lena was still alive, and her child as well… Could that be true? Could Hassan and Lena still be considered husband and wife, after all this time? Surely Hassan would not abandon Jamilah for a woman he had not seen in half a lifetime.

Jamilah terminated this line of thought. She’d followed it many times, and it went nowhere.

Shamsi said that Jamilah was wasting her life. “You can’t live your life in this clinic,” she’d say. “You’re young. Find a living man, get married, have kids. Move on!” But Jamilah believed what she believed.

Two nurses entered the room. One was Sandra Dempsey, the senior nurse. She’d been with them almost from the beginning. In fact, she’d been Alice’s choice, because she’d taken such good care of Alice when she was hospitalized after the stabbing. The clinic had offered her twice what she earned at SF General and she’d accepted happily, even though it meant moving to this relatively isolated area up north. This morning her dreadlocked hair swung free, and her rich mahogany skin glowed in the morning sunlight.

Jamilah liked Sandra because she always treated the patients with respect. She spoke to Hassan as if he were awake, addressing him by his first name and making conversation as she cleaned him or changed his bedsheets.

Another thing Jamilah loved about Sandra is that she never seemed to notice the scar on Jamilah’s cheek. She obviously knew it was there, but she had never asked about it and didn’t seem to care. That was perfect.

The other nurse was new.. Jim, or Tim, maybe. He’d been hired a few months ago to replace a female nurse named Kristy who was fired at Jamilah’s request. That nurse – a young white woman fresh out of nursing school – rubbed Jamilah the wrong way with her comments and questions about Hassan: “I wonder what that tattoo means,” and, “How long have you known him?” Jamilah reported her concerns to Mo, and to his credit he had Kristy escorted out of the building the same day.

A strange thing happened about a month later. The police came around, asking about Kristy’s employment record and any friends she might have. Apparently her parents had filed a missing person report. As far as Jamilah knew, the girl was never found. Just one of those weird things.

“Time for PT, Mr. Mirza,” the male nurse said heartily.

“Call him Hassan,” Sandra said, shooting Jamilah a quick smile. Hassan was registered under a fake name as Hassan Mirza, but Jamilah had instructed the nurses to always call him by his first name. The name Mirza would not mean anything to Hassan and would not help his recovery –  though Jamilah hadn’t explained this to the nurses. They did not know Hassan’s true identity.

“I’ll leave you to it.” Jamilah stood and made her way outside. The nurses would give Hassan an hour of physical therapy and massage. They gave him three sessions of PT per day to prevent his muscles and tendons from atrophying. That was an extraordinary level of care – but then, that was part of why they’d set up Salsabil in the first place, and it was what made its care so coveted.

Outside the clinic, Jamilah walked downhill through the naturally landscaped and terraced back garden, much of which she had planted herself. Her mother had always been an avid gardener, and Jamilah had grown up helping her mother in the garden every day after school. It was one of the few activities she and her mother had been able to do without fighting. She still remembered the peaceful feeling of kneeling in the soil beside her mother, broad-brimmed straw hats shielding them from the brutal Central Valley sun, working together to bring life and food out of the earth. She hardly noticed the sweat in the backs of her knees, or the dirt beneath her fingernails.

So here at the clinic she’d claimed a large plot behind the north wing, and gone to work. She planted tomatoes, artichokes, lettuce, and peas, and in the sunniest part of the garden she cultivated culinary herbs. Finally she bordered the area with lovely rhododendrons and sabrina adlers, until the garden became a quilt of bright colors. The herbs attracted bees and butterflies, and the flowers brought hummingbirds, so that the garden was busy with life.

Jamilah noticed that many of the residents – the ones who were ambulatory – liked to sit outside by the garden in the mornings and late afternoons. Not only that, but the vegetables and herbs found their way into the clinic’s cafeteria, where their resident chef – a gifted young Mexican named Samuel – incorporated them into his cooking.

It made Jamilah feel like she was genuinely contributing to the clinic – not just being a drain on resources. In fact, Muhammad had put her on salary as a gardener. He didn’t have to do that, especially since Jamilah only spent two hours a day in the garden. But she was grateful. She had free room and board, but the small salary enabled her to go into town occasionally to buy clothing, books, stamps, gifts for friends, falafel at Hamdi’s place, or – her favorite indulgence – chocolate ice cream.

This morning she wanted to be alone with her thoughts, so she passed by the garden and exited through a gate in the outer wall. The gate had a combination lock on the outside that was changed regularly, as well as a security camera. They’d installed the camera six months ago after a strange incident in the woods just east of the clinic. A hiker reported seeing one man choking another to death; however, when the police searched the area, they found nothing.

That incident, and the odd disappearance of nurse Kristy, worried Jamilah. Mo argued that any area, whether urban or rural, would have incidents of unsolved crimes, and that getting paranoid would only cause unnecessary stress. He had a point.

Jamilah winced as she stepped down a foot or so to the path outside. Two years ago, after the Crow – she preferred not to think of him as Charlie – had shot her in that awful warehouse, she’d spent hours in surgery as the doctors repaired the damage to her large intestine and removed the bullet from the muscles of her back. The doctors told her she’d been lucky – the bullet missed her vital organs and failed to exit her body, which would have caused significantly more trauma. They told her she would recover fully.

Yet she continued to experience twinges of pain in her belly. She’d been examined twice more by Shamsi, who concluded that there was nothing physically wrong with her. Shamsi suggested that the pain was a symptom of PTSD. Jamilah didn’t buy it. What did she have to be stressed about? She’d stood up to that psycho and survived. She was fine.

California coastline

“…a phenomenal view of the Pacific.”

Outside the wall, the path meandered through waving coastal grasses toward a cliff. A metal bench had been placed strategically about ten feet from the cliff edge, with a phenomenal view of the Pacific.

Actually, the entire clinic had astounding views. It was built in the shape of a shallow V that pointed away from the sea. The side that faced the road and the mountains – the point of the V – was painted in pastel colors and was completely non-descript, without even a sign indicating the building’s name or function. The ocean-facing side was all glass, with windows. Every room featured tall windows, sliding glass doors and patios that looked out over the sea.

On the roof was a large terrace that was used for special events such as holiday dinners and memorial services. And at the very tip of the north wing an atrium was being added that would house an indoor pool and jacuzzi, to be used for physical therapy and fitness. Jamilah was looking forward to the day when she could visit the pool late at night, lock the door, strip down to a swimsuit and glide through the water like a fish. She had always loved swimming, and the exercise would be good for her.

She sat on the bench on the headland and closed her eyes, enjoying the morning sunshine and the breeze that swept in off the Pacific. Most of the Northern California coast was foggy and cold, but this stretch was known as the Banana Coast because of the atypically warm ocean currents. The climate here was almost balmy. Hassan had always talked about the California coast as if it were paradise on earth. He would love it here. Correction, she thought: he loves it here.

She recalled a poem by Hassan’s father that Hassan had recited to her once. She wasn’t sure she had it 100% right, but fairly close, she thought:

Shrugging off doubts.
Wishing for a house
I’ve seen in dreams.
A green garden for my child.
A woman with kind eyes.
A western sky, and a bell of brass.
A wall that evil cannot pass,
a patch of sunlight on the grass,
a place to live and laugh.

That poem represented Kamal Haddad’s deepest desire, Jamilah imagined. A peaceful new country where the violence of his homeland could not harm his children, whose inheritance would consist of love, rather than hatred and the shadows of the past.

Instead, his dream had been hammered into pieces. His wife, who should have been his trusted partner, had undermined his dream from the start by secretly teaching his child to kill. Then the past came for them all like a demon.

Now here they were, she and Hassan, beneath the western sky after all – you couldn’t get any more west than this, at the sharp edge of the world with nothing beyond but immeasurable water and sky. Here at Salsabil was the protective wall, the garden, and the sun like the personification of love. But Hassan would not wake up.

As for the Crow, his attempted suicide – according to an article Jamilah had read in the Chronicle last year – had left him brain damaged. He was ambulatory, but mute. Whether he would regain his wits was unknown. He had to be fed, changed, bathed, and led from one place to another. It served him right. At one time he’d been sought by multiple law enforcement agencies, but now that he was a walking zucchini – and yes, she knew it was cruel to think of him that way, but she didn’t care – now that he was a mental salad, no one wanted him. He was being held at the Butner Federal Medical Center on an immigration hold that allowed him to be detained indefinitely. Jamilah could not care less what happened to him.

How could Kamal Haddad’s dream have gone so awry? Didn’t sincerity count for anything? Didn’t the human heart contain the secrets of power, inasmuch as was given to man by Allah?

Yes, she thought. Yes it does, and I will not surrender to entropy and decay. She would see to it that Kamal Haddad’s dream came true one day – at least for Hassan. Sitting here now, above the vast and living sea, with the steady wind bringing the scents of driftwood and salt, she felt a sense of peace fill her chest. It would work out, Insha’Allah. Hassan would come back to her, and the future would be bright.

“Jams, we need to talk.”

Jamilah let out a small shriek and almost leaped off the bench. Mo sat on the bench beside her. She punched him in the shoulder, hard. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“Ow!” Mo rubbed his shoulder. “You’re kiling me, Smalls.”

“Hey! You want another? Call me that again.”

“Sorry!” Mo looked as professional as always in a charcoal gray suit, red tie and professional haircut. And he was professional. Jamilah had to hand it to him. He’d been the driving force behind the creation and success of the Salsabil Clinic.

From the beginning, they had agreed that all decisions regarding Hassan’s care would decided by the triumvirate of Shamsi, Mo and Jamilah herself. Shamsi hadn’t liked that – “highly irregular” she called it – but she’d gone along in the end. After all, much about the clinic was irregular. Mo had paid someone to set it up as a subsidiary of a holding company, which in turn was owned by a trust…or something  like that. The bottom line was that anyone searching through employment or hospitalization records to try to locate Mo, Jamilah or Hassan, would run into a dead end.

It had been Mo’s vision again that opened the clinic to other patients. He pointed out that Hassan’s money was not endless, and that if the clinic didn’t turn a profit it would bankrupt them. So they sent out feelers, using some of Shamsi’s contacts. Their selling point was the highest level of care possible, and total anonymity.

Salsabil had eighteen patients now, three doctors including Shamsi, and a dedicated nurse for every patient. Seven of the patients were long-term coma or brain-injury cases and occupied the south wing. The rest were either Alzheimer’s or hospice patients. All came from extremely wealthy families who valued their privacy. The result was that Salsabil turned a tidy profit.

None of it would have happened without Mo’s shrewdness and management abilities. I shouldn’t have been surprised, Jamilah thought. He was the dispatch wizard, after all. Running Salsabil is probably a piece of cake compared to that.

“Earth to Triple Nine?”

Jamilah rolled her eyes and looked at Mo. After all this time he still insisted on calling her by her messenger number. Or this “Smalls” moniker, which was even worse. Jamilah had the vague idea that it was a movie reference.

Overall, though, Mo seemed much more mature in his new role, though he still kept a few toys on his desk. The only thing that marred his aura of professionalism was his mashed nose. It had not healed properly after being broken by the assassin in black. In profile, Mo looked like a retired boxer.

We all have our scars, Jamilah thought. Mo, at least, seems to have come out better for it.

Now, however, he seemed worried.

“How’s Alice?” Jamilah asked. “Everything okay with the baby?”

Mo rolled his eyes. “Do you know the three stages of pregnancy?”

“You mean trimesters?”

“No. The first stage is ‘Yay, Alhamdulillah!’, the second stage is, ‘barf,’ and the third stage is, ‘make me some onion rings right now or I’ll cut you.’ Seriously, the woman eats chocolate and cheese sandwiches at 3 am. Yesterday she made horseradish ice cream. Her breath is like a collision between a pickle truck and a fish factory.”

“That’s your wife you’re talking about!”

He shrugged. “And I love her. But this pregnancy stuff is a trip.”

“Is she still running the shop?” Alice owned a gift shop in town, selling homemade soap,  local art, handmade jewelry, stuff like that. The shop had some phenomenal driftwood sculptures that Jamilah loved, but there was no space in her room for such things.

“Yup. She’s only at seven months. Dude, you should come for dinner tonight.”

In the early days of the clinic, Jamilah used to see Alice often. The tall redhead would drop by after closing the shop and they’d hang out in Hassan’s room and talk, or play cards with a few of the hospice patients.

As Alice’s pregnancy advanced, however, she didn’t drop by the clinic anymore, and Mo went straight home after work. Jamilah had no one to talk to. Oh, Mo and Alice sometimes invited Jamilah for dinner, but she didn’t like to be away from Hassan.

While most of the staff lived in homes nearby or rented apartments in town, Jamilah had converted one of the clinic’s storage rooms into quarters for herself. The room was small, with little more than a bed, a desk, and a bathroom. She hung her bicycle from a hook in the ceiling. Jamilah didn’t mind the small space, but sometimes at night the loneliness felt like a heavy blanket weighing her down.

Jamilah’s mother and brother came to visit every few months, but she and her mother inevitably reverted to arguing about how Jamilah was wasting her life, while her brother spent his time on the beach, pretending to be a surfer.

“No,” she said. “Thanks, but not tonight. How’s your dad?” Jamilah knew that Mo’s father had been moved to a low security mental facility. Now that he was properly medicated and cared for, his mental problems had ebbed, though not disappeared.

“Dad’s fine. I’m going to visit him next week. Would you listen, please? I have two things to tell you. Sort of a good news, bad news thing.”

Jamilah frowned. “Give me the good news.”

“Okay.” Mo nodded slowly. “Kadija’s coming tomorrow.”

Jamilah sat upright. “Kadija? She’s not in Indonesia anymore?” After Layth’s death, Kadija needed time away. She went to visit Hassan’s Bait As-Salam orphanage in Indonesia and fell in love with the kids. She took a job teaching English, her salary paid by the trust that Hassan had endowed. She had not stayed in touch, nor replied to Jamilah’s occasional emails. The little that Jamilah knew she got from Mo.

Kadija had never said so outright, but Jamilah had the impression that she blamed Hassan for her husband’s death. Now, although Jamilah was tremendously excited at the thought of seeing her again, she felt anxious. The last thing she needed was Kadija’s judgment. Judgments of herself she could handle. She didn’t react to things the way she used to. She felt calmer inside, as if the fire that previously burned in her soul had diminished to a single burning coal. A coal was okay with her. A person needed a little anger in this world.

Judgments of Hassan, though – that was off limits.

“I don’t want her seeing Hassan.”

“Come on, Jams.” Mo’s voice was gentle. “This is Kadija. She’s our sister. Give her a chance.”

Out in the ocean a pair of massive humpback whales surfaced. One spouted, blowing a stream of water high in the air. Jamilah pointed.

“SubhanAllah!” Mo exclaimed. He grinned. “You see? That’s a sign.”

Jamilah snorted. “Of what? That I need to lose weight? But yeah, okay. Point taken. Still, I want to see her before she sees Hassan. What’s the bad news?” As she spoke, her gaze followed the whales. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen humpbacks out here, and she’d learned to recognize the magnificent creatures, with their knobby heads and long pectoral fins. Suddenly they disappeared, diving beneath the water.

Mo’s face became solemn. “You know what tomorrow is, right?”

“Two years.” She said it quietly, almost to herself.

Humpback whales breaching

“The whales breached.”

The whales breached. They came up together, breaking the surface of the water and soaring into the air, each creature bigger than a schoolbus but more elegant than a ballet dancer. Water streamed from their gigantic bodies in sheets as they spun in synchrony then crashed onto their backs, disappearing again beneath the surface. Jamilah found herself on her feet with tears in her eyes. It was the most spectacular thing she had ever seen in her life.

“My God!” Mo exclaimed. “That was… whoa!”

Jamilah sat back down, still stunned, wiping her tears and reminding herself to breathe. “The bad news,” she said finally.

Mo nodded. “Yeah… Thing is… Shamsi wants a meeting. She wants to talk about turning off Hassan’s respirator. She says it’s time to let him die in peace.”

Jamilah felt the old anger stir, but she controlled it. She could not afford to alienate Mo. She needed him on her side. She kept her eyes on the ocean, thinking of the whales, imagining the cool water filling her, making her as resolute and invulnerable as the sea itself. “She can’t take Hassan off life support,” she said firmly. “She doesn’t have the authority.”

“She wants to discuss it.”

“And you? Where do you stand?”

“I’m not a doctor. That’s why we should hear Shamsi’s opinion. The meeting is tomorrow at one in the conference room.” He rose stiffly – too much time in an office chair, Jamilah thought – and walked up the path to the clinic.

Jamilah felt betrayed. It hadn’t been her choice to bring Shamsi into this affair – the two of them had never been that close, in spite of being roommates, and Jamilah never felt that Shamsi respected her decisions. But it had been a logical move.

Lately, however, Shamsi – and even Mo to some degree – seemed to have lost sight of the intention behind this facility, which was to care for Hassan and protect him. All this other stuff – caring for dying tech wizards and robber barons – was beside the point. And now – pull the plug? The idea was insane.

Jamilah’s earlier feelings of inner certitude and peacefulness were gone, dashed like the waves on the rocks below. She went back to her room, triple-locked the door – she’d had a key lock, a latch and a deadbolt installed, as well as a peephole, not because of any specific threat but because she felt safer that way – and snatched a glass from her single small table.

She was about to fling the glass against the wall when she stopped mid-motion and set it down. This isn’t me anymore, she thought. When her breathing stilled, she performed wudu’ and prayed. In the deepest part of her prayer, with her forehead pressed to the ground, she recited a dua’ that she’d learned from Hassan a long time ago:

‘O Allah, I am Your servant, daughter of Your servant, daughter of Your maidservant; my forelock is in Your hand, Your command over me is forever executed and Your decree over me is just…”

After her prayer she sat on her musalla, thinking. Since the events of two years ago, she had done some research into her family’s history. The Al-Husayni clan were descendants of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. They had migrated to Al-Quds – Jerusalem – in the twelfth century, after Salahuddin liberated it from the crusaders. Later, they sided with the Ottoman khilafah against the nationalist movements that opposed it, and in the 1920’s and 30’s they led opposition to the British Mandate government and the Zionists. Posts such as mayor of Al-Quds, grand mufti of Al-Quds, director of Muslim Waqf, and president of Al-Quds University were all held by Al-Husaynis.

During the 1948 war, the Al-Husaynis formed their own militia and fought ferociously against the Israelis. They died in combat by the scores. After the war, the fortunate members of the clan migrated to the Gulf states, while the less fortunate ended up in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Daoud Al-Husayni co-founded the PLO, while others founded charitable organizations or schools. Today, Al-Husaynis held important posts in the diaspora and in the Palestinian territories.

I come from a nation of mujahideen, Jamilah thought. I come from a tribe of scholars and leaders, and from the Prophet himself. I come from a people who do not surrender to despair.

She thought again of the whales. Mo had asked her if she knew what tomorrow was, and she said two years, and right at that moment, as if her words had called them into existence, the two whales came soaring into the air like magic, defying gravity, celebrating life. What was that if not a sign?

She would find a way to help Hassan, Insha’Allah. She would find the key to his soul. She would speak the word he needed to hear, whatever it might be. She would find a way.

Next: Ouroboros, Part 11 – The Year of Sorrow

Wael Abdelgawad's latest novel is Pieces of a Dream. It is available for purchase on Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including and, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.



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    November 25, 2015 at 3:08 AM

    very emotional…brother is there more to come u did not metion next story??

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    November 25, 2015 at 3:40 AM

    SubhanAllah, 2 years in the future! Thats a great leap in the story.
    I would like to know what happened in both years.
    Apart from spellbound narration of the scenery and other things, I am deeply sorrowed that “you” have killed Layth, (or atleast let him die). His shahadah is a thing which was eminent but I wanted him alive. Layth was a very strong and interesting character….
    May Allah give you more Barakah.

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      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 25, 2015 at 11:46 PM

      I understand your feelings about Layth. At some point Insha’Allah I plan to go back and write another story about him, probably during the two months between Jamilah’s visit to his home and the start of Kill the Courier.

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    November 25, 2015 at 5:18 AM

    Subhanallah brother that was very emotional, but the way your wrote, I have no words other than Subhanallah. Just Subhanallah, you truly are a lot experienced writer.

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    November 25, 2015 at 5:52 AM

    Mo seems to be little selfish but its seems realistic .everything cant go on smooth . “a year of sorrow “guess it will be from khadijahs point of view

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    November 25, 2015 at 6:35 AM

    Wowzers! What a change of pace … but well deserved, you’ve certainly put our heroes and heroines through enough lol. MashaAllah I am still as gripped as I was when I read part 1, now another whole week until ‘A Year of Sorrow’ … in which I desperately hope I will not end up weeping about Khajida and Layth. They were supposed to have a happily ever after! In light of that news, I implore you to keep Hassan alive :)
    JazakAllah khair. You truly have a gift mashaAllah.

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      November 25, 2015 at 12:12 PM

      I agree with Hena.

      Change of pace was certainly a nice breath of fresh air like that of the seaside Jamilah’s been taking in :)

      Although obviously still lots of loose ends. I have accepted Layths death or martyrdom but its definitely hard to cope with the characters human perspective such as Mo’s ability to want to move on or Khadija’s feelings of indignation towards Jamilah.

      The chapter of a Year of Sorrow is ironic. It seems to me that Khadija’s mourning after her husbands tragic death is juxtaposed to that of the Prophet alayhi salam when he mourned the deaths of his uncle & wife (whose name was also Khadijah).

      Khayr inshallah. Another week of patience …I just wish and make dua you’re generous enough to give us another combined part! Ya rab

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        November 26, 2015 at 12:05 AM

        Safa, I’m glad you enjoyed the change of pace. That’s a good insight you had about the Year of Sorrow.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 26, 2015 at 12:04 AM

      Thanks for your comments, Hena. To tell you the truth, I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I just put in the time. I do a lot of research, constantly weigh and discard plot lines, write detailed character sketches, put together timelines, etc. I recently listened to a novel by Michael Chabon titled The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Here’s a quote:

      “He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from the blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.”

      Now that is writing! Chabon’s writing is like a death bell and a comedy routine blended into one, full of pathos and deep introspection about religion, happiness and the human condition, all delivered in stunningly original language. Here’s another quote:

      “Landsman recognizes the expression on Dick’s face…The face of a man who feels he was born into the wrong world. A mistake has been made; he is not where he belongs. Every so often he feels his heart catch, like a kite on a telephone wire, on something that seems to promise him a home in the world or a means of getting there. An American car manufactured in his far-off boyhood, say, or a motorcycle that once belonged to the future king of England, or the face of a woman worthier than himself of being loved.”

      Reading that novel was inspiring, but it was also discouraging because I realized that I will never write that well.

      It’s the same in my martial arts. My Jujitsu instructor, a 30-ish fellow named James, is naturally gifted. He can see a new technique performed once or twice, and he’s got it. His every movement is liquid with grace and balance. Me, on the other hand, I have to work at it. I’m quite good – I have three black belts and I’m a walking encyclopedia of martial knowledge – but that’s only because I work so hard. Rather than a lion that can crush a bone with one bite, I’m like a dog, working at it constantly with my jaws until I break it to dust.

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        November 26, 2015 at 7:33 PM

        “To tell you the truth, I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I just put in the time.” Well, the latter isn’t easy either as I’ve been finding out.

        Thank you for quoting the text you did. It really is such original writing! There were some very inspirational words in Hassan’s Tale too, ma sha Allah :) I pray that Allah ta’ala gives you barakah in everything. Also, your writing makes me want to visit California! Some day in sha Allah!

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        January 4, 2016 at 4:33 PM

        Assalamualaikum. ..I just want to say you are an amazing writer. Don’t ever doubt that. The way you formed different characters with their own stories and connected them all is amazing. Also the character Hassan…What a character! His story is really one of a kind, the way you narrated it kept me hooked. It was almost as if i was there seeing it all unfold before my eyes. You are an amazing writer and May Allah increase you in your talent.

        • Avatar

          Wael Abdelgawad

          January 4, 2016 at 4:48 PM

          Wa alaykum as-salam, thank you Antonia. These stories have been a three-year project. I’m glad they hooked you :-)

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    dr farah

    November 25, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    beautiful mashaallah

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    November 26, 2015 at 12:36 AM

    brother you mentioned sealed nectar i have that but its not descriptive like that.Did u combine it urself from different books or do u know a book that has detailed seerah like sheikh yasir qadhi’s lectures .

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 26, 2015 at 1:09 AM

      I combined some bits from Seerat ibn Ishaq. That is the oldest and most detailed seerah – Ibn Ishaq was a tabi’i who lived in Madinah – but it’s not completely authentic. You can find it in English under the title, “The Life of Muhammad”, translated by Alfred Guillaumme, which is actually a translation of Ibn Hisham’s abridgment of Ibn Ishaq’s work:

      A more easily readable, and still very detailed seerah, is Martin Ling’s excellent translation, titled, “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources.” It’s available at many outlets, such as:

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    November 26, 2015 at 2:41 AM

    jazaakAllah khair

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    November 26, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    “the death of Abu Talib” “As his death was near, Al-‘Abbas looked at him as he was moving his lips and put his ear close to him and said, “Nephew, by Allah, my brother has spoken the word you gave ……………………..”
    Please provide some reference from where u got it.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 26, 2015 at 12:57 PM

      From Seerat ibn Ishaq. However, we know that Al-Abbas was wrong. Either he misheard, or he said it only to please the Prophet (sws). There is a saheeh hadith mentioning that Abu Talib is in Hell, but receiving the lightest punishment of anyone there.

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        November 28, 2015 at 11:56 AM

        thanks for the answer–can you think of changing this part as people may not understand it or get wrong ideas.

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    November 26, 2015 at 11:54 PM

    the state of coma of hassan was beautifully described.It looks like he is not willing to come out of it .nd that mention of light in the dark deep place that made me cry.Nd how jamilah also felt that hassan is in a dark place .Now this is wat the sole connection is.It has changed jamilah to such an extent that even hassan when he wakes up will be surprised to see her.According to me the description of coma was the best part of story…very very intense

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      November 27, 2015 at 12:59 PM

      Yes, the details of the state was beautiful.
      Brother Wael, have you read Dan Brown’s novel “The Lost Symbol”? He also sketched a very astounding details of Hero’s (Dr Robert Langdon’s) state of something-like-death.

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    November 27, 2015 at 1:00 PM

    assalam alaykum Brother,
    this was a shock. It’s good writing, but it’s like you had us running a marathon and then suddenly we are walking at a snail’s pace. Just hard to adjust, and so many unanswered questions that I think could be better answered at a high pace, rather than in a looking-back-on-it way.
    But you know better! you know what you have coming down the line….

    i wanted to know what happened to Mr. Black’s body……
    also, i felt a little like: show us don,t tell us when it came to Jamila’s new way of being – rather than her saying: This isn’t me anymore, she thought.
    It would have been nice to just see her shift her actions. We’d get it.
    Missing the high pace – you do it so so well, and i feel it’s far harder than any other type of writing – and longing for more !
    thank you for your generousity with us.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 27, 2015 at 1:43 PM

      Good point about showing, not telling. I have to disagree with you that writing the fast-paced stuff is harder. Actually the action scenes are easy for me. It’s these slow, introspective scenes that are the challenge.

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      • Avatar


        November 27, 2015 at 6:59 PM

        mashAllah, if they are easier for you, then alhamdulilah. we have a long-term treasure in you as an author, in sha Allah, for many more good reads to come. May you be blessed infinitely. I wonder if you’d be willing to do coaching, workshops or master classes for would-be writers. That might be a neat way to help others and also raise new writers.

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    Bint A

    November 28, 2015 at 5:23 PM

    Depressing …
    the Year of Sorrow does not seem to be boding well for me…
    For some reason this chapter almost seemed out of place with its realism….the reference to current thinkers etc. made it seem like our world yet the previous incidents with characters like the Crow and Mr. Black kept it at a more of a distant fantasy…. cant imagine these two things occupying the same dimension. Maybe consider removing direct references?

    Also the coma writing was unique but in comparison to the realism you’re wishing to portray… there’s a bit of an imbalance.

    I dont know how the story could have turned out any other way, but perhaps you can reduce the depressing realism a little bit by adding or taking away or easing into this chapter from the fantastical nature of the last one…

    Also needs a bit more of a logical flow from the incident of the earthquake to the present.

    The passing reference to Layth’s dead also felt a bit offhand… and i agree with a previous commenter about the inner character changes of Mo and so forth which is creating distance to the character…as if we’re looking at them from the outside and their imner realities are not important any longer. Kind of depressing since we came such a long way with them…

  13. Avatar


    November 29, 2015 at 5:49 AM

    just a correction.hassan had recited that peom to himself not to jamilah ..

  14. Avatar

    Bint M

    November 29, 2015 at 11:47 PM


    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 29, 2015 at 11:49 PM

      Oh my goodness, what is it? Lol.

      • Avatar

        Bint M

        December 5, 2015 at 12:04 PM

        PART 11 IS EVEN MORE SAD.??????

  15. Avatar


    December 6, 2015 at 3:12 AM

    Lol dont worry end will be better in sha Allah

  16. Avatar


    December 18, 2015 at 10:10 PM

    For me, the growth of Jamila’s understanding of herself, starting with that piece of widom Khadija imparted on her before they left, resulting in Jamila seeing Hassan in different perspective was truly amazing. Her growth continued during the whole ordeal of the ambush, kidnapping and nearly losing her own life and Hassan’s. She become stronger, resilient and resolute. And it’s that strength that is now shaping her outlook on life, religion and relationships. She became an extraordinary woman in these last parts.
    I can understand Khadija’so pain and resentment. I love both her and Layth. That a heartbreaking loss. Khadija has always been a very strong woman.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      December 20, 2015 at 4:41 AM

      Halima, thank you for this wonderful comment. I think Jamilah’s transformation really began with her shame at striking Hassan, and Layth’s comment to her about not being a person of hate. But yes, Kadijah played a key role as well. I know that she was an unpopular character at one time, and I hoped that readers would see how far she has come.

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Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman




I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

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To Kill a Muslim – Part 1

Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.




1. Ragheads

Rotting wooden porch steps

Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.

It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.

Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.

Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.

So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.

So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.

It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.

He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.

As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.

Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.

But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.

He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.

But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.

But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.

2. Moving Day

Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.

His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”

He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.

“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”

Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”

He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.

They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.

Craftsman bungalow cottage

The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.

It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.

It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.

̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.

He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨

She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨

He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.

The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.

As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.

Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.

As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.

He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.

Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.

Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.

“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.

While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.

As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.

Cop with gun drawn

What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?

“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”

Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?

“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”

SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.

This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.

The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.

He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.

“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”

“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.

* * *

Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus

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

Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on

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Go Visit Bosnia

Abu Reem



Visit Bosnia

I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.

Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.

To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.

Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.

What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?

So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.

However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.

Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.

Travel Bosnia, Visit Bosnia

Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.

Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.


Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a compact city on the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps. Its center has museums commemorating local history, including Sarajevo 1878–1918, which covers the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. Landmarks of the old quarter, Baš?aršija, include the Ottoman-era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque.

Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.

The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.

As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.

Visit Bosnia

As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.



As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.

Visit Bosnia, SarajevoOur trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.

Visit Bosnia

Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.

You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city.  I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.

Visit Bosnia

A view from Hecco Deluxe Hotel, Bosnia

Visit Bosnia

In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!

Watering hole structure for stray cats and dogs

Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.

If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.

Vrelo Bosne:


Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.

Visit Bosnia

Museum Tunnel of War:

This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.

A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.


This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.


Visit Bosnia

This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.


It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans.  The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.


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It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.


Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.

Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.

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Mostar Old Bridge (1567) (UNESCO World Heritage List)

Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica

Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman.  Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.



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Srebenica, Bosnia

Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.

We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.

Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.


This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.

Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.

Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):

Woodcrafts in Konjic, Bosnia

On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.

Visit Bosnia

You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Visit Bosnia, Sunnyland

Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.

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