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.
Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
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