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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

Of Dreams and Shadows

A short story

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By Saulat Pervez

Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.

That night, she wrote in her journal,

We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.

***

“So, how were the latest test results?”

“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”

“And, how old did you say she was?”

“She’s 80.”

“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.

He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?

“Anything new today?” she asked.

***

He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.

He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.

***

Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.

She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.

The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.

She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive? 

She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.

She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.

***

Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.

She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.

It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.

It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).

Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).

They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.

***

Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.

She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.

Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.

It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.

*** 

“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”

“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”

“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”

 

“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.

She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.

Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.

The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?

Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.

As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.

She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.

She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.

She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.

-end-

Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.

As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.

Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com

This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel. 

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#Culture

To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?

As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.

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As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.

However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating).  All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?

Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.

Why Decorate or not to Decorate

There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.

But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)

Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.

The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship.  What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way?  If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) or scholars have advised us to do in any way?

Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.    

How to Decorate or not to Decorate

It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.

The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.   

The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.

  • Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
  • Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
  • Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?

The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating

So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.

It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,

  • Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
  • Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
  • Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
  • Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.

I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.

Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)

Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.

Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating

The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.

And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.  

The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).

حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،‏.‏ وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ‏”‏‏.‏

We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)     

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How to Teach Your Kids About Easter

Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.

Zeba Khan

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Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.

Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.

My mother put up her Christmas tree every year.  We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.

I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.

As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.

That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:

  1. The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
  2. Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
  3. We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
  4. The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.

So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.

There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.

There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:

Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.

Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.

Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.

Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.

If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.

Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.

We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.

So what do we believe?

Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.

  1. Allah is One.
  2. Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
  3. He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
  4. There is nothing like Allah in the universe

Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.

  1. Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
  2. We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
  3. We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.

When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.

You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.

If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:

  • Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
  • Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
  • Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
  • Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
  • Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
  • Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
  • You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.

We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.

It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.

Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah.  We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.

The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.

Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast.   Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.

You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them.  No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.

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