See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Previous chapters of this story: Chapter 1
February 5, 2010
After my earlier imaginings of various delicious foods, my stomach wouldn’t stop rumbling. I searched through my desk drawers again, pushing aside old cough drop wrappers and paper clips. Forget the burrito. Let me just find enough loose change to buy one pack of instant noodles, or a single piece of fruit.
I came up with twenty seven cents. I could get a banana for that! Except that the nearest grocery store was two miles away on Shields at First, and I couldn’t afford the gas it would take to drive there. I supposed I could always walk.
I thought about calling up one of my previous clients and asking for a loan, but dismissed the idea as ridiculously unprofessional.
I could visit my friend Saleem. He had always had food in his refrigerator, as well as a smile on his face and good jokes to tell. But he’d be at work right now, laboring away in his job as program manager for a homeless shelter. Plus, ever since he’d gotten married I felt weird about visiting. His wife was extremely shy and would hide in the bedroom when I visited, making me feel like some Moorish invader who was only there to pillage their veggie samosas.
I opened my mini fridge and studied the contents, already knowing what I’d find: half a loaf of old, cracked Arabic bread, and a single slice of moldy cheddar cheese. I’d seen these yesterday but passed them up. Now I was hungry enough to eat them.
In prison I’d read the entire collected works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn described the stomach as an ungrateful wretch. The stomach never remembered the feasts of the past, but only wanted to know what was coming today and tomorrow. How true that was. I sighed and put half a slice of cheese – mold and all – in a quarter loaf of bread, squirted in some ketchup from a packet that I found in the desk drawer, and proceeded to eat my makeshift sandwich. I would save the remainder for tomorrow. Did mold count as a vegetable?
I said bismillah – in the name of God – then sat there chewing and grimacing at the taste, still thinking about the money that had walked out the door. Even though I’d only known that money for a minute, I missed it as if it were a best friend who had abandoned me. I knew my mind was running on a single track that morning, but hunger and overdue bills will do that to a man.
No matter, I told myself. Allah would reward me in some other way. I kept thinking of a hadith, a narrated saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in which the Prophet said that if you trust in Allah, he will feed you as he feeds the birds. They go out every morning hungry, and return with their bellies full.
I first read that hadith as a teenager and it has been echoing in my head ever since, demanding that I pay attention and live my life accordingly. Give up your attachment to material things, it says. Stop obsessing over the accumulation of wealth. Stop thinking that anything you do provides true security, and understand that security comes only from Allah. That hadith reminds me of the Prophets and sahabah (the companions of the Prophet Muhammad), because that was how they lived. There’s never been a generation who abandoned the dunya – the material world and all its glitter and pomp – the way they did.
That hadith reminds me of the Prophets and sahabah (the companions of the Prophet Muhammad), because that’s how they lived. There might have been individuals who came after the sahabah who prayed and fasted more than them. But there’s never been a generation who abandoned the dunya – the material world and all its glitter and pomp – the way they did.
The thing is, it’s enormously difficult to trust so completely, and I have always felt conflicted about it.
Thinking about these things, I ate the last bite of food and took out my address book. Time to call up some of my former insurance company clients and see what I could scare up. Allah helps those who help themselves.
* * *
The bread and butter of my practice was busting fake injury claims. It paid the bills, but just barely. Living on the edge of each billing cycle was wearing me down. And the work was tiresome. I couldn’t count how many nights I’d spent sitting in a dark car with a camera in my lap, waiting and watching, drinking one coffee after another to stay awake.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I had someone to come home to, or if I were earning enough to save for the future. “He will feed you as he feeds the birds,” my subconscious whispered. “Yes”, my stubborn heart replied, “but I’m not a bird, and I live in this world.”
I was thirty years old and had little to show for my life. I’d purchased a mobile home for cash after completing a lucrative job two years ago. I rented it out and earned a profit of one hundred fifty per month after costs. I had a dream of buying another one every few years and becoming the mobile home king of Fresno.
So far, though, the dream was turning out to be little more than a fantasy. I was running in place like a caged mouse on a wheel, exhausting myself to catch the bit of cheese that the world dangled in front of me.
I almost laughed when I thought this, since I was literally eating a bit of cheese. I supposed I was caged as well, though the cage was now the size of a planet and the length of this terse and transitory life.
I sighed. At least I had Hajar. If nothing else, my beautiful daughter was a treasure beyond value.
Sometimes I imagined that the government needed volunteers for a space mission to a newly discovered planet. The volunteers would spend five hundred years in stasis and wake to find themselves on a world light years away. Everyone they ever knew would be dead. A strange future lay ahead of them: pioneers on a new world. Life would be hard – they’d have to forge a community from the hardscrabble soil of an alien world – but it would also be full of promise and adventure. A man would have the opportunity to tame the wild frontier, to set foot in virgin forests and climb mountains never seen by the human eye.
We men need that opportunity to challenge nature, to put our lives on the line and struggle for survival. It is a vital part of the male makeup, but no longer has a place in modern life, except maybe for those lucky enough to work as firefighters or search and rescue specialists.
I would sign up for that space mission in a heartbeat, if only I could take Hajar with me. Forget Safaa and her hard heart. I’d take my daughter and wake up to find everything changed, whether for good or bad I didn’t care, as long as it was different. As for my unforgiving wife, I would miss her, but she would be five hundred years gone – just a part of history.
Other times I had the same fantasy, but when the time came to board the spaceship I turned back, unable to imagine a life without Safaa, for her warmth was the sun toward which my face turned. I would trade half my life to hold her again. I would claim the nightmares in my head, the ghosts of my youth on Gettysburg Avenue, the chest-breaking loneliness of prison, the years in cold and hot cells, and the meaninglessness of the grunt work that paid my bills. I’d carry it all like a beast, if I could hold her for an hour, or a minute, one more time in my ragged life.
* * *
As I was thus pitying myself and harboring pointless fantasies, the bell on the front door jingled again and another white man – an odd enough fact in this neighborhood that was ninety five percent Hispanic and Asian – came strolling in. I knew immediately that he was a street person. If his appearance hadn’t alerted me, the smell would have. He wore torn jeans, sneakers without laces, and a dirty yellow sweatshirt two sizes too large. Dirt was smeared on his forehead and nose, and the grime under his fingernails and in the seamed skin of his hands looked as ancient as Mississippi mud. As for the smell, he might have gone on a tour of the world to find the dirtiest public toilet, miniaturized it and brought it in with him in his pocket.
I didn’t hold any of that against him. Life was hard on the street. Without money, without washing machines and dryers, without handy toilet facilities and showers, without even running water or electricity, any man or woman would be reduced to the same state as this one. I knew that, and I thanked Allah for the roof over my head, however meager it was. Like the Quran says, “Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?”
The man wheeled in an old bicycle and set a bulging black plastic bag on the floor. It made a clanking noise when it hit the ground.
“Whoa!” I pointed at the door. “Beat it, Ghost Rider. I’m not buying. I have zero money for you, nada, nothing. I have a bit of old bread and cheese you can have if you’re hungry, but that’s it.”
“Nah, I aint hungry,” he replied. “Just trying to sell these solar garden lamps. You wanna see?”
Two or three times a day junkies came through my door trying to sell stolen goods. They’d offer phones, cameras, bicycles, hubcaps, jewelry, musical instruments, vacuum cleaners – whatever they could get their hands on. One guy tried to sell me three ten-foot lengths of copper pipe.
My answer was always no. I didn’t buy stolen goods, both to stay out of trouble and because I didn’t need the bad karma.
Gesturing to indicate my small office, I said, “Not exactly the gardens of Versailles. I need solar lamps like I need broken legs. Now if you don’t mind, this is a place of business. You can let yourself out.”
“Alright alright.” The man scanned the interior of my cramped office as if looking for booby traps or hidden surveillance bugs. “But listen here, my man. You a private defective, right?”
I considered correcting him, but on the whole the statement seemed accurate, so I let it stand. After all, what part of my life was not falling apart? I felt like a car running on bald tires and one cylinder.
“So I got a preposition. You know the Powerball is way up there man, it’s like a billion smackers. You defeck the number, like how you do. What your system is. You gimme the number, and when I win I cut you in for ten percent. That’s a trainload of money, my man.”
I snorted. “If I could, uhh, defect the number, why would I give it to you? Why wouldn’t I just win it myself and keep all the money?”
“Well, ‘cause that would be like one of them conflick a’ interest.”
Rather than laugh out loud I simply pointed to the door with both hands, my fingers in the shapes of guns. “Adios.”
Still muttering about the Powerball, the guy let himself out, leaving behind a cloud of body odor like the emissions of a chemical factory.
* * *
The Powerball was one of the games of the California lottery, a state-sponsored racket that was supposed to funnel cash to the education system but didn’t do much except take food money out of poor people’s pockets as far as I could see. American kids were still failing on standardized tests, and our schools still ranked among the lowest in the developed world.
I had indeed read in the Fresno Bee – our local newspaper – that the Powerball prize had reached stratospheric levels. Apparently to win the Powerball you had to match six numbers exactly. If the Powerball folks drew the winning number and no one matched, the lottery would run for another cycle, with the amount of the winnings continuing to increase.
The jackpot was so high that I’d even heard a few Muslims at the masjid – the mosque – talking about buying in. One brother said that he would donate half the winnings to help Muslims around the world. “Is that so bad?” he argued. “Take the money from the disbelievers and use it for the Muslim Ummah.” He didn’t explain how he justified keeping the other half for himself. At least the “disbelievers” didn’t pretend to be something they were not.
I’m no shaykh, but I know that the Quran describes intoxicants and gambling as abominations of Shaytan.
What does it mean, then, that American life is inundated with these ills? You can’t walk twenty meters down the street in this neighborhood without encountering an establishment that sells liquor and lottery tickets.
What does it mean that half of those stores are owned by Arabs? Instead of being representatives of Islam and agents of hope in these poverty stricken neighborhoods, we’ve become agents of despair, enriching ourselves by selling Shaytan’s goods. What hope is there for our future as Muslims, spiritually and as a community, if we pile on to the mountain of misery in poor neighborhoods?
I raised the window blinds, reached through the vertical steel bars on the window, and opened the window, wincing at the traffic noise that came washing through the screen. I usually kept my windows closed to keep out the dust and noise of the street, but I needed to air the place out after the homeless man’s visit.
Standing there, looking out the window at the people who milled in front of the burrito truck, wolfing down breakfast burritos stuffed with scrambled eggs, potatoes and chiles, I asked myself what my plan was. I’d been a private investigator for two years and it was hard going. I knew that I was getting better at it, slowly learning the tricks of the trade. My client base was growing. Still, the work was irregular. There were times when I was flush, and others when no work came in for weeks.
In the meantime, I had a duty to my family. Safaa had bills to pay, and Hajar was a growing child with all the needs that entailed. Though I loved being my own boss – after six years in prison it was liberating not to have anyone ordering me about – I asked myself for the thousandth time if it was time to get a straight job and give up this insecure and sometimes dangerous line of work. I didn’t have a college degree or any kind of vocational training, but maybe I could go back to driving a taxi, which was what I’d done for the first three years after getting out of the joint. The pay wasn’t great, and there was no future in it, but at least it was steady. Or maybe I could try working in retail, or at a fast food restaurant.
“Ya Allah,” I said out loud. “I really need a hand here.”
Speaking the words brought a rush of emotion, like a speeding train pulling into a station. In my case the destination list on the front of the train read, “Desperation – Loneliness – Surrender.” My face grew hot and my eyes stung. “I can’t do this without you, Ya Allah. Please.”
Well, I thought. Allah helps those who help themselves. A man gets up in the morning and does the work, and Allah lends a hand.
I learned many things about myself in prison. One is that surrender is not in my nature. The entire world could tell me I’m worthless, I’m not needed or wanted, I’m a loser with no future, and the paths to success and happiness are closed to me. The world could tell me I’m all alone, without allies or friends, with no one who loves me and no reason to live.
The world could tell me this, and I would stand tall and reply that dignity is a property of the heart; that freedom is my birthright and happiness my destiny; that I have as much of a place in this universe as the trees and the stars; and that I have never been alone or friendless, not for one moment, because Allah has always been by my side, even in the darkest isolation cells.
I opened my address book, picked up my phone and began to dial the number of a past client.
The bell on the door chimed again, and the Anwars entered my office. Dr. Ehab Anwar and his wife Farah were my parents’ oldest and best friends, and I could not have been more surprised if it had been Barack and Michelle Obama in evening wear and top hats.
I had not spoken to the Anwars in eleven years, since before I went to prison for robbery at the age of nineteen. More accurately, they had not spoken to me. In fact, Farah Anwar had been instrumental in ostracizing me from the local Muslim community. She made sure everyone, including new arrivals, knew about my past, and made it clear that she considered me a bad influence on the community youth.
Farah was a pillar of the community, respected by everyone. As a result of her influence, I was never invited to community dinners, Eid picnics, barbecues at the park, or even the birthday parties of the children of my childhood friends.
So what? I didn’t care a shriveled fig what these people thought of me.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe it hurt on some level. And it hurt that my parents continued their friendship with the Anwars, even occasionally hosting dinner parties to which I was not invited. It wounded me that even my mother bought into the communal judgment of my character. It hurt that they didn’t stand up for me.
Oh, I was welcome in my parents’ home when no one else was around, and they loved me in their way, but I knew that my mother in particular would never trust me again. Her image of me as a sweet, intelligent and good-hearted boy had been shattered forever. I had shamed her before her friends.
Whatever. Let them all live in their sealed-off judgmental bubble. I had friends, mostly Muslim converts to whom my past was irrelevant. There was also brother Saleem, and one or two Palestinian-Americans of my own generation – like Aziz – who continued their friendship with me privately, despite their parents’ disapproval. And my non-Muslim friends. Well, friend, really, since there was only one – my childhood buddy Titus, who was now a cop.
Also, my cousins in Madera still talked to me. Nabeel and his hot-blooded older sister Jamilah, who was passionate about Palestinian causes and quick to anger when anyone disagreed, were good people. Nabeel was still in college, and Jamilah recently moved to San Francisco and became a bike messenger, of all things. I loved her like a sister, but I was happy that at least someone in the family besides me was failing to live up to expectations. Just kidding about that. Sort of.
The Anwars would, I was sure, have been happier if I’d remained in prison, or settled somewhere else after my release. Whenever I asked my mother why she accepted the Anwars’ shaming of me in the community, she sidestepped the question by saying, “Do you know Dr. Ehab is over eighty years old? Ma-sha-Allah he is like a man of sixty.”
* * *
All of which explains why I was so utterly surprised to find them standing before me. My mom was right, Dr. Ehab did indeed look younger than his age. He was thin and rather short at 5’6”, but stood with a straight back. His brown eyes were red-rimmed and haggard, but sharply intelligent. Though he wore an olive green flat cap, I knew that he still had most of his hair, and it wasn’t even all gray yet. He wore brown dress slacks, expensive leather shoes, and a brown corduroy jacket to ward off the February chill. In one hand he held a brown leather satchel with two outside pockets. It looked pricey.
He could afford it. He founded a pest control company fifty years ago, helping Valley farmers control and eradicate infestations of insects, mites and nematodes. I actually worked for his company as a teenager, which was why I knew that a nematode was a kind of microscopic worm, and not a toad named Nema. I spent two summers trudging up and down almond and orange groves, first hanging sticky traps on the branches of trees, then collecting them a week later and examining them under a magnifying glass to count and catalogue the insects stuck to the traps. I remember working in Ramadan one summer, and being so thirsty that the water running in the farm ditch looked as tasty as fresh lemonade.
In the 1970’s Dr. Ehab had the foresight to buy empty land to the north and west of Fresno. When the city expanded in that direction he sold some of the land to developers, and leased other lots to large retailers. I remembered hearing that one of his first leases had been to Walmart for $25,000 per month. He later become a developer himself, building three huge apartment complexes in north Fresno.
I didn’t know how much the Anwars were worth, but it must be in the tens of millions.
“As-salamu alaykum,” Dr. Ehab Anwar said, offering the traditional Muslim greeting of peace. He did not offer to shake my hand.
His wife Farah waved her hand in front of her nose and glared at me, apparently thinking that I was the source of the unpleasant smell in the office.
“Wa alaykum as-salam,” I replied coolly.
Farah dug her elbow into her husband’s ribs and said in a voice as sharp as a prison shank, “The boy is no good. It is a mistake coming here.”
Farah Anwar was shorter than her husband and fifteen years younger. Her nose was hooked like a falcon’s beak, her skin was pale ivory, and her green eyes were as hard as chips of emerald. Though she was dressed modestly in a long skirt, loose blouse and cream-colored hijab, and though she volunteered as a weekend Islamic studies teacher at the masjid, I found nothing Islamic in her demeanor, nor had I ever.
* * *
I was fairly sure she had played a key role in breaking up my marriage.
Six months ago I’d been driving north on highway 99, tailing a subject in an insurance case, when I saw an accident take place before my eyes. A big 18 wheeler began to drift toward oncoming traffic. At the last second the truck jerked in the other direction and tipped over, jackknifing and sliding across three lanes of fast-moving traffic. I managed to stop in time, but a young woman driving a red VW Beetle did not. She plowed into the semi, and a moment later flames began to erupt from under her hood.
Two other cars had collided as well, but I had to prioritize. I parked on the median and ran to the burning Beetle. The airbag had deployed and the young woman was unconscious. With a shock, I realized I knew her. She was one of Safaa’s cousins, a girl named Karima who was studying business at Fresno State, if I remembered correctly.
Her door was locked and jammed. I considered sliding in through the shattered front windshield, but the flames licking from under the hood were growing. I could feel the heat scorching my skin. I looked around frantically for emergency workers, but none had arrived. Two other drivers, a man and a woman, exited their cars and stood nearby, filming with their phones. I realized no one was going to do anything. I had to get Karima out myself.
I drew my pocket knife, grasped it tightly in my fist, and struck the driver’s side window as hard as I could with the butt. The glass shattered. Karima’s seatbelt would not release, so I used the knife to slice through it, then leaned in, grasped her under the arms, and hauled her out through the window. At 5’9” and 160 pounds I’m solidly built but not imposing. In that moment, though, Karima felt as light as a loaf of bread.
She began to rouse to consciousness as I hauled her away from the burning car. I carried her well off the highway to the grassy embankment and set her down gently. Other drivers had stopped and were helping the other accident victims, so I stayed with Karima. By the time the ambulances and fire trucks arrived she was fully awake.
In the following days, Karima became obsessed with me. She’d text me at various times throughout the day. The texts were innocuous, just wishes for me to have a good day or updates on her daily life at school. I never replied, but my wife Safaa was understandably annoyed. It escalated to Karima dropping by my office every other day with homemade cookies or sandwiches. I kept telling her it was inappropriate. She said she understood that I was married, but wanted to show her gratitude. She sent me a Facebook friend request; I declined. She’d call, and I’d see her name on the caller ID and let it go to voicemail.
It became a serious problem between myself and Safaa. My wife was not an especially suspicious or jealous sort, but Karima was a beautiful young woman, with round eyes, a wide smile and long, lustrous black hair. I mean, Safaa is beautiful too of course, but… I’ll stop there, as I can’t see any wise conclusion to this line of thought. The point is, Safaa grew increasingly angry. I felt like I was trapped in a giant spider web. No matter what I said it didn’t matter.
Finally I texted Karima to arrange a meeting. I intended to tell her definitively that she had to leave me alone. I could not be her hero or friend. Maybe if she saw my frustration she would realize the harm she was doing. If she would not stop I would secure a restraining order against her. I had to save my marriage no matter what.
We agreed to meet at a coffee shop in the neighboring town of Clovis. I arrived, parked and exited my car, and the next thing I knew, Karima – who had arrived early – rushed toward me, embraced me and kissed me. She’d obviously completely misconstrued the purpose of our meeting. I pushed her away angrily and looked up to see a few of the coffee shop patrons watching. Among them were two Arab ladies – a middle-aged hijabi I did not know, and Farah Anwar. Farah was staring at the scene with eagle eyes and a trace of a smile.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I didn’t even try talking to Farah. What was the point? I delivered my message to Karima, telling her to stay out of my life, and returned home to find Safaa already putting my belongings on the doorstep.
Safaa later told me that after she kicked me out of the house, Farah visited her and told her she’d done the right thing. Farah urged her to seek sole custody of the children and to sue me for alimony. Safaa told Farah to get lost. “You might be a good-for-nothing cheater,” Safaa informed me over the phone, “but that woman derives entirely too much pleasure from it.”
If Safaa could understand that, then why couldn’t she understand that Farah was misrepresenting the entire incident? And why did Farah Anwar hate me so viscerally? What had I ever done to her?
I couldn’t understand women at all.
* * *
Dr. Ehab cleared his throat. “We want to hire you.”
I stared, flabbergasted. I felt a strange sensation rising in my chest and didn’t recognize it for what it was – hilarity – until my mouth opened and laughter burst forth. I reclined in my chair, closed my eyes and put my hands on my belly, letting the guffaws burst out of me like sonic fireworks.
When my laughter finally ebbed, I opened my eyes to see Dr. Ehab watching me grimly, though I imagined I detected a sheepish cast to his gaze. Farah stood with her arms at her sides and her fists balled, nearly trembling with rage.
“I’m sorry,” I said, rubbing my cheek. “Really. That just came out. Anyway I’m not taking any new cases right now.” I gestured toward the door. ”You can show yourselves out.”
This was foolish of me, I knew. I needed the money desperately. But these people looked upon me with contempt. I would rather be reduced to eating grass than work for them.
Dr. Ehab reached into his leather satchel and withdrew a thick manila envelope. Farah place a restraining hand on his arm. “Leave this useless man to his bitterness,” she urged him. “He is a criminal, a thief. Why should we hire him? We don’t need to hire anyone ya Baba. The girl will turn up. And if not, so what? She’s no good for Tarek anyway. Let her go.”
Dr. Ehab gave his wife a shocked look. “She is our blood. And I told you, I want Zaid. Not some stranger.”
“Fine!” Farah snatched the envelope out of her husband’s hands and threw it onto my desk. It made a thud like a rare steak – again. Why did all the money have to sound like steaks today?
“There is ten thousand dollars,” she said with a sneer. “Does that change your mind? Are you a high-priced whore? I thought you were the cheap kind.”
“Farah…” Dr Ehab said, putting a restraining hand on her arm. “This is not the way.”
SubhanAllah, I thought. This was crazy. Just a little while ago I’d turned down an envelope containing five thousand dollars, and placed my trust in Allah to give me something better. I just didn’t think it would happen as fast as a pizza delivery. Was Allah sending me a message? Was this a test?
I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but even were I a destitute beggar, I would not take money thrown at me in derision. To work for these two would be to surrender my dignity and self-respect.
If you’re thinking that I’m too proud and stubborn for my own good, I don’t deny it. But if you’re thinking that I’m too proud and stubborn for someone with my background – that, considering my past, I should be meek and humble and apologetic – then you have the wrong guy. I don’t do meek. The meek might inherit the earth, but I am who I am. I made the mistakes I made, and they are in the past. My sins are between me and Allah. Anyone who wants to deal with me can do so based on who I am now, at this moment.
Okay, maybe I have a chip on my shoulder. But it’s my chip, and I’ll enjoy it with guacamole dip, California style.
Here’s the thing. If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that a man is nothing without his dignity. And dignity was all internal. It could never been taken away. It could only be surrendered.
Didn’t the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, say, “The religion is sincerity.” What is sincerity if not respect – respect for Allah, for people, and for oneself?
“I wouldn’t work for you if my life depended on it,” I said.
“You are a cruel boy!” Farah shouted. She tugged on her husband’s arm. “Let’s go. I told you this is a waste of time. There is no need for any of this. The girl will show up later or sooner.”
Dr. Ehab took the envelope. “Will you not hear what we need?”
“Nah. No point. Whatever you need, there are plenty of other P.I.s in town. Chris Rockland is quite good. His office is at Shaw and First.”
Farah stepped in front of her husband and jabbed her finger at my face. “You are a shame on the community! I don’t know how your poor parents put up with you. You are worthless. You deserve to lose your family and never see them again. This is all your fault in the beginning!” Spittle flew from her mouth as she ranted.
I felt like I was watching a rabid dog. Would she leap over the desk and bite me?
“How is it my fault?” I shouldn’t have taken the bait, but I couldn’t help it.
“You corrupted Tarek! If not for you, he would never have associated with that dirty girl.”
I was baffled. Was that why Farah hated me so much? She thought that I was somehow responsible for her son’s train wreck of a life? Huh. The truth was just the opposite. Even as a kid Tarek had always been shiftless. His eyes wandered here and there, seeking a distraction or an answer to a question he hadn’t yet formulated. When we were in high school we’d walk to school together and often he would decide on the spot to skip classes. I’d try to convince him otherwise, but he’d wander off – I never knew to where. After he dropped out in eleventh grade we didn’t see much of each other.
I could see, though, how a distraught mother, looking for someone to blame for her son’s mistakes, might latch on to me. I’d been her son’s friend and I’d gone to prison, ergo I must have influenced Tarek in some way.
Nemo judex in sua causa notwithstanding, I didn’t see it that way. Pardon the Latin. I made extra money in prison by proofreading prisoners’ legal briefs, correcting typos and grammatical errors. I don’t know a thing about the law, but I picked up some of the lingo. That one means, no one shall be a judge in his own case.
Dr. Ehab pulled his wife aside and spoke sternly. “Farah, be quiet. Let me talk to him.”
“No. Let’s leave this good-for-nothing whore to his smelly office.”
Dr. Ehab pulled his wife aside and spoke sternly. “Farah, be quiet. Let me talk to him.”
“No. Let’s leave this good-for-nothing to his smelly office.”
Dr. Ehab glared at his wife and raised his voice, biting off each word. “Be – quiet!”
Farah blanched in shock. I was pretty surprised too. I’d never seen Dr. Ehab angry before. The man I remembered from my teenage years was a milquetoast, so soft spoken that I’d had to strain to make out his words.
When I was younger and first started working for the pest control company I made a serious mistake. When we hung traps we always mapped the farm first and assigned every tree a number, so that when we collected the traps later we knew precisely which tree each trap had come from. The first time I was assigned to collect the traps, I gathered all the traps from a ten acre grove without noting the tree numbers, which meant that a week’s worth of data was lost. Even then Dr. Ehab did not get angry. He merely patted my shoulder and said, “Next time, don’t rush. Patience is silver.”
Now, as he stood before me nearly shouting at his wife, I was taken aback. She gaped at him then stalked out, slamming the door hard enough to rattle the door frame.
Dr. Ehab turned to me. “This matter is important to us. We need someone with a personal connection. Someone we can trust.”
My mouth fell open in astonishment. “Someone you can trust? Have you treated me like someone you could trust?”
“I understand completely.” Dr. Ehab ran a hand across his forehead, closing his eyes, then opened them and gave me a pleading look. “You have a right to hate us. If the need was for me, I would not ask.” He reached into his jacket pocket, took out a 3” by 5” photo and handed it to me.
“She has disappeared,” he explained. “We need you to find her. Please, I beg you. The ten thousand is only an advance. I will pay fifty thousand if you get her home.”
I recognized the girl in the photo right away. Her name was Anna. She was the Anwars’ granddaughter. My friend Tarek’s daughter.
I had told the Anwars that I would not work for them if my life depended on it. This was someone else’s life, however. That changed everything.
Retire Aladdin To The Ends Of The Earth
By Jinan Shbat
I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Ohio, where I never felt different than the kids in my neighborhood. Sure, my siblings and I had odd-sounding names, and we spoke a second language. But to our neighbors and classmates, we were white, like them. However, that perception changed when I was 11-years-old, when a Disney cartoon movie named “Aladdin,” was released based off of a character created by a French orientalist at the height of Orientalism. At first, my siblings and I were excited because we thought Disney had made a movie that represented us. However, shortly after the movie came out, the questions began.
Are you from Agrabah?
Do you have a magic carpet? Are you going to be married off to someone your parents choose? Do you have outfits like Jasmine?” My head was swarming with all these questions, and I admit, I was intimidated. A little scared, too. I didn’t know how to answer them, and so I just shook my head and walked away.
My parents thought they were doing us a favor by buying the movie and have us watch it anytime other kids came over to play. This just created a larger divide between us, and soon my siblings and I were the “other.” It made me hyper-aware of my brown skin, my visiting foreign grandparents, and my weird-sounding name that no one could ever pronounce correctly. As I grew up, the movie and its racist, Orientalist tropes followed and haunted me. Anytime anyone found out I was Arab, they would ask, “oh, like Aladdin?” I didn’t know how to answer that. Was Aladdin Arab? South Asian, Persian? These were all different ethnicities, yet the movie seemed to be an amalgamation of them all, set in a fiction land I could not identify.
Why is Disney’s Aladdin Harmful?
It may not seem like a big deal to be misidentified in this way, but it is. And these stereotypes that have been present in Hollywood for decades are a huge disservice to our communities- all our communities- because when you misidentify a person’s culture, you are saying that all people of color are interchangeable— which is dehumanizing.
With the new release of the live action version, “Aladdin” is reinforcing the trauma and obstacles we have had to fight for the last 30+ years. The addition of a diversity consulting firm made Disney look good; it showed good faith on their part to receive feedback on the script to try and improve it.
However, issues remain with the original story itself, and no amount of consulting will change that.
Although the Aladdin remake was marked by controversy over Disney “brown-facing” its white cast, and despite original Aladdin’s racist history, last weekend Disney’s live-action version soared to $207.1 million globally. Money experts tell us that the remake success comes from the “power of nostalgia”- that is, the film’s ability to connect with feel-good memories.
The original production is the second highest grossing film project in Disney history. Last weekend, millions flocked to the remake in record numbers, despite critics’ negative and mixed reviews.
The accompanying Aladdin Jr. play is also a major concern, sales of which will skyrocket because of the film. Disney only recently removed the word ‘barbaric’ in its description of Arabs in the opening song. Many more problems abound, but Disney promises through its licensing company, Music Theatre International, to keep the concepts explored in the original production intact.
A Whole New World Needs Less Anti-Muslim Bigotry
From my perspective, as an organizer that fights a huge Islamophobia network in my daily work, it would be a disservice to my work and our community to sit by and allow racist, Islamophobic, orientalist tropes to make their way into our theaters, homes, and schools. What exactly is not a big deal in this movie? The depiction of Arabs and South Asians as one demographic, the storyline of forced marriage, power struggles, a black man playing a genie literally bound by chains to a lamp?
Hollywood’s history of Islamophobia needs to be rectified. There is a plethora of writers, actors and creative minds with alternative positive portrayals of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. Our consumer appetite must shift to embrace authentic stories and images about people like me.
Aladdin is beyond repair; in its original form, it is problematic. No number of meetings with executives will fix the problems that are still prevalent. It should be retired, indefinitely, and put on the shelf with all the other racist caricatures from Hollywood history.
It’s our duty to speak out- and if you don’t believe we should, then you can choose to stay silent. I cannot.
Jinan Shbat is an organizer in Washington DC.
Making Eid Exciting for Kids
Ramadan and Eid are the most important holidays of our religion, but are we as parents putting enough effort into them? For those of us who live in non-Muslim countries, Ramadan and Eid can look dull in comparison to Christmas, Halloween, Easter, etc. There is little to no recognition of Muslim holidays outside of our homes and masjids.
Unlike Muslim countries, where markets, streets, television and the general population all foster a sense of connection to the month of blessing, Ramadan and Eid pass by mostly unnoticed in the circle of our kid’s friends.
The reality is that our religious festivals are competing with the attention of other more glittery celebrations of the West. We want to make Islamic festivals a real part of our children’s lives. We want to create memories, want our kids to love our festivals and our deen, so how do we inspire our kids to love Ramadan and Eid?
While I don’t believe we need to compete with our Christian neighbors, I firmly believe we have a responsibility to make all of our religious obligations meaningful and as well as fun, exciting and educational for our kids.
As we get close to Eid, here’s how can you make it memorable for your children:
Welcome Eid in your Home by Decorating
Between the fabulous DIY Eid decorating projects out there on the internet and the wide range of home décor offered by Muslim owned businesses, you have a good number of options to decorate your home during Eid.
Gone are the days of tacky Eid décor. With the selection and quality Eid décor that are available, you are sure to find something that goes with your existing home décor. Whether your style is traditional or modern, glam or chic, you’ll find some Eid decoration in a variety of color and theme to match your taste.
You’ll be surprised how lights and a garland can add the Eid spirit to your home. Involve the kids in decorating your home for Eid to get them in the mood and inspire them to love Eid. It’s always a pleasure to see the sparkle in their eyes as you turn decorating the house a family activity.
Take your children to Eid Salah
Eid salah is a fundamental part of Eid festivities. Make sure you take your kids with you for the Eid prayer. If Eid falls on a weekday, get an excused absence for your child. Most schools have a religious celebration exemptions policy and you should be able to get the kids out for the Eid salah if not the entire day.
On route to the Eid prayer, make it a family tradition to say the Eid Takbeer –
‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. La Ilaaha Illallahu Wallahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa Lillahil Hamd’
Surprise your kids with gifts
“Exchange gifts, as that will lead to increasing your love to one another.” Prophet Muhammad ﷺ [Al-Bukhari]
Only is it a Sunnah to give gifts, children are ecstatic when they receive presents. It’s a win-win situation. I like to give Islam inspired gifts during Eid. Books are great to present, especially when you pair them with the experience of reading them together or spending some quality time doing an activity together.
For smaller kids, check out these prayer rugs and these feeding sets. For older kids, puzzles are dua cards are my go-to gifts along with some toys and stationery that they may want. If you want to keep the tradition of giving money out on Eid morning, package your bills in these beautiful envelopes before giving them out.
Plan a party for their friends
While it’s traditional for families to visit one another, a little extra effort can mean that kids get to enjoy something geared towards them. Children love kid friendly parties, let them enjoy themselves by planning something different with them. With many Muslim families opting out of birthday parties, why not throw a party for your kids on the eve of Eid (a.k.a chand raat) or Eid Day? Plan a chance for them to make Eid crafts, and decorate Eid cookies.
Making Eid exciting for children isn’t just about lights and fun, it also about building a lasting Muslim identity. In a time when Islamophobia and discrimination are the norms, we can use our holidays as opportunities to engage and invite our communities and schools in active dialogue about Muslim holidays in a positive, relevant light. This, in turn, serves to teach our own children, not only spiritual acts but also how to be progressive and active members of our society.
The Fast and the ¡Fiesta!: How Latino Muslims Celebrate Ramadan
When the month of Ramadan is approaching, the Ortiz-Matos family begins to prepare the only way they know how, Puerto Rican style. Julio Ortiz and his wife, Shinoa Matos, reside in Brooklyn, New York. They are both Puerto Rican converts to Islam and their native tongue is Spanish. They have been Muslim for two decades each and married for close to 14 years. The couple has three children, ages 9, 7, and 5. Although Shinoa is also half Greek, she identifies herself as part of the ever-growing Latino Muslim population, a community that is bringing its very own sazon, or Latin flavor, to spice up Islamic holiday traditions.
Preparations for Ramadan for this Muslim familia, or family, consists of planning together with their children to get them excited about the fasting season. They discuss how they will plan out the month in order to reap its many rewards, and the husband and wife decide on a schedule so they can alternate between attending the taraweeh prayers and babysitting. With the help of their children, Julio and Shinoa make a list of foods and ingredients they will need for their suhur, or pre-dawn meals, and iftar, their dinner after breaking the fast. These feasts will feature a variety of Puerto Rican dishes such as pollo guisado (stewed chicken), sorullos (corn dumplings stuffed with cheese), pasteles (meat-filled dumplings made out of root vegetables, green bananas, and plantains), tortilla española (Spanish omelets), empandas (meat-filled turnovers), and finger foods such as guava, cheese, and Spanish olives, coupled with the iconic Ramadan dates.
Right before Ramadan, the Ortiz-Matos home is decorated with typical fiesta décor, shining lights, pom poms, and banners in Spanish. One of their most unique Ramadan and Eid traditions is dressing up in Puerto Rican cultural attire. Shinoa explains, “My husband can usually be found wearing a guyabera (Caribbean dress) shirt in different colors along with a matching kufi. My sons will also wear tropical shirts with their own kufis. This year I am planning on dressing all my children in typical jibaro (Puerto Rican country) clothing, complete with my daughter in a bomba skirt and my sons with machetes and sombreros de paja (straw hats)!” To prepare for Eid, they redecorate the house with Feliz Eid (Happy Eid) signs and fill decorative bowls with traditional Puerto Rican sweets made with coconut, passion fruit, and pineapple.
As converts, Julio and Shinoa know the isolation that new Muslims can feel during the holidays, so they also make a habit out of spending the month with fellow Latinos and converts. Not only does Shinoa want to make sure that no one is spending Ramadan and Eid alone, she also wants her children to feel a sense of belonging. She said, “This helps to reinforce the (concept of a) Latino Muslim community in the eyes of our children because even though all Muslims are brethren, it is important for them to be able to see representation in others they associate with.”
Even though they live in Brooklyn, Julio and Shinoa often attend the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC, in New Jersey. This mosque across the Hudson River caters to the predominately Hispanic population of Union City and its surrounding areas. Due to its location, NHIEC is the home of one of the largest Latino Muslim communities in the nation and has been catering to their growing needs by providing simultaneous Spanish interpreting of Friday sermons, an annual Hispanic Muslim Day for the past two decades, and continuous educational programs specially geared towards Spanish-speakers and new Muslims of Hispanic heritage. During Ramadan, NHIEC offers iftar events catered by local Latino restaurants, like the Peruvian eatery, Fruit Punch, or the Arab/Hispanic fusion buffet called Fiesta. They also host potlucks, in which Latino Muslim converts and veterans alike breakfast by sharing their country’s typical dishes. The mosque is decorated with streamers, balloons, and flags from all 21 majority Spanish-speaking countries.
Halal on the Hudson
Union City may be known as “Havana on the Hudson” because of its large Cuban population, however, South Americans like Ecuadorians and Peruvians are also plentiful. Nylka Vargas is a mixture of both; residing near NHIEC, this Latina conversa (convert) is a social worker by day and an active member of NHIEC’s dawah committee by night. She and her Syrian husband plan out their Ramadan by renewing their intentions, assessing their spiritual needs, crossing out to do items, cleaning, and clearing their schedules for the month. While subtle decorating is also part of the prep, Nylka prefers to set aside a quiet space at home for prayer and reflection.
It is in the mosque where she works passionately alongside other Latino Muslims to make the month of Ramadan memorable for fellow Latinos. Due to most Latin American Muslims converting to Islam, their relatives are usually non-Muslims who do not celebrate Ramadan or Eid. Nevertheless, NHIEC provides an inclusive atmosphere, where converts are invited to bring their families to break fast and enjoy the festivities. They host yearly dawah and converts Ramadan programs, an annual grand Iftar for converts with Latin dishes, converts get-together iftars, and a program called “Share Your Iftar with a Convert” to actively encourage the community to break their fast with new Muslims. They also teach Ramadan prep classes, arts & crafts for children, and organize a converts Eid extravaganza.
Nylka says, “We take much pride in bedazzling and giving our Eid Party a custom touch with all kinds of Eid decorating pieces and an entertainment combo. It is always about what the community wants.” One of Nylka’s fellow dawah committee members is Flor Maza. Flor is a Salvadorian convert and mother of three married to an Egyptian Muslim. Ramadan is an exciting and busy time for Flor, who is a full-time pastelera (baker); she caters to the NHIEC community, literally, decorating and preparing all kinds of postres (desserts), both Spanish and Arabic. She has learned how to prepare typical Egyptian dishes and sweets and alternates between these and Latin-inspired foods for iftar.
“I have not lost my culture, but I am learning from other cultures,” she joyfully explained, “All cultures are beautiful.” Flor believes that Ramadan is a time to learn tolerance, patience, compassion, and gratefulness, and to collaborate in doing good. She demonstrates this by sharing her delicious meals and confections with the community during the many NHIEC events. When asked if anything distinguishes her as a Latina Muslim, she said, “Anyone can recognize a Latino Muslim because we, Latinas, are helpful, we preserve our culture and are proud of our language.”
NHIEC is one of a few Islamic centers in the U.S. where guests can experience the festivities of Ramadan and Eid in Spanish. When the time for Eid prayer comes, the Muslim community in Union City and surrounding areas, pray outside either in a park or in a local school’s soccer field. Non-Muslim neighbors hear the Takbirat al Eid, witness the Eid prayer, and listen to the sermon that follows on the loudspeakers, while admiring huge green banners with golden letters that read, “Happy Eid, Eid Mubarak (in Arabic script), and Feliz Eid.”
A Mexican, Haitan, and Puerto Rican Ramadan
Eva Martineau-Ocasio was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and Haitian father and she was brought up speaking Spanish at home. She is married to Ismail Ocasio, a Puerto Rican who was raised Muslim in New York by convert parents. They have three girls, ages 6, 3, and 6 months and reside in Brooklyn. While they have always practiced their faith, the couple has become more diligent about making Ramadan extra special and memorable for their children.
The focal point of their Ramadan décor is a table spread with Islamic and Ramadan-themed books (some in Spanish, others in English), arts and crafts, tools, calendars, and projects they will use to celebrate Ramadan. As with the Ortiz-Matos family, great care is given to set the mood for the commencement of the Month of Mercy. As Eva explained, “We prepare ahead of time by reading books and telling stories to remind ourselves about Ramadan. We use lights, banners, and homemade decorations to make Ramadan special in our home. In recent years, my sister and I even opened a small online shop to sell some of our decor.” With her girls, the young mother, nurse and midwife student weaves prayer mats for their dolls and paints small glass linternas (lanterns) to display on their holiday table.
While other Muslim families have similar routines to welcome Ramadan, what sets the Martineau-Ocasios and other Latino Muslims apart is the way they have tailored their cultural traditions to adapt to Islamic practices. “Food and language play the largest roles in shaping the way we experience Ramadan outside of the important religious-based practices,” Eva said, “I strive to make Ramadan as special and exciting for my children as Christmas was for me growing up.” The family enjoys fast-breaking meals representative of their unique mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian culture. Some of their staples include tacos, fajitas, frijoles refritos (refried beans), Haitian style beef BBQ ribs, Haitian black rice, Puerto Rican arroz con maíz (yellow rice with corn), and even American Mac and Cheese.
They also celebrate with the general community and enjoy breaking fast with Arab and South Asian cuisine, as well. As a family, they attend Ramadan gatherings at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) and the MAS Brooklyn mosque in New York, where they are recognized as being Latino Muslims because of their language, Spanish, which they use with their children.
Ramon F. Ocasio, Ismail’s father and Eva’s father-in-law, shares a deeper perspective about celebrating Ramadan as a Puerto Rican Muslim of well over four decades. Ocasio was born in the Bronx and raised in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. He embraced Islam in 1973. For this father and grandfather, nothing identifies as uniquely Latino in his practice of Ramadan aside from the food. He says, “My family prepares iftars featuring Latin cuisine for some masjids, both suburban and in the inner city. Just food, no unique decor. Food is the common denominator. Aside from that, there is nothing I can point to that is uniquely Latino in our celebrations.” His personal favorites are pasteles, roasted leg of lamb (a halal substitute for pernil, a traditional pork dish), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and flan (a custard dessert with caramel sauce).
When his children were young, he admits that things were a little different, with Eid gatherings in the park that drew thousands of Muslims, trips to Toys’R’Us for presents, movies, games, and outings. “Seasons change, families grow, our method of celebrating will change with it,” Ocasio reminisces, “During a span of forty plus years, it can change quite a bit. As parents, we’ve tried our best to make Ramadan and Eids special for our children. For the most part, we have been successful.”
Ramadan for the Latino Muslims of Chicago
Another Latino Ramadan legacy is being constructed west of the Tri-State area, in the Windy City. Rebecca Abuqaoud is the founder and director of Muslimahs of Chicago and a community organizer at Muslim Community Center at Elston Avenue (MCC), and at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois (ICCI). She hails from Lima, Peru, and she and her husband, Hasan Abuqaoud, have three children. Rebecca has been involved in organizing Ramadan events for the Latino community and for Muslim women and children for many years.
One of these is the annual, “Welcoming the Arrival of Ramadan,” where female speakers are invited to present, and babysitting is provided to ensure mothers are able to attend. The dinner consists of a potluck, and attendees share their cultural dishes. Guests can choose from a variety of ethnic foods, including arroz con gandules, arroz chaufa (Peruvian rice), salads, pollo rostisado (rotisserie chicken), chicken biryani, and other Pakistani and Arab delicacies. This event began as an initiative for Spanish-speakers only, at the request of Latino Muslim women, however, it has grown to become a bilingual affair and draws anywhere from 60-80 attendees.
Rebecca is known in her community for dedicating her time to sharing her years of experience, Islamic knowledge, and wisdom with others. She said, “I really love being with my Latino sisters, I understand the help and support they need in their journey to Islam. I’ve been blessed to have knowledgeable Islamic teachers in my life and now it’s time to pass that knowledge to my new sisters in Islam; I thank Allah for such an opportunity.” Among other social events during Ramadan, Rebecca holds a Halaqa Book Club for ladies in Spanish at the ICCI, and for Eid, she assists with the Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC.
In the North of Chicago, Ramadan and Eid is a family affair, and this includes the children of Latino converts. During Ramadan, mothers are encouraged to decorate their homes and the masjid to make the season exciting for their children. In the mosque, Rebecca and other volunteers prepare fun activities for them related to Eid, such as a puppet show, decorating paper plates, creating Eid greeting cards for their families, and pretend “baking” cookies and cupcakes with play-dough. The children also enjoy listening to other kids recite the Qur’an and chatting over pizza, snacks, cake, and juice.
The Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC, sponsored also by Ojalá Foundation, is an effort that began to create a safe space for converts to celebrate Eid together. Everyone is invited to attend and can bring dishes to share. The walls are decorated for the occasion and candy-filled piñatas are set up for the children. Not only do the Latino Muslims enjoy these festivities, but also diverse members of the community who join them in the unifying celebration that is the culmination of the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness.
All the Latino Muslims who participated in this interview mentioned that the most significant aspect of Ramadan is the same across the board: to gain the maximum benefit from the intense self-reflection, fasting, constant prayer, spiritual cleansing, and dedication to the Qur’an. Cultural practices and celebrations are secondary to the religious aspect of Ramadan. However, the collective sentiment of those who converted to Islam is that they feel a sense of loss when they are celebrating Eid without their extended non-Muslim family. There is always, “something missing.”
Latino culture is hugely family-centered, and thus, holidays are often a time to reunite with relatives. Eva Martineau summed it up as this: “For converts, missing out on the family aspect of any celebration can leave us with a sense of sadness and longing.” Her suggestion, and that of other Latino Muslims is that, like NHIEC, ICCI, and MCC (in NY and Chicago), Islamic centers across the U.S. should host Ramadan and Eid events catering to not only Latino Muslims but converts in general. As individuals, fellow Muslims can also host those who may otherwise not have anyone to break the fast with, in their iftars and Eid celebrations. This will provide those newer Muslims with that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood they long for, and maybe in return, they can taste some of those yummy ethnic dishes.
Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Islamic Horizons Magazine May/June 2019 edition.
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