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 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16
When Muhsin shut off the engine, Hassan looked up to see that they were parked in front of a stylish looking restaurant with a sign that spelled out the word “Azraq” in wavy blue neon.
The interior, as its name implied – Azraq meant “blue” in Arabic – was all blues and browns, with hardwood furniture, large paintings of the sea, and a fountain that cascaded down one entire wall, filling a narrow pool that circumnavigated the interior of the eatery. The place was filled with the aromas of grilled fish and hot soup, coffee and chocolate.
Hassan waved off the hostess who tried to seat him. He wandered amid the booths and aisles, looking for Lena. Waiters and waitresses passed him, all wearing black slacks and dark blue dress shirts or blouses.
A waitress approached carrying a tray of drinks. She was slender – too thin, Hassan thought – and blonde, with frown lines on her forehead and crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes – one of those women whose faces were older than their bodies, so you knew they’d either lived hard or spent too much time in the sun. She was beautiful, but the severity of her face tempered her beauty, lending an air of gravitas. The top button of her long-sleeved shirt was undone, and Hassan saw a thin scar cutting across the front of her throat before disappearing beneath the collar.
Of course Hassan knew her. He could never fail to recognize her walk, the protective way she carried her shoulders, and the spare smile that said, “I’m only humoring you. You’ll never know what I really think.” She hadn’t changed much, really. He could still see the young woman who’d taken him to the mountains when he was only fifteen, and drawn a sketch of a mountain meadow.
She flashed him a genuine smile, but as she began to pass the smile faded, her face turning as white as a winter moon. She swiveled her head as she walked by, gazing back at him, her body on autopilot, her steps faltering. Hassan watched her pass, saying nothing, feeling beaten into stillness by the events of the last few days. His inner fires were banked. He was out of fuel. This moment, which should have been triumphant or nerve-wracking, or something, was hushed, as if he were still back in the pool by the Salamiyyeh Falls, diving deep, trying to find the bottom.
That was, he thought, the story of his life: always seeking the bottom of the deep, dark pool and never finding it. Never getting his feet on solid ground. Never knowing where he stood.
Lena, still trying to look one way and walk the other, tripped over her feet and fell. The tray went flying, the drinks tumbling to the ground. Her head struck the edge of a dinner table and she let out a cry.
Hassan began to move toward her, but the diner at whose feet she had fallen was already helping her up. Blood streamed from a cut on her forehead.
Looking at her, Hassan suddenly saw another image superimposed over the restaurant scene: Lena was lying on the wooden floor of a small apartment, her throat cut, in a huge pool of blood that spread around her like a negative halo. He stepped back, shocked. What was he seeing?
The images continued to come. The Western Door, burned to the ground. Karanlik… Oh, laa ilaha il-Allah… Karanlik. It all came back, erupting from the hidden chambers of his mind like Krakatoa, exploding, shaking him. His years in prison, his life in San Francisco, all his friends, Layth’s death – Layth! – and the battle in the Oakland warehouse. Charlie… Charlie.
The sound of the blood in his veins thrummed in his ears. A band of pain tightened around his forehead. His head seemed to expand to the point of splitting. His eyes felt hot and dry, and he couldn’t catch his breath. It was too much. His knees gave out, he fell, and the world turned black.
He returned to consciousness on a cot in a small room. A wet cloth lay on his forehead. His body was limp as overcooked pasta. Two blurry shapes hovered over him. After a moment they clarified into the faces of Muhsin – looking so worried one would think he was Hassan’s father – and Lena, looking angry, confused, and perhaps fearful, with a bandage on her forehead. Hassan had never seen this particular expression on her face. He couldn’t read it.
Once again he noticed the small portion of the scar visible across the front of her throat. Now he possessed the awful memory of what had caused that scar. He averted his eyes, trying not to think about it.
“Where did you go?” Lena demanded, getting right to it. “You abandoned me just when I needed you most. All this time I thought you were dead.”
“Wha…?” Hassan managed. “Where am I?”
“You’re in a backroom in the restaurant, brother,” Muhsin said kindly. “You collapsed.”
Hassan covered his eyes with his hands for a moment, remembering, then removed them to meet Lena’s eyes. Different, yet the same. Alive. He remembered everything now – all of his past – and didn’t know if he wanted to. But there it was, whether he wanted it or not.
Muhsin reached out a hand and helped him to a sitting position. Hassan patted the man’s hand, thanking him without taking his eyes from Lena.
“Lena, I’m so sorry. I came home and found you on the floor with your throat cut, and blood everywhere. I thought you were dead. I lost my mind, became catatonic. They put me in Karanlik, the mental hospital. It was a living nightmare. All these years I believed you were dead. But I never stopped mourning for you and missing you.”
All she said in response was, “Hmm.”
He reached out to her. “Can I – can I just feel your hand? Just to know you are real? I’m sorry, I know that sounds stupid.”
Slowly, betraying nothing of what she felt, Lena extended her hand and Hassan took it. Her hand was strong, her skin rough. The nails were trimmed short and clean, with a layer of clear varnish. A moment later she pulled her hand back and tucked it into her armpit, as if his touch had burned her.
“I don’t know where to start,” he said. “Who – how did you survive?”
Lena shrugged. “The apartment door was open. I guess you left it open, if what you say is true. That nosy neighbor, Mrs. Şahin who lived across the hall? She came snooping and found me. I barely survived. It was very close.”
“Who did it? Who attacked you?”
“Does that matter?” Lena snapped. “Why are you here, Hassan? Where have you been? Do you have any idea how badly you hurt me by disappearing like that? I thought you must have been killed; otherwise, why would you abandon me? I mourned you for years. And then I had to move on. That’s history now. Don’t try to resurrect it.”
Hassan had constructed dozens of scenarios in his mind, imagining again and again how his reunion with Lena might go. What he’d say, what she’d say, whether they could pick up where they left off, whether the chemistry between them would still be there. Whether the love would still be there.
This wasn’t like any of those scenarios. This felt like trying to punch through a wall.
Not knowing what else to say, he defaulted to another of the many questions crowding the back of his throat. “Tell me about Kamal.”
Lena’s mouth fell open. “You’ve been to my aunt’s house? Have you been spying on me? Who else have you talked to?”
“Lena, what are you talking about?” Hassan’s frustration boiled over and his voice rose. What a disaster this encounter was turning out to be. “I was trying to find you. I found your aunt first. Now for God’s sake, tell me about my son!”
Lena’s jaw was set. “A good boy,” she said matter of factly. “Clever, strong, happy. That’s all. If you wanted to know more then you should have been there to raise him. I did the best I could. If you want to hate me, go ahead. You can’t hate me any more than I hate myself.” This last statement was spoken in a mutter, as if more for herself than Hassan.
“No, Lena, no. I blame myself. How could I have left you? How could I have been so stupid? It must have been hell for you.”
His head pulsed with pain from the headache that continued to grow behind his skull. He gripped his forehead with one hand, squeezing, trying to force the pain down.
“What about you?” Lena’s tone mellowed slightly, as if conceding that perhaps Hassan was not entirely evil. “What has your life been like?”
Hassan sketched his life story in a few broad strokes – Karanlik, prison, life in San Francisco, the coma. “Alhamdulillah,” he said. “I’m grateful to Allah. He’s been kind to me.”
“Really? Doesn’t seem so. I no longer believe in God, but if it helps you, knock yourself out.”
Lena had never been especially religious, but it saddened Hassan to hear her say this. In his experience, atheism was never a rational, considered choice. It was always the product of disappointment and pain. It was the yin to faith’s yang – the flip side of the same coin. It was a person saying, “God, because you’ve let me down, I reject you!” The irony was that the rejection itself was an acknowledgment of God’s existence.
He didn’t know what else to say. The two of them lapsed into silence. Hassan gazed at Lena’s black shoes, noticing the worn soles and seamed uppers. They were shoes that had walked a lot of miles. Lena, meanwhile, looked at the doorway, distancing herself.
Lena nodded quickly, as if coming to a decision. “I’m glad things worked out for you. It hasn’t been so easy for me. I have to get back to work now.” She shifted her body weight subtly away from him, as if ready to move on.
“Wait. Lena, I’m sorry, I have to know. Who attacked you?”
She shook her head, a bitter expression turning down the corners of her mouth. “You men. All the same. Always. It was Anton, okay?” She practically spat his name. “Anton. He was in love with me. He wanted me to leave you, but I refused.”
“Anton,” he breathed. Not Sarkis, not Mr. Black. His imagination had filled in the blanks with the boogeymen he knew. And to think that he’d gone to Anton for help afterward.
“Hassan.” Lena’s tone softened now, became almost kind. “Rest here as long as you need. Let yourself out when you’re ready. I… I’m glad you came. Ma’ as-salama.”
He was opening the door of the taxi when Lena cried, “Wait!” He looked up to see her running toward him. He turned just in time to catch her as she threw herself into his arms.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and Hassan realized she was crying. “I’m sorry I was such a shrew. You don’t know how hard it’s been for me. I thought you were dead and I hated you for that, and I hated myself for hating you. I understand now, it wasn’t your fault. I don’t blame you.”
She pulled away slightly, her hands still on his shoulders, and looked at him. Her tears had caused her mascara to run, but she was as beautiful as ever. “Do you think there’s a chance for us? Could we start over, you and I? Do you think…” she began to sob, so that he had difficulty understanding her. “Do you… think… you could… love me… again?”
He didn’t know what to say. He cared for Lena – so much, really. It hurt him to think of the pain she’d been through. He wanted to see her happy. He wanted to help her. But you can’t base a relationship on wanting to help someone. He remembered the aunt saying that Lena was broken and no one could fix her. He might have discounted that as the mutterings of a lonely old woman, but he’d seen the same thing when he and Lena were married. From the time he reunited with Lena in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square, their entire marriage had been one long episode of him trying to save her – and look how that turned out.
Also – he hated to admit this, even to himself, for it was unforgiving and mean – but a little voice inside him kept whispering, “She killed our son. She was high on heroin, and she killed little Kamal.” He’d just told her that he didn’t blame her, and he wanted to believe that himself – he wanted to be that kind, forgiving man – but… there it was.
With all of that in mind, he pushed her away gently and looked her in the eyes. “Are you still using?”
She tugged her sleeves lower on her wrists and crossed her arms. Her mouth was a flat line. “What right do you have to ask me that?”
He shrugged slightly. “I’m asking.”
Her expression turned into a snarl. “You can’t expect someone to give up heroin for life. It doesn’t work like that. But I can control it. I only get high every few months, that’s all.”
Her voice softened. “Maybe I could stay clean with your help.” She was as changeable as the eddies of the wind. Had she always been that way? “I could change,” she continued, “if you stayed with me. If you loved me.”
At one time in his life, this meeting and those words would have been a dream come true. Lena alive, and the two of them together again.
Now, though… He remembered other things. He remembered Lena’s secrecy when they’d been together, the constant lies, the mood swings, the times when she would shut herself in a dark room for days… He recalled the drug addiction, the fights, and the accusations that he had abandoned her in Lebanon. Somehow he’d forgotten all of that, or put it out of his mind. Instead he’d created an idealized image of their lives together, with Lena as a lost angel – all encapsulated in the photo he’d carried in his pocket for so many years.
In a way he still thought of her as the older, wiser woman who had tried to rescue him from the mindlessness of war. She was beautiful, and possessed a fierce creative energy that masked her underlying fragility. There was much to love in her.
But did he want the pain and heartache that would come with it? Did he want to thrust himself back into her endless drama? Could he truly forgive her for the death of their son? And even if the answer to all these questions was yes, was she even halal for him? An atheist?
He stood on the busy sidewalk, people streaming around them, as confused as he had ever been in his life. Only now did he begin to realize that any desire he might have to be reunited with Lena stemmed from a combination of guilt and fantasy. It wasn’t what his heart needed or longed for. It wasn’t real.
If he was truly honest with himself, the phrase “true love” did not elicit an image of Lena in his mind, but of someone else. It had been that way for a long time. Coming here… he’d needed to know, to see Lena in the flesh; to explain, apologize, and understand. But his heart already belonged to someone else. Now that his memories had returned, he knew this to be true.
He couldn’t bring himself to say no to Lena. He didn’t have the strength to say the word.
It didn’t matter. She read it in his face. She snorted bitterly and shook her head. “You don’t want me, Hassan. I don’t know why you came here or what you want, but it isn’t me.”
He met her angry eyes with a deeply apologetic look. “I care about you, Lena. I always will.”
For a moment Lena seemed to drop all her masks. The anger, bitterness and self-pity vanished, and she gave him a look of such profound sadness that he thought his heart would crumble into dust. She seemed so lost – so forlorn and confused.
Tears welled in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. He wanted to take her in his arms, promise her that he would stay, banish her demons, heal her, save her, and never abandon her again.
He made no move toward her, however. Pity wasn’t love. He couldn’t save Lena. All of their lives were as fragile and fleeting as leaves, and none but Allah could save anyone. Any belief to the contrary was self-delusion and arrogance.
“My soldier boy,” Lena said sadly. “It wasn’t all bad, was it Hassan?”
“The Topkapi Palace.”
Lena nodded. “I remember that day.”
“Let’s hold on to that.”
Lena made no reply. Her shoulders slumped and she tipped her head almost to one shoulder, as if too tired to hold it up.
“Goodbye, Hassan.” Lena’s reply was so soft that if Hassan hadn’t seen her lips move he wouldn’t have understood her.
Feeling like a deserter, but knowing this was the only move for him, Hassan turned his back on Lena’s reproachful visage and got into the car.
With Lena disappearing in the side view mirror, Hassan sat back in the passenger seat and closed his eyes as Muhsin drove him to the airport.
He’d already said his goodbyes to Gala and Muhsin’s family early that morning. Gala had been lost to him for so many years; he didn’t like leaving her again. But obtaining a visa would take time – a visa to the West was like a lottery ticket in Lebanon, something everyone craved and few received – and Gala insisted she was happy in Muhsin’s household. The youngest child was already following her around and calling her Teta, which in the Lebanese dialect meant Grandma. Even Abu Layla seemed happy, no doubt because his stomach was satisfied.
Hassan’s mind was spinning so much that it felt like the taxi was circling a roundabout at high speed. It was only hitting him now – really sinking in – that Layth was gone. Killed for my cause, Hassan thought. Killed by men who came after me.
He’d never had a chance to mourn. He hadn’t even seen Layth’s body. He’d glimpsed the ambulance pulling away, rushed to Oakland to rescue Jamilah… then slept for two years. Layth gone. Kadija a widow.
Charlie too. He remembered the monster that Charlie had become. He’d seen him with his own eyes, recognized him like he’d recognize his own reflection.
And yet… these memories did not wound him as deeply as they should. He felt grief, sure, but it was muted, like the impact of a bullet slowed by water.
He loosened his grip on the leather seat. Gradually, the feeling of disorientation slowed. He opened his eyes and looked around at the Beirut traffic. His gaze roamed over the pedestrians talking, laughing, and arguing, and the new buildings going up, one civilization atop another. In fact the very same generation who still lived was busy layering new plaster and paint over their own past – a past that lay beneath the surface like bruised muscles beneath the skin.
Slumber. Sleep. In a flash of insight, he realized why he was not more traumatized by the fates of Layth and Charlie. It was the coma. He hadn’t been asleep, had he? He could still remember the dark scenes that had unfolded before his inner vision again and again while he lay unmoving. He’d relived those scenes until they lost their power to paralyze him.
And he’d had help. Jamilah. He remembered the first time he met Jamilah properly – the day her bike was stolen. The way she shoved the bike thief in the chest, heedless that he was twice her size… Her vow to start practicing Islam properly, and the way she’d stuck to it even when she was fired from her job as a result… The time she bought that used chair on Market Street and struggled for half a day to haul it – by herself, refusing all assistance – up to her apartment on Nob Hill… He grinned, thinking of that crazy day.
He remembered too, the way she’d stood above him when he was wounded, ready to fight and die for him. The way she’d championed him for two years, taking him under her wing, believing in his strength, defying the naysayers.
Ah, Jamilah, he thought. I don’t deserve you.
At the Beirut airport, located in the southern suburbs of the city, Hassan surveyed the departures board. After a moment he found what he was looking for. There was a flight to Istanbul in two hours.
He had unfinished business in the capital of the world.
Istanbul was even more crowded and hectic than Hassan remembered, if that were possible. He found Mehmet looking only a little changed. His hair was as white as the snows of Mount Ararat, and his chin noticeably more jowly, but he looked happy and healthy. Mehmet was overjoyed to see Hassan. His former employer embraced him for a full minute, and called a waiter to bring two coffees. The older man couldn’t get over how strong and fit Hassan looked.
“I’ve been so worried about you all these years,” he said, his hand resting on Hassan’s arm. “You were in such a terrible state, then you disappeared.”
Hassan filled him in, gazing admiringly at the café as he did so. The Western Door bustled with customers and staff. Mehmet had purchased the building next door and knocked down the interior wall, doubling the size of the café. The menu featured trendy new coffee drinks, including “superfood” blends with blueberry and açai. Something called “world music” played on the stereo.
“You have to keep up with the times,” said Mehmet. “I have a poetry jam every Saturday night.” He grinned. “You want your old job back?”
Hassan laughed. “Thank you, Amca,” he said, using the Turkish word for uncle. “I’m only here to visit.”
To Hassan’s disappointment, his old friend Jihad was gone. A nurse at the clinic said he’d gone back to Iraq several years before. Another insisted he’d emigrated to New York.
He visited the spot on the Bosphorous where he’d thrown Daniel’s dog tag into the sea. He stood watching the strait as ships passed by and seagulls cried overhead. A salty wind ruffled his hair, and a huge white pelican skimmed the surface of the waters, its chest thrust forward proudly. Black and gray cormorants perched atop a row of rotting wooden pylons, one bird per post, observing Hassan as a jury might observe a defendant on the stand. We find you guilty, they seemed to say. Guilty in your intentions, and guilty in your deeds.
Hassan brought his mind back to the reason he’d come here. “Peace, Daniel,” he said softly. “I haven’t forgotten you and I never will. Have no fear for me. Allah has my back.”
No sooner had he spoken the words than a tall black stork strode past him in the shallows. Hassan had never seen one like this, and he observed it with fascination. Its wings, neck, and head were black; its underside white, while its long legs and beak were as red as blood. The overall effect was grim, almost spectral – which was perhaps appropriate for the final task Hassan had to perform.
He spent a few days stalking the streets and parks around Teksim Square, bribing the street level drug dealers for information. In the end he learned that Anton had fallen hard. He’d spent several years in prison and come out a broken man. He lived in a run-down flat in the Beyoğlu district, and was a pimp now, running a few past-their-prime prostitutes on Tarlabaşı Bulvarı.
Hassan found the flat and kicked in the door, surprising Anton in the middle of shooting heroin into his thigh. He was apparently sharing his high with an overly made-up woman who looked old enough to be a grandmother.
“Get out,” Hassan commanded the woman, and she did, pausing only long enough to snatch up her heroin works, not even casting a glance back at Anton.
The apartment reeked of body odor and rotting food. Trash was strewn on the floor. Anton gaped at Hassan, his drugged eyes full of confusion.
Hassan considered leaving the man in his own filth and misery. Perhaps this scabrous life he led was enough of a punishment.
But then he remembered Lena – pregnant with Hassan’s child – lying on the floor in a warm bath of her own blood. He’d let Anton live once before, and the man’s vicious attempt to murder Lena had been the result. Some things could not be forgiven.
“Hello Anton.” Outwardly Hassan was calm, but his body felt like a mountain about to avalanche onto this devil. His arms were as relaxed and powerful as whips. He could, he knew, crush Anton’s throat with a single blow. “You should have killed me back then when I came to you,” he continued. “I know what you did. Make your peace with God. You’re done now.”
A combination of terror and contempt filled Anton’s eyes as he recognized the man before him. Predictably, he reached into his pocket and drew a knife. He came forward with a cry and a lunge.
It occurred to Hassan that Anton might have cut Lena’s throat with the very same knife he held now. The thought filled him with a crimson rage.
In Hassan’s heightened state of awareness, the attack was childishly easy to deal with. He caught the junkie’s arm and wrenched the knife out of his hand. He lifted the Greek bodily into the air and slammed him down to the ground, then sat atop the man’s chest and placed the point of the knife against his throat. He pressed slowly until the knife point barely pierced the skin, drawing a trickle of blood. Though he wanted to continue driving the knife in, something held him back. He’d come here intending to kill Anton, but couldn’t get his hand to obey his command. His arm shook. He bellowed in anger, spittle falling onto Anton’s face.
“No, please!” Anton cried. He rolled onto his belly beneath Hassan. As he did so the knife drew a shallow red scratch across his neck. The junkie began to sob piteously. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. For the love of God, please don’t kill me.” His sobs degenerated into the wordless bleating of a terrified sheep.
Hassan suddenly felt like a man waking from a dream. His hair stood on end. What am I doing? I was about to murder this pathetic wretch in cold blood. What’s happened to me?
He stood and stumbled backward toward the door, throwing the knife into a corner. He left Anton lying there, weeping amid the detritus of his failed existence.
Almost as soon as he left Anton’s dirty flat, Hassan’s legs began to tremble. He put a hand against a grimy light pole with no bulb, supporting himself until the shakes passed. He didn’t understand it. He’d been in numerous life or death conflicts, but he’d never experienced battle stress like this. Suddenly his stomach heaved, and he bent over on the litter-strewn sidewalk and vomited in the gutter.
He had to walk a few blocks before he could find a taxi. To his surprise, a female driver in hijab stopped for him. He’d never seen a woman cabbie in Istanbul before.
Sitting in the back of a taxi on his way to the airport, he noticed for the first time that he’d gotten a bit of Anton’s blood on his hands. He took a packet of tissues from his pocket and wiped his hands compulsively, using the entire pack, stuffing the stained tissues in his pockets.
He was overcome with a sense of shame. The Kopis war was one thing: he’d been defending himself against trained killers. But Anton was half-destroyed already. Hassan told himself that the man was a pimp, ruining women’s lives. But that was a rationalization and had nothing to do with why he’d almost killed him.
Another image came to his mind: his own hands, breaking Mr. Black’s neck. Why had he done that? What had happened to the Hassan who had renounced violence, and had vowed never again to kill? The Hassan who had gone unarmed to face Jamilah’s kidnappers? The Hassan who helped people, rather than simply destroying? How had he gotten so far from who he aspired to be? How had he lost his way? How had he become this violent, two-dimensional ghost of his former self?
He felt soiled. The blood-stained tissues in his pockets condemned him. Would he appear before Allah on Yawm al-Qiyamah holding those tissues as a mark of his guilt for all to see?
“Driver,” he called out. “I’ve changed my mind. Take me to Masjid Beyazit instead.”
Beyazit, when he arrived, looked exactly the same, thank God. This was where he used to pray when he’d lived here. It was a relief to finally be in a familiar place. The hour was between prayer times, but there were always worshipers in Beyazit praying on their own, reading Quran, or sitting in circles, learning from the scholars who taught there.
Hassan flushed the blood-stained tissues down the toilet, then washed himself thoroughly. Unsatisfied with his wudu’, he repeated it three times.
In the soaring prayer hall he prayed his fard or mandatory salat, then proceeded to pray sunnah. His guilt was like a well of black ink filling his skull. He feared that he had hopelessly tainted himself. Was he any different from the Kopis or the Panas? All these years he’d struggled to overcome his mother’s indoctrination, to get away from violence, yet now he had fresh blood on his hands, literally.
Was he evil? How could he perform any kind of sincere tawbah? How could he take even a step toward the bright image of himself that lived in his own imagination?
He put his forehead down in prostration and stayed there, praising Allah, seeking forgiveness, and pleading for guidance. His arms grew tired, yet still he prostrated, vowing not to rise until he had an answer. He confessed his guilt, his arrogance in thinking that a human life was his for the taking, his shame for forsaking Lena, his grief for his son. He dropped all pretenses, exposing himself before Allah, hiding nothing, knowing that he could never hide from Allah anyhow. He found himself spiritually naked before the Lord of All, having nothing to offer in his defense. He felt withered and desiccated, like the charcoal that remains after a tree burns in a fire.
His arms and shoulders ached. He began to weep silently, not knowing what else to say to the Most High, nor how to redeem himself. Glory to You, he whispered. There is no God but You, alone without any partner. To You belongs the Kingdom and all praise; You give life and death; in Your Hand is all good; and You have power over all things.”
Still he stayed in sujood. His hands went numb, and his knee – the one that had been kicked by some predatory youths so many years ago on his flight to Syria – ached.
An image came to his mind: the lighted path that had led him out of the coma. This time he saw a person and a place at the end of that path. With a flood of relief and gratitude, he realized that Allah was offering him a way, saving him from confusion and death as He had done again and again. He did not know why Allah was so kind to him and did not need to know. Neither did he imagine he was forgiven. He knew only that there was a path forward – a path that might lead to forgiveness, in time. Accepting it, feeling love and gratitude for Allah, he completed his prayer, wiped his tears, and stood to leave.
It was time to go home.
He called Jamilah and asked if she and Muhammad could pick him up at the airport when he arrived.
“Uhh… I’ll send Mo,” Jamilah replied.
“What about you?”
“To tell you the truth, I was just about to get a ride to the bus station. I’m moving back to Madera.”
Hassan couldn’t say he blamed her. But he was done wasting time and holding back. “I understand,” he said. “But I’d still like you to come.”
There was a long pause, until Hassan wondered if the line was disconnected.
“Do I have a reason to?” Jamilah said finally.
“Yes. I think you do.”
Hassan had just ordered a coffee at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen International Airport when his phone rang. He hadn’t been much of a coffee drinker before his coma, but these days he found the aroma intoxicating. Maybe he’d been asleep for so long that he now wanted to be as awake as possible.
“I thought about your words,” the caller said. It was Jasper, the afro-wearing, machete-wielding assassin.
Hassan felt a surge of anger and annoyance. “Did I not make myself clear? I said I never wanted to hear from you again.”
“No, you said you never want to see me again.”
“What do you want?”
“I told you, I’ve been thinking. You’re right. We Panas only know how to kill. It’s what we were trained to do. That’s why we need you. We need the vision of Kamal Haddad. We want you to lead us. Show us a better way of doing things. Show us how to change Lebanon the right way.”
Hassan sighed. “There’s only one problem with that.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not Kamal Haddad. I don’t have his vision. I don’t know how to change Lebanon.”
“But we need you. We have no leader.”
“I think you do.”
“You. The very fact that you’re ready to change tells me that you’re more than the sum of your training. Use your connections and discipline for the betterment of Lebanon. But do it the right way. Killing is easy.” Hassan felt like a hypocrite saying this, but plowed ahead. “Building something good is much harder. You were trained to destroy. Now you have to learn to build.” And so do I, Hassan thought.
“Well…” Jasper said, but Hassan could hear the change in his tone already. Hassan’s words were sinking in. The Panas had their leader.
“Besides,” Hassan said. “I have something more important to do.”
“More important than leading Lebanon?”
“Yes,” Hassan replied. “She is.”
Stepping out of the plane at San Francisco International, Hassan was met by two U.S. Customs agents. A bulky agent with a thick neck and a bald pate examined his passport and announced, “This is him. Come with us, sir.”
“Why are you detaining me?” Hassan demanded.
Hassan was taken to a detention room filled with Arab, Pakistani, and Persian passengers – young and old, male and female – all apparently “randomly” selected.
When Hassan’s turn came, he was led to a private room where the agents interrogated him for an hour. Why had he gone to Lebanon? Who did he see? Did he buy guns? Did he participate in military training? What did he think of Hizbullah? Hamas? Al-Qaeda?
Hassan answered their questions truthfully, telling them that he’d gone to visit old friends, and that he was not political. He neglected to mention that he’d participated in a shootout between two warring groups of secret assassins.
Just when he thought they were out of questions, two new agents in dark suits entered the room. They interrogated Hassan about the Mission Street massacre two years ago. What was Hassan’s role in that? What happened in the Oakland warehouse? How could he afford such an expensive apartment?
Hassan kept his answers vague, pointing out that he did not take part in the shootout, he assisted Inspector Sanchez when she was wounded, and he went to Oakland only to find Jamilah. As for the apartment, it wasn’t his. It belonged to a corporation called Zanshin Enterprises, which employed him as a property manager. Technically, this was all true.
In the end they let him go, though Hassan had no doubt that they would monitor him closely for some time to come.
Jamilah, Muhammad, Alice, and baby Anwar were waiting patiently when he finally exited customs. The dark-haired baby was still so tiny in Alice’s arms. He kicked his little feet, made gurgling sounds, and smiled at nothing in particular.
For an instant Hassan was almost glad that Layth was absent. Layth had understood him, and had been able to read him like no other. He would have taken one look and known that Hassan had done something terrible. He would have seen Hassan’s guilt and shame.
Then he felt guilty for thinking that. His face flushed, and he dropped his head to hide it.
Muhammad embraced him. “Five Niiiiiine!” he exclaimed. “Back in the 415.”
415, of course, was the San Francisco telephone code, but it took Hassan a moment to remember that “five nine” was his old messenger ID number. That life seemed like a thousand years ago. He searched his memory for Muhammad’s old number, and found it.
“Eight Oh Ooooooone,” he replied, imitating Muhammad’s enthusiastic delivery, and trying his best to hide his inner turbulence. “I’m clean at SFO. Whatcha got for me?”
“You have your memory back,” Jamilah said matter of factly. She looked serene, or maybe just composed.
“Oh, dude!” Muhammad exclaimed. He threw his arms around Hassan and ruffled his hair. “That’s awesome, Alhamdulillah!”
Hassan looked at Jamilah shyly. “You don’t seem surprised.”
She nodded slowly. “If dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. I knew you’d recover. I had faith.”
“Hey, that’s good,” said Alice. “Is that poetry?”
“What about Lena?” Muhammad interjected. “Did you find her?”
“Yes. A lot has happened. Some good and some bad.”
Alice puffed out her cheeks in exasperation. “Why does everyone always ignore me?”
“But what about Lena?” Muhammad persisted.
“She and I have gone in different directions in life. Anyway, I have no love to give her.”
“Why?” Alice asked.
Hassan mustered his courage. Jamilah would have been within her rights to cut him off after he left to find Lena. She’d been more patient, steadfast and loyal than he had any right to expect. This was no time to beat around the bush.
“I have no love to give Lena,” he said, looking at Jamilah, “because my heart is filled with love for someone else.”
Jamilah’s face flushed and she turned away, giving him her back.
“Aww…” Alice said, hugging Jamilah.
“Jamilah,” Hassan said inquiringly. When she did not respond, he repeated her name.
She turned back to face him, wiping away tears with closed fists. “What?” Her tone was questioning, almost fearful, while her eyes flashed anger.
“I’m sorry. I had to go to Lebanon. I had to find the truth. But…” He shrugged and gave a crooked smile. “There’s no one for me but you. It’s as clear and bright inside me as the morning sun. I’m asking you to be my wife.”
“Aaaah!” Alice let out a shriek of excitement, then covered her mouth in embarrassment.
Jamilah studied Hassan from beneath lowered brows, her foot tapping the floor.
Hassan didn’t know if she was angry, annoyed or embarrassed. He wondered if he had been too forward. He could have reached out to her brother first… But no, Jamilah was her own woman. He knew her well enough to know that she’d just be annoyed with him if he asked her younger brother for her hand.
“You’re lucky I’m even here,” Jamilah said finally.
“How do I know you won’t go running off again?”
Hassan smiled. “Not without you, anyway.”
Jamilah shook her head slowly. “You know how to try a girl’s patience.”
“So… Is that a yes?’
Jamilah held up her thumb and index finger a millimeter apart. “Just barely, mister. Just barely.”
Outside the airport, a cold wind washed over Hassan like the waters of Salamiyyeh. Only in San Francisco could summer feel like winter. He could see his breath in the air; the fog condensed on his face like dew.
It didn’t bother him. The long winter of his heart was coming to an end. There was a time for all creatures to hibernate, to seek the safety of forgetfulness and maybe even self-imprisonment; and there was a time to awaken, to breathe in the crystal clarity of spring, the yellow warmth, and the urgency of growth – all of which was an expression of Allah’s mercy and love.
This was a time to truly live – something he’d done precious little of in the last two decades. This was a time to love.
The wedding of Hassan Amir and Jamilah Al-Husayni took place on an expanse of grass in front of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. It was a crisp autumn afternoon. The breeze coming off the bay rippled the lake as a flock of swans swam by.
In attendance were Muhammad, Alice, and their baby; Jamilah’s mother and brother, with her brother acting as her wali; Adel and Sahar, along with Sahar’s husband (a tall Iraqi engineer she’d married the year before); Sandra Dempsey, the nurse; Lieutenant Katrina Sanchez and her family; Fatimah (the young sister who took over Hassan’s martial arts class) and her family; and Kadija, who returned from Indonesia with all her children especially for the occasion.
Rather than the Western-style white gown and tux, Hassan and Jamilah donned traditional Arab wedding attire. Hassan wore a long Arab-style shirt and loose pants, along with a cloak embroidered in gold thread and a black and white checked keffiyeh.
Jamilah looked stunning in a black and scarlet brocaded dress embroidered with white beads; a flowing white hijab with real gold coins dangling from the fringes; and henna designs on her hands.
The Palace of Fine Arts was a public area, and Hassan noticed many tourists stopping to take pictures of Jamilah. He couldn’t blame them. His heart was filled with gratitude and pride. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve Jamilah’s patience and love, but he felt like a prince about to receive the hand of the most beautiful princess on earth.
The wedding was officiated by Imam Sulayman, who looked directly at Hassan as he mentioned a Hadith Qudsi in which Allah said, “O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.”
“The past is a wealth of experience from which we should draw lessons,” the Imam continued. “It is not a pool of regret from which to poison ourselves. There can be no happiness without forgiveness: the forgiveness of Allah for our sins; forgiveness for each other; and forgiveness for ourselves. Do not say, ‘If only,’ or ‘I should have.’ Look to the future and to the present moment. Look to your partner’s loyalty and kindness in sharing his and her life with you. Look at the kindness of your friends, here because of their love for you. Look to the mercy of Allah, who washes your heart and gives you the gift of life every day.”
It was a beautiful day. When it was over Hassan had a sweet memory to add to his mental storehouse, so that he could – day by day – balance the tide of pain and self-recrimination that still sometimes kept him awake at night.
Hassan didn’t want a honeymoon. He was tired of strange places and faces. Instead, he and Jamilah purchased an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District and spent the first two weeks of their marriage fixing it up. It was a good feeling for Hassan: back in a neighborhood he knew, eating Mission burritos for lunch and Vietnamese takeout for dinner, and spending his days with Jamilah cleaning, painting, and furnishing. Just the two of them, working together, getting to know each other as husband and wife.
It felt right, which was an extraordinary thing for Hassan, because it wasn’t a feeling he was used to. For so long, life had felt wrong in one way or another. But all he had to do was look at Jamilah to know that he’d made the right choice, and that he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
A few days after the wedding, Hassan and Jamilah were discussing what colors would be best for the bathroom. Hassan – who felt strangely free and adventurous, at least as far as bathroom colors went – wanted light blue with white soap bubbles.
Jamilah laughed. “Believe it or not, Shamsi used to subscribe to a home and gardening magazine, and I read an article that said primary colors like blue are okay for bathrooms, but to calm it down with white trim. So who am I to deny your water and bubble dreams?”
“What about Shamsi, anyway? Why didn’t she come to the wedding?”
“Not just her,” Jamilah said, holding a color wheel up against the wall. “Her mom and sisters too. Ever since we let her go from Salsabil, she and I haven’t spoken. I sent her an invite, you know. She blew it off.”
“How did your mom react to that?”
“It’s funny. I expected her to be upset, but she shrugged it off and told me this whole story about how she and her sister Lutfieh – that’s Shamsi’s mom – never got along. Lutfieh always thought she was better than my mom because she went to university. Back then they all lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon, struggling just to eat. Everyone in the camp was suffering. When Mom graduated high school, she went to work as a house cleaner. She understood that she couldn’t indulge her own dreams. Her salary helped pay for Lutfieh’s school books and uniforms. Then she met my dad and got married. By the time Lutfieh finished school, the family had immigrated to this country. Lutfieh had opportunities my mom never had, but to her, my mom is an uneducated primitive who doesn’t understand the world.”
“Did you know all of that?”
“Not at all. I knew life was hard for my mother growing up, but I never understood how much she sacrificed. My adventures have always alarmed her. She clings so hard to what she thinks of as security. I think I’m beginning to understand why.”
Hassan atoned for breaking his vow to never again use a gun. Every day for a month he delivered supplies of food and clothing to the youth shelter on Larkin Street. He didn’t imagine that this would buy him forgiveness for the things he’d done. The best he could do was to follow evil with good, and hope that, as Allah said in the Quran, the good would wipe out the bad.
He did not renew the vow, however. He considered it – but – well, he just didn’t, and couldn’t say why. He skirted the subject, even within the privacy of his own mind.
Jamilah completed the last year of her law studies at Golden Gate University. Hassan sold his share of Hammerhead Courier to Adel, and went to work for a nonprofit that assisted needy Central American immigrants. The organization helped struggling immigrants apply for residency and work, provided referrals for low-cost medical care, and provided literacy tutoring. His salary was minimal, but that was irrelevant. He wanted the experience for something he had in mind.
He learned of the death of his friend Wolf under strange circumstances. Though no one was ever arrested for the crime, Hassan had his suspicions.
He also learned of the assassination of his father’s old friend, Dr. Basim. The timing of Basim’s murder implied some kind of involvement in the violence that had occurred two years ago. Hassan could not accept, however, that Basim had betrayed him in any way – as Jamilah and Layth had suggested two years ago. Instead he chose to believe that Basim died protecting him.
Muhammad and Alice remained in Gualala, where Muhammad continued to direct Salsabil while Alice ran her gift shop. They enjoyed raising a child in that peaceful place, and the income from the clinic provided all of them – Muhammad, Alice, Hassan, Jamilah, and Kadija – with a comfortable income. Alice, who had been on the edge of converting to Islam for a long time, embraced the Deen entirely.
Hassan had difficulty obtaining a visa for Gala to come to the U.S. Finally Gala told him gently that he need not try. She and Abu Layla were getting married. “He’s crusty as a boot heel,” she conceded, “but he’s lively. At my age one can’t be picky.” Hassan congratulated her, but at the same time he felt a little sad, as if he’d lost her all over again. He had imagined her living with him and Jamilah, being cared for. But it seemed she wasn’t done caring for others.
Just about the time that Jamilah received her law degree and passed the bar exam, she gave birth to a girl. They named her Ayah, after Jamilah’s grandmother. Hassan wept that day, partly out of joy for the blessing of his daughter, and partly for the the child he’d never met.
Kamal would have been eighteen years old if he had lived. What would he be like if he were alive? Hassan wondered. Would he love his little sister? Would he be a typical teen, staying out late and getting into trouble? Or would he be my right-hand man, someone I could count on?
The name Ayah, of course, meant a sign or a miracle. Seven and a half pounds, olive skinned, and black haired like her mother, Ayah changed him. Being a parent, he realized, was like splitting off the most important piece of your soul and passing it on to your child, where it took root, grew and changed into something new and wonderful. The child’s happiness, sadness or pain were all more important than your own. Just looking at Ayah made Hassan smile, and he knew that there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her, and that his life would never be the same.
Hassan finally visited Charlie, who was held at a secure federal prison hospital situated on the mountainous, windswept pass between the Central Valley and the Mojave Desert. Gaining permission to see him proved easier than he expected. In fact, they accepted his assertion that he was an old friend of “John Doe” at face value.
Charlie sat in a chair in a locked dayroom, unrestrained, gazing out the barred window at the brown hills. The right side of his face sagged, and the fingers on his right hand were curled into claws.
When Hassan sat in front of him, Charlie’s gaze shifted to meet his. His little brother, Mr. Green, the Crow – Hassan didn’t know how to think of him – regarded Hassan for an uncomfortably long time. Hassan imagined he saw anger in the man’s eyes, resentment and perhaps regret, but maybe none of that was true.
He held Charlie’s good hand, brushed the hair from the man’s eyes, and wiped the drool that leaked from his mouth. He whispered to him that he was sorry, and that he loved him. There was nothing else to say. He kissed his brother on the cheek and left.
Exiting the prison, he found four FBI agents waiting for him. They drove him to their Bakersfield office and detained him. What, they wanted to know, was his relationship with the notorious assassin?
Because he had no honest answers to give them, he said nothing. They allowed him to phone an attorney: he phoned Jamilah. She showed up hours later with the baby on her hip, tongue lashing the agents in a righteous rage, demanding that they charge Hassan or release him. They let him go.
When Ayah was weaned, Hassan made his proposal: that he and Jamilah move to Lebanon.
“Not only to Lebanon,” he said, clasping Jamilah’s hands between his. “But Tel-Az-Zaytoon itself. The same camp where your family lived. You can’t imagine the poverty and suffering there, Jamilah. Between your law degree and my experience, plus our money, we could do so much good. I want to set up an organization that will advocate for the rights of the Palestinians in Lebanon, as well as provide medical services, job training – “
“Stop,” Jamilah said. She put her arms around him and embraced him tightly. “You don’t have to convince me, my love. To help my people in some way has been my dream since I was ten.”
So they did. They purchased a two-bedroom apartment in southern Beirut, just outside the Tel-Az-Zaytoon refugee camp. Though the neighborhood was poor, their home was clean and well furnished, and they were liked and respected by their neighbors. They loved each other, and believed in their work. They were, on the whole, happy.
They kept a large photo album with a paisley-patterned cover on a coffee table in the living room. It contained photos of their wedding, Ayah’s babyhood, and assorted photographs sent to them by Muhammad, Alice, and Kadija. On the first page were the three photos of little Kamal. Hassan sometimes sat on the plush green sofa and slowly flipped the album pages, avoiding the first page the way one might avoid touching a wound.
Finally, taking a deep breath, he’d turn to that page and study those three photos. Looking at them, he built on what he could see, imagining what happened before and after the photo was taken. He imagined how Lena had to teach Kamal to hold the crayon properly, how his favorite colors were blue and brown, how Lena praised him and tacked the drawing to the wall…
Jamilah, when she saw him in these moods, would sit beside him and rub his shoulders. She was a torch in a dusky world, providing warmth and light. Hassan didn’t know what he would have done without her.
Slowly but surely, the organization they founded – which they named Hurriyyeh (Freedom) – grew until it employed forty people, all Palestinians from Tel-Az-Zaytoon or nearby camps. The Hurriyyeh model was based on marrying services to industry. They established a pencil factory in the camp; the profits from the factory paid for the social services.
One organization alone could never end the suffering of a nation, but a single life saved was a miracle, and Hassan felt that maybe – just maybe – he was redeeming himself day by day. Maybe Allah would forgive him for all he’d done, and maybe one day he would meet his Lord in peace.
They were blessed with another child, a boy this time. They named him Jamil, in honor of the brother who had been such a good friend to Hassan in El Reno.
Initially they spoke to Kadija, Muhammad, and Alice weekly on Skype, but over time the weekly calls became monthly, then bimonthly. It was alright. The five of them would always be best friends, but everyone was busy with their lives.
Once or twice a year Hassan and Jamilah brought the kids along to meet Lena for coffee and pastries on the Corniche. Hassan would have given up these get-togethers if Jamilah objected, but she never did. Rightly or wrongly, he felt responsible for Lena. He couldn’t abandon her altogether. He just wanted to make sure that she was keeping it together and getting by. Lena would chat about waitressing or art, while Hassan and Jamilah would tell stories of their old messenger days in San Francisco, or talk about the kids.
If Hassan pressed, Lena would sometimes share a tidbit of information about Kamal. She never spoke about her drug habit, and Hassan didn’t push. He wasn’t there to fix Lena. He was there to be there. Maybe that was the whole point.
Gala visited often. On one visit she informed Hassan that Muhsin had sold the Mercedes taxi and replaced it with a Hyundai that got better mileage and cost less to maintain. As a result he was now earning twice what he used to. Hassan didn’t mind. The brother knew best what he needed for his business.
Jamilah’s mother flew to Lebanon two or three times a year. She complained bitterly about their living conditions, haranguing Hassan to move his family out of the camp and “out of this crazy country.”
“Every one of these people would leave if they could,” she’d insist, jabbing her finger into the air. “No sane person chooses to live here.”
Hurriyyeh opened another branch in Ain Al-Hilweh, a sprawling camp of 120,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees outside Sidon. For this branch they built a tuna-canning factory, using only line-caught albacore tuna packed in Lebanon mountain spring water. The product was popular, and soon they were exporting to much of Europe. Per the Hurriyyeh economic model, they used the profits to open schools and clinics. For some of the camp children, it was their first time setting foot inside a proper school. Some had never seen a dentist.
Hassan heard from the Panas only once. The Eid after Hurriyeh 2 opened, he received a card in the mail. It read, “You see? You are changing Lebanon after all.” It was signed by Jasper. What the Panas ultimately chose to do with their training and connections, Hassan did not know.
By the end of Hassan and Jamilah’s second year in Lebanon, Syria was being torn apart. Refugees flooded into Lebanon, bringing stories of horror and death at the hands of the cursed Assad regime. Hassan’s thoughts turned increasingly to Abu Yahya and Hamada, the grandfather and child who had taken him in when he was shot and left for dead in the Syrian countryside. Abu Yahya, if he was still alive, would be an old man now. Hamada would be in his thirties, perhaps married and a father.
Were they alive? Were they suffering? Hassan felt torn, knowing that Jamilah would go ballistic if he told her that he wanted to travel into Syria to search for them, but at the same time feeling compelled to do so.
That, however, is a subject for another story, another day.
This story will end with an excursion that Hassan and his family took to the beach on a May afternoon. Jamilah sat on a beach chair beneath an umbrella, nursing baby Jamil and listening to the radio.
Hassan sat about ten feet away in the sand near the waterline, watching his daughter Ayah chase seagulls, sandpipers and the occasional long-legged wading bird. The sand was warm between his toes, and he wore a keffiyeh draped over his head to shield himself from the sun’s early afternoon glare.
When Ayah tired of her game, she ran back to Hassan and threw herself into his arms. Her hand went immediately under the keffiyeh to his ear, where she began fingering his earlobe. This was something she’d done since she was an infant. She seemed to find comfort in it.
Hassan knew that Ayah would grow up fluent in Arabic, but he wanted her to learn English as well. So Jamilah spoke to the children only in Arabic (she needed the practice anyway) while Hassan used only English. So far it seemed to be working. Ayah could switch back and forth instantly. She was a bright child, articulate for her age – three and a half – and always curious about the world.
“Yes sweetie, it is wonderful.”
“Did your Baba take you to the beach when you was a kid?”
Hassan smiled. “Yes, many times.”
“But… where is your Baba? I want to see him.”
“Only Allah knows, honey, but I believe he’s in Jannah.”
Ayah put on her “I’m thinking about that” face. “Where is that?”
Hassan described Jannah, with its green grass, immensely tall trees and sparkling rivers.
“I want to go there!” Ayah said excitedly. “Can we go there Baba? Can we go on a plane or a choo-choo train?”
There was such a pleading tone in her voice that Hassan hated to tell her no. Ayah, he knew, didn’t understand the concept of death, and he didn’t want to explain it for fear it would upset her. So he said, “One day we can go there Insha’Allah, but not for a long time. When people get to the end of their lives, and they pass away, they go to Jannah to be with Allah. But you can’t get there on a plane.”
Of course not everyone went to heaven, but Ayah could learn about “the other place” when she was older.
“Okay. Baba, can we look for seashells together?”
A few minutes later, Ayah squealed with delight and held up a perfect little conical shell with a swirling purple and white pattern.
“Wow!” Hassan exclaimed. “Good job, sweetie.”
Ayah gave him a stern look. “Say ma-sha-Allah, Baba.”
Hassan grinned. “You’re right. Ma-sha-Allah!”
“What’s the name of it?”
“I believe it’s called a purple unicorn.”
Ayah stared at the shell in amazement, perhaps thinking that she’d found an actual horn of a tiny unicorn. She ran off to share her amazing find with Mama.
Hassan remembered a day when he’d visited the beach with his family as a child. Charlie was building a sand castle when an older boy came along and kicked it over. Hassan leaped up in fury, outraged that anyone would bully his little brother. He tackled the boy, who was even bigger than Hassan himself, stuffed a handful of sand in the bully’s mouth, and released him to run off crying. Their father came limping out quickly across the sand, supporting himself with two canes. Hassan was sure that their dad, who constantly preached the principles of pacifism, would scold him for fighting. But Baba only put an arm around him and said, “Good for you for protecting your brother.”
He hadn’t done a very good job of that in the end, had he? He turned away from his family, looking out over the sea. The sun sparkled on the waves like a promise of heaven. In the far distance, wooden fishing boats plied the waters for pandora, yellowfin or redfin mullet.
Maybe one day he’d be free of guilt. Maybe he wouldn’t be haunted by all his failures, all the people he’d let die or killed with his own hands. Maybe one day he’d wake up to find his heart healed like soft red wax – a miracle to start the day – and he’d be free as a cat, living his second life or fifth or ninth – who could keep track? – and he’d laugh and swing Jamilah into the air and celebrate like the fair had come to town. Maybe one day.
At least he could finally see the horizon. No more was he diving into the depths and finding only unanswered questions and unrelenting murk. Now, finally, he knew where he stood. He knew who he was, who he loved and who loved him in return. He could see the way before him like a mountain path, meandering but climbing, and disappearing over the horizon.
He turned back to his family. Maybe he couldn’t forgive himself just yet, but he could still swing Jamilah in the air, couldn’t he? Having fed, little Jamil – who was turning out to be a good-natured and energetic boy – slept in a covered baby carrier. Jamilah was opening the picnic basket, taking out a sandwich for Ayah.
Hassan lumbered toward them like a beast, swaying from side to side. “I am the Mediterranean sea monster,” he growled, “coming to get you.”
Ayah shrieked with delight and hid behind her mother, crying, “Baba’s the Manian sea monster!”
“Stop it, Baba,” Jamilah whispered urgently. “You’ll wake the baby.”
“I’m not Baba,” he growled. “I’m a sea monster!” Putting his hands on Jamilah’s waist, he lifted her right out of the beach chair and up over his head.
“Ya Allah!” Jamilah exclaimed, laughing now. “Have you gone crazy, Hassan?”
Ayah laughed as well, dancing around her father’s legs, saying, “Do me! Do me!”
Hassan put Jamilah down on her feet and looked into her smiling eyes. “Maybe I am crazy, oh wife of mine,” he said. “Would you have me any other way?” He caressed her cheek. “I have a lot of regrets, my love. But you will never be one of them.”
Jamilah punched him playfully in the chest. “Oh, stop it, you big fool,” she said. “Here, pick up your daughter and swing her around. And when you’re done, have a sandwich.”
And that’s just what he did.
Footnote: Writing this series has occupied a major part of my life for the last three years. Along the way I feel like I’ve come to know and cherish these characters as friends. I hope you feel the same.
I thank MuslimMatters.org for giving me the opportunity to share these stories with all of you. I thank Amy Estrada, who edited many of my stories. Amy, your help has been utterly invaluable. I also thank the readers who edited this last chapter: Amel Abdullah, Ifrah Kaleem, Khalida Jalili, Safa Al-Dabagh, Hind Marai and Saad Zuhaid Hashmi.
There are a couple of new stories already in the works:
1. Deadly Favors – This is a story about Layth and will take place after his conversion to Islam, but before his marriage to Kadija.
Synopsis: When Layth learns that his father owes large gambling debts and is being threatened by a bookie, he travels to Florida to help settle the problem. He soon finds himself in over his head with a gang of armed Muslims who use violence to settle scores; the local branch of the mafia; and a mother who keeps preaching Christianity and trying to feed him roasted pork shoulder for dinner.
2. The Chair – This story about Jamilah takes place in the two month period between The Deal and Kill the Courier.
Synopsis: When Jamilah finds a plush chair on sale for $10 on Seventh Street, she must have it for her still sparsely furnished apartment. Problem: how will she get the chair ten blocks up the hill to her apartment, passing through the worst neighborhood in San Francisco? Along the way she deals with a homeless runaway, a lovestruck liquor store owner, profiling police, a flock of annoying pigeons, and two marriage proposals.
The first story will Insha’Allah be combined with expanded versions of Pieces of a Dream and A Lion is Born, and published as an e-book and a paperback. I hope to release the e-book within four or five months. Similarly, the other stories published here will eventually be released as e-books and paperbacks.
He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah. This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty. Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college. He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam.
Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist. Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible? She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.
An Unwelcome Surprise
Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.
Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam
We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an. It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.
Identifying the Unlikely Suspect
This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”
Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution
There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.
How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?
Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:
- Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
- Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
- Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
- Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
- Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.
Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12
Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:
- homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
- Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
- Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
- Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview
Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond
For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.
Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.
What We Hope to Avoid
While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family. *names changed
Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:
- Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
- Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
- Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.
We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:
رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ
‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]
رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]
يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ
“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”
Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.
An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter
Spiritual abusers are con-artists, and if they were easy to spot then they would be far less successful. That is why you must exercise vigilance and your own judgment above that of public opinion. Never let the person’s position make you trust them more than you would without it.
Spiritual abusers work covertly, present themselves well, and use their service as a cover beneath which to operate. The way to avoid them is to recognize their tactics and avoid being caught by them.
Spiritual abuse often begins with hard-to-spot precursors, with manipulators exploiting grey areas and blurring boundaries to confuse targets. For example, when setting someone up for illicit relations or secret marriage, teachers may begin with inappropriate jokes that lower boundaries.
They may touch others in ways that confuse the person touched as to permissibility, for example, men touching women on their hijabs rather than direct skin. They may inappropriately touch someone in ways that leave him/her wondering whether or not it was intentional.
There may be frivolous texting while the premise of engagement is ‘work only’. Boundaries may be blurred by adding flirtatious content, sending articles praising polygamy, or mentioning dreams about getting married. The recipient may struggle to pinpoint what’s wrong with any of this, but the bottom line is that they don’t have to.
While these tactics may be hard to prove, you don’t need to prove that you don’t want to be communicated with in this way and that you will not tolerate it. You can withdraw from the situation on the basis of your own boundaries.
One of the key challenges in standing up to spiritual abuse is the lack of confidence in calling out bad behavior or the need for validation for wrongs. We may be afraid to a question a teacher who is more knowledgeable than us when he is doing clear haram. However, halal and haram are defined by Allah and no human has the right to amend them. If a religious leader claims exemption to the rules for themselves or their students, that’s a big, bright, red flag.
Beware of Bullying
When you witness or experience bullying, understand that a Muslim’s dignity is sacred and don’t accept justifications of ‘tarbiyah’ (spiritual edification/character reformation) or breaking someone’s nafs (ego). If you didn’t sign up for spiritual edification, don’t accept any volunteer spiritual guides.
If you did sign up, pay attention as to whether these harsh rebukes are having a positive or negative effect. If they are having a negative emotional, mental, or physical effect on you, then this is clearly not tarbiyah, which is meant to build you up.
When abuse in the name of tarbiyah happens, it is the shaykh himself or the shaykha herself who needs character reformation. When such behavior goes unchecked, students become outlets of unchecked anger and are left with trauma and PTSD. This type of bullying is very common in women’s groups.
Trust Built and Trust Destroyed
There are different levels of trust, and as it relates to religious leaders, one does not need to investigate individuals or build trust for a perfunctory relationship. You do not need a high degree of trust if you are just attending someone’s general lectures and not establishing any personal relationship.
If you want to study something with an Islamic teacher, do so as you would with a school-teacher, understanding that their position does not make that person either exceptionally safe nor exceptionally harmful. Treat religious figures as religious consultants who are there to answer questions based on their knowledge. Give every teacher a clean slate, don’t have baseless suspicions, but if behavior becomes manipulative, exploitative, cultish, or otherwise abusive, don’t justify it either.
Personal accountability is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and we have to take responsibility for our own faith and actions. There is no need to be suspicious without reason, but nor is there a justification for blind trust in someone you don’t know, just because they lead prayers or have a degree of religious education.
It is natural to ask ourselves whether people can be trusted after experiencing or learning about spiritual abuse. The answer is yes – you can trust yourself. You can also trust others in ways that are appropriate for the relationship. If you know someone well and they have proven over a long period of time to be trustworthy, keep secrets, and do not use you or take advantage of you, then it makes sense to trust that person more than a stranger or someone who has outward uprightness that you do not know well. That level of trust is earned through long-time demonstration of its characteristics.
Seeing someone on stage for years or relying on testimony of people impressed by someone should not convince you to lower your guard. Even if you do believe someone is pious, you still never drop your better judgment, because even saints are fallible.
Don’t Fall for Reputation
Never take other respected leaders praising or working alongside an individual as proof of his or her trustworthiness. It is possible that the teachers you trust are unaware of any wrongdoing. It’s not a reasonable expectation, nor is it a responsibility for them to boycott or disassociate themselves from another religious figure even if they are aware of them being abusive.
Furthermore, skilled manipulators often gain favor from respected teachers both overseas and domestically to gain credibility.
If one shaykh praises another shaykh, but you witness abusive behavior, don’t doubt yourself based on this praise. The praise may have been true at one time or may have been true in the experience of the one giving the praise, but no one knows another person’s current spiritual state as spiritual states can change.
Even if the abusive individual was previously recognized to be a great wali (saint), understand that there are saints who have lost their sainthood as they do not have isma (divine protection from sin or leaving Islam) like the prophets (upon them be peace) do. What was true yesterday, may not be true today.
Often praises of integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are heaped on men who support influential female figures. However, men who are praised as ‘allies,’ and thanked for ‘using their privilege’ to support female scholarship and the participation of women in religious organizations and events are no more trustworthy than those who don’t.
Abusers are often very image-conscious and may be acting to improve their own image and brand strength. Influential male and female religious figures also help one another with mutual praising and social-proofing. That is how the misdoings of men who are supportive of women are ignored, as long as they support the right politicized causes such as inclusive spaces and diverse panels.
Don’t be tricked into trust through a person’s credentials. An ijazah (license) to be a shaykh of a tariqa is purportedly the highest credential. It’s a credential that allegedly has a chain that goes all the way back to the Prophet , but that does not impart any of the Prophet’s character or trustworthiness in and of itself. A shaykh has to continuously live up to the ijaza and position. The position does not justify behavior outside of the sharia or any form of abuse. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophet only to the degree to which they embody his character.
When a teacher who hasn’t spent adequate time with righteous shayukh abuses, they are said to lack suhba (companionship of the pious), and that is why they are abusive.
The truth is many of the worst abusers in traditional circles are highly certified, have spent adequate time with shayukh, are valid representatives of them, and are able to abuse because the previously mentioned credentials lead to blind trust.
Don’t let certifications about spiritual abuse, ethical leadership, or the like mean anything to you. Skilled narcissists will be the first to get such certifications and take courses because they know this will make people trust them more. You will see courses on ‘healthy leadership’ and ‘spiritual abuse prevention’ being taught and designed by them. There is a false premise behind such certifications that if religious leaders knew how abuse occurs and the damage it causes victims they wouldn’t do it. The fact is they know how abuse works, know how damaging it is, and don’t care. In a way, it’s good to have lessons on spiritual abuse from purveyors of abuse, just as learning theft prevention from a thief might be the most beneficial.
Don’t judge by rhetoric
Don’t look at the rhetoric of groups or individuals to see how seriously they take abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs in all groups. It is common for members of one group to call out abuse that they see in another group while ignoring abuse occurring within their own group.
Sufis who will talk about the importance of sharia, label others as ‘goofy-Sufis,’ and insist that real Sufis follow sharia, will very often abuse in private and use the same justifications as the other Sufi groups they publicly deride.
Many imams and religious leaders will talk publicly about the importance of justice, having zero-tolerance for abuse, and the importance of building safe spaces, while they themselves are participating in the abuse.
Furthermore, female religious leaders will often cover up secret marriages, and other abuses for such men and help them to ostracize and destroy the credibility of their victims as long as their political views align. Muslim mental health providers often incorporate religious figures when they do programs, and in some cases they involve known abusers if it helps their cause.
In some cases, the organization does not know of any abuse. Abusive individuals use partnerships with Muslim mental health organizations to enhance their image as a “safe person.” This is especially dangerous due to the vulnerability of those struggling with mental illness and spiritual issues, who may then be exploited by the abuser. It is a community responsibility to ensure the safety of these vulnerable individuals and to ensure that they do have access to resources that can actually help them.
Don’t judge by fame
One false assumption is that the local-unknown teacher is sincere while the famous preacher is insincere and just wants to amass followers. This contrast is baseless although rhetorically catchy.
The fact is, many unknown teachers desire fame and work towards it more than those who are famous. Other times the unknown and famous teacher may have the same love of leadership, but one is more skilled than the other. They both may also be incredibly sincere.
Ultimately, we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart but must look at their actions, and if their actions are abusive, they are a danger to the community. Both famous and non-famous teachers are equally capable of spiritual abuse.
Look for a procedure
Before being involved in an organization, look for a code of conduct. There is no accountability without one in non-criminal matters. Never depend on people, look at the procedures and ensure that the procedure calls for transparency, such as the one we at In Shaykh’s Clothing published and made free for the public to use.
Procedure also applies to an organizations’ financials. Do not donate money to organizations based on personalities, instead demand financial transparency and accountability for the money spent. There is great incentive for spiritual abusers to win the trust of crowds when it means they can raise money without any financial accountability.
But what about Husne-Zann? Thinking well of others?
Allah tells us يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ
“O You who believe, leave much suspicion, indeed some suspicions are sinful” (Quran 49:12).
From this verse, we see that some – not all negative opinions are sinful. The prohibition is partitive, meaning some bad opinions are permissible.
If someone punches you, it is not hunse-zann to assume that person just happened to stretch with a closed fist and did not see your face was in the way. This kind of delusion will lead to you getting punched more. To be wary of their fist isn’t a sinful level of suspicion.
Part of why spiritual abuse is difficult to detect is that its purveyors have a reputation for outright uprightness. They are thought well of in the community, and in many cases they are its pillars and have decades of positive service to their defense. Assuming that someone cannot be abusive simply because they have been a teacher or leader for a long time is not husne-zann. When facts are brought to light- like a fist to the face – it is delusional to assume they didn’t mean it that way.
If someone does something that warrants suspicion, then put your guard up and don’t make excuses for those actions. Start with a general guard and be procedural about things which require a procedure. For example, if you are going to loan someone money, don’t just take their word that they will pay you back but insist on a written record. If they say they are offended, just say “it’s my standard procedure to avoid any confusion later on.” A reasonable person won’t have an issue with that. If someone mentions on the phone they will pay you $100 for your work, write an email to confirm what was said on the phone so there’s a record for it.
Lastly, and most importantly, never leave your child alone with a teacher where you or others cannot see them. Many cases of child sexual assault can be prevented if we never allow children to study alone with adults. There should never be an exception to this, and parents much uphold this as a matter of policy. Precaution is not an accusation, and this is a professional and standard no one should reject.
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