See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Friday, February 5, 2010 – 9 am
I patrol the city. Eons ago, I am told, there were billions of human beings on Earth, until they destroyed each other in the Eruption. Now, a supercomputer the size of a city runs the planet. Its name is Ai. My orders are issued by Ai each morning at 6 L.T., transmitted in image form to my retinal implant.
People are so difficult. They do not want to follow the rules regarding disposal of off-world materials. Too expensive, they say. They carry swords openly in the city limits. Hardly a day passes that I do not have to arrest someone. I find myself frustrated much of the time, and tired. Still, I try hard not to employ force. I do not want to become like some of the other Ai-garda, abusing people wherever they go.
Today I am arguing with a massively muscular man, his chest and shoulders twice as wide as an earth-bred man. He is one of the chimeras genetically bred for high-g worlds. I am filled with rage because the chimera has tethered his android horse in the center of the city square, tying it to the statue commemorating Ai’s inception. I realize that my anger is disproportionate, but my frustration has reached an incineration point and I cannot seem to control myself. I know that if this chimera becomes violent, he’ll crush me. I draw my cohesion disruptor and hold it next to my thigh, pointed at the ground. My hand shakes.
The creature known as Safaa sees this from her high perch and feels a surge of compassion for me, or so she tells me later. I have heard of Safaa, of course, though her true nature is shrouded in myth. She is an angel, or so most people believe. She has wings and can fly. She is ancient, and may in fact be a construct. She may also be one of the original AI programmers. It is said that she communicates with the computer on a purely machine level.
Safaa rarely interacts with us humans. Mostly she watches from a distance. But on this day she chooses to intervene. She flies down, alights and embraces me, and I feel the anger drain away like helium from a punctured high-atmo township. When I calm down I thank her, as I might have killed the chimera.
She tells me that she must create a child in order to continue her work, and wishes to marry me so that I may become the father.
I begin to weep. This is more than I could have hoped for, but I am afraid. “What if I have the disease?” I say. The Eruption left a legacy of genetic chaos. Most men are sterile.
“We all have a disease of one kind or another,” she replies. “But I know you are pure.”
“Because your actions reflect your inner state. I see that you strive for understanding.”
She cuts me off with a gesture. “You must have faith in Allah.”
“In Ai, you mean?”
“No,” she says. “In Allah the Most High, Creator of all.”
As I am trying to decipher her meaning, the sun begins to grow brighter, until I must shade my eyes. What is happening? Still brighter it grows, until the light penetrates the flesh of my hand, shining pink into my closed eyes.
I woke for Fajr, feeling bruised and sore from head to foot. Forget practicing Kali. I prayed and collapsed back into the cot and slept. Hours later I awoke once again to a ray of sun slanting through the window blinds, shining full on my face. I sat up on the cot in my office, groggy and disoriented, the world of the dream dominating my mind. I was sore all over. My ribs were tender and throbbing, and I could feel my heartbeat in the bruise on the side of my head. Had I fought with the chimera after all?
I chided myself for being ridiculous. I wasn’t so far gone that I didn’t know the difference between dream and reality, at least not yet. That was a weird one. Maybe I’d managed to read some of that sci-fi novel last night after all, and it had seeped into my dreams.
Gradually the real world reasserted itself. The physical pain I felt was a result of the fight I’d had with the three Asian gangsters, not some fictional conflict in a crazy dream world.
I had followed my usual routine of praying Fajr and going back to sleep. I was buoyed now by the knowledge that I could afford – finally – to eat and to pay my bills. Alhamdulillah. If you trust in Allah, he will feed you as he feeds the birds. Indeed, and again alhamdulillah.
I wasn’t worried about the events of last night coming back on me, nor did I feel any shame over cutting and stabbing those thugs. Okay, I had a nagging concern that the leader who’d hit his head might be seriously injured. And maybe cutting the punk’s tendon at the end was excessive. But they attacked me without provocation. All things considered, they got what they deserved.
I made wudu’ and prayed Salat Ad-Duha. I rarely performed this prayer, but if there was ever a Duha moment, this was it. Hadn’t I walked through terrible darkness in my life? Hadn’t Allah found me lost and guided me? Hadn’t he found me poor and made me self-sufficient, at least for the moment? And now here I was, in the morning brightness – the Duha. Yeah baby. It was a Duha kind of day.
Now, to enter the fullness of the light, all I had to do was reunite with my wife and child, Insha’Allah.
It isn’t about me, I reminded myself. Before I became too giddy with my celebrations, I had someone else’s child to find. Anna.
I sent a text message to Jalal, a fellow-Palestinian American who I’d met only a few years ago at the local Muslim community center. He was the middle child of six brothers and sisters. His father had been killed several years ago in a freak highway accident when the branch of a tree that overlooked the highway broke off and fell through the windshield of his car. The family had been struggling ever since. Jalal was trying to put himself through city college – studying geology – and was permanently broke.
“I have work for you,” my message read. “Two hundred cash for the day. Interested? I need you at my office ASAP.”
The response came back almost immediately. “Peeling rubber! On my way.” I shook my head. In his enthusiasm, the fool would have an accident on the way here.
I peered out the window and saw that the burrito truck was already out there. I grabbed my wallet and went outside, tipping my head back and taking in the fresh morning air.
Along with the usual assortment of passers by and workers from local businesses, I spotted a homeless man – not Ghost Rider from yesterday, but someone else – standing on the traffic island out on Belmont, holding up a sign that said something about being a veteran, and eyeing the food truck wistfully. I whistled loudly and beckoned him over.
He was a lean, middle-aged Hispanic man with a watchcap pulled low over gray hair. His bearded face was weatherbeaten and tired.
“You want something?” I asked, gesturing to the food truck. “Quieres algo? It’s on me. Yo pago.” This was, after all, the other part of Surat ad-Duha. When Allah has found you, guided you and made you self-sufficient, then do not repel the orphan, and do not repel the petitioner. In other words, give. Be generous. That’s how you show your gratitude.
“Eh.. sí señor! Se puede un burrito pequeño? Esta bien?”
Having grown up in California I spoke enough Spanish to get by. He wanted a small burrito. I made an expansive gesture with my hand. “Sí, order whatever you want. Lo que quieres. Don’t hold back.”
“Eh.. okay.” He stepped up to the window of the food truck and in Spanish ordered a small breakfast burrito and a small coffee. I was sure he was hungrier than that, but he seemed afraid to infringe on my generosity.
I stepped to the window and instructed Miguelito, the food truck chef, to make the homeless man’s burrito large rather than small, and to add a Mexican apple bread to his order. For myself I ordered a large breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, cheese, pinto gallo, sour cream and avocado. I also bought a Mexican apple bread and a large coffee.
When the food came the homeless man took his meal and thanked me again without meeting my eyes, then shambled off to squat in front of a shuttered gold trading shop two doors down. Some people were so beaten down by the circumstances of life that even kindness felt foreign. I knew what that felt like. I couldn’t do anything about that, but I could at least fill the man’s belly.
As I ate my own food, I mentally catalogued all the things I had to do. Today was Jum’ah. I needed to speak to Tarek to see if he could tell me where Angie had gone. To find Tarek, I had to find Badger.
Badger robbed drug dealers for a living. Not the street dealers, but the stash houses, where large amounts of drugs and guns were stored. In fact the last time I saw him, he told me he’d put together a crew and robbed a distribution center. This was the single hub in the entire city where a particular gang kept their raw product, which would be pure heroin or cocaine from South America. From there it was distributed to local stash houses. Distribution centers also typically held massive amounts of cash awaiting shipment back to L.A. or Mexico, or wherever the particular gang was headquartered.
I knew all this from discussions I’d had with drug dealers in prison. At one point I’d had a high-ranking Colombian drug lord as a cellmate. He liked to describe himself as a business executive, and would point out the parallels between his organization and any other consumer products provider. When I once asked him if he didn’t feel the drug business was immoral, his face turned red, and he ranted about how his company’s product was outlawed for purely political reasons, and how his government had caved to American political pressure in allowing him to be extradited. I was afraid he might have me killed for offending him. I slept with my eyes half open for some time after that, and never asked such questions again.
After Badger robbed the distribution center, I heard a bounty had been put on his head by the gangs. Not that he cared. Badger was a charcoal-hearted killer. He probably had more murders to his name than half the gangsters in south Fresno combined. His name inspired terror among the entire criminal class.
He was wanted by the police as well, but it wasn’t like they had a task force to go after him or anything. All of Badger’s victims had been drug dealers, pimps, sex traffickers, extortionists and the like. What the cops called “NHI” killings. No humans involved. Some cops even felt that Badger was doing their work for them. I knew this from Titus, my buddy and fellow Musketeer, who was now a detective for the FPD.
Titus, who was the most honest cop I ever knew, did not approve of the way Badger had been given an unofficial pass by other cops. “A killer is a killer,” he’d say. “One day he’ll mess up and gun down a civilian, and then the Hall will be falling over each other to cast blame.” He meant Mariposa Hall, where the FPD was headquartered.
What would Titus say, I wondered, if he knew Badger’s true identity? I was probably the only person in the world who knew that Badger was our old friend and fellow Musketeer, Amiri Sulawesi.
Titus would never learn this fact from me, that was sure. When it came to Badger, the old saying held true: “Them that knows don’t tell, and them that tells, don’t know.“ Anyone who started mouthing off about Badger – Muslim or not – was likely to wake up with the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun in his mouth.
I often wondered what Badger did with the bundles of cash he seized. It must have run to the millions. I knew he gave money to the poor and to neighborhood youth centers. He called it “redistribution of wealth from the criminal class, who are capitalist oppressors in disguise, to the proletariat.” That was his mother talking.
Even so, that would only account for a fraction of the money he’d stolen. I had no idea what he did with the rest.
The last time I saw him he asked me to join him. “You got nothing to lose but your self-imposed shackles, Stick,” he said, laughing through white teeth as he paraphrased Karl Marx. It was hard to know when Badger was serious. “Shed your past. It lies like a nightmare upon your present. Shed the heart of a heartless world.”
That was Badger. When he wasn’t talking like a street tough, he was spouting philosophy and quoting thinkers from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Kierkegaard, though always returning to Marx.
Badger was nominally Muslim. His father had been a convert, and his mother too, though his mother was never really into it, I think. Not since childhood, however, had Badger performed any kind of Islamic ‘ibadah or worship – not a single salat, nor a fasted day that I knew of.
“Ain’t no sense in frontin’,” he’d say, slipping into ghetto speak as easily as putting on a pair of shades. “I’m out here rippin’ and runnin’, gunnin’ playas down, and I’m gon’ pray? Act all holy like a busta? Nah.” Thumping his chest. “I’ma keep it real, between me and Allah. He can do with me how He do.”
I never would have predicted this path for Amiri. He’d been a happy kid, a perpetual honor roll student, and the most gifted martial artist out of all of us. When his father was killed, though, everything changed. Though the police never caught the killers, they did find the gun discarded in a dumpster. They ran ballistics and determined that it was the same gun used in two past killings, both of which were attributed to a gang called the T-Town Mob.
Amiri became a different person overnight. A college freshman at the time, he dropped out, adopted the Badger persona and joined a Fresno gang called the Rolling Southside G’s. This made zero sense to me, and I tried to talk him out of it, but it was like talking to the cold steel of a bullet.
The rest I know only apocryphally, from tales told by brother Derby, who used to be a gangster himself. According to Derby, Badger rose to lead the gang, then led the Southside G’s in a war against the T-Town Mob. It was the bloodiest turf war in Central Valley history. When the dust cleared, both gangs were shattered and destroyed. Badger quit the G’s and went solo, preying on the gangs like a lion on wildebeest. I was in prison when all this happened.
When I was released and learned what Badger had done, I was surely the only one who understood the ruthless logic. Badger had used the G’s to eliminate the men responsible for his father’s death.
I chose to distance myself from my former friend. I had not the slightest desire to get caught up in his one-man war against the gangs, and I certainly didn’t need to attract the attention of the police. Badger’s lifestyle was suicidal.
If anyone knew the ins and outs of the drug trade in Fresno, however, it was Badger. Even if he didn’t know where Tarek Anwar was, he could probably locate him easily.
* * *
To find Badger – he continually moved from place to place – I’d have to see his mother Chausiku. I had no idea where she lived, so to find her I’d need to see Imam Saleh at Masjid Madinah.
Aside from that, I had to check in with the Anwars, deposit money in my bank account, pay my overdue bills, and see Safaa.
The warm food in my belly was provision for a long journey, while the coffee was rocket fuel. I was ready to explore the galaxy and crack any aliens right on their green heads.
Yes, I needed a therapist.
Jalal showed up just as I finished my burrito. He was a third year college student with a sunny disposition, except when he thought about his former girlfriend Cindy, at which point he would become morose and weepy. He’d fallen in love with a non-Muslim girl last year and had a brief love affair. She ultimately broke up with him because she couldn’t see herself marrying a Muslim. Of course everyone told him it was for the best, but when it came to that honeypot he couldn’t see straight.
Jalal had a crewcut, green eyes and an athletic frame that had once been quite heavy. Last year he got serious about fitness and began running laps and leaping hurdles at State. His limbs had grown lean and strong, but his belly still bulged slightly, as if he carried a few loaves of Arabic bread in a belly pouch.
He smiled as he came through the door, but the corners of his mouth were turned down.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Oh, you know. Just feeling down about Cindy.”
“Brother,” I began in irritation, before taking a breath and calming myself. “You have to put that aside. I have a lot for you to do today.”
He nodded, straightening his shoulders. “Okay.” He nodded again, seconding his own motion. “Okay.”
Removing the envelope full of cash from my desk, I counted out two thousand dollars and gave it to him. He whistled, his eyes opening wide.
“First,” I instructed, “go to the bank and deposit a thousand in my account.” I handed him a slip of paper with the account number. “Then pay my bills. Go to the PG&E office in person and get my electricity turned on, then the phone company, then the waste management company. I want receipts for everything, not because I don’t trust you but because my office expenses are tax deductible.” I handed him a stack of bills. “Then a grocery trip.” I handed him another paper, on which I’d listed a variety of foodstuffs, including snacks for Hajar when she visited next.
I had a thought. “Hey, when’s the last time you saw Tarek Anwar?”
He frowned. “I mean, I know who he is. But we’re not friends. My mother wouldn’t like it, and anyway what do I need to hang around a junkie for?”
I didn’t like him calling Tarek a junkie. It settled heavily on my heart. “Your mother doesn’t like me either,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but you pay me. And she’s wrong about you.”
Once Jalal was on his way, I packed up my stuff and headed out. Imam Saleh lived in a rented house a few blocks from Masjid Madinah, which itself was just across the street from Fresno City College. I called him first. I asked if I could come over and he said sure, he was reviewing his khutbah but could take a break.
Ten minutes later I parked in front of his home. This was an interesting neighborhood, with stately old homes that were among the first built in Fresno. Large trees shaded the streets. At the same time there was a thriving counterculture and no shortage of homeless people.
Imam Saleh answered the door right away. He was a tall, rangy African-American brother with skin so dark it was almost purple. He typically wore a long Arab shirt over blue jeans, and a colorful Kufi. He met me with a smile and shook my hand warmly.
We were so lucky to have Saleh here in Fresno. He was highly educated, with a degree in international relations from UCLA, and a masters in Islamic history from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. He was currently working on a PhD in Quranic exegesis (tafsir) through a distance program with the Islamic university in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I considered him a good friend, and had tremendous admiration for what he had done with Masjid Madinah. He’d originally been hired by the board of the Fresno Islamic Center, the biggest mosque in the city, to run their center and revive their flagging community. When he tried to implement reforms there, they decided he was too progressive and fired him.
Some of the community members supported what he’d been trying to do, and funded the creation of a new masjid, which became Masjid Madinah. At Masjid Madinah, Imam Saleh had created a community in which immigrants, African-Americans and other converts worked hand in hand. Half the board of directors were women, and women were active in planning events and programs. The masjid held regular “open house” days in which non-Muslims were invited for talks, meals and special events. It was a living community, full of enthusiastic young people. There was a sense that people were a part of something real, something that was changing lives.
Imam Saleh was also not afraid to address contemporary issues. On the one hand he denounced terrorism unequivocally and described it as a plague upon the Muslim world, one that must be eradicated through education, spirituality and social and political reform. On the other hand, he wasn’t afraid to call out the U.S. and other superpowers on their exploitation of the Muslim world and the disastrous consequences of their interventions and misadventures. Lastly, he took a public stand on social issues such as civil rights and violence against women.
The man was a hero to me.
Saleh invited me in for tea, but I told him I was on a tight schedule. “I’m here because I need to talk to Chausiku Sulawesi,” I explained. “I don’t have her contact info. Do you?”
He tipped his head to the side and regarded me. “I think,” he said, “you’d better come in for that tea after all.”
I shed my shoes at the door and took a seat in his living room, which was clean and sparsely decorated with family photos and a few Islamic wall hangings, along with a large framed photo of Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah.
The Imam went to the kitchen and came back a few minutes later with a tea serving on a platter. He poured my tea and his, and sat.
“You’re not on an insurance case this time, are you?” he asked. “It’s something more important.”
“Why do you say that?”
He raised his chin, studying me. “There’s a fire in your eyes I haven’t seen before. Whatever you’re pursuing, you’re committed. You remind me of Salman Al-Farisi on his search for the truth.”
His mention of Salman amazed me. The Persian sahabi had always been a personal hero of mine, which was why I’d called my summer camp kids the Salman Squad. I reviewed what I knew of Salman, trying to figure out why the Imam would say that.
Born in Persia to a doting father who was the town chief and a Zoroastrian priest, Salman was never satisfied with the fire worship of his people. One day he passed a Christian church and heard the sound of prayer. He was impressed, and told his father about it. His father, who considered his only son his greatest treasure in the world, locked him up inside the house to prevent him from learning about other religions.
Thinking of this, I said, “Salman’s father at least loved him.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. It was a childish and petty thing to say.
Imam Saleh, however, took my words seriously. He nodded and sipped from his tea.
“Can that truly be called love?” he said eventually. “He chained his child in a room to prevent him from seeking the truth.”
“His father didn’t see Christianity as the truth. It was something foreign that he wanted to protect Salman from.”
“Perhaps. Or he was simply closed-minded. If you recall, what the father said to Salman was, ‘The religion of our father and forefathers is better.’ That is the classic fallback position of anyone who holds blindly to inherited falsehoods. And Salman, who up to that point had been an obedient and dutiful son, defied his father. He said, ‘No, By Allah, it (Christianity) is better than our religion.’ His thirst for the truth was such that he was willing to discard the traditions of his ancestors, challenge his father, and disrupt his entire life.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Didn’t you tell me once that your father sent you books while you were in prison?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“What kinds of books?”
“All kinds. The complete works of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Poetry anthologies by Palestinian poets, and by American poets like Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg. Philosophy books, a translation of Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, Maudoodi’s tafsir of the Quran, mainstream novels. A lot.”
“Do you think your father read those books himself?”
I’d never considered this. “I doubt it.”
“Then why did he send them to you?”
I sat back in the chair, thinking. “I guess he picked books he thought would help me. Or someone picked them for him.”
“And did the books help?”
I nodded grudgingly. “Yes. Tremendously, actually. Solzhenitsyn’s work made me realize that my suffering was miniscule. The Palestinian poetry gave me a language with which to frame my pain, and gave me perspective. Langston Hughes and Sandburg leavened my hardship with – what do you call it when you approach normally serious subjects with humor?”
“Yes. Irreverence. And Al-Ghazali changed how I saw Islam and opened my heart.”
“So what I see,” Imam Saleh said, “is a father who is willing to venture outside his comfort zone, and to reach into a realm he does not personally understand, in order to help his son. Doesn’t that sound like love?”
“But they hardly talk to me anymore!” I protested.
“Maybe they don’t know how. It could be they don’t know what to say. Maybe they look at you and no longer see the son they knew, and that’s not entirely their fault, is it? Maybe the road life has taken you down lies too far afield for them to understand. Maybe they interpret your past actions as a rejection of their teachings and love, and that causes them pain. Maybe you have to be the one who makes the effort to bridge the gap. Perhaps that’s a part of your penance, or a lesson you must learn. Parents do not simply stop loving their children. Maybe they are hurting as much as you are.”
I sat back and covered my face with my hands. I was nearly overwhelmed by these words. For so long I’d been internally devastated by the certainty that my parents no longer loved me, and that I was nothing but a shame to them, someone best avoided and forgotten. I liked to pretend – even to myself – that this did not affect me, but it had been like an oil slick covering my heart, affecting everything I did.
I lowered my hands and took a shaky breath. “That may all be true,” I said finally. “I don’t know. But I don’t have time to contemplate it right now.”
“Why do you need to talk to sister Chausiku?” Saleh asked. “She’s a very private person. Reclusive, even. She wouldn’t appreciate me giving out her contact information.”
“It’s personal,” I replied. “You don’t have to give me her info. Call her and tell her that Zaid Al-Husayni needs to see her.”
He nodded slowly. Imam Saleh had come to Fresno when I was in prison. He wouldn’t know about my history here, like the fact that the Sulawesis had been a second family to me all through my childhood.
“Hold on.” He disappeared into another room and came back a minute later with a small notepad. He looked surprised. “She’s very excited to see you. Here’s her address.” He tore a sheet off the notepad and handed it to me.
“Before you leave,” Saleh added, “there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Well.” He tapped the floor with one foot. “A brother showed up in our community about six months ago. Khalil Anderson. You may have met him.”
I looked up at the ceiling, thinking. “White guy? About thirty years old? Wears a thobe and a black kufi?”
“Yes. He’s been talking to some of the younger brothers about politics. That in itself is not a problem, but I heard from a few of the youth that Anderson’s been pushing this idea that the U.S. and Islam are waging an apocalyptic battle. I’m concerned that he’s radicalizing them. I want to know who he is. Where did he come from, is he employed, does he have criminal record? What’s his real agenda? If necessary I’ll go to the FBI, but first I want to know what I’m dealing with.”
“Have you asked him?”
“Of course. He says he’s from L.A. and that he converted to Islam five years ago. He says he gets SSI payments from the government because he injured his neck in a workplace accident, and he came to Fresno because his aunt died and left him a house.”
“But you don’t believe him.”
“I don’t know. I’m concerned. I’d like you to look into it. I’ll pay you of course.”
I shook my head. “I won’t take your money. Of course I’ll do it ya shaykh, but it will have to wait. I’m on a time-sensitive case.”
“Jazak Allah khayr ya akhi. When do you think you’ll be able to look into it?”
I stroked my beard. “Give me a week.”
Parking in a huge circular driveway, I stared at the house before me in amazement. This was Chausiku Sulawesi’s house? I doubled checked the address. Yup. It was a palatial home perched on the bluffs overlooking the San Joaquin river, at the far north edge of Fresno. The estate must have covered 15,000 square feet, with towering palm trees all about and wild grasses that grew up to a stone footpath. The footpath circumscribed a perfect expanse of green lawn.
The house itself was a massive modern style home, with stone walls supporting high slab roofs, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows. The path to the front door passed through a gap in a huge waterfall-style fountain, with a semi-opaque wall of water tumbling fifteen feet through the air.
I did not want to see Chausiku Sulawesi. Just thinking of it made my heart race with anxiety. I sat in the car, taking deep breaths, my hands clammy on the steering wheel.
* * *
The last time I saw Chausiku was at her husband’s janazah twelve years ago, before I went to prison. The police had investigated Red’s death, of course. They never caught his killers.
I attended the janazah because I was expected to. I was practically a member of the family. The July sun drummed down onto the mourners gathered at the dusty expanse of the Madera Islamic Cemetery. We gathered beneath a green canopy as Red’s body was lowered into the grave. Amiri and another brother – AbdulWali, the one whose leg was torn off in an accident not long after – lowered the body into the grave and positioned it on its right side. I heard the rattling of the gravel as they arranged it to support the body.
Amiri was one of my best friends and one of the Five Musketeers. I tried to imagine what he must be feeling in that moment but I could not think past the dark, churning foam of guilt and shame that felt like it would squeeze its way out of my very pores and manifest as red ink on my skin.
Chausiku – who wore a long-sleeved black dress and black turban – almost collapsed. A tall, strong-looking African-American sister – whose name I did not know – caught her and held her up.
“Why?” Chausiku cried to the assembled mourners. “Someone tell me why. I want to know why my husband is dead!”
From beneath lowered brows I glanced at Imam Abdus-Samad, who had given the janazah khutbah – the funeral sermon – and led the salat. He stood there like a paragon of leadership, a pillar of the community, supporting the widow in her grief. I hated him in that moment, as I hated myself. I was still overwhelmed – had never stopped being overwhelmed – by the memory of Malik Sulawesi dying in my arms. I remembered the heat of his blood as it soaked into my pants and shirt sleeves. I remembered the wheezing of his breath, the way it sounded like the whine of a failing machine. I remembered the bits of black fuzz from his ski mask caught in his red hair, and the fear in his wide green eyes, filled with the knowledge of his own death.
* * *
Would Chausiku see this memory in my eyes? Would she look through me, recognize my guilt, and know me for what I was – a liar and a hypocrite?
I passed a hand over my eyes and smoothed my beard. My cousin Jamilah’s words came back to me: “I believe in you. I always have.” Just the memory of those words made me sit up straighter and raise my chin. I could do this. No problem.
I got out of the car, walked up the driveway and through the fountain, and rang the doorbell.
The door was answered by a burly African-American man in a too-tight gray suit. He was maybe 6’3”, with a long head and an oversized jaw. He wore an earpiece, and his jacket bulged over what had to be a holstered gun. He looked ready to either give me a massage or break my back – whatever his employer commanded.
“Are you Zaid Al-Husayni?” he asked. When I said yes, he gestured to me to spread my arms. “Sorry chief,” he said. “Gotta search ya.” He patted me down and removed the knife clipped to my pocket. “You’ll get this back.” Then he removed my fedora, turned it upside down, ran a hand along the inside band, and placed it back on my head.
“Zaid, is that you?” Chausiku Sulawesi called from somewhere deeper inside the house.
“Yes ma’am,” I called back. “Just going through Checkpoint Charlie here.”
Chausiku strolled into view. She looked like she had not aged a day. Her milk chocolate skin appeared unlined. Her perfect ivories flashed as she smiled widely.
Aside from that, however, everything about her was different. She wore an olive pantsuit that looked like it cost more than I made in a month, and black high heels. Her hair, which in the past had always been combed out into a big Afro, was now straightened and cut into a short bob. All of this surprised me. The Chausiku I had known used to wear African dashikis exclusively, often paired with a turban, and used to preach at length about how black women should adopt natural hairstyles and not be ashamed of their heritage.
She came directly to me and threw her arms around me in a tight embrace. She smelled of floral perfume, and her arms were as strong as they’d always been. With her heels, she was exactly my height.
She pulled back and studied me. “Little Zaid Al-Husayni,” she said admiringly. “All grown up now. But still too thin! Are you getting enough to eat?”
I shrugged and began to formulate a reply, but she interrupted me.
“I know it’s early for lunch, but let’s get some food in you. Rosa!” she called out.
“Si señora,” someone replied from within the house.
“Bring lunch for two,” Chausiku called back. “Tuna sandwiches and whatnot. We’ll be on the back patio.”
Mrs. Sulawesi took my elbow and led me through an incredible home interior that included a soaring ceiling supported by square-cut timbers. In the main room, a series of ten-foot-tall paintings depicted birds in flight, and a stunning green leather sectional sofa that must have been twenty feet long wrapped around two walls.
The back patio, shaded by a slanted overhang, featured hardwood furniture arranged around a rectangular stone firepit. Beside the patio, a long swimming pool extended to the edge of the bluff, so that it gave the illusion of disappearing over the cliff. These were called, I knew, infinity pools. I’d seen photos of such pools in the Home and Garden magazines that Safaa subscribed to.
This was so strange. The Chausiku I recalled was a card-carrying member of the Communist party who used to espouse the principles of frugality. She’d converted to Islam nominally for the sake of her husband, but I’d never seen her pray, not even at Eid time, whereas I’d heard her quote Marx, Lenin and Mao a thousand times. She used to ridicule the acquisition of material luxuries as bourgeois corruption and capitalist waste.
Now here she was living in a virtual palace, and wearing costly designer clothes? Besides, how could she afford a home like this? She was a seamstress. She used to earn a meager income hand-sewing African outfits, doing alterations, and making prayer rugs that Amiri and Red would sell after Jum’ah prayer.
Malik, I corrected myself. Not Red. I must never refer to Chausiku’s late husband as Red, not even to myself. I’d gotten in the habit of calling him Red during our years on the robbery squad, but there was no valid reason for me to use that nickname. He must always be either Malik or Abu Amiri, as some of us used to call him when we were kids.
I was beginning to think that I now knew where much of Badger’s money had gone.
I sat on a chair with Chausiku opposite. The weather had warmed up a bit but was still cool. Goosebumps rose on my forearms.
She leaned forward with her hands on her knees, studying me. “I’m so happy you’re here,” she said. “You should visit more often. How’s your family?”
I told her about my separation. I spoke about my daughter, describing Hajar’s wit and penchant for arts and crafts. Chausiku listened, smiled, asked a few questions, but volunteered little about herself.
“So,” she said at length. “I hear you’re a private detective now, is that true?”
I shrugged and smiled. “It’s a living.”
“It’s so exciting.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You’re not here on a case, are you? Investigating me, maybe?”
I lifted one eyebrow. What an odd question. “Should I be?” I replied jokingly. “No auntie, I’m not investigating you. But I am actually here on a case. I need to talk to Amiri.”
She nodded. “I thought that might be the case. It will be a few minutes before lunch is ready.” She waved at the pool. “Why don’t you take a swim? I have this beautiful pool and hardly anyone uses it.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m pressed for time, and anyway I don’t have anything to wear.”
Chausiku sat back in her chair. Her expression became hard. “I insist. Amiri has some swimming trunks. Rosa will show you.” She called, and Rosa appeared immediately.
The maid was short and dark skinned, with chiseled cheekbones and straight black hair tied in a pony tail. She wore jeans, a white blouse and leather sandals that looked handmade. Chausiku spoke to her in fluent Spanish, and the maid escorted me into the house. She pulled a pair of neatly folded red and yellow swimming trunks from a hall closet, then led me to a huge bathroom that was perhaps three times the size of my office. Sunlight streamed in from a skylight. The bathroom contained a large, glassed-in shower, a jacuzzi, and a sofa that sat beside a window with a view of the San Joaquin River. A stand of bamboo trees in a massive stone planter towered against one wall.
When Rosa left I took off my clothes and folded them neatly, then put on the swimming shorts. Amiri was shorter than me and his swimming trunks only came halfway down to my knees. How could I go out in front of the women in this? I wrapped a large towel around my waist to cover myself.
Before leaving the bathroom I plucked a single hair from my head and set it carefully atop my folded clothes.
I knew what Chausiku was doing with this whole swimming thing. She wanted to be sure I wasn’t wearing a wire. This precaution, along with the presence of the bodyguard, answered some questions and prompted others. It also stung. How could she think that I would betray her? She was like family to me. Why was there so little loyalty in this world? Why was I the only fool stumbling around, still believing in friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, and love?
Chausiku wasn’t around when I came out. I dropped the towel at the edge of the pool and dove in. Thankfully the water was heated to perhaps 75 degrees of so. Still, the cool shock of it hit me and somehow washed away my anxiety. I swam hard, warming myself up and working the kinks out of my muscles. I completed a lap, somersaulted and pushed off the wall, and swam another. By the time I’d done ten laps my shoulders ached and I had a stitch in my side. I grabbed the edge of the pool and leaned my head against the tiled lip, gasping for breath.
“Come on out,” Chausiku called. “Lunch is ready.”
I climbed out, wrapped the towel around myself again, and squeezed the water out of my hair and beard. Rosa had prepared tuna sandwiches with sliced carrots, pickles, potato salad and what looked like sweet potato chips, along with tall glasses of iced lemonade.
The cold water had revved up my appetite. I ate with gusto. It didn’t hurt that the food was delicious. Rosa knew what she was doing in the kitchen.
“So,” Chausiku said when I’d finished my sandwich. “Is it really Amiri you need to talk to, or is it Badger?”
I paused in the act of biting a pickle spear and stared at her, feeling like a rabbit in the beam of a powerful spotlight.
She tipped her head to one side. “Did you think I didn’t know? My son tells me everything. Including the fact that you know his nom de guerre and what he does for a living.”
Nom de guerre? I thought. Was that what Chausiku told herself, that Badger was some kind of guerilla fighter? Everywhere I turned in life it seemed I was confronted by hypocrisy and self-deception. I was sick of it.
“What happened to you, auntie?” The words emerged from my mouth unbidden. “What happened to your principles? How many times did I hear you say that private property is based on the exploitation of the many by the few? That private ownership of the means of production represents the appropriation of the labor and wealth of the poor by the rich? And look at this.” I waved my pickle spear at the luxury surrounding me. My speech would not help me get the information I needed to solve the case, but the swim had energized me and washed away my self-restraint.
“Is this all from Badger?” I continued. “Where do you think that money comes from? From the poor. I know you know this. The drug industry sucks wealth out of the ghetto like a Hoover vacuum. It’s the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. And what do the rich do with it? They cycle it among themselves. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. It’s against everything you stand for.”
“You don’t know what I stand for!” Chausiku snapped. “You don’t know anything about me. You want to be honest? You want to drop the pretense? Tell me how my husband died!” She slammed a palm onto the glass table. The plates jumped. My sweet potato chips scattered, while Chausiku’s lemonade tipped over and poured across the tabletop, spilling over the side like a small waterfall.
I froze, staring at her. My tongue was a block of wood in my mouth.
“That’s right.” She glared at me as if her eyes could bore holes through my head. “My husband. Your uncle and teacher. Do you think I’m an idiot? His body is dumped on the sidewalk like a week old fish, and the police tell me they suspect he was part of a robbery crew. A year later you go to prison for robbery. You think I can’t put two and two together? And you come in here talking about hypocrisy and values, while you’re lying to my face?” She sneered. “I can see it in your eyes right now. You’re wondering if I told Badger. If I had, you’d be floating in pieces down the San Joaquin River.” She made a motion with her hand like a fish swimming.
“I don’t -” I began, intending to deny everything, but she snapped her fingers to cut me off.
“Don’t even try. You want Badger’s help? And my silence? This is the price. Tell me how my husband died.” Her tone softened. “You owe me that much, Zaid. If you still care.”
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
Of Dreams and Shadows
A short story
By Saulat Pervez
Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.
That night, she wrote in her journal,
We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.
“So, how were the latest test results?”
“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”
“And, how old did you say she was?”
“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.
He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?
“Anything new today?” she asked.
He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.
He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.
Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.
She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.
The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.
She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive?
She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.
She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.
Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.
She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.
It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.
It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).
Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).
They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.
She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.
Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.
It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.
“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”
“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”
“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”
“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.
She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.
Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.
The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?
Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.
As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.
She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.
She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.
She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.
Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.
As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.
Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com.
This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel.
To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?
As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.
As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.
However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating). All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?
Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.
Why Decorate or not to Decorate
There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.
But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)
Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.
The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship. What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way? If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet or scholars have advised us to do in any way?
Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.
How to Decorate or not to Decorate
It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.
The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.
The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.
- Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
- Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
- Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?
The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating
So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.
It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,
- Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
- Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
- Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
- Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.
I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.
Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)
Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.
Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating
The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.
And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،. وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم “ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ”.
We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)
How to Teach Your Kids About Easter
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.
My mother put up her Christmas tree every year. We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.
I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.
As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.
That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:
- The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
- Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
- We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
- The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.
So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.
There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.
There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:
Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.
Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.
Allah Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.
Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.
Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.
If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.
Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.
We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.
So what do we believe?
Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.
- Allah is One.
- Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
- He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
- There is nothing like Allah in the universe
Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.
- Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
- We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
- We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.
When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.
You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.
If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:
- Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
- Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
- Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
- Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
- You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.
We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.
It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.
Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah. We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.
The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.
Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast. Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.
You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them. No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.
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