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Where I Stand with Beyoncé’s Formation | Khalil Ismail

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Before I state my piece, let me be clear where I’m coming from. As a lyricist and producer myself, I appreciate raw talent, and there’s no doubt that Beyoncé has been gifted with it. I’ve been in this industry for eight years, and during this time, I’ve had my work featured on nationally syndicated television. I’ve had my songs licensed to the NBA and Discovery Channel. I have performed worldwide, both as the featured headliner and as a performer alongside celebrated artists like Mos Def (Yasiin Bey).

So when I say that I recognize and appreciate the talent of Beyoncé, I’m not just speaking from a place of arbitrary opinion. I know raw talent when I see it, and I won’t allow my personal and spiritual sensitivities to lead me to dishonesty such that I deny the obvious abilities of someone simply because they do not share my values.

So what I have to say reflects me and my soul alone, as well as anyone who sees in my words something that reflects their own.

Initial Thoughts on Formation

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I can’t stand with “Formation.”

I actually think there are far more of us who will end up losing our soul due to undisciplined sexual impulse than maybe anything else in this world after pride and shirk. For that reason I can’t stand with “Formation.”

Think you’re immune? I know I’m not.

I actually liked the video, which is even more why I can’t stand with it.
I convinced myself that the “conscious” messages justified the constant and blatant sexual imagery which allowed me to watch the whole thing. But I know better and I know God knows I know better. I tried to act like I didn’t notice what she was wearing and how suggestive she was moving because I’m all mature and stuff but I was lying to myself.

I’m a man and I sure as hell noticed.

Truth mixed with falsehood often comes in pretty packages, its poison tastes sweet, its venom destroying us in ways we can’t feel until it’s to late.

In some ways, it’s more deadly than pure evil because of its deceptive nature.

So the least I can do is acknowledge it for what it is and ask my Lord for guidance in hopes that HE forgives me and purges the falsehood from me.

I can’t stand with “Formation.” Not because I’m a saint but because I’m a sinner who’s scared of losing the ability to discern good from evil.

Scared of that road to the Fire paved with good intentions.

African-American Trauma, Sexuality and Resilience

The above statement was a short reflection I made about myself on my Facebook page in reaction to the new video by Beyoncé called “Formation,” released hours before her 2016 Super Bowl performance. During the Super Bowl, Beyoncé performed this song as an apparent tribute to the Black Panthers of fifty years ago. Since the video’s release, social networks have exploded with commentary on the video and performance, and to be quite honest the whole ordeal incited in me a protective instinct for Beyoncé and African-American females in general.

In addition to being a producer and songwriter, I’ve dedicated much of my time to volunteer work in predominately African-American communities. In this line of work, it’s difficult to not notice the lingering effects of our traumatic history, as discussed by Dr. Joy Degruy in her explanations of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Since slavery and before, the African and African-American female body has been exploited, tossed around, pimped, prostituted, and dehumanized more than any other in human history. The remnants of that treatment remain all over the world, and women with melanin in their skin catch it the hardest. Our women were raped by their white slave masters, often right in front of their own husbands. Then they were torn apart from their families. Our women were separated from their children and often beaten to death in the fields.  To ensure their deference to this brutal treatment, black men and women were psychologically manipulated into pacifying themselves through a white-centric, false version of Christianity, which continues to dominate modern African-American communities.

As racism has become more civilized and strategic, what has not yet occurred on any significant level is honest healing and reparation. The effects of our families being ripped from each other, combined with our own ignorance regarding our history and lineage, permeates and traumatizes black lives till today.

Our vulnerabilities from the past have allowed the media to infiltrate us with imagery and language that suggest that flaunting our sexuality is a form of dignity. This message is in direct contrast to the self-respect that submission to God instills in both men and women. However, the assault upon the African-American female body remains so pervasive that, in the name of cultural study, the media has no problem displaying completely naked African women on regular television, but they continue to blur out the bodies of other people or give the show an “R” rating for sexuality and nudity.

Yet amazingly, despite these traumatic experiences, African-American women have been so resilient in turning their pain into power. African-American women are the most educated group of people in America with regards to formal education and enjoy a full percentage point over Asian women. They are some of our nation’s top entrepreneurs, engineers, artists, and religious scholars. And the list goes on.

I Claim No Blanket Negativity About Beyoncé

If you noticed, in my initial Facebook post reflections, I purposely avoided using Beyoncé’s name and instead focused on how the video content affected me personally. As an artist myself (who also happens to be Muslim), I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of the blanket dismissal that people throw at artists, especially in the name of religion. I know how it feels to have your very faith and connection to God denied simply because someone follows the fiqh opinion that music is generally prohibited. And I don’t wish that unjust experience on anyone.

Thus, I don’t claim any blanket negativity about Beyoncé as a person. I’ve never met her, I don’t know what’s in her heart, and I don’t know what God has decreed for her life. I also know that I haven’t even attempted to invite her to my faith, so it’s unfair for me to hold her to my own standard.

“Racial Baiting” and Beyoncé’s Phenomenal Talent

As her black history homage during the Super Bowl attests to, from a worldly standpoint, Beyoncé is a phenomenal artist. Her legacy of overcoming tragic and seemingly impossible odds to finally becoming an international sensation as both a performer and activist deserves praiseworthy mention and mad respect. So I salute her for that. And not only as a fellow artist, but also as a fellow African-American.

Now that Beyoncé is taking a step towards openly acknowledging the social ills suffered by her people, it is not surprising that droves of white people (many who were former fans) are now opposing her. Even the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, couldn’t keep quiet about the ire he felt at Beyoncé’s “racial baiting” at the Super Bowl. Boycotts and protests are being called with such fervor that one would think Beyoncé had become a black Donald Trump of sorts. One media outlet called the racial undertones of her performance “inappropriate.”

I don’t stand with these people. Their hypocrisy and vitriol, though predictable given their well-established systems of racism and white privilege, is too unreal to even properly express in words. The same companies who daily put millions into advertising sexuality and nakedness for alcohol companies, sports magazines, and even our children’s education are labeling “inappropriate” a historical reference in a performance based on a historical theme.

In other words, their complaint is that as a black woman, Beyoncé should only be allowed to be inappropriate in the way that her “slave masters” have deemed appropriate.

Public Sexuality As Dignity and the Cycle of Abuse

The problem with abuse is that the longer we are subjected to it, the more likely we are to take the baton ourselves and continue the cycle in our own lives. Both during and after slavery, white people recognized our God-given gifts in both intellect and physical strength and beauty, and they chose to suppress the former and exploit the latter. They codified laws to criminalize even the smallest signs of literacy and social progress or strength, and they pumped numerous financial and social resources into turning the bodies of both black men and women into commodities for their personal amusement and carnal enjoyment. Even the outrage that Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and Super Bowl performance incited in predominately white circles reflects remnants of this racist codification.

However, it is undeniable that today, we as African-Americans are having a difficult time breaking free from this self-degrading cycle ourselves. This battle is complex, as the shayateen are fighting us on many fronts. Thus, it is easy to celebrate victory on one front (i.e. Beyoncé’s public homage to black history) while ignoring the obvious assault to our dignity and self-respect on another (i.e. the use of the black female body as a sexual commodity).

As Muslims of all backgrounds and ethnicities join necessary movements that declare #BlackLivesMatter, we cannot ignore obvious messages of falsehood and indecency simply because our emotions make us inclined to root for the underdog.

Chances are, had the “Formation” video been performed by a Pakistani or Arab female entertainer gyrating her buttocks in our faces, we wouldn’t find as many Muslims eager to share it, regardless of its “conscious” message. This in itself is an obvious indication that the subliminal messages regarding the soulless, sexualized black female have devalued her even in the hearts and minds of well-meaning believers dedicated to supporting good causes.

This also is a sign of Muslims’ contribution to their own cycle of abuse as an oppressed minority.

The Conflict in My Soul

Lastly, my conflict in response to “Formation” lies mainly in my concern for the human soul, starting with myself. As emotionally supportive as I feel for any African-American, especially for a black woman who has overcome such impossible odds, I as a Muslim am commanded to a higher standard. And this standard traverses all races, nations, and circumstances. As such, regardless of my personal or emotional connection to a certain message or cause, my priority must be to the higher spiritual and dignified life that God asked me to adhere to.

And while I fail time and time again in this vein, I see a major danger where we start openly ignoring the standards that Allah has set for us such that we are now eagerly congratulating and disseminating major violations to our moral and spiritual code. I also can’t help but wonder if we’ve become so desensitized to black women being exploited sexually that we don’t see an issue when it is their bodies and dignities being sacrificed for “the cause.”

No doubt, sexuality is a beautiful gift from Allah. As such, it should be praised and enjoyed in all of the contexts that our Lord has granted us in marriage. However, sexuality is not for public consumption, for the male or female. As a Muslim, I would be doing my soul an injustice to deny this obvious fact just because the public sexuality comes in the package of a good cause. As a father, I would be remiss to teach my daughters the dignified codes of Islamic modesty, then turn around and shamelessly gawk at naked women and disseminate their sexually exploitive videos in the name of activism.

As an artist, I even dedicated part of my album “The Hoping” to speaking about the scars women face when being sexually exploited by their own men. And in my album “Soul Redemption,” I wrote the song Super Heroine (Mary) for the sole purpose of inspiring women to see their true beauty and dignity as reflected in upholding the spiritual legacy of Mary, the mother of Jesus (peace be upon them), who didn’t require the approval of a man to validate her worth.

How then can I stand with “Formation” while I know it goes against the heart of what I stand for in both my spiritual and professional life?

Final Note: Black Women Deserve Respect Too

Black women are as much a part of our world communities as white, Indian, Pakistani, and Arab women; and Allah does not allow us to disrespect or degrade any of them, let alone celebrate their degradation. In fact, in the Qur’an, Allah has charged us with protecting and caring for all women, and I believe that this is even more so the case for those women who have become so internally traumatized that they invite the degradation and sexual exploitation on themselves.

As such, I gently encourage all of us, male and female, to strive for something higher when we’re faced with assaults on our souls all around us. And I too rigorously examine my own self as I own up to the flaws in my efforts to protect the dignity of my sisters in humanity, as well as my own dignity in what I watch and disseminate.

If I’m truly about the love for my people and my faith, then I have to find ways to uphold a standard that protects the dignity of our women while supporting and championing their remarkable legacies, intelligence, and contributions to society at the same time.

This is where I stand with Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and where I stand with our own formation of a better spiritual and practical life for all of us on earth.

 

Khalil Ismail is an award-winning lyricist and artist and is a writer and producer for Zain Bhikha. Khalil’s work has been featured on the Islam Channel and British Muslim TV in the UK and the Discovery Channel in the US. He recently released “The Hoping” and the nasheed album “Soul Redemption” and is currently working on producing voice-only tracks and an interactive program teaching the names of Allah through his song “99 Names.” He is also the founder of Finding Peace Project, a community outreach organization. He is active in interfaith work in Baltimore, Maryland, and is currently working to bolster the programming for the American Islamic Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C. To find out more about him, visit khalilismail.com

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32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Aaishah Animasaun

    February 12, 2016 at 3:09 AM

    Jaza kallah khair Brother :)
    Very informative piece

  2. Avatar

    latifah idris

    February 12, 2016 at 3:36 AM

    mashallah, wat a relieving note

  3. Avatar

    Ibrahim

    February 12, 2016 at 5:46 AM

    My opinion….while the writing is beautiful, even eloquent, most of your article is inappropriate, offensive, unfounded, hogwash. About the only thing even remotely true…racism sucks, we should stand against it.

    PS
    I didn’t watch the video. Knowing there is such dessension regarding music, I stay away from 99.999% of all music. My non-muslim roommate/secular-filter, knowing my tolerance (or lack thereof) for porn, music and foul language, told me i wouldn’t get past 30 seconds of it even if i were willing to listen to the instrumental opening. There is NO justifying the listening and watching of such smut.

  4. Avatar

    Sister in islam

    February 12, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    If this article had to be written, it should have been by a black muslimah. It’s important to know your place in a debate and what you as an individual can and cannot say because of powers hierarchies. It’s called intersectionality. That a man felt that he had the right to comment on a video about black womanhood made me feel wildly uncomfortable.

    • Avatar

      Muslimatu

      February 12, 2016 at 4:04 PM

      No, it’s called Islam and speaking the truth. He spoke the truth, and if that makes you uncomfortable according to some contrived feminist standards, then that’s a problem you have to face in yourself.

      But please don’t seek to speak for other women. You don’t. As a Muslimah, I was extremely happy to read a Muslim man speaking the truth about the duty Allah gave him on earth.

      And by the way, the post wasn’t ABOUT womanhood. It was about our shared responsibility for our souls as both men and women on earth.

      • Avatar

        Sister in Islam

        February 13, 2016 at 3:11 PM

        Dear sister, when did I say I spoke for all women? One of the first and most important traits we should take from our beloved religion is iqlaq (manners). I suppose how you talk to others isn’t an important Islamic trait to you, but I will try to respond to all your grievances with the civility you denied me.

        1. This video was aimed at black women from the south who have in the past been made to feel ashamed of their appearance and of their southern heritage (i.e her stress on “bama”) It wasn’t targeted towards men or Muslims, and if she was acting in a “promiscuous” way by our standards it was in celebration of the cultural dances from her heritage. Twerking is a part of African culture. She is not muslim nor is anyone in this video. Why should we even bother to comment on it? The brother did not need to watch the video, he was not her intended audience. She made it clear she was targeting this video towards women in celebration of black (southern) womanhood. Why should we write reflections on a video for someone who isn’t Muslim? Cant we women just celebrate a non Muslim woman’s courageous stance on her culture and ethnicity? We live in a secular country where there will be vice all around. If you feel uncomfortable with ability to stay strong with your imaan, perhaps relocate to a muslim country. If I felt a video from a secular male singer might make me feel uncomfortable, I would not watch it. I think muslim women can enjoy Beyonce’s video as they enjoy all girls dance parties, belly dance parties, and henna parties in private.

        2. Contrived feminist standards? Many people would argue the Prophet (pbuh) himself was a feminist. You don’t need to speak about feminism in a condescending manner. Without feminism you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to school, have a career, vote, drive a car. All these privileges we now enjoy are because feminists fought for them.

        May Allah’s blessings be with you.

    • Avatar

      Black Muslim Feminist

      February 12, 2016 at 5:38 PM

      Sister in Islam,

      Our inability as black women to support and respect our men when they’re doing what is right and fulfilling their responsibilities is part of the reason our black families are falling apart.

      Reading your comment made me wildly uncomfortable. I don’t understand how a black woman could criticize a powerful article supporting respect for black people simply bc of sexist, non-Muslim standards.

    • Avatar

      MuslimahFeminist

      February 12, 2016 at 8:32 PM

      Yup. I agree. This patronizing author masks his condescension by pointing out systemic racism, but at the same time chooses to police the sexuality of others. It is not his prerogative. The fact that Dahlia Mogahed actually endorsed this article is a reminder that we need to make our community leaders accountable. For god’s sake, read up on intersectionality. Read potent critiques by Dr. Yaba Blay, BlackGirlDangerous, etc. — all of whom point out the neoliberal capitalist edifice that undergirds Beyonce’s “formation”/revolution, without disciplining her body according to their standards of morality.

      • Avatar

        Dana

        February 12, 2016 at 9:05 PM

        Interesting. I liked the article but it did sound patronizing at times.

      • Avatar

        Khalil Ismail

        February 12, 2016 at 9:29 PM

        My Dear sister. I thought hard about not responding to this but in the interest of clarification for others who might follow your perception please note that after being approached to write this, I sought council and approval of the very African American women you seem to think I’m patronizing.

        My intention was to go out of my way to say I don’t hold Beyoncé to my standard hence the quote “I don’t hold her to my standards.”
        So no,
        no policing.

        You may not be privy to the board meetings that strategize on how to numb the masses utilizing sex, how advertising works , the intentional agenda of mass media etc… But I am and thus my duty to my lord is to tell the truth as best I see it and be a witness as commanded in Quran even against my own self.

        The honest truth is,
        this was not even an article I wanted to write due to its complex nature but after I was approached by one “sister” to write , it was an African American sister who encouraged me to do it this way and it was my respect for her intelligence and insight that pushed me along.

        The whole point was to share a reflection of my own for others who are striving to police THEMSELVES according to a law they CHOOSE to adhere to, hence why I used myself as an example of failure as opposed to blaming someone else.

        If stating the obvious and pointing out the hard realities that I’m surrounded by is what you mean by policing than maybe you have a point.
        Maybe you’re saying I don’t have the right to even mention the contents of a video released to the public in an industry that I’m also apart of?

        No benefit of the doubt for a brotha, just patronizing and condescending eh?

        MashaAllah :)

      • Avatar

        M.Mahmud

        February 13, 2016 at 5:20 PM

        Publicly displaying awrah is sinful.

    • Avatar

      Karemah Alhark

      February 14, 2016 at 6:57 PM

      Wow, really? I think we need both males and females to make a stance on this. This isn’t some secret women’s club wherein only women should have a say so. Infact, it was done at half time of a predominately male dominated and attended sport. He has something to say and what he said was on point. Furthermore, Muslim women who have spoken out in opposition of this performance have been catching hell all over the place. Women who think this sh*t is cute, don’t want to hear anything but the glorification and praises of Beyoncé. This brother has every right to speak out. It was done at half time of a predominately male dominated and attended sport. He has something to say and has said what was needed to be said.

    • Avatar

      Muslimatu

      February 15, 2016 at 7:29 PM

      Sister in Islam,

      First you tell a Muslim man he can’t speak about his own soul and share this inspiration with others. Then you call his reminder about OUR SOULS (not Beyonce’s) a “debate”?

      When I disagree with you, you say I have no Islamic manners. Then you go on to defend a video by a disbeliever by writing a mini blog.

      But you offered not a single sentence of support or understanding for Khalil Ismail, who is your brother in Islam.

      So Beyonce’s message and video background are more beloved to you than your own Muslim brother’s. Wow.

      And you actually believe YOU are displaying Islamic manners? You’re not even showing evidence of following Islam.

      • Avatar

        Time to correct

        September 13, 2016 at 8:52 PM

        This is the problem. Western feminism is a destructive force which corrupts womens hearts.

    • Avatar

      Black Muslim Feminist

      February 15, 2016 at 9:18 PM

      Sister in Islam,

      Are you joking? lol. “Twerking is a part of African culture?”
      So is wearing clothes.
      So is Islam.
      So is shirk.
      So is…almost everything.
      Africa is a continent full ofboth good and evil. Why defend only the evil?

      But if “African culture” is your standard for right and wrong, did you know that respecting black men is also part of that culture? And NOT twerking?

      Interesting how your argument chooses from both Islam and African culture only what suits you, all for the sake of tearing down a fellow black Muslim brother.

      Why?

      • Avatar

        M.Mahmud

        February 15, 2016 at 9:36 PM

        What a boss response.

    • Avatar

      Muslimah scholar

      February 16, 2016 at 4:12 AM

      Sister In Islam, can you clarify from an Islamic evidence standpoint what the writer of this blogpost said that violated what Allah would be pleased with?

      I do find it quite profound that you said you’d accept the article from a black Muslimah, but you’ve shown nothing but disregard for the Muslim woman who disagreed with you. Your position is eerily similar to the Safster commenter, who pretends to happily accept God’s truth if it comes from a woman. As I mentioned to Safster, a sincere heart doesn’t know gender. It desires only truth.

      But your personal attacks on your fellow Muslim sister (accusing her of having no akhlaq) shows you’re not being truthful with yourself about your own claims. You cannot even accept a logical refutation without accusing someone of religious indiscretion (ie no akhlaq) because they disagree (quite effectively) with you.

      I mirror the sentiment of another commenter: Your perspective made me (in your words) wildly uncomfortable.

      Why all the praise and love for Beyoncé who is voluntarily committing open sin? Why no love, respect, or understanding for the writer and other Muslims here?

    • Avatar

      Time to correct

      September 13, 2016 at 8:49 PM

      Yet women comment on men all the time. Often in a rude, nasty and disrespectful manner. Western culture promotes a hypocritical, contradictory and obnoxious form of feminism. It is a destructive force. Please do not be consumed by this delusional ideology. I agree with the sentiments of Muslimatu below.

  5. Avatar

    Miss Muslimah

    February 12, 2016 at 3:11 PM

    Check out my blogs.

    I write poetry, short stories and Islamic posts!

    https://islamicmusings.wordpress.com

    https://ilhaamsjournal.wordpress.com

    Shukran – Share the word!

  6. Avatar

    Dana

    February 12, 2016 at 8:59 PM

    Yes yes yes. Jzk. Nicely analyzed.

  7. Avatar

    Youssef Abdelwahab

    February 12, 2016 at 9:06 PM

    Jazak Allah Kheir

    I appreciate this for many reasons. Thanks bro

  8. Avatar

    Elizabeth Bala

    February 12, 2016 at 11:03 PM

    Thank you for this perspective, I honestly never thought about it that way

  9. Umm Zakiyyah

    Umm Zakiyyah

    February 13, 2016 at 1:08 AM

    MaashaAllah, this was a very powerful, necessary reminder.

    I was saddened to see some comments misunderstanding the entire point of the post. When I read this blog, I saw it as one man calling himself to account for protecting his soul and hoping to inspire others (both male and female) to protect their souls likewise. As Allah says in the Qur’an, “Verily, the reminder benefits the believer.” And alhamdulillaah, I found the reminder very beneficial.

    However, even if we make this post about “intersectionality” or “womanhood” or “feminism” or any other label that it obviously was not, would everyone who’s looking through that lens come to the same conclusion? I think we all know the answer to that. Just as it remains very necessary for white people to speak against racism, it remains very necessary for men to speak against disrespecting women.

    But if we’re unable to embrace these diverse approaches in striving for personal and spiritual betterment, then we’re part of the problem that we say we want to root out.

    • Avatar

      RedCloakedGirl

      December 9, 2016 at 6:33 PM

      Umm Zakiyyah you basically said what I was thinking. Thank you!

  10. Avatar

    Safster

    February 13, 2016 at 12:07 PM

    Yeh but the point kinda is HOW white people choose to speak about racism, innit? If they want to start educating black people, or telling them why it might be better to do things differently, then thats patronizing and problematic. No one should tell black people how to feel about and respond to Ferguson anymore than they should be telling American Muslims how to deal with being Muslim in the US. That’s what the commenter means by ‘policing’. Despite all his disclaimers and all his attempts at being nuanced, his ‘protectiveness’ towards black women is condescending. And his assumption that Beyonce is a duped victim of a system (which she is very much a part of, in fact, and profiting from nicely!) is a way of victimizing her and robbing her of agency. But beyonce cares not whether you support or denounce her video, so to stand against it on the basis that its just too sexual is stupid. Thats your own issue, really. The fact that a music video with swinging black breasts is just too much says more about you than about the video. Have you spoken out against Nicki Minaj or whatsherface that black widow song woman, or JLo? Or Miley Cyrus or whatnot. Why choose to speak out against beyonce? Why is her video, a potent mix of a black woman OWNING her sexuality, asserting her strong femininity (against men, both black and white), and of a racialized politics, so agonizing for you? You could have chosen to like it or dislike it, but you chose to stand against it. Because it caused you sexual arousal. Really? And then you backtrack and say you didnt really want to write it, and attempt funnel the opinions through a black sister, dissociating yourself from your own choice. That strikes me as disingenuous. I am not a beyonce fan. As far as I am concerned Rihanna’s a far better model for black female sexuality and black power (consider ‘pour it up’ and ‘this is the new America’ together, though you may find the former far too much to handle). Really if as you correctly point out, black women have had to deal with their bodies being abused and used and represented by others, can you not see the possibility that powerful women are using their privileged stage to claim and own their sexuality, to reclaim precisely what’s been taken from them for generations and saying “we will make our own videos showcasing our bodies as we wish to, using the props we want to, and stuff you, we care not a damn what u think or feel about that” as truly subversive and radical? It is deeply ironic that a man should seek to police that (through moral head shaking). How is that at all different in principle to the Taliban or whoever policing womens bodies because of their potential to arouse them? Men, Muslim or otherwise, who can experience an expression of powerful, political sexuality only in terms of arousal, have a problem. If they do, that’s fine, but why oh why should they seek to impose their reading of something on others in moralistic, pedagogical, self-important terms? I would have been far happier reading this if it came from the black sister who pushed you to write it.

    • Avatar

      Muslimah scholar

      February 16, 2016 at 3:43 AM

      Safster, it appears you were reading a different blog than the one above? Where did the writer say he was sexually aroused? He simply said he noticed the sexual imagery.

      Also, I’m not sure if you’re Muslim or not. And maybe you don’t realize this, but this is a Muslim-authored blogpost, written for a Muslim audience, about their souls. And if there contains in the article a beneficial reminder about our souls, what difference does it make whether it comes from a male or female?

      Or do you believe God allows us to reject truth and guidance if it comes in a package we don’t prefer? Are you aware this is the reason many people rejected the prophets God sent them? Because they felt they had a better idea than God regarding who should bring them the truth.

      As it stands, God decreed a man to write this beneficial reminder. And if you would accept it from a woman, then you’d accept it from a man too. Because a sincere heart desires only truth, and truth has no gender.

  11. Avatar

    Sifs

    February 13, 2016 at 3:28 PM

    I am a Christian woman and an African and I can honestly say I appreciate this article and point of view. I must say that if we are to hold ourselves to the same standard as Christ set then indeed we will have to agree with the writer. I did not see anything patronizing at all…just a man trying to adhere to his faith and caution us in the blatant use of sexuality to sell everything from a ‘conscious’ message to toothpaste. So thank you, Sir, for reminding even me, a Christian, on conforming to a Higher standard that the one placed before us by the media. God bless!

  12. Avatar

    Jessi

    February 13, 2016 at 4:40 PM

    Jazak Allah khair, brother.

    Because of the powerful images and artistry, I enjoyed the video and song way more than I should have as a believer.

    Thanks for knocking some sense into me. You made many very valuable points.

  13. Avatar

    Tareq

    February 14, 2016 at 2:51 AM

    Salamualaikum,

    Alhamdulillah the prophet peace be upon him was blessed with clarity and concise communication!

    If we all revived this Sunnah surely there would be less online discussion.

    If we listened and treated each other with respect then would there be the need to is discuss intersectionality?

    Interesting article and interning comments section.

  14. Avatar

    Tareq

    February 14, 2016 at 2:55 AM

    *interesting comments section!

    I learned from them.

  15. Avatar

    Review Your Site.

    February 15, 2016 at 4:41 AM

    This is far away extreme for me.
    I just can’t believe it that a Muslim “Man” is posting such article. How can you justify Cleanliness when what surrounds it is “Dirt”?
    Where did you find the heart to watch a “whole” clip of hyper sexual moves and exposes your “opinion on it”?.
    It really pains me not on you but the “Editors” of this website.

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Podcast: David’s Dollar | Tariq Touré and Khaled Nurhssien

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We often preach about our children learning the importance of money, group economics, and developing healthy spending habits. How awesome would it be to have a fully illustrated picture book that explores how a dollar travels from hand-to-hand?

Join Khaled Nurhssien and award winning poet and author Tariq Touré as they discuss Tariq’s new children’s book David’s Dollar. In this Interview they touch on art, Islam’s approach to community and Tariq’s creative process.

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Day of the Dogs, Part 9: All We Have To Do

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

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Corredor Sur, Panama

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8

“Policia Nacional!” – Omar

Broken Window

Tocumen International Airport
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Tocumen International Airport

Back in Panama, pulling his wheeled suitcase along behind him, Omar walked out to the long-term parking lot at Tocumen airport. It was a hair past noon, and the sun poured forth its fire as if the earth were a morsel of meat it wanted to cook for lunch. Knowing the weather in Panama, Omar had changed his clothes in advance in the airport bathroom, putting away the linen suit and slipping on a pair of knee-length basketball shorts and a t-shirt. He was glad he had. After the chilly skies of Bogota, being back in Panama was like stepping into a sauna.

When he came to his car, he found the driver’s side window shattered. He shook his head in disgust. Why would anyone break into his car? It was a five year old silver Toyota sedan with no frills. It didn’t even have a CD player, just a basic AM/FM radio. He could have afforded better, but he drove this old beater for exactly this reason: it didn’t look worth breaking into.

Searching the car, he found nothing missing. There hadn’t been anything worth stealing anyway. Just the manual in the glove box, a little LED flashlight, a pack of cinnamon chewing gum, and some napkins. Oh, wait – they’d taken the Quran CDs. Arabic recitation with Spanish translation. Maybe the thieves would listen and be guided.

When he inserted the key and turned it, he got nothing. Not even a click. Opening the hood, he discovered the reason: the thieves had stolen his car battery. So that was what they’d been after. Now he was angry. Where was airport security?

Car with shattered window

Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he considered who to call. He needed someone to bring him a battery. His wife didn’t drive. Fuad didn’t drive either, because he never knew when he might have an epileptic attack.

Fuad’s crazy wife Ivana did drive, but Omar didn’t want to deal with her. If Fuad somehow convinced her to come out here, she would either want to be paid, or would expect Omar to take her and Fuad to the most expensive restaurant in Panama. Ten times! Omar laughed at the thought.

He could call Nadia Muhammad, his old friend from IIAP. She was married and sometimes came to visit with her husband and two kids. She was a goofball, always telling jokes and making his son Nur laugh. But even though they were just buddies, and his wife thought nothing of it, he didn’t want to push the boundaries of trust by spending half a day driving all around Panama city with her.

It Burns!

Deciding that there was nothing left to steal, and that it wouldn’t hurt to leave the car alone for a while, he trudged back to the taxi stand in front of the terminal. Ignoring the touts who snatched at his sleeves, desperate to put him in a limo or town car, he found a 60ish, balding taxi driver with forearms like German sausages. The man sat disconsolately in his cab, filling out a crossword puzzle. The two of them negotiated a price of $40 for the whole business, and took off.

As they headed into the city with the windows open and hot air whipping through the car, Omar reclined his head against the seat and closed his eyes.

Apparently not noticing or caring that Omar was trying to rest, the driver called out, raising his voice to be heard. “Oye, jefe. You some kinda tuna fat foreigner?”

“I’m Panamanian.” Omar opened his eyes and studied the road, and was dismayed to see that the driver had taken the slow midtown route. Avenida Domingo Diaz was an interminable road lined with auto shops, plant nurseries and love motels – known as pushbuttons in Panama, because all you had to do was drive in and push a button. You never had to see any clerk or staff face to face. “Hey, why did you go this way? I would have paid the tolls on the Sur.”

“Well I din’ know that, no?” The man’s sped-up slang Spanish marked him as having been raised in Colon. Omar could barely understand him. “Just because you a tuna fat Colombian. You might be a biter. You ahuevao foreigners is welcome if you bring some flus. Otherwise we don’ need you.”

Ignoring the fact that the man had just called him stupid – he’d understood that much – Omar, repeated, “I’m Panamanian.”

“Then where the president live?”

“Palacio de Las Garzas. I’ve been there.”

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

There were a lot of Chinese in Panama, true, but they didn’t take jobs. Just the opposite. They opened stores, restaurants, internet cafes and electronic shops, and employed Panamanians. Omar explained this.

“Then the mascabola Venezuelans! Ñangara Comunistas!” The driver hawked and spit on the floor of his own car. “They spray the word taxi onna side of a car and steal my fares, don’ even have licenses.” He pounded the dash with a meaty fist. “It burns!”

“I see how that’s bad for business, but they’re our neighbors. We have-” Omar stopped talking as the driver abruptly swerved across two lanes of traffic and pulled up beside a love motel called Lady Finger.

“Get out!” the driver demanded. “Ain’t drivin’ no mascabola Communist-lover. And I ain’t votin’ for you!”

Omar pursed his lips. It would be hard to find another taxi out here. He considered offering the driver more money, but the guy was a nasty piece of work. As much as the man wanted Omar out of his cab, Omar wanted to be done with him too.

He collected his luggage and paid the driver a quarter of the normal fare, which under the circumstances he felt was generous. The driver cursed at him and peeled out with a squeal of burning rubber.

Allah blessed him. Omar had only begun to contemplate his options when another taxi pulled up to the Lady Finger. A 60ish man in a business suit and a young woman in a skin-tight dress headed into the pushbutton. Omar called out to the driver and half-ran, pulling his bag behind him. A minute later he was on his way – again – with a driver who kept the windows rolled up, the AC on and a Cuban jazz CD playing softly. Alhamdulillah.

Do the Right Thing

Three hours later, with a new battery in his car, Omar navigated his way out of the airport parking lot. He noticed several other cars with shattered windows. Useless airport security officers walked around making notes, and two cars were being lifted onto tow trucks.

Corredor Sur, Panama

Corredor Sur, Panama

He headed home along the Corredor Sur, the express toll highway that led along the Pacific waterfront. The area bordering the highway had once been an expanse of impenetrable mangrove swamps, but now it was Costa del Este, the most expensive seaside neighborhood in all of Panama. Two-hundred meter skyscrapers glittered in the tropical sunshine, their glass sides reflecting sky and sea, while construction cranes marked the sites of future towers.

These million dollar apartments were occupied by business people, wealthy expatriates and even crime cartel bosses, mostly hailing from neighboring (and less stable) countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. And, of course, by Fuad, who – pushed by his Cuban beauty queen – had purchased an apartment he really could not afford.

The mangroves that had been drained and filled to make Costa del Este possible had been one of the richest wetland habitats in Panama, home to dozens of endemic species. Such was the way of his country. No one valued nature, nor even old things of human make. It was all about what was new and sleek.

At least people like Naris Muhammad were out there fighting to protect what was left. Naris, the serious-minded member of the Muhammad triplets, was one of the most prominent environmental activists in Panama.

He exited the freeway into the leafy district of San Francisco. It was an upper middle class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of gated homes, all bordering Parque Omar, the largest urban park in Panama.

Passing by Parque Omar, he eyed the spot where, last year, he’d intervened to stop a man from beating a woman. He’d been out for a morning jog and had seen a tall, thin man with hollow eyes punching a young woman in the face.

For a good portion of his childhood he had been the one beaten while the person who should have protected him stood by helplessly. He’d always promised himself that he would not be that impotent bystander, allowing someone to be abused before his eyes.

So when he saw the man punching the woman, he instantly ran forward, wrapped the man’s neck from behind and pulled him off the woman. The woman, instead of thanking him, screamed, “Leave my boyfriend alone!” She picked up a broken tree branch and struck Omar on the head, and the pair of them dashed off. Omar went home with his scalp bleeding, expecting a tongue lashing from his wife. But she cleaned the wound, kissed him and made him one of his favorite foods: an apam balik pancake filled with banana slices, sesame and sugar.

He returned his eyes to the road. He couldn’t be responsible for the choices people made. But he could do the right thing.

As he approached a large, sky-blue home fronted by a high brick wall and a steel gate, he hit a remote control and the gate slid open. The house had a circular front driveway that curved around a bubbling Islamic style fountain shaped like an eight-pointed star, covered in green tiles. The crisp water sparkled as it poured out of an upper bowl and into the larger basin below.

Nur liked to play in this pool, while Omar’s wife enjoyed sitting beside it after sunset, listening to the Quran on a little cassette player. Omar had offered to buy her a portable CD player, but she said she couldn’t tell one side of a CD from the other.

Tall trees flanked the front yard, with a pair of mango trees anchoring east and west. Around them grew passionfruit trees, guava and berry bushes. Nur often came out here with his mother and ate the berries straight from the bushes, until his cheeks and chin were red from the juices.

Something For Everyone

When he opened the door, Nur came running. Omar dropped to one knee to catch the boy. He was a handsome tyke, with sturdy limbs, a strong nose and square face. His eyes were dark and his black hair was straight, like his mother’s. Omar’s love for him was a deep river that would never run dry.

He found his wife in the kitchen standing at the stove, garnishing a red snapper for the oven. The split AC in the corner hummed, its cool air circulating the scents of lemon and parsley. The space was large and comfortable, with a cooking island in the center, and teak cabinetry all around. A matching rustic teak table occupied one side, beside a low, molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall and was covered with cushions. The family spent a lot of time here.

His heart surged at seeing his wife again. Her face was dewed with perspiration from the heat of the stove. Even so, she looked beautiful, with a slender, strong form, and her long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He went to her and she turned to embrace him, saying, “Careful of the stove.”

Putting his arms around her, he could feel the muscles in her shoulders and arms. The two of them ran five kilometers every morning in Parque Omar, and two evenings a week he taught her karate in an upstairs bedroom they’d turned into a training studio.

Labrador retriever He felt something cold touch his hand and looked down to see the dog, Berlina, nuzzling him with her wet nose. She was a young labrador retriever, well trained as a guide dog. She was a gentle creature, intelligent and good with Nur as well.

He reached down to scratch Berlina’s head. Her tail thumped happily against the kitchen cabinet. Nur grabbed his other hand. “What did you bring me, Papá?”

Standing in the middle of the family mob, Omar laughed. “I have something for everyone, okay?”

They sat at the kitchen table and Omar parceled out the gifts: for his wife, a pair of silver earrings shaped like crescent moons and fashioned in the uniquely Colombian “momposina” style, with finely woven silver threads. For Nur, a set of coloring pencils with a small leather carrying case.

“What about Berlina?” Nur wanted to know.

In answer, Omar stood, grabbed the plastic jar of beef jerky sticks from the top of the refrigerator, and tossed one to the dog. Berlina caught it in mid-air, settled down and went to work, her wagging tail brushing the floor.

Drawings

Later that evening Omar sat at the kitchen table with his son, watching the boy draw. He could hear the shower running upstairs.

Papers were scattered across the table, covered with drawings of ocean waves, leaping dolphins, a squid brandishing a scepter, and a mermaid wearing a crown. Nur had always been fascinated by the ocean and all its creatures.

Nur held up a picture of a tsunami arching over a small town. He’d even drawn tiny cars on the roads and stick figures of people. “Do you like it, Papá?”

Omar raised his eyebrows. “It’s drawn very well.” He leaned close to his son’s ear. “But let’s not tell Mama that story. We don’t want her to be sad for the people.” Nur’s mother could not see the drawings, so normally Nur would describe them to her in detail, telling the drawing’s story.

Nodding, Nur tucked the sketch beneath a pile of others as his mother came down the steps, tying a towel around her hair. Omar was always amazed at how confidently she moved. A stranger would never guess she was blind, at least not here inside the house, where everything was laid out precisely in its place. Though her vision was not 100% gone. She could sometimes make out broad outlines and colors.

“Sad for what people?” she asked.

“Nothing, just drawings.”

Omar’s wife sat on his lap, resting an arm around his shoulders. She ran a hand through his hair, playing with the curls, taking care to stay away from his mangled ear, as he was sensitive about that. He kissed her on the cheek, happy to be home with the loveliest woman he knew. He was blessed, alhamdulillah.

A Scarcity of Friends

“I missed you,” his wife said. “But I’m glad you found your friend Hani. You don’t have many friends.”

It was true. He had Mahmood, Fuad, and Nadia. That was about it. Nadia’s sister Naris could have been a friend if she weren’t so engrossed in her work as an environmental activist. As for Nabila, she’d moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on her Youtube stardom, and ended up becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Was this scarcity of friends the reason he’d been so excited to see Hani again? And why he had overlooked the brother’s disconcerting negativity?

“What’s his wife’s name, by the way?”

“He never told me. She works as a house cleaner.”

“Do you think it’s wise to invest with him? He sounds unstable.”

Omar pulled her hand out of his hair. It was too close to his ear, and was making him nervous. “Does he?”

“The way you describe him.”

“Hmm.”

She ran a hand over his face – her way of reading his expression. “You’ve already decided to give him the money, haven’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Then why make him write a business plan?”

“For his own benefit. To help him succeed.”

“I think you just wanted a reason to see him again.”

As a reply, Omar pulled his wife close and kissed the side of her head. Her black hair smelled of the papaya shampoo she favored. She knew him too well, and never failed to let him know it.

He watched his son working on a new drawing of a squadron of flying fish. Each fish wore a beret and had a cigar in its mouth. As the boy drew, he chewed on his upper lip.

Nur was an intense child, but was he happy? Omar thought back to his own early childhood, training in martial arts with his father, watching football games, attending the masjid for Jumah prayer; and going on hikes with his mother, or visiting that amazing ice cream shop on Avenida Central that sold a giant scoop of mango sorbet for a quarter. They had been poor, but Omar had been happy because he was loved by his parents, and what more did a child need?

That’s all we have to do, he thought. Love him. He reached out and stroked the back of Nur’s neck. The boy did not even look up. “All we have to do,” Omar said out loud.

“Do what?” his wife asked.

“All we have to do is love each other.”

His wife settled into him, resting her back against his chest. “Yes. That’s all we have to do.”

Put Your Hand Down

Karate class “I KNOW YOU WANT TO EARN A BLACK BELT ONE DAY,” Omar said as he strode up and down in front of the line of kids. One girl – an especially enthusiastic eleven year old green belt named Tabina who was always asking when she’d get her next promotion – raised her hand frantically. Some of the kids nodded their heads.

“Put your hand down, Tabina. It wasn’t a question. Fix your stances.” His own son Nur was leaning too far forward in his horse stance, and Omar showed him by giving him a slight push, which nearly toppled him. Technically Nur was not old enough for this class; it was for kids aged six to twelve, but being the instructor’s son had privileges. Not that Omar went easy on the boy. Just the opposite. He demanded much from him.

Omar loved these kids at the Centro Islamico, which everyone called the Centro. He volunteered twice a week, teaching this class and another for teens.

“There are three things you must do,” he went on, “if you want a black belt. One, come to class. Two, practice at home. Three, don’t quit. If you do these things, week after week, month after month, year after year, I guarantee you will get your black belt eventually, inshaAllah.”

He cast a glance at the clock on the wall. It had been a month since his return from Bogotá. Hani and his wife were supposed to arrive today. In three hours, actually.

“Line up,” he ordered the class. “Respect Allah, your parents and yourselves.” With a command of, “Sensei ni rei!” he bowed the class out. “Domo arigato gozaimusu,” all the kids intoned in Japanese.

His own wife was teaching a Quran memorization class in one of the upstairs rooms. He called Nur over and kneeled to give the boy a hug. “Run upstairs and tell Mamá we have to go.”

Refugees

As the three of them exited into the audacious Panama sun, unmitigated by any trace of cloud, they saw a scene unfolding in the empty lot across the street. A group of refugees – Venezeuelans no doubt – were camped in a large weed-ridden field, which was muddy and spotted with litter.

One family hunkered in the shade of a patched-up tent, while a thin woman with frizzy hair in a ponytail sat beneath two pieces of corrugated metal that had been leaned against each other and covered first in cardboard, and then with a tarpaulin. Her two small children kicked a deflated soccer ball in front of the shelter. A toothless old man with a cane sat on a plastic milk crate, out in the open, with only a gray baseball cap to shield his face from the sun. There were about a dozen people altogether, mostly women and children. They were a doleful, dejected group. It broke Omar’s heart to see such scenes, but Venezuelan refugees were everywhere in Panama these days.

Now, however, a group of young Panamanian men and women – in their late teens or early twenties, perhaps – had pulled up to the lot in two tricked-out Japanese cars. They began shouting at the refugees, telling them to go home, and calling them leeches and scum. The well dressed youths, consisting of five boys and two girls, exited their cars and began throwing stones at the refugees.

Omar had witnessed scenes like this before. With over one hundred thousand Venezuelans in Panama, resentment was rising among those who chose to scapegoat the refugees for all of Panama’s problems – like the taxi driver.

The little boys who’d been kicking the soccer ball ran to their mother in the lean-to. The old man with the cane yelled at the youths, who shouted insults in return.

“Papá,” Nur said in alarm, “why are they doing that?”

“What?” Omar’s wife wanted to know. “What’s going on?”

Omar gave his wife’s shoulder a squeeze. “Kids misbehaving. Go back inside the Centro with Nur.” She did not have Berlina with her, as dogs were not welcome in the Centro, not even guide dogs. It was a bad policy, but one that Omar had not succeeded in changing. But she had her cane, and of course she had Nur.

He strode across the street, mindful that if these youths chose to fight he’d be badly outnumbered. An idea came to him. Taking out his wallet, he opened it and held it above his head. “Stop!” he commanded loudly. “Policia Nacional! You’re all under arrest.” He did not have a badge of course, but the kids were several meters away and probably would not notice.

Indeed, the youths scattered, dashing back to their cars, jumping in and peeling out, tires squealing.

Omar strode across the muddy field to the refugees, who all looked frightened. “Easy,” he told them, making a calming motion with his hand. “Are you okay?”

A woman in her forties, her brown face weatherbeaten and lined, stepped forward. “It’s nothing new,” she replied bitterly. “But thank you anyway.”

Omar looked the group over. He wanted to do something, say something, but what? In the end all he said was, “Do you have enough food?”

“No,” the woman replied bluntly.

Omar’s wallet was still in his hand. He took out $60, which was all the cash he had on hand, and held it out to the woman.

Her eyes flicked to the money, then to Omar’s face. Her mouth was a grim line. “We did not ask for anything.”

“I know. But you’re my neighbors. Maybe Panama will be in trouble one day, then I’ll come to your country and need your help.”

The woman’s mouth quirked upwards into a smile. “I don’t think so. You are rich, and you don’t know it.” But she took the money.

When Omar went back across the street, his wife and child were still there, to his consternation. “I told you to go inside,” he said.

“Excuse me?” She was annoyed. “Number one” – counting on her fingers – “Nur wanted to see. Number two, you don’t tell me to go inside like I’m a child.”

Omar wasn’t the type to give orders, and he knew it was her blindness that brought out the protectiveness in him. But sometimes his wife had to trust him to lead. He tried to explain this, and saw her growing angry. It might have turned into an argument, but Nur spoke up.

“Papá,” the boy said solemnly. “You lied.”

Omar twisted his mouth to one side in embarrassment. “Yeah,” he started to say, “I know, but-”

“It was cool!” Nur broke in. “Did you see how those bad kids ran away?” He held up one hand, pretending to be Omar holding up his wallet, then marched in a circle. “You went, ‘Policia!’ and they went, ‘Oh no!’”

“Okay, okay.” They walked to where their car was parked a half a block down the street. As they drove home, his wife patted his knee. “You did good, mashaAllah. I’m proud of you.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 10:  The Girl With the Goldie Gum

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

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

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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Day of the Dogs, Part 8: Rich and Poor

A security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly. Omar frowned. Why would the security staff be suspicious of him?

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Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

“Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.” – Omar

A Small Price to Pay

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
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Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

After high school, Omar attended Florida State University’s Panama campus, on the northern edge of the city near the Miraflores Locks. From the library’s second floor you could watch the ships rising and falling in the canal. It reminded him of his childhood, when his mother used to take him to the locks, then to Avenida Central for a snowcone.

What would he say now if his mother wanted to do that? Not that she would. No longer a battered widow, she was now the CEO of a successful company, and had little free time. Omar lived on campus, and rarely saw her.

He encountered old friends, made new ones, and founded the karate club. After graduating with a B.S. in international affairs, he went to work for his mother’s company, which had forty five employees by that time. He started in shipping, and rotated to other entry level positions, as his mother wanted him to learn the day-to-day operations.

Word came that Nemesio had been imprisoned for murder. He’d lost his temper and killed a prostitute who tried to steal his wallet. Omar thought he should feel satisfied at this news, but he only felt sad for the man, which surprised him.

He fell in love and married an extraordinary woman. Fuad was a witness at his wedding. No one who knew Fuad from high school would have recognized him that day. Gone were the inch-thick glasses, replaced by contacts. His formerly shaggy hair was expensively cut, and his beard neatly trimmed, and he wore a beautiful blue suit that made him look like a Bollywood celebrity. He’d attended medical school in Cuba, then returned to Panama and joined a major medical group specializing in brain disorders.

Unfortunately, from Omar’s perspective, Fuad brought something back with him from Cuba: a beauty queen. He’d met and married the former Miss Cuba, of all things. Ivana was certainly beautiful, with flawless mahogany skin and flowing raven tresses that spilled over her shoulders; but she had the personality of a vampire bat. Greedy and materialistic, Omar watched helplessly as the woman pushed Fuad to spend money he did not have on luxuries he could not afford.

The other witness was Mahmood, a Palestinian brother Omar had met at Florida State, and who now taught history and English literature at IIAP, Omar’s old school. The Muhammad triplets were there as well, and even Mahboob came, as he and Omar had long since patched things up. Though Mahboob still joked that the only way they’d truly be even was if Omar went headfirst into a trashcan. To which Omar would reply, “Save that for the politicians,” or, “My name is Omar not Oscar,” and once, concocting an admittedly awful English-Spanish pun, “That would be an interesting sucio-logical experiment.”

Omar was eventually promoted to executive vice president of Puro Panameño. He bought a house, and his wife gave birth to a son. At some point, the nightmares that had plagued him after the dog attack stopped coming. He realized this only later, and could not pinpoint exactly when they had stopped, though he thought maybe the turning point had been his marriage.

He taught karate to kids at the Muslim community center, and ran three times a week at Parque Omar – something the doctors had told him he would never do again.

Fuad was always calling to complain about his psychotic wife. Okay, not psychotic, but Ivana wore a pound of gold to the grocery store, insulted Fuad in public, and had a vicious temper. Omar had once seen her lift an ice cream making machine over her head and throw it against a wall hard enough to crack the plaster. Aside from that, she spent Fuad’s money like it was her life’s purpose, and neither worked nor cared for the house. Spent all her time at the Coronado beach club, or out with her friends at night, doing nobody knew what. Though she had not converted to Islam, she’d promised to give up drinking when she married Fuad. But she would stumble home at 3 am so drunk she had to be carried to bed.

Fuad wanted Omar to talk to her, guide her, help her change. Omar tried one time to talk to Ivana about at least moderating the drinking, and she threw a table lamp at him. Omar suggested to Fuad that he and Ivana were simply not compatible.

But Fuad would have none of it. The woman had flawless dark skin, curves like a ripe peach, and a face that might have been molded by angels. Fuad could not give her up.

Not Omar’s problem, he decided.

Overall, life was good, and he was grateful. If his body was sometimes stiff in the morning, if the old wounds still ached when he ran or practiced karate – especially his left leg – so be it. It was a small price to pay for the life he lived. Alhamdulillah.

TEN YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

Bogotá, Colombia WHY WAS THE SECURITY GUARD STARING AT HIM? Omar was in Bogotá, Colombia, for a business conference where experts presented seminars on subjects ranging from marketing in China, to label design, to ensuring ethical treatment of laborers.

Now it was the morning of the second day of the conference, and as he approached the rotating doors at the building entrance, a security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly.

Omar frowned. He knew security was always a concern in Colombia, so it was not surprising that this event was staffed by a score of burly red-jacketed security guards. But why would they be suspicious of him? In his tan-colored bespoke Panama suit, light blue shirt and navy tie, he was just another businessman. Maybe the man wanted to search the leather laptop case he had slung over one shoulder?

The guard half-reached toward him with one meaty hand, pointed to the copper bracelet Omar still wore on his right wrist, and blurted, “Omar? Omar Bayano?”

Tipping his head, Omar studied the man. There was something familiar about that elongated face and nose. SubhanAllah! It was Hani. He would have walked right past him. Gone was the acne and the long, greasy hair. Hani was the same height he’d been in high school, but his complexion was a clear, burnished olive, and his hair was shorn to a crewcut and receding at the temples. His shoulders were huge, and he looked like he could lift a horse.

Omar knew that he too looked different. In tenth grade he’d been the shortest boy in his class; but now, at the age of twenty-eight, he was a relatively tall 182 cm. His formerly full head of curly hair was now just long enough to cover the tops of his ears, hiding his disfigurement. The scars on his face were faded, though you could still see the white lines if you stood close. Even his limp had disappeared.

Grinning widely, Omar stepped forward and embraced his old friend. He felt unaccountably excited, as if he’d just found someone he’d spent years searching for, even though the reality was that he’d thought of Hani only now and then in passing.

Hani gave a surprised laugh at Omar’s warm greeting, then beamed like he’d just won the Copa América. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet that night.

Rich and Poor

Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia Omar was staying at the Click Clack, an ultra-modern hotel in Bogotá’s trendy Chico district. When Hani arrived, Omar was already seated in the hotel restaurant, a funky place that served dishes based on famous paintings. The food was actually crafted on the plate to resemble the painting.

Omar steered clear of the Jackson Pollock pollock – would it be chum on a plate? – and instead ordered the Fernando Botero cod, on the theory that even an unconventional place like this would not disrespect a revered Colombian artist like Fernando Botero.

Hani looked at the towering lobby fountain and plants literally growing on the wall, like a vertical garden. “You’ve come up in the world. I don’t know if I can afford to eat here.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the company expense account.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“My mom’s company. Puro Panameño, remember? It’s grown.”

“Man. That’s great.” Hani kept shifting in his seat, picking up the menu and putting it down. It occurred to Omar that maybe Hani was uncomfortable having someone else pay for him.

“Hey, you know what?” Omar offered. “We don’t have to eat here. We could go for a pizza or something.”

Hani frowned. “Why? You don’t think I’m good enough for this place?”

Omar was taken aback. “I didn’t mean that at all. I want you to be comfortable.”

“Then don’t patronize me.”

Omar didn’t know what to say. The silence grew, until Hani blurted out, “Why are you being so nice? You’re acting like I’m your best friend.”

“Well… you were, once. You still are my friend.”

“I was mean to you. We used to call you Patacon because your father was a security guard.”

Omar heard the unspoken continuation of the sentence: And now I’m a security guard. How ironic life could be. Did Allah teach lessons on a decade-long scale? Why not? A decade, a century, a millennium, an age, these were nothing to The One with no beginning or end. But Omar had never held a grudge against Hani. He’d never felt the boy – now the man – had anything to atone for.

“That,” Omar said firmly, “was Tameem, not you.”

“I participated. Then I barely talked to you before we moved away, because I couldn’t face you.”

Clearly, Hani had never gotten over the way he’d behaved in high school. And now there was an obvious wealth gap between them. In Latin America that was a big deal. Rich and poor lived in different worlds. The power imbalance between the classes colored every interaction. People were supposed to “know their places.” Omar had to alter that balance, and he had to do it with something true, because you could never achieve an honest rapport with a lie.

Honesty Between Strangers

Omar ran a hand through his hair and chose his words. “I admit, I was hurt by the way you went along with the bullying. That was a terrible time for me. I felt like no one was on my side, no one was helping me. My father was gone, Nemesio used to beat me every day-”

“Who?”

“My so-called tio.”

“He beat you?”

“All the bruises, remember?”

“I thought that was from karate.”

Omar shook his head. “Mostly Nemesio. It went on for years. There were times when I contemplated suicide.” Omar had never said these things out loud to anyone, not even his wife. Why was he sharing them with a man he hadn’t seen in twelve years? Maybe because it was safe, in a way. Hani knew him but did not know him at the same time. A familiar stranger.

“Oh my God. I didn’t know, man. I’m so sorry.” Hani leaned forward impulsively and gripped Omar’s forearm, giving it a squeeze, then settled back into his seat.

Omar was moved by this. “You know, Hani, my most vivid memory of you is during the dog attack, when I saw you standing there with the knife. That little thing would barely cut a mango. You took a huge risk. The dogs could have turned on you.”

Hani shrugged, but Omar could see the words pleased him. “I did what I had to.”

“You could have done nothing.”

Hani shook his head. “You were my friend.”

Omar snapped his fingers and pointed. “Exactly. I could buy you a thousand dinners and it would be nothing. I’m breathing because of you.”

“You’re breathing because of Allah.”

“You were Allah’s instrument. But it must have been terrifying for you.”

“I peed my pants, actually.”

“For real?”

Hani nodded, and suddenly the two of them were laughing, and the tension was gone.

Nobody Uses Ice

They ate and talked. Omar told Hani about his family. His wife worked with him at Puro Panameño. She was his dream wife, and he was crazy about her. Their son Nur was four years old and a quiet child, but very smart ma-sha-Allah.

As for Hani, he’d gotten married nine years ago. Omar did the mental math. Hani had married at nineteen! He tried to ask about this, but Hani skirted the subject. Omar wondered if maybe Hani had an affair with a girl and was forced to marry her.

Hani’s father had early onset dementia, and his mother suffered from depression. His wife worked as a house cleaner. Life was a struggle. They wanted kids, but it hadn’t happened yet.

"Still Life With Fruits" by Fernando Botero

“Still Life With Fruits” by Fernando Botero

As it turned out, Omar was right about the Botero cod. The fish was served with a pear glaze, pea soup, a baguette and a watermelon slice. All items from Botero paintings, but grouped appealingly.

By ten o’clock the table had been cleared and Omar was tired. Hani kept brushing the tablecloth with his fingers. His high forehead was beaded with sweat. Omar flagged a waiter and asked for ice water for Hani.

The waiter stared at him blankly. “Ice?”

Omar made the shape of a square with his fingers. “Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.”

Hani laughed and waved the water away. “Nobody uses ice in Bogotá, man. We’re at 2,700 meters. We’re cold enough already.”

The thought of living without ice boggled Omar’s mind. In Panama ice was like the blood in your veins. You couldn’t live without it. “It’s just,” he said, “you’re sweating.”

“Oh.” Hani mopped his brow with a napkin. “I want to ask you something.” He went on to say that his security guard salary barely paid a living wage. He was struggling to support his wife and parents, and always on the edge of being broke. He had an idea to start a security business of his own.

“I know I can succeed.” He’d balled the napkin in one hand and kept squeezing it as if trying to wring water from it. “I’ve been a guard for five years. I know everything about the business. But it takes financing. I was wondering if you could loan me the money. I hate to ask, but I don’t know where else to turn.”

Omar nodded slowly. For a split second he thought that maybe Hani had joined him for dinner only to make this request. But he brushed that thought aside. He should give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

He told Hani to write a business proposal. Projected income and expenses, how he intended to acquire clients in a highly competitive market, that kind of thing.

Hani frowned. “Why are you making me do all that, man?”

“It’s for your benefit. You need this kind of analysis if you want to succeed.”

“Fine. So should I email you all that?”

Hani didn’t sound happy, but Omar plowed ahead: “Why don’t you bring it in person? I would love to have you and your wife visit us in Panama. Let me know what date works for you and I’ll reserve the tickets.”

Gheerah

Later that night he sat on a towel laid on the floor of the hotel room, having just prayed Ishaa’, and thought about the encounter with Hani. It occurred to him that Hani had told him almost nothing about his wife, not even her name. That seemed odd, especially since Omar had told Hani everything about his own family. But some Muslim men – especially the Arabs – were secretive like that when it came to their wives. For a long time Omar had not understood this cultural trait, but he’d mentioned it once to Mahmood, his Palestinian friend.

Mahmood was knowledgeable in the deen and said that this type of protective behavior was called gheerah, and that it required a man to ensure that the women of his household wore hijab, did not mingle inappropriately with men, and were shielded from lustful gazes. Not to do this, Mahmood explained, was considered shameful in Arab culture.

Islamic mashrabiya balcony “You see it in architecture,” Mahmood explained, steepling his fingers like a professor giving a lecture. “Islamic mashrabiya balconies allowed women to watch the street without being seen. Islamic Spain adopted the mashrabiyyah, so you see it in Latin America too.”

Gheerah was not about distrusting women, Mahmood said, nor about punishing them. Rather it was about shielding them from those who harbored ill intentions.

In which case it seemed to Omar that it should be a two way street, with husbands and wives both protecting each other. Anyway that was probably the reason for Hani’s silence on the subject of his wife. Hani’s ancestry was Arab and he would have been brought up that way.

Omar stood, stretched, then set about packing his bags. He’d be returning home early in the morning, inshaAllah. He’d spoken to his wife and son on Skype earlier that day, before the dinner with Hani. He was glad the conference was over, not only because he was eager to see his family, but also because if it had not been over, he might run into Hani again. Yes, he’d invited the man to come visit him in Panama, but for some reason he felt uneasy at the idea of seeing him again. Why should that be?

The World School

The world was covered in an unending school building. For a few days he would travel through crumbling, abandoned classrooms and auditoriums, sleeping on the floor when he couldn’t walk anymore. He never knew if it was day or night, since windows and doors opened only onto more hallways and rooms. Once he came to a staircase and climbed it through twenty floors, until he came to a floor in which the ceiling had crumbled, and the sun shone through. The sun! He sat on the dust covered floor and bathed in the warm rays, astounded at how good it felt. Dust had accumulated on the floor until it became soil, and shrubs grew. It was a different world up here.

He tried traveling on the upper floors for a while after that, but some rooms were occupied by masses of birds or bats, and the structure was so heavily rotted and mildewed at that level that he feared he might fall through a hole in the floor. So he returned to the ground level.

Sometimes, as he journeyed through the unending, purgatorial building, he came to sections that were better maintained. Occasionally, class was in session. But when he looked into these rooms, the children were like automatons, staring blankly at a chalkboard on which words and numbers appeared by themselves. When Omar spoke, no one turned to look at him. He was not even sure they were human.

In some places, a stream or river ran through the school, and bridges crossed over it. Omar saw creatures in the water: chimeras with the fins of fish but the tentacles of octopi. Creatures that looked like small, pale children with the tails of dolphins; and immense crocodiles that drifted with the current, turning their unblinking eyes to watch Omar as they passed.

One night (if indeed it was night – in this area most of the lights did not work, and everything was shadows and gloom) he heard a familiar voice. He couldn’t put a name to it, but his heart sped up in excitement. Another human being! Someone he knew. The voice came from a dark classroom.

Dark, abandoned class room

Omar rushed into the room, and found Mr. Suwaylem, his old principal from IIAP, lecturing to a dark and empty room.

He glanced at Omar. “You’re late. As I was saying, the Byzantine empire was a… was a sprawling, tremendously influential nation that could be said… Could be said what? I think, to have been… have been… founded in 330 CE, when Constantine the First…”

As Suwaylem stuttered on, Omar took a seat. He saw now that the man’s normally immaculate suit was dirty and torn, and hung loose on his frame, while his usually well coiffed hair was tangled.

“Who can tell me,” Suwaylem said, looking around as if to a room full of pupils, “something… what was it…” He wrung his hands helplessly, then looked to Omar. “You.”

Before Omar could point out that he didn’t know the question, a terrible moan came from the back of the room. It was a drawn out, tremulous sound, somewhere between a groan of pain and a death rattle, and it made the hair on Omar’s arms instantly stand on end. He spun in his seat and looked behind him.

In the deep shadows at the back of the room, two figures stood. Omar stared, trying to make them out. Finally their forms resolved, and he saw to his horror that they were Tameem and Basem, exactly as they had been in high school, except for one thing: they were dead. Or they should have been. Tameem’s throat was opened from ear to ear. His skin was alabaster pale, and blood stained his clothing down to his bare feet.

As for Hani, his head was half crushed, flattened on one side and broken open, so that his brains were visible.

It had been Tameem who moaned, because he opened his mouth and did it again. The sound sent a shudder all through Omar’s body. The boy was trying to speak, Omar realized. Trying to answer the principal’s non-question, maybe. But he could form no words, because his throat gaped open like a papaya with a wedge cut from it.

Tameem and Basem’s eyes fixed on Omar, and they both stepped forward, their expressions sorrowful and pleading. Omar tried to leap to his feet but the school desk seemed to have shrunk and his legs were stuck. He yelled in terror and panic. The two dead youths took another step forward.

* * *

He woke up shouting. He lay in a strange bed, his legs tangled in the sheets. Looking around in confusion, he realized where he was: the Click Clack Hotel. He was still in Bogotá. The glowing digital clock on the nightstand said 4:16 am. His alarm would go off in an hour. Three and a quarter hours until his flight.

He thought about the dream. He hadn’t had a nightmare in many years. Seeing Hani again must have brought back memories of the bad old days at IIAP, before the Day of the Dogs. Now he almost wished he could cancel the invitation he’d extended. But that wouldn’t be right.

He rose from bed. Time to shower and pray Fajr. Time to go home.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 9:  All We Have to Do

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

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

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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