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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.

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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 Amazon.com. Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Taban

    November 25, 2015 at 3:08 AM

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

  2. Avatar

    SZH

    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.

    • Avatar

      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.

  3. Avatar

    Umar

    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.

  4. Avatar

    Taban

    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

  5. Avatar

    Hena

    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.

    • Avatar

      Safa

      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.

      • Avatar

        Simeen

        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!

      • Avatar

        Antonia

        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 :-)

  6. Avatar

    dr farah

    November 25, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    beautiful mashaallah

  7. Avatar

    Taban

    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:

      http://www.islamicbookstore.com/b3828.html

      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:

      http://www.islamicbookstore.com/b3800.html

  8. Avatar

    Taban

    November 26, 2015 at 2:41 AM

    jazaakAllah khair

  9. Avatar

    masood

    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.

      • Avatar

        masood

        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.

  10. Avatar

    shine

    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

    • Avatar

      SZH

      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.

  11. Avatar

    Iman

    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

        Iman

        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.

  12. Avatar

    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

    Taban

    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

    WHY
    WHY
    WHY
    WHY
    WHY
    WHY
    WHY IS THIS ALL HAPPENING
    AHHHHH

    • 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

    Taban

    December 6, 2015 at 3:12 AM

    Lol dont worry end will be better in sha Allah

  16. Avatar

    Halima

    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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#Culture

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.

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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

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

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

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

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Go Visit Bosnia

Amad Abu Reem

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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

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.

Blagaj

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.

Travnik

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.

Jajce

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.

Mostar

Visit Bosnia

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.

Visit Bosnia

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.

Bosnia

Srebrenica

Visit Bosnia

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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Gravedigger: A Short Story

A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.

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fight, life, death, grave

A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.

MMA ringShe never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.

Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?

And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.

She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.

Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.

Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.

She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray.  Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.

Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.

Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.

One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.

Kitchen knifeShe went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.

She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.

Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.

A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.

“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.

Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”

“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.

“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”

Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.

She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.

On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.

For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.

This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.

On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.

The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.

Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.

* * *

baba, death, suicide,She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.

The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.

Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.

The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.

As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.

They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.

“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.

Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.

“I’ve said it all.”

“So you two are good?”

She smiled. “Yeah.”

“You’ve changed since you started here.”

“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”

“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”

She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”

Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”

“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.

She said nothing.

“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”

“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”

“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”

“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”

It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”

“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”

“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”

Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”

“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.

She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”

Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.

* * *

“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”

Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.

Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.

Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.

She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.

What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.

Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.

The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.

Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”

THE END

* * *

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories. Wael’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.

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