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.
To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
Gravedigger: A Short Story
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.
She never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.
Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?
And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.
She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.
Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.
Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.
She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray. Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.
Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.
Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.
One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.
She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.
She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.
Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.
A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.
Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”
“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.
“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”
Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.
She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.
On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.
For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.
This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.
On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.
The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.
Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.
* * *
She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.
The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.
Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.
The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.
As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.
They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.
“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.
Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.
“I’ve said it all.”
“So you two are good?”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“You’ve changed since you started here.”
“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”
“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”
She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”
Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”
“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.
She said nothing.
“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”
“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”
“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”
“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”
It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”
“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”
“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”
Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”
“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.
She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”
Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.
* * *
“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”
Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.
Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.
Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.
She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.
What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.
Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.
The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.
Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”
* * *
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