See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
I’m in Hapkido class along with Charlie. I am twelve years old, and he is six. With his freckles, blonde hair and dimples he looks like an elf. His uniform has a pocket that Mom sewed on so that he can carry his asthma inhaler at all times.
Charlie is being promoted to green belt. Our parents are watching. Promotions are supposed to be solemn events, but when Charlie receives his new belt he spins in place like a fashion model. I’m only glad that he does not jump in the air and shout, “Score!”
After class, Charlie leaps into Baba’s lap. “Who’s running the stations, Baba?”
Our father has a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Beirut, but there is no call for his skills in Los Angeles, so he purchased a gas station several years ago. It did well, so two years later he bought another.
“I could not miss such an important day,” our father says.
After class we exit the dojang. It’s been raining, and the streets are wet. Baba is limping more than usual, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Baba,” Mom says, “Do you want to wait here and I’ll come around with the car?”
“No. I can walk. Al-haraka baraka.”
We cross the street to the car, which Mom – typically – has parked in a bizarre location, catercorner to the dojang and behind a laundromat. Randomizing behavior patterns to avoid interception or abduction, I think. She gets down on her hands and knees on the wet asphalt and looks beneath the car, saying that she thinks the car is leaking oil. Checking for car bombs.
These intrusive thoughts used to frighten me. I would become panicked and confused about my identity. I wondered if I were hearing voices. I have become used to them, however, and have come to understand in a vague way that I am two people at once, one superimposed on the other. I am that twelve year old boy, and I am someone else, a nameless spirit in the dark.
We go to the Swensen’s ice cream shop to celebrate Charlie’s promotion. Mom, typically, takes a wrong turn and we travel a roundabout route through Norwalk. Ambush prevention. Improvised explosive device avoidance.
I look at Charlie, sitting beside me in the back seat, still excited about his promotion. There’s another reason to be excited: the feast of Saint Maron is five days away. Charlie and I are counting the days. It is not an official holiday in America of course, but we always get the day off from school. Mom prepares a feast, and there are sweets and presents.
“You know what would be worse than being lost in the woods?” Charlie says. “Being lost and getting found by Mom. You’d be like, ‘I’ve been lost for three days,’ and mom would be like, ‘I’ve been lost for a week.’” He’s too young to understand that mom knows exactly where she is at all times. So am I, in fact.
“Give me a break,” Mom says. “Look, here it is.” And indeed, there is the Swensen’s sign, with the swirly red letters and the picture of an ice cream cone with a cherry on top.
There’s hardly anything in the world I love more than a Swensen’s banana split. Three scoops of ice cream – one each of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla – with chocolate sauce on the chocolate, strawberries on the strawberry, and chopped pineapple on the vanilla, all topped with whipped cream, chopped nuts, a wafer and a cherry. It is the ultimate food creation.
We order, and the ice cream comes like a holiday feast.
Mom frets and says, “It’s too much, habibis. You’ll get sick.” She always says this. Baba says, “Let the boy enjoy himself, Evelyn. It will turn to muscle and make him strong.” Charlie doesn’t say anything, because he’s busy getting chocolate sauce all over his face.
“Charlie,” I say, “Is it so hard to get the spoon from the dish to your mouth without making a mustache?”
“A mustache, eh? Baba, give me your glasses.”
Baba, always up for a little entertainment, hands Charlie his glasses. Charlie puts them on, then stands up and takes Baba’s cane. “I’m Baba,” he says, leaning on the cane and imitating our father’s Arabic accent. “All zee beoble must love each ozer. Zees is very imbortant.”
That was dead on. Baba protests that his accent is not that bad, but he laughs. I laugh too, but my laugh is not convincing. Something is wrong here. How can we all be so happy, when we know what is coming?
On the way home, Baba says, “Charlie, your mom and I are proud of you. Remember that your skills are only for self defense. Like your teacher Master Han says, the wise man solves problems with his head, not his fists. All living things are connected, so when -“
I’ve heard it plenty of times: “When we hurt others, we hurt ourselves.”
But what is the use of such noble thoughts? Tomorrow we will learn that my grandfather Antoine Haddad is dead. I know this, though I do not know how. A week later my mother will be blown up by a car bomb in the driveway of our home, and my father will be shot dead before my eyes. And Charlie… he will die in a car accident… no, he will live, and become a monster. A demon will consume him, and then become him.
I look to Charlie beside me and I see a misshapen shadow behind him, its claws reaching out to snare him, its teeth bared to devour him alive.
“Charlie!” I scream in my cracking, twelve year old voice:- and everything breaks apart, this car and all the people in it shattering like broken glass. There is nothing I can do. The deaths have already occurred. This is a nightmare, the most frightening of all. I want to flee and never return. I want to go into darkness, and from there into light, and find my father on the other side, sitting in a beautiful garden, waiting for me.
I cannot do that. Two things tether me. One is a rope with an anchor that spears my soul like a fish hook. I don’t know what it is, but it grips like a claw, refusing to allow me to disappear. It’s in my throat, chafing, forcing life into me, regulating my existence like a metronome. I would fight to be rid of it, but I have no hands.
The other is a woman. Not my mother, but someone equally strong and uncompromising. She is near, and speaks to me, and though I cannot hear the words they are lamps in the darkness. Her words almost seem to light a path, and I wonder if the path is safe to walk, and what might lie at the end.
Just before going to lunch, Jamilah stopped in to check on Hassan. The new nurse – Jim – stood beside Hassan’s bed with a cell phone in his hand. When Jamilah entered he tucked it away hurriedly and pretended to straighten Hassan’s blanket.
“What were you just doing?” Jamilah said sharply.
Jim looked sheepish. “Sorry,” he said. “I was texting my girlfriend. I know we’re not supposed to text or call while we’re on duty. Won’t happen again.” He left the room, not meeting Jamilah’s eyes.
Jamilah stared at the empty doorway. The guy was lying. She was sure of it. She checked on Hassan, looking over his vitals and pulling his eyelids back to check his pupils. After two years by his bedside, she had some idea what to look for. He seemed unchanged. Jamilah thumbed the nurse call button. Each wing of the clinic had its own nursing station. The call system connected to that station.
“What can I do for you hon?”
Jamilah recognized Nurse Dempsey’s voice. “Please send security here immediately.”
“Yes, ma’am.” No questions, no wasted talk. Sandra Dempsey was a keeper.
There was always a security guard on duty, twenty four hours a day. Salsabil employed five of them altogether. They wore khakhi pants and pastel yellow shirts, in keeping with Salsabil’s low profile.
Within thirty seconds the guard showed up, breathing hard. Jamilah recognized him: a tall, middle aged African-American with a bit of a gut. He liked to show off photos of his kids, one of whom was a doctor in Chicago. Jamilah instructed him to watch Hassan, then strode quickly to Mo’s office, where she found him working at his computer, typing with his left hand while he ate pasta with the other.
“This new nurse,” she said without preamble. “Tim, Jim, something. The big guy.”
Mo put down his fork and wiped his mouth. “Oh no. Don’t say it, Jams.”
“I caught him taking a picture of Hassan on his phone.”
Mo’s expression became grave. “Are you a hundred percent sure? That’s a serious accusation.”
“I’m sure. He played it off like he was sending a text.”
“Come on.” Mo strode out of the office, and Jamilah followed. They found the big nurse dispensing medication in the south wing.
“Jim, let me see your phone,” Mo said.
The man looked baffled, but handed it over. “What for?”
Jamilah watched as Mo scrolled through the photos. “Try the sent messages folder,” she suggested. “Maybe he deleted the pic.”
“I told you,” the nurse said angrily. “I was texting my girlfriend. Lady, you’re a space cadet. Maybe you should take some of this medication.”
Jamilah stepped forward and shoved Jim in the chest with both hands. “You’re a liar!” The big man stumbled backward, collided with the medication cart and fell. The medication bottle bounced across the floor, spilling pills that rolled away like little white bugs. “Who are you working for?” Jamilah demanded.
“Jamilah!” Mo exclaimed.
“You’re insane, lady!” Jim hollered, cradling his elbow, which he’d apparently landed on. “I’m going to sue you. Why don’t you go back where you came from?”
“And you can go out the front door,” Mo said, “because you’re fired.”
“This is bull!” The man stalked away.
“Thank you Mo,” Jamilah said. “I -”
Mo held up his hand. “Don’t. You’re not making my job easier, Triple Nine.”
Jamilah cycled into town for lunch. Chef Samuel’s food was no doubt delicious, but she needed to work off her frustration. Had she done the right thing? Was it possible she’d made a mistake? She hadn’t actually seen the photo. And her relationship with Mo was going steadily downhill.
If she’d been right, on the other hand…well, even then it didn’t necessarily mean anything. Jim came across like a big, dumb oaf. Maybe he just liked taking pictures. It didn’t make any sense.
She rode hard along the coast highway, hugging the tight curves, ignoring the steady pinch in her belly. She pushed herself, trying to forget the day. Going uphill she stood on the pedals, and downhill she bent low and shifted her weight to the back of the seat. On her right the mountains rose like the shoulders of giants, disappearing into thick forest. To the left the slopes fell to the sea. A spit of land reached out into the choppy surf; at the end stood a tall white lighthouse, defiant against the waves.
Passing over the Gualala River she sped up, pushing hard, not wanting to be passed by traffic on the narrow bridge. Two years ago she could have ridden like this all day, but by the time she pulled into the small town of Gualala – population two thousand – she was breathing hard, and her calves trembled with exhaustion.
A young Palestinian fellow named Hamdi had opened a little falafel place in town last year. He wasn’t Muslim – in fact he described himself as a Buddhist Baha’i, whatever that was. His shop – called Christmas Falafel, of all things – had no indoor seating. You ordered at the window and sat at one of the outdoor tables.
Jamilah had initially been suspicious. A young Arab man on his own in this little California coastal town, arriving a year after the opening of Salsabil? For a while she’d come to the shop every day, engaging Hamdi in conversation, probing, until she was satisfied that there was nothing sinister about him. He was a bit goofy, actually. He’d never surfed before but he bought a surfboard and painted a Buddha on it, and hit the beach every morning, trying to catch a wave. His father, he said, owned a liquor store in Sacramento, and he didn’t want to be a part of that business. He’d visited Gualala a few years back with his girlfriend and loved it. When she dumped him, he moved here to start over.
When the shop wasn’t busy, Hamdi would sit outside with Jamilah. She didn’t mind – it gave her a chance to practice her Arabic, while Hamdi practiced his English.
Hamdi was a handsome young fellow, sporting a lean physique, a cleft chin and eyes as gray as the coastal fog. Oddly for a surfer, he was a snappy dresser, favoring dark slacks and button-up shirts.
Jamilah ordered waraq al-’ainab – grape leaves – stuffed with lamb and pine nuts, and hummus seasoned with paprika and oregano. The shop was busy and Hamdi did not come outside. That was okay. Jamilah enjoyed sitting outdoors, feeling the breeze and watching the cars roll by.
A middle-aged white woman with wind-weathered features and freckled arms sat at Jamilah’s table and struck up a conversation. She wanted to know why Jamilah wore the scarf, so Jamilah explained a little about Islam. When she got up to leave the woman gave her a hug as if they were old friends. Gualala people were disconcertingly friendly. Jamilah wondered if that was just a small town thing. Would it be the same in a small town in New York state, or a village in Palestine?
When she was done eating she pedaled back to the clinic slowly, keeping the bike in low gear, trying to puzzle out the mystery of the nurse with the phone. Could she have imagined it, or made a mistake? And if not, then what did that mean? They could not simply pack up the clinic and move. Mo and Shamsi would have her committed if she even suggested it. Maybe the guy just liked taking pictures. Maybe he thought Hassan had a cool arm tattoo. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe she’d gotten the man fired for nothing. If so, then astaghfirullah. May Allah forgive her.
Hamdi – known to his colleagues as Mr. Gray – watched Jamilah ride away. Her ability to sniff out his spies was uncanny. At least her Arabic was weak, or she’d have detected that his accent was not Palestinian but Lebanese. He tried to disguise it, but languages were not his strong suit. Fighting, yes. No Kopis had ever defeated him in unarmed combat – including Mr. Black, who he’d kicked out of a third story window.
He also excelled at infiltration, climbing, swimming and tactical driving. He supposed he was a physical creature more than an intellectual one – along the lines of an Arab James Bond, as he imagined himself.
When it came to killing, his weapon of choice was the garotte. He wore a specially made belt buckle that contained within it a length of tightly wound piano wire. The buckle came apart into two pieces, each of which became a handle to hold the wire. Hamdi could loop the wire around a man’s neck with a flick of his wrist; a single hard pull was sufficient to sever or crush the victim’s carotid arteries.
He’d used this to great effect on many occasions; most recently to kill the Kopis he’d caught in the woods, surveilling the clinic; and before that to eliminate Kristy, the nurse he paid to spy for him. He had not enjoyed that. In fact he regretted it deeply. When Kristy was fired from the job at Salsabil he considered paying her to move away. But she had family in the area, and they would ask questions, and sooner or later she would talk. No, he’d done the only thing he could.
He fingered the garotte now, watching Jamilah’s back disappear up the hill to the south, but thinking about Jim, the big nurse who’d gotten himself fired. He sighed. He could not risk killing the man. One missing person was a mystery, but two was a pattern, and patterns attracted attention. He would pay the man off and order him – forcefully – to move far away. He’d have to recruit another nurse. Almost anyone could be bought, but each attempt increased the risk of exposure.
Jamilah was getting to be a bother. Killing her was not within his purview, however, nor was he inclined to it. He liked her. She had fire and strength.
He would have to train his spies better. In the meantime, the surf would be high this afternoon. Those big swells were calling. He didn’t get emotionally attached to places – he was too well trained for that. But by the white cliffs of Lebanon, if you had to be somewhere, Northern California was not bad at all.
Returning to Hassan’s room, Jamilah opened a massively thick textbook. Global trade and regulation was stodgy stuff, but it was a required part of the international law curriculum, so she forced herself to pay attention. Occasionally she made a comment out loud.
“Listen to this, Hassan: ‘After a series of global trade initiatives from the 1940s to the 1990s lowered trade barriers, especially tariffs on traded goods, efforts to advance further global multi-lateral agreements—notably, the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round—have stalled.’”
“In other words, now that everything from cars to ketchup is made in China, and we Americans have succeeded in pushing our slurried meats and excess wheat onto the developing world, who cares whether some little protectionist nobody like Costa Rica or Mongolia joins the WTO?”
After two hours she put the book down, stretched, then picked up the seerah book and continued from where she’d left off in the morning, reading out loud:
Khadijah passes away to the Mercy of Allâh
Only two months after the death of his uncle, the Messenger of Allâh experienced another great personal loss: the Mother of believers, his wife Khadijah passed away in Ramadan of the tenth year of his Prophethood, when she was sixty-five years old, and he was fifty [Talqeeh Fuhoom Ahl-al-Athar p.7; Rahmat-ul-lil’alameen 2/164].
Khadijah was in fact a blessing of Allâh for the Prophet . She, for twenty-five years, shared with him the toils and trials of life. He deeply mourned her death, and once he replied in a burst of tender emotions:
“She believed in me when no one else did. She embraced Islam when people disbelieved me. And she helped and comforted me in her person and wealth when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand. I had children from her only.”[Musnad Imam Ahmad 6/118]
Abu Hurairah reported that Jibreel came to Allâh’s Messenger [pbuh] and said: “Allâh’s Messenger, lo, Khadijah is coming to you with a vessel of seasoned food or drink. When she comes to you, offer her greetings from her Lord, and give her glad tidings of a palace of jewels in Paradise where there is no noise and no toil.” [Bukhari 1/539]
The deaths of Khadija and Abu Talib affected the Apostle of Allah deeply. She had been a faithful support to him, and he used to tell her of his troubles, while Abu Talib had been a strength in his personal life and a protection against his tribe. Without them, trouble followed fast.
The Quraysh began to treat the Apostle in an offensive way which they would not have dared to do in his uncle’s lifetime. This was three years before the Apostle migrated to Madinah. This year was later known as the Year of Sorrow.
One of the enemies of the Apostle of Allah used to throw a sheep’s uterus at him while he was praying; and one of them used to throw it into his cooking pot when it was ready. One young lout threw dust on his head. When this happened the Apostle went into his house with the dust still on his head and one of his daughters got up to wash it away, weeping as she did so. “Don’t weep, my little girl,” he said, “for Allah will protect your father.”
His Companions too were subjected to torture and oppression to such an extent that his closest friend, Abu Bakr, to escape pressure, fled out of Makkah and wanted to leave for Abyssinia, and would have done so if it were not for Ibn Ad-Daghanah who met him at Bark Al-Ghamad and managed to dissuade him from completing his journey of escape and brought him back under his protection.
Jamilah stopped reading and wandered to the window. She could see the ocean from here. A few miles out a large container ship plowed its way through the choppy sea, heading east to China, no doubt. From here it looked like a toy, no bigger than a thumbnail.
What must it have been like for the Prophet at that time? His uncle had been like a father and mother to him for most of his life. Still hurting from that blow, he’d been shorn of his dear wife, the love of his life and mother of his children. Set upon by his people, his mission and message ridiculed and maligned, his very body wounded… How could a man stand up to such pressure?
Many Muslims would say, “He was the Prophet – he was not like us.” And while there was some truth to that, the fact was that he was a man. He had a heart. He felt sadness and pain, discouragement and fear, like any man or woman.
Someone else might have withdrawn to regroup and mourn his losses. Someone else might have questioned himself, or doubted his strategy. Someone else might have taken a year off to hide and meditate. Someone else – let’s be real – might have abandoned his mission, at least temporarily.
But Rasulullah was not someone else. He was the final Messenger to humankind, with a will like iron. Whether because of his profound love for Allah, his faith that ran deeper than the sea, his hatred of falsehood, his deep desire to see his people guided, or his utterly indomitable nature, he kept going.
He was a Prophet because of his personal qualities, not the other way around. The office of Prophethood did not make the man. The man made the office.
Wasn’t this true for everything? Being a husband or wife didn’t make one loyal. Being a parent didn’t make a person kind. Having a law degree or medical license didn’t make a person ethical. Rather, it was the person who brought their virtues to bear in any arena.
And what about me? What have I brought to bear? Jamilah wondered. She’d had her own Year of Sorrow, after all. She hated to think of that awful time after she’d been shot, but her brain seemed to drag her back there whether she liked it or not…
Two years ago, when Mo, Shamsi and Inspector Sanchez had taken advantage of the chaos of the earthquake to spirit Hassan and Jamilah away, they stashed them in a private care facility in the East Bay, registering them under pseudonyms. The place was terrible, though in retrospect it was perhaps par for the course in the American health care system. The rooms were dingy, the nurses surly, and though Hassan was only a few dozen yards away it might as well have been a few dozen miles.
Jamilah lay in bed in that awful East Bay clinic for two months, in pain, barely able to stand. Her life was in shambles. Layth was gone, Kadija had cut her off, Hassan was possibly brain damaged, and when Jamilah wasn’t medicated she was haunted by the memories of what she’d seen that terrible night in the warehouse and on the BART. She was registered under a pseudonym, and that made her feel like a ghost, as if the old Jamilah had indeed been killed in that warehouse, to be replaced by a stranger.
Strange or sudden sounds – a nurse dropping a tray, a patient calling out – made her heart race and her breathing quicken. Anytime a nurse or medical technician came into the room, she became hyper vigilant, watching the person’s hands, asking what they were doing. If it was someone she didn’t know, she would demand to see identification. She knew she was being irrational, but felt compelled to try to control everything around her to whatever degree she could.
Shamsi visited a few times, but she was busy, and when she did visit they had nothing to talk about. Jamilah’s law studies seemed to be over, and her own family didn’t know where she was, for safety reasons. They thought she’d received a scholarship to an East Coast Ivy League law school.
Whenever Mo visited he would put her in a wheelchair and take her to Hassan’s room. She could see that Hassan wasn’t being cared for. He had bedsores, and he smelled. When she complained to the staff, they said, “We’re doing our best,” or, “Staff shortages, hon.” After a while they became annoyed with her, so she stopped asking, lest Hassan’s care suffer further.
One evening she found her eyes riveted to the television as the news anchor announced that Boulos Haddad, president of Lebanon, was dead. His private plane had exploded over Beirut International Airport after takeoff, showering burning wreckage over Beirut’s southern suburbs. The perpetrators were as yet unknown, though speculation centered on Hezbollah, as Haddad had recently handed over three Hezbollah members to Israel. People were rioting in the streets.
Jamilah smiled and sat back in the bed, letting her breath out in a sigh. Maybe this was a sign. Maybe Hassan would finally be left alone.
Her feeling of optimism did not last. She was lonely and in pain. She tried to study her old law books but found it impossible to focus. Sometimes she lay in the bed staring at the ceiling, feeling like everything around her was dark, as if she’d fallen into a cavern and could not climb out. She hadn’t forgotten her epiphany – the moment of enlightenment she’d experienced when she was shot, when she vowed that she would remake herself, and become a woman of love and compassion rather than anger and hate. But there was no one to love.
There were times that she thought of suicide. Not that she would actually do it – she was a Muslim, and the prospect of Allah’s wrath was more distressing than life itself. She had no pity for people who took their own lives. If someone wasn’t grateful for the blessings that Allah had given them, and wanted to throw away their own existence, then that was their loss.
Furthermore, she was a Palestinian. Her people had not suffered decades of Israeli oppression, expulsion, massacres, imprisonment and torture, only to kill themselves. She had iron in her bones, she told herself. She was a stone from the rocky hillsides of Bethlehem. Stones did not die – they weathered the storms and endured. The imagery helped her.
Still, thoughts of death came unbidden. She imagined pitching herself through one of the hospital’s upper story windows, or overdosing on pain medication.
She did not share these thoughts with anyone, partly because she knew she would not act on them, and partly because she was terrified of being locked up in a mental ward, her mind crippled by sedatives, and her fate in the hands of strangers.
Mo kept telling her to be patient, and that he was working on a project that would make things better for all of them. But he wouldn’t reveal what it was, and she didn’t know how much faith to put in a guy whose previous accomplishments consisted of telling bike messengers where to go, playing with toys and spouting jokes.
By the tenth week she was able to walk slowly with the aid of a walker. She decided it was time to leave. The next time Mo visited, they walked slowly to the end of the corridor, where two hospital chairs sat beside a dusty window that looked out onto the 580 freeway. This was one of the windows that she sometimes imagined throwing herself from.
Mo’s arm was out of the cast. He said it was still stiff, but in spite of his injuries he looked strong and somehow older.
“I’m home going home to Madera,” Jamilah announced, “and taking Hassan with me.”
Mo put his hand up and shook his head slightly. “Jams… I can understand you wanting to go home. But Hassan needs professional medical care.”
“I’m going crazy here, Mo!” Jamilah spoke in a fierce whisper. “And they’re not taking care of Hassan. I’m not going to leave him here to rot like a piece of old meat. Either you help me, or wallahi I’ll do it myself.”
Mo sat back in his chair and brought the tips of his fingers to his lips. “I’m sorry, Jams. I knew you were unhappy. I didn’t realize how much.” He was silent, apparently thinking.
“And?” Jamilah demanded. “What?”
“I told you I was working on something, right?” He took out his cell phone and made a call. “Shamsiyyah? How’s it going?”
Shamsi? Why was Mo calling Shamsi? Jamilah waited, listening.
“We’re going to move it up,” Mo continued. “Today. Like, now. That’s right. Nope. It’s gotta be today. Okay, I’ll see you in what, three hours? Cool.” He hung up.
He looked at Jamilah and grinned. She didn’t think she’d ever seen this particular grin on his face. It wasn’t a ‘how did you like my joke?’ grin. It was a triumphant, reassuring grin, and for the first time Jamilah felt the stirrings of hope. Maybe he really did have a plan.
“Pack your stuff,” Mo said. “You and Hassan are checking out.”
“Where are we going?”
“Someplace beautiful, Jams. Someplace good.”
Jamilah still had her old messenger bag, and everything that she owned fit in it. She was packed up, signed out and ready to go in an hour. Some time later Shamsiyyah pulled up in a fully outfitted medical transport van, and whisked Jamilah and Hassan off to a new life on the edge of the sea.
Jamilah remembered arriving at Salsabil that first day, tired and sore but hopeful. She wanted to walk – no more wheelchairs for her, she vowed – so she used crutches for support as Mo showed her around, apologizing for the mess. The north wing was finished, but the south wing was still under construction. The kitchen wasn’t equipped, so the staff were eating microwaved food or fresh fruit and veggies from the market in the nearby town of Gualala. The outside grounds were covered in coastal grasses or weeds. Aside from Mo and Shamsi, only two nurses and an orderly had been hired. But Hassan’s room was ready.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” Mo said. “Until this month I wasn’t sure myself that we’d pull this off. We literally only staffed the place a few days ago. I know it looks a mess. We don’t have a room ready for you, but you can stay with me and Alice until -”
Jamilah interrupted him. “You did good, Mo. Really, really good. But I can’t believe you kept this secret!” She swung one of her crutches and hit him in the leg, ignoring the flash of pain that accompanied the motion.
Mo laughed, then said, “Ow! That hurt.”
That had been the turning point. Mo outfitted a PT room and hired a physical therapist. Jamilah spent hours every day struggling with the various exercise machines. She walked laps up and down the hallways of the clinic, first with the crutches, then a cane, then under her own power.
So what qualities have I brought to bear upon my hardships? she asked herself again. She turned and spoke out loud to Hassan. “What do you think, Hassan? Have I been patient? Have I done right by you?”
The only answer was the steady sound of the respirator and the occasional beeping of the vital signs monitors.
She approached his bed and stood at his side. He had grown thin over these two years. He wasn’t skeletal, but all that powerful muscle was gone. The nurses kept his hair at shoulder length and his goatee neatly trimmed, just as Hassan used to do. But his face had grown lean, giving him an ascetic air, like a holy man of bygone days. His brow was smooth – but whether his repose reflected serenity or obliviousness, Jamilah could not say.
She kneeled beside the bed, so that her face was on a level with his. “Shamsi wants to pull the plug on you, Hassan. Do you understand? They’re giving up.” She stared at him, watching for any movement, any twitch of his eyelids. Nothing.
“I know you’re in there,” she continued. “There’s nothing I can say to explain away the pain you’ve suffered. Your parents, Charlie, Daniel, Lena, Layth…” She gripped the bed’s railing until her fingers turned white. “I’m here. I’ll bear the pain with you. Be strong. Be a mu’min. Start your journey back to life. It doesn’t have to be this minute. But make it soon.”
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.
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.
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.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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Go 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.
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.
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.
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.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
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.
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.
She 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.
She 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.
* * *
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.”
* * *
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