See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
February 4, 2010
“Wow.” Dalya stared at me, seemingly at a loss for words. I saw a turbulent concoction of emotions in her gaze: attraction, fear, and maybe a wish that I would turn around and walk away. “It’s been a long time,” she finally managed. “What are you doing here? Do you need dental care?”
“Can we speak privately?”
Her eyes traveled quickly up and down my body, taking in my worn jeans, surplus army boots, button-up shirt that came off the rack at Walmart, and last of all the fedora. She frowned, deepening the lines in her forehead, then she gazed around the lobby of her office as if she’d find the answer in the potted plants or the flat screen TV that was showing an animated movie.
“It’s important,” I said.
She flashed a practiced, artificial smile, displaying pearly white teeth. “Sure. Come to my office.” She led me down a corridor to a small office across from a treatment room. There was little in it aside from a lovely wooden desk, a computer and framed diplomas on the wall.
“So,” she said when we were seated. “Prison, huh? You were in there what, ten years?”
“What was that about? What happened to you, Zaid? You were one of the smartest kids in school. I thought you would, you know, be somebody.”
I gazed at her without expression. “I follow my own inner starlight, and I don’t bother to hide the madness. Allah watches over me, as he cares for all lunatics.” Paraphrasing Ginsberg there.
I enjoyed the look of consternation on her face, though later this entire conversation would probably bother me. “I am somebody, Dalya. I’m me, and I’m okay with who I am.”
“Yes, of course.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t mean anything, I just… they said you robbed banks. Is that true?”
“It was a long time ago.” Subjectively that was true, if not chronologically. In any case it was an easy answer.
“Yes, of course.” The fake smile again. “What can I do for you?”
I explained the situation.
“Wow,” Dalya said again when I was done. “My parents hired you? That’s unbelievable.”
“Yeah, right?” I knew she wasn’t trying to be unkind. She was baffled by everything that had happened to me, by the choices I’d made, as were many in the community. But I wasn’t here to explain my past or justify my present. “The thing is,” I went on, “I need to talk Tarek, but I can’t get ahold of him. Your father says he doesn’t have a phone.”
“Yes, they confiscated it for the duration. Standard practice.”
“Oh, you mean the people at, uhh…” I removed a small notebook from my pocket and pretended to study it. In reality I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Oasis Rehab in Palm Springs,” Dalya prompted. “It’s standard practice in drug rehab to remove the patient’s connections to the outside world.”
“Right,” I said, thinking, I should have known. “So he’s not working?”
She frowned. “Well, no. Like I said, he’s in rehab.”
“Uh-huh. And how long does Tarek have left in the program?”
“I have no idea. Didn’t my parents tell you?”
“They were less than forthcoming.”
She waved a hand. “They’re embarrassed. It’s supposed to be a big secret. They babied that boy, you know?” Bitterness crept into her voice. “Me and Mina had to study, work, behave ourselves, but Tarek could do anything and they’d say, ‘boys will be boys.’ And now look. His life is a disaster. You know, I still can’t get over the fact that they hired you. My mother detests you. Sorry.” She gave a nervous chuckle.
“Your father told me they wanted someone who cares.”
“And do you?”
“Yes, I do. I care about Anna… about Tarek. I even care about you, Dalya.”
“That’s generous of you, considering.” She pursed her lips. “I’m sorry I never wrote to you. None of us did.”
“No, it’s not. Mom forbade it. But I’m sorry. I heard you married Safaa Al-Yasiri.”
I smiled, thinking of my beautiful wife. “Yes. She’s a good woman. I’m crazy about her. We have a daughter, Hajar. And you? How’s your family?”
She glanced at her wedding ring, then looked away, blushing. “I’m divorced actually. No kids. I don’t know why I still wear this thing.” She twisted the ring back and forth on her finger.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Look at you, ma-sha-Allah. You have a successful business, you look amazing… Alhamdulillah, right? You still have your whole life ahead of you.”
She gave me a grateful smile. “Thanks. Uhh… I think Safaa made a good choice.”
There was a lot that wasn’t being said. When Safaa and I married, Dalya and her husband were invited to the wedding. Not only did they not attend, they didn’t have the courtesy to RSVP. More than that, the same community that had ostracized me had punished Safaa for marrying me. She wasn’t invited to parties, weddings or even Islamic halaqas. Dalya was a part of all of that. As a result, aside from Safaa’s relatives, most of her friends were non-Muslims.
Though Dalya and I had once been close, I felt nothing for her now. I didn’t hate her. I just wasn’t impressed by her success or the size of her diamond ring.
Safaa was worth a thousand Dalyas, a million even. I thanked Allah for making her my wife. I believed in my heart that she and I were written on the face of the sea and in the mist of the highest mountains. We were chosen for each other before we even thought to choose. There was no one for me but her.
I didn’t know what to say to Dalya’s comment, so I brought the subject back to the case. “I understand Angie has a sister? Do you know where she works?”
“No. I was never close with Angie or her family. We weren’t supposed to-” She looked away, embarrassed. “We weren’t supposed to be nice to her. Mom wouldn’t stand for it.”
There was little else to say. I stood, thanked Dalya for her help, and left.
* * *
Driving away, I shook my head in frustration. Dr. Ehab had lied to me. Tarek didn’t have any job in Palm Springs. He was in some ten thousand dollar a month resort rehab facility doing group therapy with junkie celebrities. I mean, good for Tarek. I was glad he was getting help. But I was disgusted at the Anwars’ unwillingness to tell the truth. Was it more important to the them to protect themselves from shame than to find their granddaughter? What else had they lied to me about?
It didn’t matter. I would do my job. When I stopped at a red light I took the photo of Anna from my pocket and gazed at it. She was not smiling, but there was a twinkle in her eyes, as if she were thinking of a joke she’d heard, or a secret she knew.
Angie was Anna’s mother and had a right to go where she wanted and do as she pleased. Dr. Ehab was right, however. There was no telling what a drug addict might do, or what danger Anna might be in. I’d promised to at least find Anna, and that was exactly what I would do.
Now that I knew how to find Angie’s sister, maybe she could provide useful information.
Taking out my phone, I googled Alejandra Rodriguez but found no listing in San Francisco. In the past I would have used LexisNexis, a private, subscription-based information service that provided complete reports on anyone in America. The last time my subscription had come up for renewal, however, I’d been too broke to afford it. I could have renewed it right then if I’d deposited some of this cash in my bank account, but I hadn’t had a chance to do that yet.
I tried a few other search engines, including Bing and even Yahoo – a desperate measure, that – and finally got a hit on an old news story about a doctor Alejandra Rodriguez who had spent a year in Kenya, working for Doctors Without Borders. The article mentioned that she was a neurosurgeon with the Sequoia Surgical Center. I looked that up and found an address in San Francisco’s expensive Pacific Heights neighborhood.
I drove west, leaving Merced behind. The weak afternoon sun broke through the clouds and shone palely on the almond orchards and tomato farms. The almond trees were in bloom, each tree bursting with hundreds of white blossoms. I’d read in the Bee that some farmers, unable to pay the rising costs of water, were abandoning their crops. If I came back here in a few months, I might find acres of unharvested almonds rotting on the ground.
I passed fields of dessicated grasslands grazed by sprawling herds of sheep. Lambs trailed after their mothers and gamboled about. In places the farmers had laid out lines of feed to supplement the dry grass. The Eastside Bypass was a wide, dry gulch, and the San Joaquin and Fresno Rivers were thoroughfares of parched sand. I had not seen water flowing in those channels since I was a teenager. It was – once again – a dry winter in California, and all living things were struggling to survive.
I thought of the last ayah of Surat al-Mulk: “Say, ‘Have you considered: if your water was to become sunken [into the earth], then who could bring you flowing water?’”
SubhanAllah. Here I was in the richest state of the richest nation on earth. Yet if Allah chose to withhold his blessing, who could speak a word in protest? The American government, with all its power, all its aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles, could not produce the water to irrigate one tomato plant. We were all dependent on Allah’s mercy in the end.
As a child of Palestinian immigrants, I had to believe the reverse was true as well. My people, the Palestinian nation and diaspora, were a defeated, oppressed and demonized tribe. Our nation was stolen, our very homes occupied by strangers. We were prisoners in our own land and refugees in the lands of others. But if Allah chose to help us, if He sided with us and marked our path to victory, then who could stand in our way?
I would pray Dhuhr and ‘Asr – the noon and afternoon prayers – by the side of the road, taking advantage of the Islamic dispensation for travelers, allowing them to combine prayers for convenience. I should arrive in San Francisco by sunset, Insha’Allah.
I missed my wife and child. I missed having a home to return to. I missed the presence of someone – anyone – in my life who genuinely cared about me. Someone I could talk to, someone I could love.
The desire to be with my family, to see them and hold them, expanded in my chest so hard and fast that I had to choke back a sob. I needed my wife: the clean scent of her black hair, her lean and dusky arms, her warmth, her ready laugh… It had been a long time since I’d heard her laugh, and a long time since I’d held her in my embrace.
Hajar too I needed. She was my darling, my sweetheart. Big, looping brown curls, and light brown eyes the color of the irrigated earth of my native Palestine, or so I imagined my homeland, since I’d never seen it and likely never would. Hajar liked to make up jokes and stories, could create her own dolls and doll furniture out of anything handy – from popped balloons to twigs from the yard – and loved to run toward me and throw herself at me like a roller derby queen. I needed the way she wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed so tightly I could hardly breathe. The way she’d lie on the floor, idly kicking her bedroom door so that the stopper bounced off the wall, no matter how many times I told her not to.
Her love, her stubbornness and even her tears – they were all precious to me.
I glanced at the clock: 2:30 pm. Safaa would be teaching the second grade class at Fresno Islamic Academy. Hajar was at preschool.
I took my cell phone out of my pocket, plugged in my ear piece and hit 2 to speed-dial Safaa. I knew she didn’t want to talk to me. Her instructions were to call only in case of emergencies. Anyway she’d be busy in class and her phone would probably be off. I just wanted to hear her voice on the voicemail, and leave her a message.
To my surprise, she answered after three rings. “What? Is something wrong?”
Her voice was a clear mountain spring. It was sweet to me, and pleasant. I smiled.
“As-salamu alaykum sweetie. There’s nothing wrong. I just miss you, that’s all. I have some good news. I’m on a job. I received-”
She cut me off with an exasperated sigh. “I’m in the middle of class. You can’t just call whenever you feel like it. And don’t call me sweetie. Phone one of your other women, why don’t you?”
“Honey, there are no- “ Dead air. She was gone.
I’ve known Safaa since we were little, when she saved me from a schoolyard bully. I was eight years old and my family had moved to Fresno from Santa Cruz two years previously. I was in third grade at Caulfield Elementary School. During recess period one day I was playing a ball game called three flies up. I kicked the ball but it went wild and struck a big, beefy sixth grader squarely in the back. The next thing I knew he was charging toward me, his face red with fury. He tackled me and began to pummel me, striking me in the face ruthlessly. I’d been practicing Kali for a year at that point, but this boy was twice my weight.
The next thing I knew the bully yelped and fell back as a dark-eyed little girl in a blue jacket, her long black hair tied in a ponytail, landed on his back with a shriek and sunk her fingers into his florid cheeks. She’d bought me a moment of respite. I leaped to my feet. As the bully turned to smash the girl into the ground, I kicked him squarely across the jaw, knocking him out cold. The girl and I ran away, she giggling madly, and me holding a hand to my nose, which was pouring blood. The girl, of course, was Safaa.
I was suspended for a week. I was utterly mortified that a girl – a first grader! – had saved me. Why did she have to interfere? I’d seen her around – for example at a Quran reading my family attended, a memorial service for one of the elders at the local Shiah mosque. The little girl was there with her family, and she kept smiling at me then looking away whenever I met her eyes. But I thought nothing of it at the time. Just some weird little kid.
The other boys teased me endlessly about being saved by a girl, even my best friends Aziz, Amiri, Tarek and Titus – the other four of the Five Musketeers, as we were called. I did my best to avoid the little girl after that, but it was difficult because anytime I played a school sport she was always there on the sidelines, watching me, embarrassing me with her presence.
When I reached middle school my family moved from California to Qatar. I’d already been bumped up a year, from 5th to 6th, as I was considered gifted. The private Islamic academy that I attended in Qatar kicked me up another year. So I effectively skipped two years of school and graduated high school a month before my sixteenth birthday. I had applied to several U.S. universities and received letters of admission to two Ivy League schools. My true desire was to study at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, but my parents were adamantly opposed. My father felt that the pursuit of Islamic studies at a university level was a waste of intellect. I think they also feared that without supervision I might run off to Bosnia to join the fight against the Serbs. They were right, I might have.
In the end, my parents – who remained in the Middle East themselves – pressured me to attend university back in Fresno. They had friends there who could watch over me, and of course I had friends there as well.
The next summer I attended a Muslim youth camp that was held in the mountains every year. I was invited as a counselor and given a cabin of boys to guide, ages nine to thirteen. Some were dedicated Muslims, while others knew nothing, not even the shahadah.
For one month I tried to teach my boys about Islam and prevent them from getting lost in the woods, getting hurt or missing home too badly. I woke them for Fajr and took them on morning hikes. One of the kids taught me “Mighty Mighty Muslims,” so we’d climb gray boulders the size of buildings, ford icy streams and march through the tall trees chanting, We are the Muslims / mighty mighty Muslims / Everywhere we go / people want to know / who we are / so we tell them / We are the Muslims – and repeat.
I named them the Salman Squad – after the sahabi Salman Al-Farisi – and taught them about Salman’s lifelong search for truth. During the day they attended prayers and classes. After sunset the entire camp attended a campfire. With the flames warming the night and sparks rushing up like laughter, the kids told jokes and stories and performed plays and skits.
One evening I was approached by a boy named Jihad. A ten year old with sturdy shoulders and curly black hair, he was captain of the cabin baseball team. He’d give the other kids pep talks, urging them to show that Salman Squad was the best. It made me laugh, how seriously he took it.
He confided that he was forced to work in his father’s liquor store every day after school. He was his father’s only son. He knew that alcohol was prohibited in Islam. He wanted to be a good Muslim. He’d been telling his father that he didn’t want to work in the store. But his father, who was diabetic, insisted that he could not manage alone.
Though Islam considered selling alcohol a sin, how could I advise a boy to abandon his struggling father? I told him I’d think about it.
Meanwhile, I was shut out by the other counselors, maybe not deliberately but the result was the same. They’d been attending the camp since they were kids. They formed a tight clique. I was a stranger. None of the other five musketeers – my old friends – had wanted to attend, and I knew no one there.
During classes, when the counselors had free time, they’d have group discussions, go for hikes, or drive to the nearby mountain town of Shaver Lake for burgers or pizza.
Alone with nothing to do, I’d sit with my back against a lightning-scarred oak tree at the camp’s high point, with a sweeping view down the mountain, and memorize Quran from a small, zippered mushaf with a green leather cover.
One afternoon I was surprised to see a teenage boy and girl climbing the hill toward me. I recognized the boy as Ishaq, one of the other counselors. We’d spoken a few times, but never about anything of substance. They greeted me, and sat on a fallen log. They looked nearly identical, and were obviously brother and sister.
The sister was slender, with rich brown skin and mesmerizing black eyes that were flecked with blue, like stars in the night sky. I’d never seen that before. I had to work to control my gaze. Her demeanor was reserved but warm, like a fireplace burning low, ready to blaze up if one added wood. Her hair was concealed beneath a blue hijab over a black skullcap. She had long fingers and the kind of grace that only a few young women have. She was very beautiful, and I found myself suddenly self-conscious about everything: my scraggly beard and skinny shoulders, even my beat-up sneakers.
The sister was also vaguely familiar. I tried to think of where I might have seen her. At some Islamic event maybe? I couldn’t pinpoint it.
The three of us spent the next hour talking. I was tongue-tied before this beauty, but she was articulate and interesting. I found myself blurting out my worry about Jihad’s situation (I didn’t mention him by name).
Ishaq said I should counsel the boy to refuse to work at the store. The sister disagreed, saying that it would create conflict in the family. She suggested that I speak to the boy’s father and advise him to look for another line of work. Maybe they could open a gas station or a restaurant.
I thought that was a smart suggestion. I thanked the two of them, and as they rose to leave, the sister said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Uhh… I was just trying to think of where we’ve met. Have I seen you at some Islamic event?”
She shook her head and grinned, then shaped her hands into claws and let out a sudden shriek that nearly made me fall over. I stared at her like she’d gone raving mad. She laughed and shook her head. “Caulfield Elementary,” she said. “Remember? I dragged that big bully off you. What did you do to make him so angry, anyway?”
My mouth fell open and my face turned beet red. This ravishing young woman was the same annoying kid who I’d found so embarrassing back then?
She grinned. “Anyway, my name is Safaa. We’ll see you around.” She and her brother walked off down the hill.
Oh, and as for Jihad? When Jihad’s parents came to pick him up, I spoke to the father discreetly. He was a short man with rough skin and a heavy accent.I told him of Jihad’s anxiety. He in turn accused me of being an extremist. He said that the people he sold the alcohol to were not Muslims, so it didn’t matter. Lastly, he snarled at me to stay out of his family’s business, and that he would not bring Jihad back to the camp.
He was right about that last point. Later that winter I heard from Ishaq that two men had gone into Jihad’s father’s store to rob it. Jihad’s father reached behind the counter for a weapon; the robbers shot him, then shot Jihad as well. The father survived; Jihad did not.
* * *
I think I started falling in love with Safaa even back then, though I didn’t recognize it until later. Between the two of us she was always smarter, and still is. A few years later, when I went to prison, almost everyone I knew cut me off. I received Eid cards from Aziz twice a year, and my father frequently sent me books. About a year after my incarceration I received a letter from Safaa out of the blue. She said she’d just returned from camp, and it made her think of me. She thought I must be lonely, and wondered if I needed a friend.
That letter was like a bluebird swooping out of a gray sky into my cell and singing a song just for me. I couldn’t stop smiling for days. Safaa and I began a correspondence, and by the time I came out of prison at age twenty five, I loved her like the sea loves the sky. And like a blessing on the wing, she felt the same. Three months after my release, we were married.
Now, five years later, I love her more than ever. There is a stretch of countryside north of Fresno, along 41 as you near the tabletop mesa, that turns bright with poppies every spring. As soon as the rains fall, the entire area becomes a bright sea of orange and yellow. You can’t look at those flowers without feeling hope rise in your chest. That’s how Safaa is to me.
The kindness that brought Safaa to me was one of the things that I loved about her, though it exasperated me at times. She never passed a homeless person without emptying her pocket change; she never held a grudge against a friend; and never tolerated cruelty in her presence. She taught me to talk about my problems rather than shut people out. She taught me that family never stayed angry with each other.
Why could she forgive everyone else, but not me? Why had the well of her kindness run dry? What could I do to reach past the thicket of thorns that surrounded her heart?
It’s said that we always hurt the people we love, and that such wounds are the hardest to forgive. Driving west beneath the gray winter sky of the Central Valley, leaving Dalya’s office and the city of Merced behind, I hoped that Safaa would disprove that aphorism by taking me back into her life and her arms.
I pulled up beside an almond grove and used the cool, clear water of the irrigation sump to perform wudu’ – ritual Islamic washing for prayer, where we wash everything from the hands to the face to the feet, letting the sins of the day be carried away with the water. Then I prayed Dhuhr and ‘Asr in the soil. I stood, bowed and prostrated on the dirt and leaves, feeling my connection to all living things under God.
When I was done I brushed the dirt and leaves from my forehead, put my hat back on, and found a large yellow farm dog sitting on its haunches several paces away, watching me with its head cocked, trying to decipher what manner of creature I might be, kneeling here in the dirt.
“As-salamu alaykum doggie,” I greeted it.
“Whoof!” Its single bark was loud but not unfriendly. It turned its head and looked at me sideways. As I drove away I looked in the rear view mirror to see the dog still sitting there like a sentinel, guarding its owners’ almonds.
The road was straight as a ruler, passing through mile after mile of farms growing corn, cotton, tomatoes, almonds and grapes. I took out my phone and called San Francisco directory assistance. The automated system gave me the number for the Sequoia Surgical Center.
I didn’t want to talk to Dr. Rodriguez on the phone or at her office. I wanted to meet in her home. People in offices maintained professional, reserved demeanors. They were on their guard. In their homes, however, people tended to relax. They were more open to sharing personal information. It was as if, just by virtue of being in their home, you were given the status of a friend.
Also, people’s residences could be revealing. Were they ordered or messy? Modern or old fashioned? What pictures did they have on the walls, what artwork, furniture, technology, pets, decor? Put these together and you could learn almost everything about a person.
I called the surgical center.
“Ma’am,” I said to the hospital operator when she answered, “This is Ben Bova with the SFFD.” I’ve found that posing as a fire department official creates a sense of urgency that fosters compliance and gets me through bureaucratic barriers quickly. “Put me through to Dr. Rodriguez’s personal secretary immediately please.”
I knew that many hospital doctors did not have personal secretaries, but considering this was a private surgical center, I was betting that Rodriguez did. As for Ben Bova, I chose that name at random from among the roster of science fiction authors whose work I enjoyed.
“Oh! Yes sir,” she replied. “Transferring you now.”
I’ve been told by some Muslims that my occupation is haram because it involves lying and spying, two activities that are forbidden in Islam. I’ve wrestled with the morality of this myself. Yes, my job requires a certain amount of deception. Whether I’m trying to find a missing person, catch an insurance fraudster, or even find out who committed a murder – and yes, I’ve done all the above – the job requires me to obtain information that people will not give out willingly. That’ s why law enforcement agencies everywhere consider deception to be an acceptable investigative technique.
I once spoke to a shaykh who told me that lying is not sinful in and of itself, but that it depends on the reason for the deception. For example, if a man’s wife says, “Do you think I’m attractive,” that man had better say yes, no matter what!
I reason that since my intention in telling a lie is to promote good and prevent evil, I’m okay.
Maybe this is all just rationalization. Maybe I’m a bad Muslim. I don’t know. What I do know is that when a child is missing and possibly in danger, if I have to tell a few harmless lies to find her, then I will. Allah knows my intention and my heart.
“Dr. Rodriguez’s office, Katherine speaking.” The secretary’s tone was clipped, making it clear that she had no time to waste.
“Hello Katherine.” I tried to sound authoritative and solemn at the same time. “I’m afraid there’s been a fire at Dr. Rodriguez’s residence. We managed to save the building, but the residence has been badly damaged by smoke and water.”
“Oh my gosh! That’s terrible. Did anyone die?” All trace of professionalism was gone from Katherine’s voice. She sounded more fascinated than horrified, in my opinion.
“No ma’am. Though the building manager – who apparently lives next door at 2525 Union – was taken to the hospital with chest pains.”
“Wait a minute. Did you say 2525 Union?”
“That’s not Dr. Rodriguez’s address. She doesn’t live on Union Street at all.”
“Ma’am, I’m calling all the residents of the building, and it clearly says here on my paperwork-” I rustled a newspaper on the passenger seat beside me – ”Dr. Rodriguez, 2500 Union Street, apartment 5C.”
“You must have the wrong Dr. Rodriguez. Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez lives at 1310 Jones Street.”
I rustled the paper again. “Dr. Alejandro Rodriguez is what I have. Chiropractor.” I drawled the “o” in Alejandro so she couldn’t miss it.
“Mr. Bova, you’ve made a mistake.” Katherine reverted to her clipped tone, with a measure of annoyance mixed in. “This is the office of Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez, not Alejandro. And she is a neurosurgeon, not a chiropractor. Check your facts more carefully next time.” She hung up.
A bit of social engineering there, as the hackers say. If it seems strange that a secretary would simply give away her boss’s home address, keep in mind that she believed me to be a person of authority, carrying out municipal business. She trusted me and therefore thought nothing of telling me whatever I needed to know. I looked up 1310 Jones on my phone, and found that it was an apartment building called the Crest Royal, right up on swanky Nob Hill.
A few hours later I was heading over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco when my phone rang. The timing was awful, since driving on the Bay Bridge scared me enough. It was windy up there, there were no shoulders, and some drivers sped by like their seats were on fire. A few minutes ago a red Porsche had come roaring through traffic, changing lanes faster than a pediatric nurse changes diapers.
I’m not a great driver anyway. I only drove for a few years before I went to prison, and when I was locked up I got used to life moving extremely slowly. Speed makes me jittery.
So I let the phone ring and heard it go to voicemail. As I descended from the bridge onto Ninth Street, however, it rang again. I shot a glance at the screen. It was my friend Saleem, the young Pakistan-American brother who ran the homeless shelter.
San Francisco driving – with all those one-way streets – is tricky, but Saleem was a good friend. He wasn’t one of the Five Musketeers – he was several years younger than the rest of us – but he and I just seemed to sync.
I greeted him with the salam and he started up right away, pitching yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes. I could see him in my mind, a short, chubby brother with a curly black beard like a Pakistani leprechaun, waving his hands animatedly in the air.
“Listen to this. Prison insurance! Have you heard of that?”
“You mean insuring prisons? Like, the buildings?”
“Naw, man. Insuring people against prison. If you go to prison, we pay the settlement to your family, so they can support themselves.”
I laughed. “You’ll have burglars and gangsters signing up.”
“No way. They’re high risk. No pre-existing convictions allowed.”
“That’s a problem. Ordinary citizens don’t see themselves going to prison. They wouldn’t want your product.”
“You’re missing the point, bro. I want to sell it to Muslims. You know every Muslim in America is terrified of ending up in Guantanamo. Tell me you haven’t imagined yourself kneeling on the floor, wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
I craned my neck, reading the street signs as I took Larkin Street through Civic Center Plaza, flanked by the massive stone edifices of City Hall on one side and the Asian Art Museum on the other. I was pretty sure this street would lead me right up to Nob Hill, but I didn’t know where to turn from there. I was familiar with the broad outlines of San Francisco’s geography, but actually getting around this city was like navigating a maze.
I’d made good time coming here, and the sun was just beginning to set. San Francisco was a city of working class immigrants side by side with wealthy entertainment and technology types, topped off with an endless stream of tourists from all over the world. Pedestrians bustled on the sidewalks, waited in line in front of restaurants, and passed by the invisible panhandlers that manned the corners like silent members of a jury, holding up the handwritten signs that pronounced sentence on us all.
This particular neighborhood seemed run down. I saw street people sitting in the doorways of shuttered buildings and calling out to each other on the sidewalks. In some places they clustered in groups where they talked, shouted and – presumably – bought drugs.
“You with me?” Saleem demanded.
“Yes. I don’t have to imagine being locked up and wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
“Your idea is like life insurance,” I observed, “except you’re covering people against life sentences. Anti-life insurance, you could call it.”
“Yeah man. The Guantanamo plan is the most expensive. If you can’t afford that, you could opt for the maximum security plan, or just start with the Club Fed. You wanna invest?”
“What makes you think I have any money to invest?”
“‘Cause I know you, bro. If you don’t have money now, you will soon. You’re sharp. You could have a mountain blocking your way and you’d chop right through it with one of your Kali moves. Kaboom! Then you’d moonwalk through the debris and tip your fedora. You’re the man. You’ll always come out on top, ma-sha-Allah.”
I smiled, then saw something that made my eyes open wide. I swerved into the right lane, eliciting loud honks from other cars, and parked in a loading zone. I hadn’t reached my destination yet, but I’d seen something unbelievable. “Thank you, akhi,” I said quickly. “I have to go. I’m on a job.”
“See! What did I tell you. Think about my idea. Prison insura-”
I hung up the phone and stepped out of the car. I didn’t mean to be rude with Saleem, but I was staring at something so unexpected that if my family tree had contained any history of mental illness, I’d have thought I was hallucinating.
An old stuffed chair sat in the middle of the sidewalk just past Geary. A young woman relaxed in it, looking bedraggled but utterly confident, as if she were the queen of Larkin Street holding court over her domain. Pedestrians flowed around her as she ignored them, unperturbed.
The young woman was my cousin Jamilah.
(Your comments and constructive criticism are a big part of why I publish here, so please do comment, thank you!)
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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