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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 5 – The Chair

There was no doubt. It was clearly Jamilah Al-Husayni. My cousin. I hadn’t seen her in three years, but I’d recognize that uncompromising, sharp-nosed visage anywhere.




Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

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

Previous chapters of this story: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4


February 4, 2010
San Francisco, California

There was no doubt. It was clearly Jamilah Al-Husayni. My cousin. I hadn’t seen her in three years, but I’d recognize that uncompromising, sharp-nosed visage anywhere. She looked tousled and weary, with a grease stain on one pants leg, and strands of hair sticking out wildly from beneath her hijab – something I’d never seen her wearing before. And that white splatter on one arm of the chair, was that pigeon poop?

And yet she seemed completely at ease. She crossed one leg over the other and sipped from a large cup of coffee, as if sitting in an armchair in the middle of a busy San Francisco sidewalk was the most natural thing in the word. Her free hand gripped the seat post of a durable looking mountain bike that leaned against the side of the chair. Pedestrians stepped around her, mostly ignoring her.

What on earth? Had Jamilah lost her job and become homeless? No, that was impossible. Her family would never abandon her like that, nor would mine. Jamilah’s father, Yahya Al-Husayni, had been my father’s older brother. I say “had been” because he passed away when Jamilah was just a kid. After that my father made it a point to support Jamilah’s family. She, her brother and mother often visited our home, and even came on holiday trips with us a few times. I had fond childhood memories of riding bikes with Jamilah and Nabeel, visiting the park, and playing rummy and backgammon. Jamilah was a fierce competitor in everything, and always took it badly when she lost, which used to give me a perverse sort of delight.

Jamilah and her brother Nabeel had also been – along with Safaa and Aziz – one of the few who wrote to me when I was in prison. I would always be grateful to her for that.

Jamilah’s mother Sabra had been hospitalized recently, but I’d been out of state on an insurance job and unable to visit. I’d spoken to her on the phone, though.

I studied her as I approached. It was hard to tell with the hijab, but there seemed to be a lean muscularity to her that she hadn’t possessed before, and an air of confidence that – despite her tired eyes – made her almost intimidating.

When I stopped beside her, she thrust out a palm in a “stop” motion without even turning her head to look at me.

“No,” she pronounced loudly.

“No what?”

“No I’m not a hooker or a terrorist, no I won’t buy your drugs, and no I won’t marry you.”

“Jamilah, it’s me, Zaid.”

She sipped her coffee, still not looking at me. “Zaid who? Are you a friend of Hassan’s?”

“Zaid Karim Al-Husayni, you nitwit! Your cousin. What on earth are you doing out here?” I knew she wouldn’t take the insult personally. She and I had always been affectionately abrasive with each other.

Her mouth dropped open. “SubhanAllah!” she exclaimed, looking straight at me for the first time. “Zaid! I don’t believe it. Look at you, rocking that bowler hat like a thirties gangster.”

This was another new thing. I didn’t remember her ever using Islamic expressions like “subhanAllah” before. Not that I minded. Just the opposite. It was good to see her practicing Islam more.

“It’s a fedora, not a bowler,” I said lamely, as if anyone besides myself really cared. “But what are you doing here?”

“What do you mean what am I doing here? I live here, remember? What are you doing here?”

“I’m on a case. I’m looking for a missing girl.”

“Wow, ma-sha-Allah. Good for you, cuz.” She gazed at me admiringly. No one had looked at me with pride in a long time, and I reveled in it.

“So… you live on the sidewalk in a lime-green chair?”

“No, dummy. I bought the chair this morning. I’ve been trying all day long to get it to my apartment. I only have three blocks to go.”

“You paid money for this ugly thing?”

“Yes. And I will get it home, no matter what.”

“You didn’t have to work today?”

“Called in sick. I woke up with an awful headache. After breakfast I popped a few pain pills and felt better, so I decided to go furniture shopping.”

Hmm. I wasn’t about to leave my cousin sitting out on the sidewalk in this grotty neighborhood with night approaching. I shook my head and laughed. It was always something with this girl.

“Come on then,” I said.

Working together, we loaded the chair into the trunk of my car, and I strapped the chair and trunk lid down with bungee cords.

“I don’t know what to do about your bike,” I pointed out. “It won’t fit.”

“No need to do anything. I’ll ride it. I live on Post at Leavenworth. It’s not far. Go up the hill to Post and turn right.”

“But where should I wait for you when I get there? There won’t be anyplace to park.” Parking anywhere in San Francisco required a minor miracle.

“Wait for me? I’ll be waiting for you, cuz.” Jamilah slipped a foot into one of her bike pedals, pushed off with the other foot, swung her leg over and took off. The bike swayed from side to side as she stood on the pedals, powering the bike up the hill, riding faster than I could have managed on flat ground.

Post Street at Leavenworth, San Francisco

Post Street at Leavenworth, San Francisco

Jamilah was indeed waiting on the sidewalk when I arrived. She’d locked her bike to a parking sign. I double parked, leaving my blinkers flashing and ignoring the indignant honking that immediately ensued from the cars behind me. She helped me unload the chair.

“I’ll help you take it up,” I volunteered. “What floor are you on?”

“No way. You can’t leave your car there. It’ll get towed in a San Francisco minute. That’s like ten seconds to the rest of the world. Thanks for your help, Zaid. I mean it.” She shook her head and chuckled. “You have no idea what a day it’s been.”

“You’ll have to tell me the story someday.”

She grinned. “You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”

I indicated the chair. “How will you get it upstairs?”

“The manager will help. He lives in the downstairs apartment. If not, my cousin Shamsi can help. She lives with me.” Shamsi was Jamilah’s cousin on her mother’s side, I recalled. No relation of mine.* I’d met her a few times at parties at Jamilah’s house when I was young.

The thought of leaving before the job was done made me feel guilty. I hesitated.

“Go on,” Jamilah insisted. “Find your missing girl. And Zaid?”


“I believe in you. I always have. I want you to know that.”

“Wha…” I was speechless and – just that quick – on the edge of tears. How many times had I needed to hear such words? How many times had I been emotionally starving for someone – anyone – to show just a little bit of faith in me? Jamilah’s words were more precious than diamonds and rubies. I didn’t feel a romantic attraction to Jamilah – it had never been like that with me and her – but I was deeply grateful to her in that moment.

“Hey,” I said finally. “Who’s this Hassan you thought I was friends with? Are you behaving yourself here in San Francisco?” I was only half kidding. I wasn’t accusing her of anything. We outcasts had to watch out for each other, after all – otherwise, who would?

“Oh, just someone I work with. Hassan Amir. He’s a messenger like me. Interesting guy.”

Hassan Amir. Like a fireplace poker stirring up sparks, that name stirred a memory in me. I’d heard of a brother named Hassan Amir when I was in prison. He was a legend in the federal prison system, a Muslim master warrior who singlehandedly took on the white supremacist gang called the Aryan Brotherhood. He tore them to shreds, leaving bodies in his wake.

Nah. It couldn’t be the same Hassan Amir. There were undoubtedly many men with that name.

A parking enforcer pulled up in a three-wheeled electric scooter and took out her ticket book. She was a short, heavyset African-American woman with a tension in her jaw that brooked no argument. As soon as she put pen to paper, I knew, there would be no going back. She would write the ticket even if I leaped into the car, pulled up the wheels and disappeared through a wormhole like the Delorean in Back to the Future.

“Go!” Jamilah exclaimed.

“I’m leaving!” I called to the meter maid. She gave me a baleful look as I ran to my car, hopped in and sped off.


Bouquet of tulips

“I bought a colorful bouquet of tulips in a lovely glass vase…”

I made a quick stop at a flower shop on Hyde Street, where I bought a colorful bouquet of tulips in a lovely glass vase. It cost me $60. I then drove to the Grace Cathedral garage and parked on the third level. The garage rate was $3 per 15 minutes, with a maximum of $33 per 24 hours. I could afford it now that I had a paying client. I would tack all these costs onto my expense report.

In the trunk of my car I kept a cardboard box full of neatly pressed t-shirts. They were company shirts with the logos of different businesses: air conditioning/heating, electrical, delivery service, plumbing, Indian restaurant, etcetera. I’d purchased them all at thrift stores. I selected a green t-shirt with a yellow logo that read, “River View Flowers,” and put it on. I wasn’t sure if there were any rivers in San Francisco, but it would do. I took the bouquet of flowers, grabbed a clipboard that I kept in the car as well, and set off on foot.

The Crest Royal was a twelve story apartment building at the corner of Jones and Clay. Rents here probably started at four thousand dollars per month for a one bedroom, and went up from there.

There was a doorman, of course. Buildings in neighborhoods like this always had doormen. The rotund middle-aged white man had pudgy hands like water balloons and a nose that had been broken at least once. He wore a black suit with a double-breasted jacket featuring big brass buttons, along with a black cap with yellow braiding above the bill.

“I have a flower delivery,” I announced. “For a-” I studied the clipboard which in reality held an old telephone bill. “Alejandra Rodriguez.” I mispronounced the “j”, making it hard like in “jam.”

With a grunt, the doorman waved me in. I surveyed the wall of mailboxes in the lobby, each with its own little nameplate, and saw that Dr. Rodriguez was in apartment 1120. She must have quite a view.

As I entered an old-fashioned elevator with a metal gate that had to be manually opened and shut, the doorman called for me to wait. Uh-oh, I thought. But no, he simply wanted me to hold the elevator for an elderly woman in a white felt coat. She wheeled a suitcase into the elevator and pressed the button for the eighth floor.

“Thank you, young man,” she said. “What lovely flowers.”

‘I believe they’re for you, ma’am.” I handed her the bouquet. “From an anonymous admirer.”

Her face lit up like I’d just told her today was a second Christmas. “My goodness! I can’t imagine. But if these are for me, why are you going to the eleventh floor?”

“Oh.” I hadn’t thought of that. “I have a second delivery,” I extemporized. “A singing telegram.”

“Why, you must be so talented! You remind me of my grandson Sigmund. He plays tuba in his high school band, though he’s not very good. He was supposed to play a solo after an 84 bar rest. When it came time to play the solo, he stood there. When the conductor asked him later why he hadn’t come in, he said he hadn’t realized the 84 bars were over. The conductor told him he should have counted. And do you know what my grandson said?”

“No, what?”

“That wouldn’t be much of a rest!” At this the old woman cackled so vigorously that I saw her false teeth. The elevator stopped and she wheeled her bag out, calling back, “Good luck with the singing!”

Once she was gone I took off the flower delivery shirt and turned it inside out, since I no longer needed to play the part. At Dr. Rodriguez’s door I rang the buzzer twice before a woman spoke from the other side of the door. “What do you want?”

“I’m a private detective. I need to talk to you about your sister Angie.”

“Show me some ID.”

I took out my driver’s license and P.I. badge and held them up to the peephole.

“What about my sister?” the woman demanded through the door.

“She’s missing. I’ve been hired by Tarek Anwar’s parents to find her. Can we please talk face to face?”

I heard the locks disengage. The door swung open about a foot. “I don’t know where Angie is,” Rodriguez said through the gap.

“Dr. Rodriguez, could I please come inside and talk to you? Technically it’s not Angie I was hired to find, but Anna. The Anwars are worried about their grandchild. She’s your niece. I think you should be worried too.”

“Say what you have to say.” She opened the door all the way but still did not invite me in. I saw that she was a diminutive Afro-Latina – which didn’t surprise me since her sister Angie was the same –  with dark brown skin, straight black hair that she wore very short, and large, gold-flecked brown eyes. She wore a neatly pressed pair of tennis shorts and a white tennis shirt, as if she were a model in a sports store window. In spite of her small size, she somehow managed to look down her nose at me.

“Your shirt is inside out,” she pointed out.

I looked at the seams on my shoulders as if surprised. “Oh yeah,” I chuckled. “I can be absent minded.”

“Not a good quality in a detective.”

“Yeah, right? Listen, can I get a glass of water? Climbing these San Francisco hills is a workout for a flatlander like me.” In my experience, most people will not turn down a request for water. Offering water to a visitor – friend or stranger – is ingrained in us as the minimum gesture of human hospitality, a sort of universally recognized obligation.

Dr. Rodriguez nodded curtly. “Fine. Come in.” She led me into the living room and left me there.

As she went for the water, I used the opportunity to survey the room. Like the doctor herself, the apartment was tastefully decorated and immaculately clean. She liked white. White shag carpet, white sofas, Renaissance-style wooden chairs with white cushions, a white marble coffee table and a white flower vase on a glass table, containing fresh cut irises. A slender white bookshelf stood in a niche on the back wall.

Someone so obsessed with white, I speculated, was either in love with purity as a concept, or was covering up a sinful past. Dime store psychology, there. Move over, Lucy from the Peanuts. The doctor is in.

I was right about the view. A large picture window looked out over the city as it sprawled to the west. The sun was setting, and from this vantage I could see the twinkling lights of Pacific Heights, the Panhandle, the Richmond, and in the far distance the dark expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Incredible. What a city, perched on these hills like a queen on her throne, shining with elegance and exoticism from sea to bay.

But I wasn’t here for the view. I turned my attention back to the room itself. An assortment of framed family photos stood on a mantelpiece of white wood. I examined them. I recognized Dr. Rodriguez at a variety of ages. In many of the photos she stood with a slightly younger woman who looked strikingly similar. It was Angie, looking far more wholesome and healthy than the Angie I knew.

In one photo, Alejandra and Angie posed with an older couple who were clearly their parents. There was a younger man in the picture as well, a Hispanic fellow with a shaved head and jail tats on his hands and arms. He had an arm draped casually around Angie’s shoulders. Did I know him? There was something familiar about him. Something in the eyes.

There was something different about Angie as well. I bent close, studying her face and body. Yes. The Angie I knew was lean and wiry, but in the photo she was slightly chubby, with full cheeks and breasts, and wide hips. Of course she was young in this photo, still carrying the baby fat that some teenaged girls had.

Dr. Rodriguez returned with two glasses of water.

“That was the last time we were all together,” she said, indicated the family photo. “Our dad died the next year.”

I sipped the water and pointed to the thug in the photo. “Who’s this?”

Dr. Rodriguez made a sour face. “Miko. He was Angie’s boyfriend.”

“You don’t like him?”

“I didn’t like him, past tense. He was a leech.” Dr. Rodriguez set her own glass of water down on the marble coffee table. “So,” she said. “You have information about my sister?”

“The Anwars say she disappeared suddenly. Took all her things. Do you know where she might be?”

“Why don’t you ask her good-for-nothing boyfriend?” Her tone was flat.

“He’s in rehab. I’m pretty sure Angie’s not with him.”

“Rehab.” Dr. Rodriguez spat the word like a curse. “He should have done that before he met my sister and ruined her life.”

“So you don’t know where Angie is?”

“I don’t know where she is now.”

I didn’t fail to notice the “now” she tacked on at the end. Sometimes when you hit a sticking point while interviewing a subject, it’s best to move on and come back to the point later. I strode to the bookshelf and perused the volumes there. There were medical journals, vegetarian cookbooks, collections of poetry by Neruda and Rumi, and a few novels.

On My Way to Paradise

“It had a strange cover…”

The title of a novel caught my eye: “On My Way to Paradise.” I slid it out and showed it to Alejandra Rodriguez. It had a strange cover that featured a pair of aliens – or maybe men in armor – flying a craft across the surface of a planet. “This sounds good right about now,” I said with a smile. “I could use a little trip to Paradise.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I bought that book because I read on the cover that the character was from Panama. Turned out to be a weird sci fi war story. Too violent. Take it. Maybe you’ll like it.”

“Thank you. Why did the mention of Panama interest you?

“Because that’s where we’re from. We grew up in Colon, on the Caribbean side, but we left there when we were kids.”

“Do you miss it?”

She shrugged. “Colon was crowded, dirty, unsafe. I do miss the beach, the warm water, the sun. This city-” she waved a hand to indicate the gray February sky outside the windows -”I can feel the cold settling in my heart sometimes.”

I nodded and let a moment of silence pass. I felt that Dr. Rodriguez wanted to tell me more, but something was holding her back. I just needed to keep her talking until she made up her mind. “I used to know someone from Panama,” I said truthfully. “He was from Colon as well. He used to talk about the rain, the way it would come down so heavily that you couldn’t see five feet in front of you. You couldn’t even talk, he said, because the rain and thunder were so loud.”

I was talking about brother Yusuf Cruz, who I met in prison. He had already converted to Islam when I met him, in order – he said – to escape from the damnation he’d brought upon himself by participating in the idol worship and rituals of a religion called Santería. Before he became Muslim he was a drug kingpin, importing cocaine from South America and wholesaling it to middlemen up and down the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.

He once told me how, after his initial arrest (and release on bail), he’d paid a santera or priestess to perform a protection ritual to keep him from going to prison. With his wife watching, he sat naked in the outdoor jacuzzi at his palatial Miami home, a thunderstorm splitting the darkness and pouring sheets from the sky, as the santera killed a chicken and spilled the blood over Yusuf’s head and shoulders. The santera drank rum from the bottle and spat it in his face, calling out incantations in Lucumí, all while a tall, skeletal Dominican pounded on a conga drum and a teenage girl in a pink bikini danced herself into a trance until she fell to the wooden deck writhing. Lightning lit up the sky above them all, and thunder pealed like an admonition from Heaven.

The ritual failed. Yusuf was given a twenty year sentence.

Yusuf would tell this tale and laugh, then shake his head and say, “Jahiliyyah, no? We were fortunate Allah did not strike us dead with the lightning. But don’t worry, my appeal will free me, Insha’Allah!”

After becoming Muslim, Yusuf resolved to give up crime. His dream was to return to Panama and open a chain of internet cafes. He and I used to lift weights together and talk about Islam, and he taught me some Spanish as well.

“Yes,” Dr. Rodriguez said, snapping me out of my reverie. “That is what it was like. Rain every day, and everything emerald green wherever you looked.” Her eyes were distant.

As we talked I had been scanning the living room systematically. My eye caught on something barely sticking out through the sofa cushions. I strode to the sofa and pulled the object out, then held it up to Dr. Rodriguez. It was a tiny doll, the kind with a plastic dress that clipped on and off. My daughter Hajar owned several of them. They were called Magic-Clip dolls.

Dr. Rodriguez stared at the doll for a second, then turned away and sat heavily on the sofa. I pulled up a chair and sat facing her.

“They were here,” she admitted. When she said nothing further, I prompted her.


She looked at me and I saw indecision and guilt play across her features. “Do you promise you are only trying to help Anna? Swear it.”

“I promise,” I said. “I give you my word.”

She tapped her foot and nodded her head. She began to speak slowly at first, then faster. The faster she spoke, the stronger her Spanish accent grew. “Four days ago. Angie was acting crazy. She had a backpack full of money. I counted it. Forty five thousand dollars. She wanted me to take Anna. She wanted to leave Anna with me, do you understand? I asked her where she would go, what she would do, she wouldn’t tell me. Where was the money from? She wouldn’t say. She was high as a kite. Track marks on her arms. She hardly seemed aware that Anna was there. I don’t know what to think, Mister – Karim, did you say?”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I’m afraid she stole the money. I’m afraid for my niece.”

“What about the child? How did Anna look?”

Rodriguez looked away. “Not good. She was hungry as a wolf. Ate half the food in my fridge. Also, her face was badly bruised. And there were abrasions here…” Rodriguez trailed off as she stroked her wrist. “Like she had been tied,” she finished weakly.

I pursed my lips, feeling anger boil inside me, but trying not to show it. “I see. Do you think Angie did that?”

“No, no, she wouldn’t do that. Angie said they stayed with a friend for a few nights and he became abusive. I think it might have been her dealer.”

“You said Angie asked you to take Anna. So where is she?”

“I can’t take care of a child,” she snapped. “I work sixteen hours a day. In two weeks I’m leaving for Kenya with Medecin Sans Frontieres. There’s simply no way. When I saw the condition Anna was in, I called Child Protective Services. Angie overheard me and ran away before the social worker arrived.”

Unbelievable, I thought. “You would have seen Anna in foster care before taking her yourself?”

“Why not?” Her upper lip curled in resentment and anger. “It was good enough for me. Mom put me in foster care for four years, starting when I was twelve. Said she couldn’t handle me. She kept Angie, though. I was the good girl. I studied hard, stayed out of trouble. Angie was the one hanging out with gangsters. But mom always loved her more.”

She made a classically Latin American dismissive gesture, flicking her fingers over her chest as if to wipe away dirt. I’d seen Mexicans in prison do the same thing many times.

“Anyway,” she added, “I’m a mandated reporter. I had to call CPS.”

“Where would Angie go?” I asked. “Would she go to your mom?”

Dr. Rodriguez shook her head. “She died in a car accident a few years ago. Even if she’d been alive, Angie would not have gone to her. Mom stole Miko from her. He was with Mom in the car. He’s dead too.”

I opened my mouth then shut it, not sure what to say. Just when I thought I’d heard it all. This family was messed up. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said finally. “So where would Angie go?”

She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. We have some family in Panama, but…” She shrugged again.

“What family do you have there?”

“Our father’s father is alive. Abuelo Lenin Rodriguez. He was a great trumpet player. Me and Angie would sit on the porch and he’d play for us. We have an uncle, Tio Trotski. He’s my father’s older brother. Also some cousins. We don’t stay in touch.”

I filed all of this information away. I don’t take notes when I interview subjects. I’ve found that it takes my focus away from the subject’s body language and detracts from my environmental awareness. Also, people tend to choose their words more carefully when they see you writing things down, and I don’t want that. So I’ve trained myself to remember whatever information I’m given. It’s mostly a matter of taking a moment to contemplate the information. Sometimes I also use mnemonic devices, like assigning a picture to match a name.

“You said earlier that Tarek ruined Angie’s life. Are you sure it wasn’t the other way around?”

Rodriguez’s expression grew angry. “I’ll tell you something Mr. Karim, my sister was always a traviesa, but she never used drugs until she met that boy. Angie was a third year student at USC when she met that loser. She was a scholarship student, a Freeman award winner. She spent a semester in Cambodia. All that went down the tubes. Tarek got her hooked on heroin. He dragged her into that whole miserable lifestyle. Whatever trouble she’s in now is because of him. I curse him. I hope he meets a miserable end.”

That was a very different picture than the Anwars had painted. Farah Anwar had insisted that was Angie who had corrupted Tarek. Of course Farah also insisted that I corrupted Tarek, so I was inclined to believe Alejandra Rodriguez’s version.

“Where did the money come from, Dr. Rodriguez? The forty five thousand.”

She pushed her palms toward me and shook her head. “I have no idea. That’s nothing to do with me.”

I stood to leave. “Thank you for your time. If you think of anything else, please call me.”

Alejandra Rodriguez stood and walked to the window. She turned her back on me and looked out over the city. Realizing that she did not intend to show me out, I headed for the door, but something occurred to me and I stopped.

“Dr. Rodriguez, you said Angie spent a semester in Cambodia. So she has a valid passport?”

Still with her back to me, Dr. Rodriguez shrugged. “She did back then.”

I opened the door.

“Mr. Karim,” Alejandra Rodriguez called out.

I turned and looked across the length of the room to where she stood, still facing away from me. The sun had gone down outside, and the evening sky was the color of a fresh bruise. Inside the apartment, a floor lamp in one corner cast some illumination, but the spot where Alejandra stood was shadowed, so that I could see only her silhouette against the window. It was as if she had become unreal, a shadow of herself, without substance.

“I want you to find Anna,” Alejandra said. “I know I’m a terrible aunt, okay? I know Anna deserves better. But I can only give what I can give.”

I let myself out. Alejandra Rodriguez did not turn to watch me go.

* * *

I walked back to the car, carrying the book Rodriguez had given me. On My Way to Paradise. Could I take that as a sign? As I walked I turned in a full circle every ten steps to survey my environment in 360 degrees, not breaking stride as I did so. This was a prison habit I’d never been able to shake.

I was dismayed at how everyone had failed this child. Her mother and father were junkies, and her aunt – the only responsible adult in the family – considered her career more important than helping her abused niece. The aunt’s hypocrisy and callousness made my blood boil.

So Anna was possibly being abused, and getting dragged around by a drug addict mother. Where on earth could Angie have gotten her hands on forty five thousand dollars? What or who was she running from? Was it drug money she’d stolen from her dealer?

Sitting in my car back at the Grace Cathedral parking garage, I took out my phone and called Safaa. It was just about Hajar’s bedtime, and I always liked to call and wish her goodnight. Safaa would expect my call though she wouldn’t talk to me herself. She’d answer and pass the phone to Hajar.

Sure enough, after three rings Hajar’s sweet voice came on the line. Her tone was artificially deep as she pretended to be someone else.

“Hi,” she said. “This is the President. I want to hire you for a detective job.” She tried to suppress a giggle but it squeaked out.

I smiled and played along. “Wonderful, Mr. President! I’m not sure why you’re at this number though. I was calling my daughter.”

“Yes, I was visiting your daughter because she is the bestest kid.”

“Oh, great. Could you put her on?”

“Hi Baba!” In her normal voice now. “I want a real live dinosaur for my birthday.”

“Oh, I would do that for you but the dinosaurs are all gone.”

“But why? Where did they go?”

I explained, in the simplest language I could, how the dinosaurs became extinct as a result of a meteor impact.

There was a pause, then Hajar began to cry. Oh, great going, I berated myself. You get to talk to your daughter once a day, and you made her cry.

“I’m sorry sweetie,” I said. “It’s sad when something amazing disappears from the world, right?” I thought of true love, my own personal dinosaur, struggling on the verge of extinction.

“Uh-huh,” she managed through her sobs.

“But even if the dinosaurs are gone,” I told her, “we can still remember them and draw pictures and play with dino toys. We can keep them alive in our imaginations. So in a way they are still here.”

Hajar sniffed. “Maybe,” she said hopefully, “the dinosaurs will come back one day and this time that thing will not bump the world and the dinosaurs will not died again.”

I smiled. “Insha’Allah.” In Jannah, I thought, where all things are possible. Or in some parallel universe. “Are you ready for bed?”

“Yes, Baba.”

“Okay. Say your goodnight dua’.”

“Bismik Allahumma amootu wa ahya. Allahumma qinaa athaabaka yawma tub’athu ‘ibaadak. In your name oh Allah, I die and I live. O Allah, have mercy on us on the day when you raise up your servants.”

It had taken her only a week to learn this dua’. Young children have such amazing brains.

“Goodnight sweetie. I love you forever and always. You’re my number one kiddo.”

“I love you forever and always Baba.”

I ended the call and wiped a tear from my eye. Being separated from my child made my chest ache and my throat tighten. It was an ailment no medicine could treat. Safaa, Safaa, why couldn’t you trust me? Why couldn’t you love me as you promised to do?

* * *

I looked up the number for Oasis Rehab in Palm Springs. I didn’t find anything with that exact name, but I found a Palm Springs Oasis Recovery Home, and called them.

“Palm Springs Oasis Recovery, how may I direct your call?” The woman had an Asian accent and a soft, feminine voice.

“This is Zaid Anwar,” I lied. “I need to speak to my brother Tarek Anwar.”

“Just a moment sir.” I heard keyboard keys clacking. “Sir, you are not on the approved contact list.”

“I know. But we have a family emergency. “Our father is seriously ill, and our mother is keeping vigil by his bedside. It’s vital that I speak to my brother.”

“I see. One moment.” I listened to jazzy muzak as I waited on hold. A moment later the operator returned. “I’m sorry, sir. Mr. Anwar checked out without authorization four days ago.”

“But he hasn’t returned home. Did he leave a forwarding address?”

“No sir, he did not.”

I thanked the lady and hung up. Presumably Dr. Ehab had been paying the bill for his son’s stay. Surely he would have been notified that Tarek had bailed. Yet he’d lied to my face with that story about having a job in Palm Springs.

Did Tarek’s escape from rehab have anything to do with Angie’s disappearance? I wouldn’t know until I found him and talked to him.


Interstate 5 and the California Aqueduct

Interstate 5 and the California Aqueduct

I took 580 east to Interstate 5 south where I stopped at a rest area, made wudu’ and prayed Maghreb and Isha, shivering as the water on my skin evaporated in the cool night air. In spite of the cold I enjoyed the feeling of praying on green grass. I remembered the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that every spot on which a man or woman prayed would testify for that person on the Day of Resurrection. Had anyone ever prayed on this exact spot before, in all the history of humankind? Would I find myself panicking on that Day, struggling to justify my life, and would I be saved by this little patch of earth speaking up and saying, “He prayed on me. He prayed, and he was sincere.”

I resumed my drive south, cruising along the edge of the foothills, sensing if not quite seeing the sweep of agricultural land down and away to the east. The lights of distant towns twinkled like embers. The California Aqueduct paralleled the highway, the water glimmering like a sequined black ribbon in the darkness.

What a thing it was to be free. To be able to travel the world unobstructed, seeing the beauty all around me, reveling in the knowledge that I was not a slave to any human being, and that my destiny – insofar as the Almighty allowed – was in my own hands.

At one point I glanced in the rear view mirror and found two California Highway Patrol vehicles following me, one behind the other. My feeling of freedom and well-being evaporated in an instant. My breathing quickened and my jaw tightened as I was overtaken by nervousness bordering on panic. I’d been out of prison for years, yet every time I saw a cop car I was convinced this was it, they were coming to drag me back to my cell. Why? Who knew? Maybe they realized they’d made a mistake. Maybe someone set me up for something. Maybe the government would trump up a terrorism charge against me.

I knew it wasn’t rational, but I couldn’t help it. I felt like prison was a huge, ferocious lion that I had barely escaped from. I’d been in the beast’s mouth, its teeth about to crush my bones, claws piercing my skin and muscles, my life blood spilling out, yet somehow I’d gotten free. But the lion would not forget. It would pursue me, and one day it would seize me and consume my flesh and soul as it had always meant to do. It was only a matter of time.

That was why I trained in martial arts daily, why I practiced my stick and knife techniques obsessively, why I went to the gym and lifted weights as often as I could. I had to be ready so I could survive when the lion dragged me back to its den.

The police cars moved into the left lane and sped up, passing me. I let out a sigh of relief and rolled my shoulders, working out the tension.

* * *

It was almost eleven when I arrived in Fresno. My next stop was a place I really didn’t want to go: Masjid Al-Haramain, commonly known as the Butler Avenue mosque. If I wanted to find Tarek, however, then I had no choice, as that was the masjid he frequented when he wasn’t drunk or high. Also, it was possible he was sleeping there. The Butler Avenue mosque was located in south Fresno, on the far side of downtown, amid the projects and homeless shelters. Many of the brothers who attended there were poor, and some were in fact homeless. A few were freshly paroled from prison.

The homeless brothers were ahl-us-suffa. They lived in the masjid, slept in the backroom, and survived on food donations. There was always a good sized coterie of residents there – at least a dozen. It was the place for Fresno Muslims to go when there was nowhere else to go. It was also the center of a vibrant Muslim community in its own right.

I did not mind the neighborhood, and I had friends among the ahl-us-suffa. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was Imam Abdus-Samad.

I had a secret that I kept chained inside a dungeon in my heart. It was a secret I had not shared even with my wife. I never spoke of it, not even to myself. Only one other person knew the secret – that person being Imam Abdus-Samad.


*** Footnote: Discerning readers may have noted that in Ouroboros, Jamilah’s cousin Shamsiyyah also had the last name Al-Husayni, while here she is referred to as Jamilah’s cousin on her mother’s side. This is a change I recently made. I’ll go back to the previous stories and give Shamsi a different last name, Insha’Allah.

Next: Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 6 – The Secret

(Your comments and constructive criticism are a big part of why I publish here, so please do comment, thank you!)

Wael Abdelgawad's latest novel is Pieces of a Dream. It is available for purchase on Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including and, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.



  1. Avatar


    March 8, 2017 at 1:27 AM

    I do like the Jamilah guest appearance! Makes me want to read the Ouroboros series again.

    Also I found it uncanny that last week the story mentioned pizza at Shaver Lake and that was what I had done precisely the weekend before you released it. It’s really cool to have visual images of the scenes you describe and I also like that you add the photos for the readers who are unfamiliar with the locations.

    Keep it coming InshaAllah!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      March 8, 2017 at 1:33 AM

      You’re kidding, you’re from this area? How cool.

  2. Avatar


    March 8, 2017 at 4:01 AM

    As-salamu Alaykum,

    Location is an important element to any story. I once lived in the Bay Area and enjoy seeing places I am familiar with described in accurate detail. If you eventually publish these books, I would suggest emphasizing the SF angle in your marketing efforts, which may even catch the interest of independent bookstores.

    In case you have not heard, there is currently an “open call” for Muslim writers taking place amongst mainstream literary agents who are inviting Muslim writers to send in their work. I have listed guidelines for many of these agents on my website for Muslim writers, which I have linked to above.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      March 8, 2017 at 10:34 AM

      Thank you so much Amel. What I’ve seen in the past is that non-Muslim publishers are mostly interested in publishing Muslim novels that are critical of Islam, or that feature non-practicing Muslims engaging in illicit behaviors, or that display Muslims try to “break free” of the strictures of Islamic mores and culture.

      Do you feel this has changed?

      • Avatar


        March 9, 2017 at 3:31 AM

        You are not wrong to be cynical regarding mainstream publishers and their possible agendas. Historically, it has been very difficult for authentic Muslim voices to break in with stories showing the truth and beauty of Islamic values – and this problem is magnified by the fact that Islamic publishers themselves (with only a few exceptions) have been slow to support the genre of Islamic fiction for teens and adults. This has left writers of Islamic fiction with very limited options, leading many to turn to self-publishing.

        Despite these very valid issues, I am feeling optimistic regarding the open call for Muslim writers I mentioned in my previous message. Many of the agents participating in this initiative have specifically stated their desire to see diversity and “own voices” submissions, and there have been other positive signs, such as big publishers like Simon & Schuster creating “Salaam Reads,” an imprint that focusses on representing Muslims in fiction for children and teens.

        On our part, we have to be cautious and make sure that we do not “whitewash” our work in order to gain acceptance with mainstream publishers…and I also do not think it is necessary to publish with big-name publishers in order for our work to gain legitimacy. There are, however, undeniable benefits to mainstream publishing, which include wider distribution and increased representation of Muslims in literature, which may lead, Insha’Allah, to more awareness of Islam and a greater understanding of Muslim culture in general.

        In the end, only time will tell what this initiative actually yields – but I am hoping to see talented writers of Islamic fiction test the waters with their submissions. Insha’Allah, those who make it through the process will also report back with their experiences.

        Interestingly, Islamic fiction seems to be thriving in Arabic, with many publishing houses producing very creative work over the past couple of years.

        My apologies for the long comment.

  3. Avatar

    Ifrah Kaleem

    March 8, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Wow loved this episode too! The body language of Dr Rodriguez, the twist in the plot, the sweet conversation with Hajar (I have a dinosaur loving, almost 3 year old too, and her name’s Safa :) ), I loved it all. The “cold settling in her heart” expression was a real nice touch. Zaid’s tension was so palpable, I felt I could actually taste it.

    • Avatar

      Ifrah Kaleem

      March 8, 2017 at 10:29 AM

      And, of course, Jamilah’s story was especially heart warming.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        March 8, 2017 at 11:57 AM

        Jamilah’s story is a story in itself, titled, “The Chair.” I’ve written the first few chapters and will complete it later Insha’Allah.

  4. Avatar

    Umm ismael

    March 9, 2017 at 1:50 PM

    Asslam u alaikum
    allahumma uyyudka bi rooh il qudus
    glued to my seat literally
    had left reading fiction a long time back and this was a welcome change

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      March 9, 2017 at 5:35 PM

      Umm Ismael, I’m glad to hear you are enjoying it! I was starting to wonder, as I’m not receiving as much feedback on this story as one some of my previous ones. I think readers are still trying to figure out who this Zaid Karim character is.

  5. Avatar


    March 9, 2017 at 4:04 PM

    A couple of comments. I enjoyed Jamilah’s side plot, although I found it to be a bit of a tangent. I don’t see how it added much to the story other than a bit of character depth. I curious to know if there was a reason of including her, or was it just a tangent or perhaps an introduction to her next story?

    Another part I found surprising and slightly realistic was the change of tone of Dr Rodriguez. At first she was very closed off and curt. She would give few word answers and was reluctant to let him in. However the minute he stepped in and got that glass of water she became a fountain of information. Maybe she took a minute to think it through or that photo triggered memories that unraveled everything but it does leave a question mark as to why she suddenly decided to become forthcoming.

    Other than that, it was a fantastic read, your character interactions are really thought out, Zaid’s quick thinking is always great to see and the story is developing greatly.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      March 9, 2017 at 5:38 PM

      Wonderful comments brother Omer, thank you. You’re absolutely right, there was no vital reason to include the scene with Jamilah. I merely thought it would be fun, and as you said, it’s an intro to Jamilah’s own future story. I also felt that Zaid needed to see and hear from someone who believed in him.

      When Zaid found the toy in Dr. Rodriguez’s apartment, she realized the jig was up and she came clean. But maybe I could do a better job of smoothing that transition.

  6. Avatar


    March 10, 2017 at 1:39 AM

    I knew you would feel/say this – “I’m not receiving as much feedback on this story as one some of my previous ones.” and believe me I’ve been thinking the same too. I think that’s because Hassan’s story starting gaining popularity with the plot and the interesting character that he was. Zaid Karim is no less smart and interesting but frankly, the charm that Hassan’s character had is hard to match :) Nevertheless, each story and episode is interesting on its own. I’m a regular reader on MM but don’t comment much, but now it is important to let you know that this story is truly heart warming and engrossing too. (A part of me is afraid you’ll stop publishing or else, LOL)

  7. Avatar


    March 10, 2017 at 1:46 AM

    Also, I wanted Zaid Karim to clarify which Hassan Amir she was talking about and I thought a new story would line up there. But, he decided to ignore it and I was oh no-ing to myself. Hajar is such a sweet kid, I would definitely love reading more about the father In Zaid Karim.
    Hey, also the episodes are small + You gotta wait a whole week so read a chunk.

  8. Avatar


    March 12, 2017 at 4:16 AM

    assalamualaikum :)

    Loving this series! Please keep them coming!

  9. Avatar


    March 13, 2017 at 11:57 AM

    It’s just the beginning a lot of people will wait to read more of your stories. Personally I loved reading all of them but between husband and child don’t get the time to put a message through. I’m sure you have a lot of busy readers who come back to read and are unable to make time to comment. Awesome work.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      March 13, 2017 at 12:45 PM

      Minz, thank you for your comment. I appreciate it.

  10. Avatar


    March 14, 2017 at 12:53 AM

    Tuesday!!!!!!!! :D

  11. Avatar


    August 10, 2017 at 9:28 AM

    Hey, I was re-reading the episodes and found out that though you removed the Angie’s “secret” from this one, its still mentioned some paras later when her sister tells about the car accident her Mom & Miko died in. You might want to change that.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 10, 2017 at 1:50 PM

      Wow, you’re totally right, what an oversight. I have corrected it. Thank you!

  12. Avatar


    September 20, 2017 at 10:27 PM

    The way you describe this masjid is so as if ur so close to reality and it sounds real, is it? I wonder, yet it’s insane! Like, this is just part of every day life, you know, and everyone is cool with it and it just fits into our quiet yet crazy world.

    Oh that name sounds so evil on that imaam ????

  13. Avatar


    October 16, 2017 at 5:22 PM

    Assalaamu alaykum.
    I’m glued to this story, just like I was to the series about Hassan. You’re such an excellent writer, baarakallahu fiih.

    Here are some typos I caught though, you can find them by searching since I can’t use line numbers:
    ‘I didn’t failed to notice the’ should be ‘I didn’t fail to notice the’

    ‘importing cocaine from South American’ should be ‘importing cocaine from South America’

    ‘Angie would not have gone to hear’ should be ‘Angie would not have gone to her’

    ‘Angie spend a semester in Cambodia’ should be ‘Angie spent a semester in Cambodia’

    ‘dinosaurs will not died again’ should be ‘dinosaurs will not die again’

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 18, 2017 at 12:16 PM

      Jazak Allah khayr Habib. I have corrected all of those except for the last one (dinosaurs will not died) as that was not a typo. That was just Hajar, a small girl, talking the way little kids talk. Do let me know in the future please if you find more typos.

  14. Avatar


    November 3, 2017 at 9:51 PM

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum Br. Wael:

    I’m reading the story a second time since it’s been so long since I first read it. I’ve been too focused on the story and keep forgetting about grammatical mistakes here and there. But two plot-related issues that I want to point out are: 1. The first time you mentioned Zaid’s fedora, you described it as “black,” but a paragraph or so later, you described it as “brown”; 2. Hajar’s vocabulary seems way too mature for a three-year old, even if she’s almost four, as was mentioned earlier at some point.

    Besides that, I’m really enjoying the reflection and words of wisdom that are scattered throughout each chapter. Alhamdulillah. JazaakAllahu khairan.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 4, 2017 at 12:09 AM

      Thanks for the correction and tips sister Khalida. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

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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.

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Making Eid Exciting for Kids

Lail Hossain



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’

Teach them the spirit of giving by handing out candy or small gifts such as Eid pencils, Eid wrist bands, small favors to the kids they meet during Eid Salah.

Surprise your kids with gifts

“Exchange gifts, as that will lead to increasing your love to one another.”  Prophet Muhammad [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.

Eid Mubarak

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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.

Feliz Eid

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.

Feliz Ramadan!

Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Islamic Horizons Magazine May/June 2019 edition.

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