See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
“I do care,” I said, and it was true. I always cared. That was my problem. One of my problems, anyway.
I told Chausiki everything, narrating a very near version of the truth, leaving out only Imam Abdus-Samad’s name. I said I’d been recruited by Horse, whose real name I did not know, and explained how in my youthful stupidity and zealousness I’d believed myself to be a part of some greater Islamic struggle.
I told her how Red had ultimately died protecting me. How he bled out in my arms, talking about his love for his family. How we left his dead body in front of the hospital. I looked down as I described this last part, my face hot with shame. “That was when I quit,” I said. “I loved uncle Malik. If I could go back and change – “
“But you can’t.”
She was right, of course. We sat in silence. I lifted my eyes finally and watched the winter sunlight sparkling on the surface of the pool. My hair was still wet, and every time the breeze blew a chill went through me. My life was in Chausiku’s hands now. If she told Badger, I was a moldering corpse waiting to happen.
Again she seemed to read my mind. “You are a husband and a father. I see how much you love your daughter.” Her tone was stiff, belying the kindness of the words. “In spite of everything, you are Amiri’s only true friend, or so he believes. Don’t worry. I’ll keep your secret. But don’t presume to judge me. You have no idea what I’ve been through. I lived by my ideals for thirty years, and what did it get me? A dead husband and a pile of unpaid bills. When Malik died, I was penniless. I went to the masjid for a loan and they turned me away. I was homeless for a while, did you know that?”
I shook my head.
The corners of Chausiku’s mouth turned down in bitterness. “I lived in a shelter downtown, and sometimes in a cardboard box. Do you know what saved me?”
“Amiri. My son. He stepped up, became a man, took care of me. So don’t you dare come in here and lecture. You haven’t slept in a box. You haven’t suffered the humiliation of relieving yourself on the street, having people look at you like you’re subhuman. I tried living a principled life. Then I grew up. Can you understand that?”
I nodded, saying nothing.
I did. In the bathroom, I noticed that the strand of hair I’d placed carefully on my belongings was gone. They had searched my clothing as well, and perhaps looked through my wallet and phone. It didn’t matter. I had nothing to hide anymore.
When I returned to the patio, Chausiku said, “Be in front of the used bookstore at Van Ness and McKinley in an hour. Amiri will meet you there.”
“Oh, and Zaid,” she added as I turned to leave.
“Yes, Auntie?” I met her gaze, finally. She sat at the patio table with legs crossed and hands resting primly on her knees. Her spine was erect, her eyes as flat as flint stones.
I had a sudden memory of sitting at the kitchen table in the Sulawesis’ old house on First Street, along with Aziz, Amiri, Titus and Tarek – all five of the Five Musketeers. We chatted about baseball and skateboards and Kali, and ate hot cornbread with butter. Chausiku’s given name, I knew, was Amanda. She’d become a Black Panther revolutionary in the early seventies and adopted the name Chausiku, which, she liked to remind us, meant “born at night.” “What do you think?” she’d ask us. “Do you see the night stars in my eyes?” I would look at her and yes, it seemed like her sparkling black eyes held the answers to the mysteries of the universe, and that I could see the twinkling of the stars in their depths.
Now, there were no stars in her eyes. She sat there looking angry, rich and sadly pedestrian, seemingly unconcerned that she had betrayed everything she once believed in.
“You are no longer welcome here,” she said. “Don’t come back.”
* * *
Friday, February 5, 2010 – 11:15 am
I had time for a quick detour before heading to the bookstore. I knew that Safaa would be in class, but I needed to see her.
The Fresno Islamic Academy was a small school, funded as much by donations as by the monthly tuitions. It was located on Shaw west of Cedar, not too far from Masjid Fresno, the oldest masjid in town. The front door at FIA was always locked during school hours. I knocked, and the door was opened by the receptionist, a young Somali woman named Asma. She knew me and greeted me with a smile.
A small Pakistani-looking boy sat in a chair in the reception area, rhythmically filling his mouth with air and making popping sounds with his lips. I wondered if he was waiting to see the principal for some infraction.
“Ali,” Asma commanded the boy. “Go get sister Safaa.” Pleased at this reprieve from whatever doom awaited him, the boy leaped up and dashed through the open door that led into the school corridors.
“Cool hat,” Asma commented.
I nodded but said nothing. The last thing I needed was for Safaa to accuse me of flirting with the receptionist. Sensing my mood, Asma went back to work, and I took the boy’s chair and waited.
Time ticked by. I checked my watch repeatedly, aware that I had an appointment across town with one of the most dangerous men in America.
“What is it?” Safaa stood before me, arms akimbo. “I’m in the middle of class. This had better be important.” She wore a long black skirt that was a little too tight for my liking – I mean, I liked it fine, but I didn’t think it appropriate for everyone else – along with a long-sleeved blue blouse and a burgundy hijab. She looked and sounded about as happy to see me as a judge staring down at a repeat offender who stood before the bench accused of yet another crime.
In spite of the irritation on her face, she was a vision. Her skin was dark for an Iraqi, somewhere between copper and coffee. She’d been teased about that as a child, she once told me. She had often complained about her nose being too big as well, as well as other imperfections that she saw or imagined in herself.
In my eyes, she was as lovely as a tree. I found her utterly beautiful from crown to roots.
I stood. “Could we talk in private? I have something for you.”
“What is it? I’m busy. If you can’t respect my job and my time, I might have to file a restraining order.”
She clucked her tongue. “Fine.” She turned and walked away. I followed her into the unoccupied computer room two doors down from reception. The computers sat on long tables that circumnavigated the walls. The FIA had come a long way since I was a student there. Back then it was bare bones. No computers, no science lab, no athletic equipment. Just pure academics, and a couple of ping pong tables for fun.
“How have you been?” I said. “I’ve missed you.”
Safaa pursed her lips and made no reply.
“You’ve been so cold and angry lately,” I commented.
She didn’t like that. “Why is that a problem?”
I opened my hands in a helpless gesture. “Because we’re husband and wife. Because we have a daughter together. Because I thought we loved each other.”
“This is outrageous,” Safaa snapped. She turned to leave.
“Okay, hold on!” I withdrew an envelope from my pocket and handed it to her.
“What is this?”
“Five thousand dollars. That’s my child support backlog, and a little extra. I’d like to set up a regular visitation schedule with Hajar.”
“Wow.” The anger was replaced by surprise, at least momentarily. “You’re on a case?”
“Yes. Can I tell you one more thing?”
Her jaw tightened. “What?”
“I’m disappointed in you.”
Her mouth fell open and her eyes widened. “You’re disappointed in me? In what bizarro universe does that make sense?”
“I’ve never been unfaithful to you. Wallahi I never wanted to, or even considered it. You and Hajar are everything to me in this dunya. I love you. When I pray, I pray for you to fulfill your dreams. When you smile, it heals my heart. Just thinking of your laughter makes me happy. When you feel the chill of the world upon you, I yearn to warm you with my arms. When you’re tired, when you’re down on yourself, I have enough faith in you for both of us.”
I hadn’t planned this lyricism or memorized it in advance. Safaa had always brought out the poet in me. I wished that I could turn my words into almond blossoms and scatter them at her feet. I wanted to feel her head resting on my shoulder once again. I wanted to be a shelter and a garden for her when dark days came, as they always do in this life.
I had to drop the hammer, though. I had to shake her up.
“Yet,” I continued, “you choose to listen to rumors and gossip spread by people with bad intentions, rather than believe in me, your husband. I thought you were better than that. In fact, I know you are better than that.”
For the first time since our separation, I saw a chink appear in her armor. Uncertainty passed across her features like a cloud across a winter sky. Her mouth opened but no words came out.
She found her tongue. “I’ll email you about visitation.” With that she turned and walked away.
I counted it as a victory. One does not traverse Antarctica in a day. There were a lot of people in the community who mistrusted me, a lot of voices arrayed against me. That didn’t matter. In the end, all that mattered was trust. If I could somehow open Safaa’s eyes and restore her trust in me, the love between us would return like spring rain after a drought, I was sure.
I loved Safaa, but I didn’t understand her sometimes. I’d found as I got older that I was beginning – just beginning – to know myself, to know who I was. Unfortunately I still had no idea who anyone else was.
* * *
In spite of its expansive name, the Bookazon was a cluttered corner of tranquility a few blocks from City College, not far from Masjid Madinah. Formerly a three bedroom house, it was jammed from floor to ceiling with mostly used books, though there was some new selections as well. In spite of the crowding, the owners had managed to fit several comfy armchairs into corners here and there. I sometimes went in after Jum’ah. I’d sit in one of those comfy chairs and read for an hour or more, and the management never seemed to mind.
I arrived five minutes ahead of my appointed time to find that the sign on the door had been turned to the “Closed” side. That was unusual. The Bookazon didn’t normally close at lunchtime. Two women – one a hip-hoppy Asian, the other an attractive Latina – stood near the entrance, one on either side.
The Asian woman was small and could have been any age between twelve and twenty five. Her hair was either cropped short or tucked under her Fresno Grizzlies baseball cap. She could almost have passed for a boy in her baggy basketball shorts, gray sweatshirt and black Adidas hi-top shoes.
The Latina was my height. She had lustrous black hair, full lips, and a hard cast to her hazel eyes. She was dressed like a college student in jeans, a City College sweatshirt and stylish brown boots.
I approached the door to try the knob and maybe peer through the window, but the Latina stepped to bar my way.
“Closed for lunch,” she said in English that might have sounded unaccented to anyone else. I have a good ear for accents and could hear her Mexican ancestry in the slightly lisped “s” in “closed” and the o-sounding “u” in “lunch.”
“I’ll look myself if you don’t mind.” I moved to step around her but she blocked me again and – like a Vegas magician doing a hey presto – pressed the barrel of a silver automatic pistol against my forehead, jamming it into me hard enough to tip my head back. She was fast. I hadn’t even seen her draw the gun.
“You best get steppin’, cabron,” the Latina said quietly but intensely. “Before I drill your dome. We’ll see what comes out. Brains or frijoles negros.”
My nostrils dilated and my teeth clenched, not because of her calling me a bastard or saying I had black beans for brains, but because of the gun at my forehead. I had a vast internal reservoir of anger, love, guilt, grief and outrage, and it was never more than a nerve’s length away. I could access it in an instant, for good or bad, like a tap that is under pressure and needs only a quarter turn of the handle to send forth a geyser.
“Dale cabron,” I snarled in Spanish, returning the insult and daring her to shoot. “But you best look down before you pull that trigger.” The full-lipped Latina glanced down to see the blade of my knife pressed against the inside of her thigh – my own hey presto to match hers. Her eyes widened slightly. The knife was angled up, so that the Latina could not step away without cutting herself.
“That’s your femoral artery,” I informed her. “I cut that and you’ll bleed out in six seconds. The knife is razor sharp. It’ll go through your jeans and skin like a bullet through paper. Even if you shoot me, I’m gonna slice you open on the way down.”
A gun cocked and I felt yet another steel barrel press into the base of my skull beneath the brim of my fedora.
“Don’t you hurt her!” the Asian girl screamed. “Put the knife down or I will freakin’ cap you right now.”
“Go ahead,” I said, fighting to keep a grin from breaking out on my face. I wanted to laugh, not because I didn’t take the Asian seriously, but because I always wanted to laugh when my life was on the line. “If you do, your girl is dead.” Then I recited the shahadah – the Muslim testimony of faith – in Arabic, out loud. I was fully prepared to die in that spot, standing on the sidewalk on Van Ness Avenue on a cool February morning.
My behavior made no sense. In prison I’d survived by being ready to die. When a man sees that you are willing to die to defend your property, your dignity and the smallest right that he might seek to infringe, he turns around – if he has any sense – and walks away.
Now, though, things were different, I had a wife and daughter who I loved. I had a career, shaky and erratic though it might be. I had freedom, relative youth, the wispy sunshine on my face, and the blessing of faith. I had everything to live for, but here I was, challenging this woman to pull the trigger because I didn’t know how to conduct myself as a free man, and could not shut off the electric thrill that ran through me at the prospect of violence.
I was a mess. I knew that. I was a flawed personality, a damaged machine. All my cylinders were firing, but something was busted in the gearbox, and the grinding of my spirit was so loud I wondered that the whole city couldn’t hear it.
The Latina and I were so close our noses almost touched. I smelled lemon and chiles on her breath. Her eyes were large and dark, and I thought that if I stared into them I might become mesmerized and forget who and where I was. Then, to my surprise, the corners of her mouth turned up in the barest hint of smile. “You wouldn’t happen to be Stick, would you?” she said softly.
“You know my name,” I assented. “So you must know whether you plan to kill me or not.”
The Latina withdrew the gun and stuffed it in her waistband, hiding it beneath the baggy sweatshirt. “Yo, it’s cool, Pinkie,” she said to her friend. “Put the gun away.”
The pressure of the gun disappeared from the back of my head. I folded my knife one-handed and stepped back where I could see them both. Pinkie was – true to her name – pink-faced with fear or rage. She’d tucked her gun away but still had her hand on the grip, I could tell.
The Latina nodded in greeting. “I’m Jelly. This is Pinkie.” She inclined her head toward the bookstore. “Badger’s waiting for you inside.”
I turned my back on the ladies, feeling fairly confident that they would not shoot me. As I opened the door and entered the store, an argument ensued between Pinkie and Jelly. Apparently Pinkie was angry because she thought Jelly was flirting with me. I supposed the two of them were a couple.
Only in Badger’s world – or in an elliptical orbit around his world – could I meet people for whom threatening to kill someone was a form of flirtation.
* * *
The bookstore was deserted. The lights were off and there were no customers, and not even a salesperson or cashier behind the register. I found Badger in one of the back rooms, sitting in an armchair with one leg draped casually over the arm, reading The Downfall of Communism and Capitalism by Ravi Batra.
My old friend Amiri Malik Sulawesi, who went exclusively by the name Badger these days, was shorter than me at 5’6” or so. He was the color of cafe au lait, and was wiry and strong. He wore black slacks, comfortable-looking brown walking shoes, and a blue trenchcoat over a white t-shirt and bulletproof vest. I had no doubt that he had one or two guns secreted on his person somewhere.
I wasn’t surprised to see him reading a treatise on economics and social philosophy. Badger was the most brilliant human being I had ever met. In school he’d achieved straight A’s even though he barely studied. He could glance at a page and absorb the content in seconds. Furthermore, he would remember it years later. I recall seeing him at the age of ten, sitting on the playground during recess, reading Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding – a memory that came back to me years later when I had to study it in university. In Kali class he always beat me during sparring sessions, not because he practiced more than me – no one in the group practiced as obsessively as I did – but because he was able to instantly internalize whatever was taught, intuitively grasping the underlying principles of body mechanics, so that he did not have to remember specific techniques per se.
He could have been anything he wanted. Neurosurgeon, astronaut, technology innovator, anything. He could have changed the world.
“Seems to me that book is obsolete,” I commented by way of greeting. “Communism has already fallen, and capitalism is taking over the world.”
“Yeah homey,” Badger replied, “but you know this book was written in 1978. Batra said Communism would fall within twenty five years, and twelve years later the Berlin wall come tumblin’ down. Man was a genius. He predicted that capitalism was doomed to extinction as well. He says here that money was meant to serve man, not the other way around, and that the abandonment of spirituality and social justice under unregulated capitalism is unsustainable. He proposes a quadrivisional model of society with acquisitors, money lenders, thinkers and warriors. He says capitalism is run by the money lenders and acquisitors, and out of the rubble of its collapse will come the rise of the warriors and thinkers. Basically he suggests that these four cultural classes rise and fall in cycles.”
“Some of that sounds like Islamic philosophy,” I pointed out. “I mean the part about spirituality and social justice. Capitalism and Communism are flip sides of the same coin. They’re both systems based on the distribution of wealth. Islam instead proposes a society based on human values, where everything begins with submission to Allah and compassion for one’s fellow man. Instead of allowing people to hoard wealth, or forcibly taking it away, Islam establishes systems, like zakat and the abolition of usury, that prevent the accumulation of too much wealth in the hands of a few. Plus, Islam encourages people to share their wealth fee sabeel-illah.”
Most of this was knowledge I had acquired from Shaykh Rashid during my time in Qatar. He’d been keen to teach us the Islamic worldview, rather than just halal and haram.
Badger pointed at me and clucked his tongue. “You’ve been reading Sayyid Qutb. That part about human values is straight out of Milestones on the Path.”
He was right. Milestones was one of the books I’d studied in high school. But it surprised me that Badger recognized it. “I didn’t know you read Islamic books,” I said.
Badger stood from the chair and stretched. “Of course homie. Ain’t nothin’ new under the sun.” He waggled the book back and forth. “Whatever solution these thinkers stumble on, Islam beat ‘em to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ravi Batra read Milestones too.”
“And what’s your take on it?”
“Oh, Ravi Batra is right. Modern capitalism is unsustainable, not only for the reasons he described. Technology gonna snatch the means of production away from the bourgeoisie and put it in the hands of the common man. It’s already happening. A child can write code. Anyone can set up an online store, any writer can indie publish. Open source software be better than commercial. And 3D printing gonna do the same for physical goods. It won’t be long before you can download open source digital blueprints for any object, then print that object in plastic. Even a open source house. You’ll download digital plans into a CNC machine that’ll cut the wood. The pieces come out numbered and built to slot into each other. No tools required. Voila, instant house.”
“That’s incredible.” I didn’t ask Badger if he was sure that such a thing was possible. If he said it, it was almost certainly true.
“Yeah homie. So what happens then? A lotta manufacturers operate on razor-thin margins. People start making their own stuff, these vertically structured corporations topple like dominoes. What other things nations war over?”
I tongued my front teeth, thinking. “Energy. Land. Water.”
“Precisely. In twenty years, solar and fuel cell technology gonna be so efficient, oil and coal will be obsolete. That’ll turn the world upside down right there. That leaves only land reform, since the means of food production is soil and shovel. If every homeowner start plantin’ vegetables and fruits ‘stead of grass, these corporate growers and their patented GMO crap go belly up.”
“What about water?”
Badger nodded. “True dat. Future wars gonna be over water. Thing is,” he went on, “these trends gotta play themselves out. Before capitalism falls we’ll see extreme separation of rich and poor. Think Brazil, China, South Africa, but worse. Riots, chaos, anarchy. I’d say fifty years ‘fore it all crashes down. What do I care, though? Men like you and me thrive in chaos.”
I shook my head and laughed. “You maybe. Not me. I have a wife and child.”
“Yeah, how they doin’?”
“Safaa and I are separated.”
He curled his bottom lip in surprise. “Hmm. That won’t last. Keep doin’ what you do, she’ll come around.”
“Why do you say that?”
“‘Cause you a good man and she a good woman. One in a thousand, both of you.”
“Huh.” I was heartened by Badger’s prediction. He possessed deep insights. His prognostications always came true, a fact that I could not explain but had learned to trust.
“What about you?” I asked. “What are you up to these days?”
Badger shrugged. “Rippin’ and runnin’ like always, how I do. Git up to git down.”
Badger’s broken speech annoyed me. He’d grown up speaking the King’s English. He was perfectly capable of grammatically correct syntax. He was playing a part, I knew. Showing people what they expected to see, or maybe allowing people to underestimate him so he could spring the whammy at the right moment. In any case it wasn’t my business to tell him how to talk.
I rolled my eyes. “I meant aside from that. Don’t you have anything else going?”
“Just the game, brother. Always the game.”
I looked around. “What’s with the store? Where is everyone?”
“Oh you know, I shut the place down to browse. I can’t be mingling with strangers. The bounty on me is up to a million dollars.”
“And the owners let you do that?”
“I am the owner, or my corporation anyway. I own lots of businesses this side of town.”
That made sense. How else could he launder all that cash he stole? He couldn’t funnel it all through his mom. That would attract attention.
Badger shelved the book, approached me and without warning threw a straight right cross, not pulling the punch at all. I parried it easily, and came over the top with a forearm strike that would have smashed him in the nose if he hadn’t blocked it. Badger caught my strike, rolled his elbow over my arm and pulled me into a hug.
“You a sight for a tired heart, brother,” he said, then stepped back.
“You don’t want to pat me down?”
“Naw homey. If I can’t trust you I got nothin’ left.”
“Your mom’s bodyguard patted me down. In fact your mom made me take a dip in the pool, I’m guessing to make sure I wasn’t wired.”
He grinned. “The higher the bounty go, the more paranoid she get.”
“You could do something else with your life, you know. You could do almost anything.”
He waved this off. “Anyway watchu need? Mom say you need help with a case.”
I told him about the case and everything I’d learned. “Do you know why the Cambodian Bulldogs might be looking for Tarek?”
He shrugged. “Sound to me like T-Bone maybe scored some dope on consignment and didn’t pay up. Or he borrowed money maybe.”
Apparently everyone knew Tarek’s nickname but me. “Okay, well what about Angie? Do you know where she might have gotten the forty five thousand? Have you heard of any dealers getting robbed recently?”
He shook his head. “Ain’t no one crazy enough for that.”
“Fo’ shore. Why you think they call me Badger?”
“Because you’re short and fuzzy headed?”
He laughed. “You know, anybody else talk to me like that I put a bullet in ‘em.”
“Must be nice. Well, I need to find Tarek ASAP. I hear he’s living in one of the drug dens on Jamestown. I don’t know that area.”
“You need a guided tour.” He nodded. “I can do that. Come on.”
Badger stuck his head out the front door of the bookstore and whistled loudly through his teeth. Then he threaded his way through back through the store. I followed him through a yellow wooden door into a small stockroom, and from there through a rear exit that consisted of a thick wooden door with a vertical deadbolt and a heavy duty metal screen door. He peered out the back window for a moment, then exited through the door.
In the parking lot behind the store, the women were already waiting. The Latina – Jelly – sat behind the wheel of a yellow Corvette convertible, parked back-in against a low brick wall. Pinky stood beside the passenger door, her hand tucked beneath her sweatshirt, no doubt gripping her gun. She flashed a hand sign to Badger, which I assumed was the all-clear.
It wasn’t unusual for Badger to take on helpers. I wondered what had happened to the curly-headed Mexican youth he’d been working with last time I saw him. Badger’s partners were not jumped in or beholden to him in any way. They were equals, free to depart. Maybe the boy had gone back to school, or moved away. Or maybe he was rotting in an early grave. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know.
A young white guy with acne and black hair tied in a ponytail stood in the parking lot, smoking an electronic cigarette. The smoker gave Badger a genial nod. “You done Mr. Badger sir?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Jerry.”
“Anytime, Mr. Badger sir.”
I chuckled at that. Mister Badger. Like he was a character from Wind in the Willows. “How much you pay that kid?” I asked when we were seated in the car, Badger and I in the backseat and the women in the front.
“A lot more than he used to make at Barnes and Noble, tell you that. Listen here, ‘fore we go looking for Tarek, I need your help with a li’l su’m su’m’.”
“Little job we got planned.”
My internal alarm bells began to ring as if the entire neighborhood were burning down. There were no “little jobs” where Badger was concerned.
“Hold up,” I objected. “You want me to help you move furniture or wash your car, I’m down. But if you mean what I think you mean, forget it. I’m on the straight and narrow, Badge. Sirat al-mustaqeem. I have a family to think about.”
“It ain’t all that. All you got to do is drive. You come ‘round askin’ for my help, well I need yours.”
I rubbed my hand over my cheeks and forehead. This was a bad idea. Everything I was trying to cultivate in life: compassion, patience, sincerity – all these qualities were like trees struggling in a drought, while Badger was a forest fire that would incinerate them in an instant. I shouldn’t have come to him. I could find Tarek on my own. It would just take longer, and wear out a lot more shoe leather, and be more dangerous.
But no. I didn’t have time for that.
“Okay,” I said.
“Que bien,” Badger enthused in perfectly accented Spanish. “Good man. Andale, Jelly. Vamonos!”
“Pull around to my car for a sec,” I requested. My car would probably be safe parked in front of Bookazon for a few hours, but I wasn’t leaving the money and gun. I activated the trap and withdrew the remaining cash. It was just under three thousand. I also took out my gun, which I strapped to my ankle.
I hopped back into the convertible, and ten minutes later we sidled up to the curb in a quiet residential district off Kings Canyon Avenue. This was a lower-income neighborhood, but the residents took pride in their smaller sized homes and older cars. The homes were well maintained, and the yards neatly mowed and trimmed. At this time of day, with the adults mostly at work and the kids at school, the neighborhood was quiet.
Badger took a pair of binoculars from the seat pocket in front of him and handed them to me. “Green house halfway up the block, other side,” he said.
I peered at the house in question. It looked like any other house in the neighborhood, except that a tall, heavyset bald man in a purple track suit sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. He looked like a Pacific Islander, maybe Samoan or Tongan. He was reading one of those little Archie comic books that are sold on the aisle racks at the grocery store.
Moving the lenses around, I saw that the windows of the house were heavily barred.
“You see the front door?” Badger asked.
I studied it. “Looks like an ordinary wooden door.”
“It ain’t. That’s a veneer. Underneath it’s heavy duty steel.”
“So?” I didn’t need to know how he knew that.
“So what do that tell you?”
“It tells me,” I said flatly, “that it’s a stash house, and whatever you’re up to I don’t want to be involved.”
“Once me and Jelly effect entry,” Badger said as if I had not spoken, “you pull the car directly in front of the house and wait. You know the Q-Ball towing yard two miles southeast of here, by 99?”
“Once we all in the car, you burn rubber straight for that yard. That’s all you gotta do.”
With that, Badger, Jelly and Pinkie exited the car. Pinkie stripped off her outer garments and tossed them into the front passenger seat, revealing a slender, feminine body in a black mini skirt and semi-transparent black sleeveless blouse. She took off the ball cap and shook out a mane of long, silky black hair. Lastly she shucked the Adidas sneakers and slipped on a pair of black high heels that she took from under the car seat.
I averted my gaze, aware that it was rather a strange situation in which to practice Islamic modesty. It was easy to look away. Pinkie at her best couldn’t compare to my wife Safaa. Safaa was a true beauty. If my life were a fairy tale, Safaa would be the princess, and I’d be the toad.
As Pinkie strolled casually up the sidewalk toward the stash house, Badger and Jelly opened the trunk of the car and began their own transformations. Jelly donned a bulletproof vest and black ski mask that she pulled over her face. Badger was already wearing a vest, and he too added a ski mask. Both of them strapped on utility belts. To the belts they attached holstered 9 mm Glock pistols and green canisters that looked like Thermoses with pockmarks and handles.
“Are those grenades?” I asked, stunned.
“Flash bangs,” Jelly replied. “M84’s.”
“I can’t be a part of this, Badge. You have to do this some other time.” My heart was beginning to thud in my chest. I’d been a part of operations like this many, many times, and I’d paid the price. This was the last place in the world I wanted to be.
Badger worked the slide on his Glock, popped in a magazine and slid off the safety. “Ain’t no other time. There’s normally two guards, but one of ‘em make a lunch run every day at this time. You in it to win it, Stick. We movin’ and groovin’.”
Badger and Jelly completed their ensembles by hefting short-barreled Mossberg shotguns with black pistol grips. They looked like commandos about to take on the army of a small European nation. Last of all, Jelly slung a large black messenger bag over one shoulder.
“I suggest you take off that Fedora,” Badger said, “and put on Pinkie’s ball cap. You stand out like Omar Sharif at a KKK rally.” With a last nod to me, Badger said, “Eyes open, Stick.” He and Jelly ducked low and scurried up against the houses on the same side of the street as the stash house. Keeping low, they hugged the walls of the houses and slipped forward, darting across open spaces and using trees and shrubbery as cover.
Cursing under my breath, I scurried into the front seat. The engine was still running, never having been shut off.
Not for the first time in my life, I asked myself how I kept ending up in these preposterous situations.
Peering through the binoculars, I saw Pinkie stroll right up the short flight of steps to the stash house’s porch, her slim hips swaying, her long black hair stirring in the late winter breeze. She began to flirt with the big Samoan in the rocking chair. She smiled, flipped her hair, and touched his arm lightly. After a few minutes the Samoan stood and knocked on the front door. Someone inside must have said something, because the Samoan called out a reply, and the door opened.
By that time, Badger and Jelly were already in position, crouching beside the low wall that edged the steps up to the porch. As soon as the door opened, Jelly stood and fired her shotgun into the Samoan’s belly from less than five feet away. I almost dropped the binoculars in shock. I don’t know why I was surprised. I knew what Badger and his people were like, and I’d certainly seen – and committed – my share of violence in the world. But to be so outrageously cold-blooded! I made up my mind to simply drive away. I’d never agreed to be part of a murder.
I adjusted the binoculars and saw to my amazement and relief that the big Samoan was not down. His face twisted with rage as he reached behind his back, presumably for a weapon. Jelly charged up the steps and fired into the Samoan’s chest from almost point blank range. The man folded almost in two and collapsed to the ground. Jelly fired into him once more for good measure.
Meanwhile Pinkie caught the door before it could close, pulled it all the way open and propped it open with the chair the Samoan had been sitting on.
By this time Badger was up the steps as well. He and Jelly hugged the wall on each side of the door. They both removed flash-bang grenades from their utility belts, pulled the pins and threw them into the house. A second later there was a tremendous crack of noise and a burst of light through the window and open door that made me wince even in broad daylight.
This entire operation, from the first shot fired to the tossing of the flash bangs, had taken no more than seven or eight seconds. It was obvious they had practiced this maneuver many times.
Badger was first in. He charged in crouched low, firing his shotgun as he went, and Jelly followed immediately, pausing only to unclip her roll of duct tape and toss it to Pinkie. The slender Asian girl rolled the Samoan over and duct taped his hands behind his back, then his ankles and finally his mouth. What was the point of that if the man was dead? Lastly she took a huge pearl-handled handgun from his waistband, and followed the others into the house.
I scurried around to the front seat of the car and pulled up in front of the stash house. Gunfire had erupted inside the house, along with shouts of anger and screams of pain. I reached down to my ankle and drew my gun. The gunfire inside the house intensified, and what sounded like a fully automatic machine gun roared into life. It was hair-raisingly loud, shattering the stillness of this neighborhood like a bomb. My heart raced and my hands jittered.
The gunfire went on. I heard the pop of handguns, the booming of shotguns, and the continued scream of the machine gun. The windows of the house shattered. Chunks of wood flew from the walls as bullets tore through. A bullet struck the car with a loud pang, and I ducked low in the seat.
Gradually the gunfire diminished until it was just the occasional shotgun blast, punctuated by ripping volleys from the machine gun. Someone screamed something that I couldn’t make out.
This wasn’t right. They should have come out by now. The continued gunfire was a bad sign. There was no doubt that some of the residents would have called 911 by now. Multiple police cars were probably already racing this way. If I remained here, I’d be nabbed as an accomplice to whatever had happened inside the house. I could very well spend half my life in prison.
On the other hand, I could not abandon Badger. He was a bad man, I was under no illusions about that. One might even call him evil. But he was my friend. I could not leave him here.
I also could not leave the big Samoan dying on the front porch.
I put my hands on my head and squeezed. La ilaha il-Allah, I said to myself. La ilaha il-Allah.
I am a man of action. I don’t always make the right choice. Sometimes I make dismayingly bad choices. But I don’t sit still and wait for the world to decide on my behalf. Right or wrong, I act.
I opened the car door, stepped out and ran toward the stash house.
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
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