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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 9 – Stash House

I resolved to be done with Badger. Yes, Amiri was one of my oldest friends. But he was on an express highway to self-destruction, and I could not ride it with him, not if I hoped to stay sane.

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

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

Previous chapters of this story: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8

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On the front porch I stumbled and almost fell when I stepped on something small and round. It was a white shotgun cartridge of a type I’d never seen before. I bent quickly to the big Samoan, who looked like a beached alien whale in his purple tracksuit, and pressed two fingers to the side of his neck. His eyes were closed and he made no movement. I was prepared to give him CPR if necessary, or to try to stop the bleeding from his wounds.

His pulse was steady. Nor was there any sign of blood or injury on him. I found this baffling – I’d seen Jelly fire into his gut at point blank range – until I spotted a small white packet on the ground nearby.

Bean bag shotgun shells

Bean bag shells and rounds.

A beanbag. Badger and Jelly were firing beanbag rounds. I’d heard of these but had never seen one before. They were non-lethal, non-penetrating shotgun rounds. Supposedly just one was enough to drop a man where he stood. I guess that didn’t apply to Samoan giants.

“Jelly!” someone shouted from inside, and I recognized Badger’s voice. “Report!”

“I’m hit!” That was Jelly, and there was a note of pain and panic in her voice.

Gunshots, loud and rapid, made me duck low and cover my head. I heard wood splintering, and ringing noises as bullets bounced off something metallic.

“I’m pinned down!” Badger called back.

Damn. I had to go in. I had to. I saw all my resolutions – my determination to leave prison in the rear view mirror and live a better and more peaceful life, to love my wife and daughter, to build a career and a future for myself – go up in smoke in an instant. Here I was, back in the game as Badger called it, back in a life of crime. How had I let this happen?

It was what it was. A purple bandana poked its way out of the Samoan’s pocket. I took it, sniffed it – it smelled clean enough – and tied it around my face, covering my mouth and nose. I couldn’t risk any of these gangsters remembering my face.

Moving to the door, holding my gun in front of me in a two-handed grip, I glanced quickly inside and pulled back. There were bodies everywhere, most of them duct taped at wrists, ankles and mouth, just like the whale at the door. There must have been at least ten, all Samoans it seemed, some hugely muscular, most heavily tattooed. Why on earth would Badger and co attack such a well manned house?

Several of the men stirred and uttered muffled groans. One thrashed in place helplessly.

The house looked a hurricane had whipped through. Guns of all kinds were scattered everywhere. I saw a gold-plated machine pistol and a shotgun with a shimmering abalone stock. Cartridges and beanbag rounds littered the floor. Bills of various denominations plastered every surface in green. There was a mangled money-counting machine that looked like it had taken a direct hit, as well as shattered beer bottles, smoldering cigarette butts and fluffs of furniture stuffing still drifting through the air. The walls were half destroyed by gunfire.

One of the men on the ground began to grunt and strain, uselessly trying to break his bonds.

I pulled my head back when a burst of machine gun fire split the air in two. My heart galloped like a horse on the final stretch. I took a shuddering breath and glanced inside again. There was a small lobby just inside the door. It opened onto a living room on the left, with the kitchen beyond that. On the right there was an office, then a short corridor leading to a bedroom. Two or three bodies sprawled in the office, and many more in the living room.

A female voice moaned from the direction of the kitchen. It sounded like Jelly.

Suddenly Badger stuck his head up from behind a nearly demolished sofa that stood against the left wall of the living room. Seeing me, he pointed to the hallway on the other side of the office.

I nodded and began tiptoeing through the office, moving around two unconscious men and trying not to give myself away by stepping on any of the discarded ammunition cartridges. One of the men, who must have been faking unconsciousness, seized my ankle. I stumbled and fell. The gangster – a muscular man wearing overalls, black gloves and no shirt, with his black hair tied in two long braids, glared silently at me and tried to belly crawl on top of me, where he could perhaps crush me with his weight. His wrists and ankles were bound, though, and he could not do much. I lashed out with the butt of my gun, striking him on the forehead, and he passed out. A nasty bruise instantly swelled up on his forehead. I hoped that I had not hit him hard enough to do any lasting damage.

Badger began to shout. “Yo busta in the can! Give up, dude. All your homeboys is down. It’s just you left. You got no flex.”

He was answered by a two-second roar of machine gun fire. Undaunted, Badger continued to shout, alternately insulting the man and exhorting him to surrender, two strategies that seemed mutually conflicting to me.

I realized that Badger was giving me the location of the shooter – the bathroom – and providing cover to mask my approach. I stood and moved quickly through the office, rounded the corner and stepped through the bathroom door before I could second guess myself.

A hulking Samoan crouched against the wall of the bathroom. He was naked. The entire surface of his body was covered in gang tattoos. His chest bore a grinning skull wearing a cardinal’s hat, while the word “Samoa” was scrawled in gothic script across his belly. Traditional Samoan tribal patterns sleeved his bulging arms. Even his face was not immune to the spreading ink, with a sun symbol on one cheek and a leering face on the other. His black hair was long and kinky, and his mouth was full of gold teeth.

He cradled a gun that was smaller than the .50 caliber belt-fed monster I’d imagined. This compact, wide-barreled thing was only as long as the Samoan’s forearm.

The gangster shouted in surprise when I appeared, and began to pivot toward me. I lashed out with a vicious front kick, catching him on the corner of the jaw with the toe of my shoe. His head snapped back and he collapsed, unconscious.

“All clear in here, Badge,” I called out.

“Yo Jelly!” Badger called out. “Pinkie. Move out.”

“Gonna need some help,” Jelly called back in a strained voice.

I turned away from the Samoan gangster to go in search of Jelly – and a metallic sound behind me froze my blood. It was the sound of shower curtain rings sliding on a metal rod. I turned in time to see a naked woman step out of the shower stall. I hadn’t thought to look there. She was a young white woman with red hair and freckles, no more than nineteen or twenty I thought. Her blue eyes were wide with terror. She screamed something I didn’t understand and raised a large blue handgun, a .357 from the looks of it.

I could not move. I could not bring myself to shoot this young woman. I saw my own death, standing there in that bathroom. I saw my body sprawled on the floor, a gaping hole in my forehead or chest. I saw the newspaper headlines – “local P.I. killed in drug robbery” – and the shame it would bring on my family.

The redhead pointed the gun at my face. As in a dream I saw her finger tighten on the trigger. My breath caught in my chest and my heart seemed to stop as I awaited my demise.

There was a terrible crack in my left ear and the redhead flew backward. Blood erupted from the center of her chest as she tumbled into the shower curtain, tearing it loose. She fell lifelessly into the shower, her eyes as wide and blue as a cloudless February sky.

Pearl handled revolver.

Pearl handled revolver.

I turned to my left to see Pinkie standing there, the big pearl-handled revolver extended in her left hand. She had a black eye and a cut on her scalp from which blood poured down the side of her head and neck. Her face was pink again – not with fear this time, but with excitement. She enjoyed this insanity.

The next few minutes will never be more than a hazy jumble. The four of us got out of that house and back to the car. Jelly had been shot in the calf, and Badger in the shoulder. My head rang from the shot Pinkie had fired. I took off the bandana and threw it out of the car.

I did not drive. Instead Pinkie took the wheel as I sat in the back seat, too stunned to speak. I had just killed a girl. I did not pull the trigger, but I was a part of it. I was responsible morally and legally.

Felony murder. I’d just committed felony murder. Under California law, a defendant could face a murder conviction even if he did not pull the trigger – in fact, even if the death was an accident – as long as the death occurred in the commission of a felony. Badger and crew went into the stash house to rob it; I went in to help; a murder resulted. Therefore we were all guilty of felony murder.

The penalty for felony murder in California was either life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.

That frightened me only in the abstract. What rocked me, what put me on my heels and made me feel like I’d just fallen into a yawning crevice in the middle of an earthquake, was the image of that young woman collapsing backward, the terror in her blue eyes frozen there as in ice. She might not have been a gangster. She could have been a prostitute or the girlfriend of the guy in the bathroom. She was someone’s daughter, maybe even some little kid’s mother. She would never fulfill the promise of the life that Allah had entrusted to her; and someone somewhere would surely mourn her death.

* * *

Pinkie drove us to the Q-Ball towing yard on the southern outskirts of town. It was a sprawling place with piles of junked cars everywhere, some in stacks five high, and the entire yard surrounded by a ten-foot wall topped with concertina wire. You’d think it was Fort Knox, not a weatherbeaten junkyard on the edge of an economically depressed farm town.

A tall black man wearing a blue jumpsuit and heavy black boots greeted Badger with a warm handshake. Badger and Pinkie pulled everything out of the yellow Corvette, Badger working with one arm only, still bleeding where he’d been shot in the shoulder. Jelly sat on the ground and began to bandage her calf, grimacing as she worked.

The junkyard operator, the eponymous Q-Ball, climbed into a large tractor on caterpillar treads, with a huge claw-tipped arm. He expertly maneuvered the tractor up to the Corvette, and seized it with the claw hand, lifting it into the air. He then wheeled the tractor over to a massive orange machine that looked like a dumpster on steroids. with a chute running out of each end. These chutes extended over smaller green dumpsters.

Car shredder.

Car shredder.

Q-Ball dropped the Corvette into the top of the orange machine. Massive iron wheels with cogs the size of a man’s arms began to spin. They bored into the Corvette and pulled it deeper into the machine, grinding it inexorably into rubble.

It was like watching another death. The car groaned and squealed as the wheels gripped it. The noise was terrible. The car bounced and twisted as if trying to escape, but piece by piece it was sucked in, the metal twisting and crumpling, the glass shattering.

As the car was seized and ground into the machine, its remains began to pour down the chutes. There must have been a sorter of some kind inside, because larger fragments – by which I mean the size of a hand or a bread loaf – poured down one chute, while the other chute carried away rubble that had been pummeled to the size of gravel.

I watched with grim fascination, wincing at times, wanting to look away but unable. I felt as if the day’s events had crushed me in the same way, grinding up my heart and spitting it out.

“Dat’s phat, huh?” Badger was at my side, his face impassive, showing no sign of the pain he must be feeling. He indicated the car that was now almost fully obliterated. “Badger posse leave no trace. First rule of the game is don’t get caught.”

“I don’t get it,” I said dully. “Wasn’t that car worth a lot of money?”

Badger shrugged. “Maybe thirty g’s. Ain’t nothin’ compared to the cheese we took off them Samoans.”

Q-Ball gave us an old Buick sedan. It was light brown and nondescript. Badger’s crew moved their belongings to this car and we all piled in, with me in the backseat. I didn’t know where we were going and hardly cared. My mind was still stuck in that bathroom, seeing the young woman collapsing as the bullet threw her backward, the look of shock in her blue eyes, the sound of the shot ringing in my ears like a fire alarm.

* * *

Abandoned fruit processing factory.

Abandoned fruit processing factory.

Jelly pulled up to an abandoned fig factory a few miles southwest on 41. She unlocked the rusted front gate, drove straight up a ramp into the loading bay, unlocked a rollup door, and drove the car right into the factory itself.

Inside, I sat on a wooden packing crate as the three members of Badger’s robbery squad set to work tending each other’s wounds. In a corner of the warehouse they had a makeshift clinic already set up. It contained everything a regular doctor’s office might have: anesthetic, scalpels, suturing tools, bandages, even an IV pole. Badger drank from a bottle of whiskey as Pinkie dug a round out of his shoulder and stitched him up. Then it was Jelly’s turn.

Jelly’s messenger bag rested on a low coffee table. It bulged with whatever they had taken from the stash house: money or drugs, I didn’t know which.

Badger limped over to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “You represented, brother. You saved our butts back there. Wasn’t s’posed to be so many of ‘em. We was told there’d be three. They musta been havin’ a war council or su’m.”

I stared into his eyes and saw no trace of concern for the dead woman. It was as if we’d just returned from a picnic at the park. He’d been doing this for so long that human life had become meaningless to him. Was there anything I could say that would reach him? I didn’t think so.

“Let’s go find our boy Tarek,” Badger said.

I shook my head lifelessly. “I don’t want anything from you. I should never have come to you.”

“What you mean, Stick? How come?” Badger looked genuinely hurt and confused.

I held my hands out. “We killed a woman back there, Badge. She was barely out of her teens. A human being who never did anything to you or me. I don’t even know her name.”

“Crab had it comin’,” Pinkie muttered as she tended to Jelly. “Come out of the shower like psycho, ank ank ank!”

I ignored her.

Badger’s eyes on the other hand, showed a touch of genuine regret. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. But you know, ain’t no mercy in the game. Just by bein’ where she was, with the people she was with, she on the grind. Don’t put yo’ foot in the game if you can’t handle the consequences. Did I tell that chica to be in a stash house? Naw, man. She woulda killed you, Stick. The game is the game.”

“Really? Then why were you using bean bags? Don’t tell me you don’t have a heart!” My voice had risen to a shout.

Badger’s expression grew hard. “The gangs murdered my father. You know that. I could have massacred every one of those savages and I’d still sleep like a drunken baby. I don’t give a damn about them. They can rot in whatever underworld Samoans are destined for.”

I’d noticed this about Badger, that unlike some people whose speech degraded when they were upset, Badger reverted to proper English and even waxed poetic. I stared at him. There was something about the way he said, “you know that” that seemed to imply a deeper knowledge on his part than what he was saying. Did he know about the role I’d played in his father’s death? That was impossible. Badger had slaughtered dozens of men to avenge his father’s murder. I surely would have suffered the same fate.

“Then why the bean bags?” I demanded.

He waved this off. “Bodies bring investigations. That’s bad for business. Just playin’ the game, Stick.”

There was nothing else to say. I turned around and began to walk toward the door.

“Hold up.”

I looked over my shoulder at Badger, not turning my body.

“Su’m about yo’ case you ought to think on.”

“What?”

“The cheese, man. Follow the money. Where’d the forty five large come from? Did Angie steal it? If so, who from? Or did someone give it to her? If so, why? Forty five g’s don’t just appear outta thin air.”

I walked to the door and opened it.

“Don’t you want a ride back to your hooptie?” Badger called after me. “What about the dope? You want your share?”

I walked through the door and closed it behind me.

* * *

I don’t know why the death of that woman hit me so hard. After all, I’d stabbed a man in the belly just the night before and thought little of it. Was it because the redhead was young, and had her whole life ahead of her? Was it because she was white, and if so was that an unconscious expression of racism on my part, thinking that a white life was somehow more important than an Asian one? Was it because she was a woman? Was it because she was naked and therefore vulnerable, and somehow childlike in her vulnerability?

All these things, perhaps. After all, the Cambodian gangster I’d stabbed would live – I was fairly sure – whereas this young woman was as dead as a winter night. And the Cambodians had attacked me, whereas in this case we – Badger’s crew and myself – had been the aggressors.

There was no justification. I could not defend this young woman’s death before Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. I could not defend it on Yawm Al-Qiyamah. And I could not defend it in a court of law.

It took me over an hour to walk back to my car. I passed through rough neighborhoods, receiving hard looks and the occasional catcall. I paid no mind. I walked on autopilot, my feet reckoning the path while my brain cycled through guilt, blame and recrimination, again and again. I saw the shower curtain tearing free. Dead eyes as blue as a glacier. A spray of freckles and blood on white shoulders.

Had I pulled the trigger? I couldn’t recall. It felt like I had. My fingers twitched, remembering.

At some point I could not take any more self-castigation. Like fog hitting a prison wall, my mind drifted sideways. Walking mile after mile, I found myself thinking about Salman Al-Farisi’s journey. I had read the story many times, and knew it by heart:

After his father chained him up, Salman sent word to the Christians through an intermediary to notify him the next time a caravan was going south to Ash-Sham (Syria). They did so, and Salman freed himself from the chains and signed on. He was a mere child traveling into the unknown, driven by a burning need to find the truth about the Creator.

When Salman arrived in Ash-Sham, he asked for the most religious among the people. They pointed him to the bishop, and Salman became the bishop’s assistant.

He soon learned that the bishop was corrupt. The man had hoarded charity donations into seven jars of gold and silver. When the bishop died, Salman revealed his corruption to the people, who reacted by crucifying and stoning the bishop’s body.

The people replaced the bishop with another, who turned out to be sincere and righteous. Salman would later say that he never met a better non-Muslim than that man, nor a man more detached from the dunya – the material world – and attached to the afterlife, nor a man more devoted to righteous work. “I loved him more than anything I loved before,” Salman said.

When that bishop’s death approached, Salman asked him to refer him to someone else. The bishop complained that the people had altered the true religion of Allah. “I do not know of anyone who is still holding to what I follow except a man in Al-Moosil (Iraq),” the bishop said.

So Salman traveled to Iraq, whereupon he met that priest and served him until once again the holy man’s death approached. The priest recommended Salman to another in a city called Nasiyebeen. The story repeated itself. Salman found the man in Nasiyebeen and served him until he in turn was on his deathbed. Salman asked him where he should go. The man referred Salman to a teacher in Ammooriyyah, a city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Salman found the man in Ammoriyyah and served him, and again the man grew elderly and his death neared.

Now Salman’s path changed, for when he asked where he should go, the teacher said, ‘O son! I don’t know of anyone who is on the same (religion) as we are. However, the time of emergence of a Prophet will shade you. This Prophet is on the same religion of Ibraaheem.’

The teacher had a deep understanding of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and had seen within them the clear signs of the approach of a true Prophet.

“He comes from Arabia,” the teacher continued, “and migrates to a place located between landscapes of black stones. Palm trees spread between these stones. He has certain well known signs. He (accepts) and eats (from) a gift but does not eat from charity. The seal of Prophethood is between his shoulders. If you can move to that land, then do so.”

The holy man died. Salman stayed in Ammooriyyah until one day some merchants from the Arab tribe of Kalb passed by. Salman said, “Take me to Arabia and I will give you my cows and the only sheep I have.” The Arabs agreed. Salman gave them his possessions and they took him along. When they reached Wadee Al-Qura (close to Madinah), they betrayed him and sold him as a slave to a Jew.

Salman stayed with the Jew and worked as a slave, for he had seen the palm trees of Madinah and hoped this would be the place described by the holy man.

* * *

I thought about Salman’s willingness to completely sever himself from the misguided people of his past in order to serve Allah as purely as he could. Nothing motivated him but the truth. He traveled from one land to another, leaving behind whatever friends he had made, keeping no attachments to anything worldly, placing himself completely in Allah’s hands. When the time came he gave up everything he owned, all his animals, and consigned himself to an unknown fate, just to get closer to the Prophet he believed would soon appear.

Even when he was sold into slavery he did not rebel, did not run away, and why? Because he believed himself to be in the land of the coming Prophet, and that was all he cared about. The truth, the truth, the truth. That was his obsession and his dream, his mission and his sole care in this life.

I did not know how to apply the lessons of Salman’s life to my own. I did not know what I should do, or where I should go. I already had the truth that Salman had so desperately sought. I had the Quran and the Sunnah. I had Islam, and a good and kind-hearted teacher in Imam Saleh. So why was I such a mess? Why did I keep stumbling into these terrible situations? Why couldn’t I divorce myself from my misguided past as Salman had done?

I resolved to be done with Badger. Yes, I was responsible in a way for Malik Sulawesi’s death. Yes, Amiri was one of my oldest friends. But he was on an express highway to self-destruction – no rest stops and no detours – and I could not ride it with him, not if I hoped to stay sane. Not if I didn’t want to be altered into something I myself would not recognize.

Of course this was locking the hangar after the jet had taken off. A woman was dead. She was possibly innocent and possibly not, but she was dead and I had been a part of it.

Small Masjid

“I found myself in front of the masjid…”

Finally reaching my car, I drove. I wasn’t sure where I was going until I looked up to see that I had – completely without conscious thought – driven to Masjid Madinah. Furthermore, the parking lot was full.

Of course. Today was Jum’ah. I was late, but the salat was apparently not over. I parked a block away and walked to the masjid, where I weaved my way through the packed congregation. I was focused on finding an empty spot in the rear and was not yet paying attention to Imam Saleh’s khutbah, until a word penetrated my fogged brain and froze me in place as if I’d just stepped in cement. “Murder.”

I turned my head toward Imam Saleh, who stood atop a small minbar at the front of the masjid. I half expected him to be pointing at me in accusation. But he stood tall in a gray thobe and white kufi, his hands animated but not singling me out. He went on:

“Murder is wrong. Attributing such crimes to Islam is despicable. The slaughter of innocent people is barbaric.”

I was a marble statue. In my confusion and fear – and I was indeed afraid – even my breathing seemed to have stopped. Was Imam Saleh speaking directly to me? Did he somehow know what I had done? Was he exposing my sin to the world? Was everyone looking at me, and seeing the stain of blood on my hands? I took off my fedora and held it to my chest, as if I could use it to shield myself against his words.

“The Messenger of Allah” – the Imam continued – “peace and blessings of Allah upon him, said, ‘No one of you murders at the time that he murders and remains a believer. Therefore, beware, beware!’ Ibn Hibban, 5979. One version of this Hadith mentions, ‘Faith is stripped from him like his trousers. When he returns to faith, it returns to him.’ In other words, as long as he is engaged in murderous acts, he cannot claim to be a man of faith. If he were to die in such a condition, he would die a disbeliever.”

Still I stood. Someone tapped me on the leg, no doubt because I was blocking his way. The Imam went on:

“The Prophet (peace and blessing of Allah upon him) mentioned, ‘A Muslim is one from whose tongue and hand all of the people are safe.’ Ahmad, 6753; Tabarani, 3170. This hadith tells us that anyone who unleashes words of hate against people, or commits acts of violence against them, is not a true Muslim. Rather, such a person is a hypocrite, shaming himself through his actions.”

Again someone tugged on my pants leg. The pull seemed to draw the energy out of me, so that I suddenly felt weak and dizzy. My legs gave out, and I reached for the ground with one hand as I sank heavily. A middle aged brother with a black beard shuffled to the side with a grunt of displeasure. I managed not to fall right on him. I sat cross legged and covered my face in my hands, breathing hard. Someone touched my shoulder in concern but I paid no mind.

Imam Saleh continued to talk. At some point it dawned on me that he was not speaking specifically about me. He was referring to acts of terrorism committed by so-called Muslims.

“All these narrations,” the Imam went on, “make it unequivocally clear that the depraved murderers who have embarked on a campaign of terror and war against their hosts, neighbors, fellow citizens, the innocent public, and against guiltless men, women and children, have joined the ranks of the devils and betrayed everything Islam stands for. Faith has died in their hearts. They have abandoned their religion and forfeited their humanity. They do not act in the name of Islam. They have no honor, and deserve only contempt.

“Confronting the rising scourge of terrorism is one of the great challenges of our age. To defeat it may require sweeping changes within the Muslim world – social changes, economic changes, political changes, and most of all spiritual changes. We must return to an understanding of Islam as a religion of compassion, kindness, and civil discourse. We must honor our relationship with the Creator, worshiping Him sincerely, and we must then extend that sincerity to our interactions with all people. May Allah give us the strength to complete this task.”

When the khutbah was over I stood and prayed mechanically with the congregation. I wanted to break down and plead with Allah for forgiveness, but I feared to release my emotions, for doing so might lead me to a complete breakdown.

When salat was over, I sat again, my eyes fixed on the heavy carpet as men shook hands, chatted and filed out of the masjid. A few brothers greeted me and tried to speak to me but I did not respond.

At some point it sank into my awareness that someone had been repeating my name insistently. I raised my eyes to find Aziz Al-Qudsi crouching in front of me, dressed in a beautiful gray suit and yellow tie. Like me, he had straight black hair, though he kept his very short. He was a handsome man whose appearance was marred only by the prominent bend in the bridge of his nose, from when Amiri had broken it in a sparring session when we were kids. Martial arts had never come naturally to Aziz, and he’d been the first of us to give it up, which he did when I moved to Qatar.

I was surprised to see him, since Aziz lived in Menlo Park, about a half hour south of San Francisco, and I had not seen him in at least a year. Taller than me at about six feet even, Aziz seemed to have it all. One year older than me, he was the eldest of the Five Musketeers and by far the most successful. In school he’d been the one student whose grades I could never beat. He’d gone on to earn an MBA from Stanford and at the age of twenty five had created a messaging app similar to Skype, which he later sold to Microsoft for a large sum of money. He then started his own venture capital fund. I had no doubt he was a multi-millionaire.

He was also an Islamic scholar in his own right. He’d become fascinated by traditional Islamic scholarship when we were still in high school. When the rest of us wanted to go to a movie, or ride our dirt bikes in the foothills, or practice Kali at Roeding Park, Aziz wanted to sit at the masjid and read 12th century Islamic texts in Arabic. Later, between earning his Bachelor’s degree and his MBA, he managed to earn a distance degree in Islamic studies from IIUM in Malaysia.

On top of everything else, he was happily married with three children.

He grasped my shoulder, his eyes wide with alarm. “Zaid! Shu feek? What’s wrong?”

I gave him a weak smile, but I think it must have looked ghastly, because the worry on his face increased.

“Marhaba, Aziz,” I said finally.

He let out a sigh of relief. “I’ve been saying your name for five minutes, man! What’s going on?”

“Nothing. What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for the FIA fundraiser tomorrow.”

Of course, I thought wryly. Aziz and a sister named Kawthar had comprised the entire first graduating class of the Fresno Islamic Academy. Kawthar went on to earn simultaneous degrees in medicine and law. Unbelievable, right? Who does that? Aziz and Kawthar were both frequently invited to speak at FIA fundraisers. They were held up as shining success stories and proof of the school’s academic excellence.

I’d attended FIA as well in my youth, though not in high school. I wasn’t holding my breath waiting to be invited to a fundraiser. Not that I cared. I thought it was funny, actually. We’re not all success stories, folks! But never mind that, hand over your money and your gold…

“Are you sure you’re okay, Stick?”

“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. “I despise that name.”

He withdrew his hand from my shoulder. He looked dismayed. “I’m sorry, Zaid, I -”

“No, no,” I cut in. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m just tired. It’s good to see you Aziz, but I don’t feel like talking.”

I did not resent Aziz’s success. Truly, I was happy for him. But our lives had gone in such wildly divergent directions that he could never understand who I was now. How could I possibly tell him about the things I’d seen and done? Can a man who’s never been uncomfortable understand what it is to shiver in cold all night long, or to spend the entire night awake in the dark with a homemade knife in your hand, waiting for the attack you know is coming?

Aziz said something about me attending the fundraiser. I did not respond, and at some point he moved off. After a while the lights shut off in the masjid. My mind drifted. The shot that Pinkie had fired still echoed in my head. I saw the redhead falling, the look of disbelief in her wintry eyes, the freckles on her shoulders like a field of wheat… I kept thinking of the ayah from Surat Al-Baqarah where Allah says, “wa laa tulquw bi-aydeekum ilat-tahluka…” – and do not throw yourselves with your own hands into destruction… Again and again these words played in my head, as I saw myself being cast by two fierce and terrible hands – my own hands, magnified into clawed horrors – into the fires of Hell.

At some point my vision focused and I saw that Imam Saleh sat cross legged in front of me. He watched me, saying nothing. My fedora sat on the ground between us.

“I-” my voice came out in a croak. I cleared my throat and and tried again. “I’ve made bad choices. I have destroyed myself.”

The Imam was silent for some time. Finally he leaned forward and tapped my chest. “I believe in your heart, akh Zaid. I look at you and see a good man. If all the world were arrayed into three camps: the forces of good, the forces of evil, and those who merely stand and watch, I would look for you within the camp of the forces of good.”

“You wouldn’t find me there,” I said bitterly.

“Come now. If you approach Allah with repentance, He will come to you with forgiveness even greater than it, no matter what you have done. And you know what, akh Zaid?”

“What?”

“I still behold that light in your eyes. You have not completed your work. You’re in pain, I see that. Spiritual pain is a wake up call. It is a motivator to change. It is not there to cripple you, but to drive you toward Allah, and to stimulate you to act. Replace a bad deed with a good one. That is the way forward. Call upon Allah, dig deep within yourself, be courageous as I know you are, and act. I know no one else like you brother, but I know that the world needs more such men.”

I didn’t know what to say. For the second time in as many days, here was someone expressing faith in me – first Jamilah, and now the Imam. In the past I’d gone years without hearing such words. But they didn’t know. They didn’t know how many terrible mistakes I had made.

Fedora

“He rolled my fedora up his arm…”

Imam Saleh picked up my fedora, and, extending his arm, rolled it up his arm to his shoulder. It was just like a professional magic trick, and I was amazed that he could do that. Smiling, he placed the hat on my head and clapped me on the shoulder. “I’ll be in my office,” he said. “Stay as long as you need.” With that he departed.

I stood on shaky legs and prayed. I took my time, holding each position for long minutes and fighting not to break into tears, for though I was not ashamed to cry before Allah, I feared that if I allowed the tears to spring forth, they would never stop.

When I was done I stood and walked out of the masjid. No answers had spontaneously manifested in my heart. No voice whispered to me, no vision appeared. Had my prayer been answered? Was I forgiven? I did not know.

What I did know was that there was a child out there who was afraid and abused. I had been hired to find her, and that was exactly what I would do Insha’Allah. Come burning sun or raging river, bad men or bad blood, I would find this child. I could not resurrect the redhead who’d been shot in the shower. I could not change what had happened to Malik Sulawesi ten years ago. I could not save any of the millions around the world suffering from tyranny, torture, starvation, disease or drought. I could not reverse time and prevent the catastrophe that had befallen my Palestinian people.

But I could find one child, God help me.

Find Tarek, I told myself. Find the father first, then the daughter.

Thinking of Anna brought to mind my daughter Hajar. School at the FIA ended after Jum’ah prayer on Fridays, so Hajar would be home now. In the car, I took out my phone and called, only to get Safaa’s voicemail. Most likely she didn’t want to answer. Probably thought I was going to pester her again about our marriage. I texted her: “Please have Hajar call me when she’s free.

I drove down to Jamestown Street. Like I’d told Badger, I did not know this area. No matter. I would use my eyes, ears and shoe leather, like any gumshoe. I parked in a shaded spot and watched the life on the street through the binoculars. There were homeless people everywhere in this neighborhood, standing about in groups, wandering singly with shopping carts piled high with belongings, or coming and going. Men who were clearly drug dealers stood on the corners, selling their wares with impunity. I observed the patterns of movement, noting the buildings that attracted the most traffic.

I noted a shuttered four-story building a block from my location. It was a weathered wooden structure that might once have been painted red but was now a drab grayish-pink. Some windows were boarded up, while others simply gaped open, the glass long vanished. A faded sign painted on the side announced, “Sheya Gardens Hotel.” Piles of litter were strewn about on all sides. I’d seen many people slipping through a gap in a loose board that covered the door.

I locked up my car, walked to the Sheya Gardens Hotel, and squeezed my way through the boarded up doorway. What I found inside was a world unlike anything I’d ever imagined.

Next: Zaid Karim Private Investigator, Chapter 10 – Finding Tarek

Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

50 Comments

50 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Amatullah

    April 4, 2017 at 9:02 AM

    Whoa! This chapter was full of events unforeseen. Zaid’s character is being refined by each passing episode. Zaid’s personality in my eyes was that of a not-so-mature middle aged man with full of emotions until the murder happened. He now looks more mature to understand his mistake, accept it and move on. Imam Saleh played an important role here-that which everyone needs in life, Emotional support.
    ” If all the world were arrayed into three camps: the forces of good, the forces of evil, and those who merely stand and watch, I would look for you within the camp of the forces of good” — This was beautiful and also Imam-istic :D.
    (My abba is an Imam and he talks like that too, always making up scenarios)

    And yeah, the Note at the end is depressing but nevertheless I hope the wait will be worth it.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      April 4, 2017 at 10:51 PM

      Amatullah, sounds like you have a wise abba / Imam.

  2. Avatar

    Bareerah

    April 4, 2017 at 5:02 PM

    As if we have to wait till JUNE for the next part…*sob*…the story is really coming together though masha Allah can’t wait to find out how it ends.

  3. Avatar

    Abdullah Ahmad

    April 4, 2017 at 10:18 PM

    Nooooooo! I can’t wait until June!!
    Subhanallah brother, what an interesting character development. Zaid is a complete mystery to figure. Keep up the good work. We will Eagerly await the next part in June inshallah

  4. Avatar

    Bint A

    April 4, 2017 at 11:20 PM

    That’s a long time. But we had our fair share of sabr-training with Ouroboros …. one year to be exact. And it was well worth the wait. So June shouldn’t be that bad hopefully …

    Cheers anyways at the book launching. Keep us updated and all the best with the rest.

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      April 10, 2017 at 3:25 PM

      I agree that the Ouroboros was the best I especially love the characters, I want them two to be back together as happy family. I didn’t have the training as you know what happened with me (Latest post), because it’s too amazing to resist form going on to the next chapter. I basically finished it in less than two weeks or less not sure but it’s possible.
      Jazk, for your great stories and taking the time out to write awesome stories for us and cooperation.
      PS: Yesterday was my birthday.

  5. Avatar

    Maryam

    April 4, 2017 at 11:44 PM

    So we aren’t going to have one every Tuesday. Aww, man.

    Brother, Wael there are a few mistakes, sorry but the word “or” is written twice, just want it to be good I guess.
    Jazk.

  6. Avatar

    SZH

    April 6, 2017 at 8:20 AM

    Another fascinating part of another beautiful story!
    And now we have to face the wait for same period which we had faced in Hassaan’s story. This time I will try to be patient. :-P
    When, do you think, the book will be available? If it is coming in two weeks, I will get it through my aunt (I assume that you will have it available for ICNA convention :-D). Otherwise I will have to find some other way to get it here in Pakistan.
    Anyway, I pray that you may be able to complete all your plans in the best way. JazakAllah Khair.

    • Avatar

      Maryam

      April 10, 2017 at 2:59 PM

      Br.Wael, I loved Hassan more and I wish you could write more about the Haddad’s and Charlie.

  7. Avatar

    Nasra Ban

    April 7, 2017 at 10:24 AM

    Deary sneary i have to wait till June. Oh my, how will i survive lol im sure it will be worth the wait.?

  8. Avatar

    Mohammed

    April 8, 2017 at 4:44 AM

    Being a gear head, I must point out that Corvettes were always 2 seater sports cars. You don’t have to publish this comment nor edit the story though if you don’t want to. It’s just an observation and I figured I should point it out.
    Very good read so far, MashaAllah. Thanks

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      April 8, 2017 at 5:50 AM

      Mohammed, would there be any space for two others to squeeze in behind the seat? Like a small cargo space or something? Or even just for a third person?

  9. Avatar

    Mutmainnah

    April 9, 2017 at 11:07 AM

    This is the first time I actually caught up, I’ve only started reading your books about two weeks ago, and I would be so thankful that I don’t have to wait to read the next chapter. Now this week I knew that I was catching up, so I tried to slow down, but I ended up coming to the end to see that karma turned around and bit me. Now I have to wait nine weeks!
    MashaAllah, this is amazing. I think I like Zaid better than Hassan. I don’t know, he seems more real to me.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      April 9, 2017 at 12:32 PM

      Mutmainnah, you read ALL of my online books in two weeks?

      • Avatar

        Mutmainnah

        April 9, 2017 at 8:55 PM

        What can I say? Your books are amazing. If it wasn’t for midterms, I would have even finished faster. I really liked your books. I was using it to reward myself for studying.
        MashaAllah tabarak Allah

  10. Avatar

    Maryam

    April 10, 2017 at 3:07 PM

    Me too Mutmainnah I read it less than two weeks, no joke and no sarcasm your books are amazing Br. Wael.
    SZH you’re in Pakistan?? Man I wish I could visit there.
    MA good going Br. Wael you have readers all way there.
    I was introduced to these series a whole website when I was in 8th grade, I completely forgot about it. I was just browsing around maybe and Allah (SWT) put it thorough my mind I was astonished that I recalled how the website looked I skipped the two chapters because we read them in our Islamic studies class.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      April 10, 2017 at 3:37 PM

      Maryam, what chapters are you referring to that you read in Islamic studies class?

      • Avatar

        Maryam

        April 10, 2017 at 8:48 PM

        Why? Oh the first three I haven’t checked but if I recall, it includes the one your about to publish where Layth and Khadija meet -> he is a taxi driver, and then Layth gets married in the masjid and we stopped where Khadija put a hijab on Jamilah.

    • Avatar

      SZH

      April 14, 2017 at 1:54 AM

      Yup, I live in Pakistan. A great country in not-so-great conditions. You can visit here, there is no visa ban or anything. :-)

  11. Avatar

    Suzy I.

    April 10, 2017 at 5:53 PM

    I can’t believe you left me hanging! Here I am at the airport, all settled in to read your story, and find out what happened. Patience was never one of my strong suits, so please hurry with the ending!

  12. Avatar

    Maryam

    April 11, 2017 at 9:01 AM

    Br.Wael, I loved Hassan more and I wish you could write more about the Haddad’s and Charlie. -Jazk.

    Why? Oh the first three I haven’t checked but if I recall, it includes the one your about to publish where Layth and Khadija meet -> he is a taxi driver, and then Layth gets married in the masjid and we stopped where Khadija put a hijab on Jamilah.
    Jazk

  13. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    April 14, 2017 at 2:02 AM

    As-salamu alaykum everyone. The new, novel-length version of Pieces of a Dream is now available on Amazon, in paperback and ebook formats:

    http://a.co/1YaPAaf

    It is triple the length of the story found here on MM, with added chapters exploring Louis’s relationship with his family, and the appearance of a troubling figure from his past. It is published in partnership with MM, with half the profit going to support the website.

  14. Avatar

    Maryam

    April 16, 2017 at 2:25 PM

    I just saw it but Br. what clicked in my mind was as soon as I read the intro you’re suspicious, just kidding are all the characters based on your life because it said that you worked as a cab driver in San Francisco and as a dispatcher, it’s fine but you made it totally non-relate-able I’m just guessing.

    How did your conference about writing??

    • Avatar

      Maryam

      April 19, 2017 at 4:27 PM

      How did your conference about writing go??

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        April 19, 2017 at 7:13 PM

        It was good Alhamdulillah. The audience had many questions about the process of writing. I think between myself and Umm Zakiyyah we gave them some good answers.

        • Avatar

          Maryam

          April 23, 2017 at 12:48 PM

          I just saw it but Br. what clicked in my mind was as soon as I read the intro you’re suspicious, just kidding are all the characters based on your life because it said that you worked as a cab driver in San Francisco and as a dispatcher, it’s fine but you made it totally non-relate-able I’m just guessing.

  15. Avatar

    SZH

    April 28, 2017 at 7:29 AM

    Salaam, brother Wael. I just visited MM to checkout on any update. I am glad the book has been published. Is it possible to ship books here? I want to buy at least 3 of them.

    • Avatar

      SZH

      April 28, 2017 at 7:32 AM

      By here I mean Pakistan. Karachi, to be exact.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        April 28, 2017 at 10:18 AM

        Right. I will look into it Insha’Allah.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        April 28, 2017 at 5:37 PM

        SZH, I don’t see a way to do this right now. Perhaps in the future, if the demand exists, I will do a print run in Pakistan with a Pakistani publisher, Insha’Allah.

        Of course, you could always buy the ebook. I know it’s not the same as holding an actual book in you hands.

        • Avatar

          SZH

          May 3, 2017 at 12:02 AM

          Ohk.. By the way, I had published few books when I was in a student organization in my university.
          Anyway, now I have to find a way to sneak it in. :-)

  16. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    May 25, 2017 at 7:17 PM

    UPDATE 5-25-2017: I know I said June 6th, but I’ll have to postpone the next chapter until the end of Ramadan. Sorry about that. I just completed some other projects I’ve been working on, and I’m turning my attention back to this story now. Also, I know MM prefers to focus on Ramadan topics during Ramadan. In the meantime, perhaps you could purchase and read Pieces of a Dream, if you haven’t done so already :-) I’m sure you’ll enjoy it Insha’Allah.

  17. Avatar

    Maryam

    June 6, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    Can’t wait till today oh aww man until I read the bottom I hope it’s worth the wait!!
    Jazk though!

  18. Avatar

    Sarah

    July 2, 2017 at 1:06 PM

    Assalamu alaykum,

    It’s been a while since I have read Ouroboros, and I went online to re-read some of your work, when I found that Pieces of a Dream was in print! I immediately bought it and loved it. Layth’s character development and the extra chapters made it a well rounded and awesome read. Jazak Allah khayr. After I finished it, I immediately went online hoping for something more, and I was surprised to find Zaid’s story!! Now having completed it, I am anxiously waiting the next part.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      July 2, 2017 at 2:04 PM

      Wa alaykum as-salam Sarah. Thanks so much for your comments. The next two chapters of Zaid Karim are written, but I’m going to hold off for two weeks before publishing them because I’ve realized there are a number of internal issues that need to be addressed. The teacher/nurse contradiction is one. There are also some contradictions in the timeline of Zaid’s life. So I need to fix those, and I’m also rewriting some previous scenes altogether. Give me two weeks Insha’Allah and the next chapter of Zaid Karim should be out by mid July.

      By the way, if you wouldn’t mind leaving a quick review of Pieces of a Dream on Amazon, I’d be grateful, thanks.

      By the way, you’re not the Sarah I just talked to at the ISNA convention, are you?

      • Avatar

        Sarah

        July 2, 2017 at 2:23 PM

        No I am not, I wasn’t there :) Will the other parts be put out in print soon as well.
        One of the things I love about your stories that makes me enjoy rereading them is the real life connections the characters have with ayat or ahadith. I forgot which chapter it was in, but I loved when Zaid woke up and prayed salat ad Duha even though he didn’t all the time because he felt like it was a duha kind of morning based on what he was going through at the time. The characters inspire me to engage with the book of Allah even though I don’t feel like I’m at the place I want to be spiritually in my life.
        Yes inshaa Allah I will definitely leave a review on Amazon.

  19. Avatar

    Sarah

    July 2, 2017 at 2:30 PM

    By the way, I’m sorry to bring it up this point because it is already in print, but there were a few typos in Pieces of a Dream. Nothing major and I’m not sure if you’d want to address it, just thought I’d let you know.
    Jazak Allah khayr

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      July 2, 2017 at 2:35 PM

      You must have been an early buyer. I have since corrected the typos. The current copies available online are all good, Insha’Allah. So you have a colllector’s edition, ha ha.

  20. Avatar

    Dahlia

    July 4, 2017 at 4:33 PM

    Okay, I’m waiting for the next chapter! Please share the link if I’m missing it .

  21. Avatar

    AA

    July 5, 2017 at 11:33 PM

    Here, once again, searching for Zaid Karim. And although I appreciate things happen and life takes over, you have many readers who have been patiently waiting for the next chapter. Please could you let us know what is happening, and when? Also, to be even more demanding, we should be treated to not the 1 but the 2 chapters (you mentioned above), as we’ve been wonderfully patient, no? :)

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      July 7, 2017 at 9:26 PM

      AA, you have definitely been patient. Please continue to be and I promise you will see part 10 before the end of July Insha’Allah. I’m at the very end of a major writing project that I absolutely must finish first, then I have to rewrite some scenes from Zaid Karim. So hang in there. I have not forgotten my readers.

      • Avatar

        AA

        July 8, 2017 at 11:21 PM

        Thank you for your reply Wael. Can’t help being greedy. And can’t wait! Insha’Allah. Best of luck with your project in the meantime.

  22. Avatar

    Maryam

    July 12, 2017 at 4:43 PM

    Aoa, Brother when will you be writing again? I’ve checked a few times just returning to close the tab. As today, when i checked I decided to read the last portion of Zaid Karim again, it’s good you can take your time.
    – Jazk

  23. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    July 21, 2017 at 3:27 PM

    Working on it now. Finished my other project (a soon-to-be-released novel called The Repeaters, not Muslim fiction, just mainstream urban fantasy). So I’m back to this now. Won’t be long Insha’Allah.

  24. Avatar

    Maryam

    August 6, 2017 at 7:54 PM

    Jazk! For the response I’ve been checking every Tuesday I don’t want to lose interest in a great novel like this.

  25. Avatar

    Abdullah Ahmad

    August 8, 2017 at 8:02 PM

    Assalamu Alaikum Brother Wael,
    Any update on the next chapter? Eagerly waiting…
    :)

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 8, 2017 at 9:30 PM

      It was supposed to be published today. Most likely the editor is unavailable or traveling. I will look into it Insha’Allah.

      • Avatar

        Maryam Moeen

        August 13, 2017 at 1:45 AM

        Jazk Brother, I’ve been waiting just wanted to check by no waiting I’m reading it. Wait, why was hes taking four pills is it because of the stash house I don’t quite remember him getting hurt. I checked, might be wrong.

        • Avatar

          Wael Abdelgawad

          August 13, 2017 at 3:08 AM

          You mean in part 10? His arm was badly slashed by one of the robbers in the drug house.

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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 7: The Underground Dream

Behind them, the city was burning. Omar and a thousand others descended into the cave, led by the red-robed Saviors.

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Published

Caves of Borneo

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

“Not without you,” – Omar

Eggplant

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Omar’s mother flipped when she saw the bruising on his face – how could she not, when the whole right side of his face was the color of an eggplant – and demanded to know who had attacked him, but he merely told her he’d slipped and fallen in a pothole, which was true as far as it went. No point in freaking her out further with the details. Though Omar didn’t see why she should care. Nemesio had beaten him for years and she hadn’t stopped it. Why should it matter now? It smacked of hypocrisy.

He was not the type to give up on anything, so the next morning he ate the breakfast his mother prepared – scrambled eggs, corn tortillas with white cheese, and coffee – and set out again for Hani’s house. This time he made it without incident, although he was exhausted by the time he got there, and his shirt and hair were damp with sweat.

Hani lived in an orange-colored home with peeling paint and a high metal fence surrounding a tiny front yard. Curiously, there was a moving van parked in front of the house, and a stack of boxes on the front patio.

Hani’s mother, a thin Arab woman with a long face just like her son’s, answered the door.

“Omar!” she said warmly. “It’s been too long.” Then her eyes took in the scars on his face, his half-ruined ear, and the massive purple bruise on his face, and her smile faded. “What happened?” She pointed to her own cheek. “Is that bruising from the… the incident?”

“No. I fell down yesterday. But I’m fine.”

“I see. Be careful.” She seemed at a loss for a moment, then she said, “I saw you on television. Congratulations for the award.”

“Are you guys moving?”

Her smile faded. “Yes. We are moving to Bogotá. For Hani’s father’s work, you understand. I know Hani will miss you.”

“Oh.” Omar was taken aback. He and Hani had known each other since they were little. Now he was moving without warning? Omar doubled up his hands on the cane, resting more weight on it. “When are you leaving?”

“In a few days. Hani is not here. He went with his father to buy boxes.”

“Oh.” Knowing he must sound like a simpleton. “Should I come back later?”

Hani’s mother hesitated, emotions playing on her face like the shadows of rain clouds. “Maybe not. He will be very busy.”

Omar did not understand. He wanted to ask if she could give him a ride home, but was too embarrassed. He walked slowly home and collapsed into bed for a long afternoon nap.

Underground

Caves of Borneo Behind them, the city was burning. Not from bombs, but from the hands of citizens against citizens. But the bombs would fall soon, they were told, so they were led into the cave and down into the depths of the mountain’s roots, a thousand of them shuffling toe to heel in the shifting darkness, lit by the pale illumination of the hand-powered flashlights carried by the red-robed Saviors.

Omar craned his head at the barely seen walls and ceilings of the caverns they passed through. The cave was frigid and damp, and he could not imagine this as his new home.

They would be safe here, they were told, and would be fed. But they must work. Life would be hard. Such was the price of survival.

And oh, they did work. Not at farming, technology, communications, or tending to the sick. No, they worked at one thing: mining for gold. Omar was a digger, excavating shafts and spiral tunnels. Others were muckers, removing blasted materials, or mixers, using cyanide to break down the ore. Some died from the poisonous fumes. Others were killed by cave-ins, vanished into unseen pits or crevices, or died of malnutrition or exhaustion. The “food,” if it could be called that, consisted of freeze dried meals, holding as much moisture and flavor as cave dust.

A few objected to the unceasing work and terrible food. One in particular, a young man named Javier, stirred up a fuss. One day the Saviors seized him. They held a public trial, declared Javier a traitor, and dropped him into a bottomless crevice that everyone called the Pit. After that no one complained.

Omar saw Samia from time to time. She was lucky enough to be a dowser – one of the gifted few who had the ability to find veins of gold. The only tool she used was a small candle floating in a bowl of water, which she carried with her. Somehow it worked. She was better fed than the others but still thin, all her baby fat gone, and her skin had a grayish tint that worried Omar.

One of Omar’s co-laborers, a former Ngäbe-Buglé leader by the name of Toribio, had broken a rib when a supporting beam snapped. Omar covered for him, working twice as hard, doing Toribio’s work as well as his own. In return, Toribio gave Omar an entire loaf of flatbread. Real bread! Omar could not imagine where it had come from, and Toribio would not say.

That night, Omar slinked stealthily into the women’s sleeping area, where he found Samia jammed into a too-small sleeping hole. He woke her with a hand over her mouth, and gave her the bread. Her eyes widened and she nodded, and Omar departed as silently as he had come.

Toribio’s broken rib must have punctured his lung, because his condition grew worse, until one morning he would not wake. He was barely breathing, and his skin was ashen. Omar knew what would happen. The Saviors would throw the wounded man into the pit. His eyes flicked to Toribio’s boots. Toribio was small, about the same size as Samia. He would not need the boots where he was going. Omar unlaced them and pulled them off, feeling like a criminal.

That night, he slipped into the women’s area and gave Samia the boots. But one of the women must have seen him and reported him, because the next morning the Saviors yanked him out of the work line and beat him with a stave, until he was bruised and bleeding everywhere.

Omar knew that something was not right. If the Saviors cared about saving anyone, they would not treat people so cruelly. Also, the Saviors claimed that they met with other survivor clans and traded the mined gold for supplies. But if that were true, then why were they eating dreck and wearing rags? Why did they sleep in tiny rock chambers that they dug out themselves with hand tools?

Above ground, they were told, the world was a ruin. The cities were destroyed, the forests burned, the air poisoned. Only in these depths was there any hope of survival. But Omar wondered… The Saviors were robust, not starving like everyone else. And what would a ruined world need with gold?

Late one night, Omar followed one of the Saviors. If he were caught he’d be publicly beaten, and might not survive. He followed at the edge of the man’s light as the red-robed overseer sneaked up a narrow tunnel that led to a locked door. Omar memorized the route, knowing that if he came this way alone he would do it in darkness. The man unlocked the door and slipped through. Omar could not follow.

The next day, as he was carrying a wheelbarrow full of unprocessed ore, he bumped into that same Savior. The ore tumbled out. The man shouted in rage and beat Omar with a stick, splitting his cheek and bruising his ribs. But Omar had what he wanted: he’d slipped the key out of the man’s pocket in the chaos.

Late that night he crept out of his sleeping chamber and traveled up the long corridor in pitch darkness, walking with his eyes closed, relying on memory. He reached the door, unlocked it, and found no more than a continuation of the tunnel. But… wasn’t there a whisper of a breeze? He continued. Was the tunnel rising? And the air… it was fresher. Now he saw light ahead, not bright but a lighter shade of darkness than the inky depths below.

The tunnel emerged into the vast openness of the surface world. It was night, and the stars shone blindingly in the sprawling firmament. Had the sky always been so vast? Omar could not remember. The air was rich with the scents of leaves and soil. A night bird called, and it was the sweetest thing Omar had ever heard. He felt something on his face, wiped it away, and realized he was weeping.

The area was forested, except for a paved road that disappeared into the trees, and a squat stone building with firelight flickering through the windows. Omar heard laughter. He eased forward and peered through a window. Inside was a beautiful dining room with a wide wooden table, colorful fabrics hanging on the walls, and logs burning in a fireplace. At the table sat eight Saviors. Omar recognized their faces, though they looked different without their red robes, which hung on hooks along one wall.

They were feasting on dishes that Omar remembered as if through a dream: whole roasted chickens, platters of fish stewed with vegetables, fresh salads, fried plantains, and sliced mangoes and pineapples. Omar’s mouth was instantly full of saliva. But he must return before someone spotted him. The Saviors would kill him if they caught him. He stopped only long enough to pick up a freshly fallen leaf and thrust it into his pocket.

Back in his sleeping chamber, his mind raced. The people would not believe him. Their obedience of the Saviors was absolute. Every day they were told that they would be dead without the overseers’ vision and guidance, that the surface world was a wasteland, and that only through labor could they be saved. If the people reported him to the Saviors, he would be cast into the Pit.

He could simply leave. The key was burning a hole in his pocket, demanding to be used. There was no need to remain in this tomb of horrors. But… he could not leave without Samia. The two of them hardly spoke. But they were connected in a way he could not explain.

The next night he returned to Samia’s sleeping chamber, knowing someone might see him and report him. It was a risk he must take. In whispers, he told Samia what he had discovered.

She was skeptical. “The surface world is a wasteland, Omar. You were only dreaming. Go away before you get us both in trouble.”

He showed her the leaf. Her eyes widened. She felt it tenderly, smelled it, even bit a piece off and chewed it. She began to weep silently. Finally she thrust the leaf back at him, her hand shaking. “I can’t. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in the Pit. It terrifies me. I can’t, Omar, I can’t. You go. At least one of us will be free of this nightmare. You leave.”

He silenced her with a finger on her lips. “Not without you,” he said softly. Then he departed as silently as he’d come. What could he do? Her fear was more real to her than his promise of freedom.

He hid the key beneath a stone in a disused mining tunnel, and went back to work. He would not abandon Samia. If she wanted to stay and be worked to death in this abyss, then he would do the same.

* * *

He woke with his hands clenched into fists. His heart felt like a withered leaf. Why was Samia so stubborn? Then relief washed over him as he realized it was only a dream. He was not a beaten-down, kidnapped laborer in an underground tomb.

How strange that Samia should appear in his dream. That had never happened before. The eerie thing was that even awake, he could not shake a sense of responsibility and guilt, as if he had truly abandoned some version of her, some alternate personality that existed in that mine, sleeping in a hole in the wall and slowly dying.

Snow in Fiji

After that movie night at his house, Omar had hoped that maybe he’d have actual friends at school. He’d be one of the “in crowd”. Especially now that Tameem and Basem were gone. But with Hani gone as well, Omar was the only boy left in his grade. There was no “crowd” left to be a part of.

Fiji snow globe Sure, the Muhammad sisters were cheery and kind. They brought him little gifts, like homemade cookies, and a snowglobe from Fiji, which was funny, since Omar was sure it had not snowed in Fiji in about five hundred million years. Nabila brought him sports jerseys, a Buffalo Bills baseball cap, and once even a cool pair of navy wraparound shades – all more sponsor swag.

But Halima was remote, finding excuses to avoid him. That stung. Not that he imagined she’d become his girlfriend. He knew that was not allowed in Islam. But when she smiled at him and made witty banter in her Colombian slang, he felt like he was drifting in a rowboat on a clear summer lake, and never wanted the moment to end.

The one time he gathered up the courage to ask Halima why she was so distant, she only smiled ruefully and said, “You’re out of my league, hermano.” Then she walked away. Omar assumed she was being sarcastic, and was actually telling him that she was out of his league. And of course she was right. Chastened, he left her in peace.

As for him and Samia, they mostly went back to ignoring each other. Omar appreciated the way she’d stayed by his side in the hospital, and her words of wisdom. But the two of them had never really been friends, unless you counted the way they’d pranked each other relentlessly when they were little. Samia was too much of a know-it-all for Omar’s taste.

Still, a string of odd incidents made him wonder. Once at lunchtime, a bottle of Pepsi that had been in his lunch bag exploded as he opened it, fountaining all over his face and shirt. Some kids laughed, while others were horrified, hurrying with napkins to help him clean up. What made Omar suspicious was that Samia, who sat at another table with her back to him, did not even turn to look.

Another time, when they sat for keyboarding class, Omar’s computer mouse would not work, no matter how much he jiggled it, unplugged it, and re-plugged it. Finally he turned it over, and saw that someone had stuck a post-it note over the optical sensor. Written on the note was, “HA HA HA.” Omar’s eyes shot to Samia. A Spanish speaker would have written, “JA JA JA.” Using the “h” gave the person away as a native English speaker. But Samia’s eyes were resolutely fixed on her computer screen.

Omar confronted Samia, who only rolled her eyelids and said, “Come on, Omar. That’s kid stuff.”

The Next Person Goes in the Garbage Can

In the middle of that eleventh grade year, a new boy named Fuad arrived to join Omar’s class. Omar was pleased to have another boy to keep him company, but Fuad was an odd duck. The Indian boy spoke in a heavy accent that Omar could barely understand, his eyeglasses were so thick you could see nothing but a blur behind them, and a mass of black hair always hung down over his eyes. He was physically awkward, and would sometimes rush out to the bathroom without even asking the teacher. A strange boy, altogether.

Lightning-scarred oak treeShortly after Fuad arrived, Omar overheard a few 12th graders making fun of him. They were both new kids whose parents had just moved to Panama. Mahboob, the leader, was a heavyset, full-cheeked Pakistani youth who looked more like a brown refrigerator than a high school student. He was known for being physically rough in football games. His sidekick, Asad, had a thin face that looked like a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a mass of curly hair much like Omar’s own.

Omar was sitting with his back against a tree in his usual spot on the yard, while the older boys sat at one of the nearby picnic tables. As Fuad walked past, Mahboob called out to him:

“Hey mophead! You’re so skinny, if we need to clean the floor we could hold you like a mop and use your hair.”

Mahboob grinned at his own joke, and Asad let out a high pitched, giggling laugh.

Fuad turned and said politely, “I beg your pardon? You are saying what about my hair?”

But Omar was already on his feet, striding quickly toward the boys, not even using his cane. He stopped in front of Mahboob and glared at the large youth. The hulking 12th grader could probably have picked up Omar and used him as a conga drum, and for a moment Mahboob looked as if he might be about to say something, but in the end he averted his gaze.

Omar had experienced this with all the kids since the dog attack. They held him in awe, or at the very least respected him. Though these two had not been hear last year, they must have heard about it.

Omar touched an index finger to his lips then pointed sharply with it – an Arab gesture he’d picked up during his years at IIAP. “Wallahi,” he growled, “the next person who bullies Fuad is going in the trash can. Try and see, if you don’t believe me.” He stared at each boy in turn, then walked away.

It wasn’t that he had any great fondness for Fuad. He barely knew him. But he’d been the victim of bullying for years while others stood by, and there was no way on Allah’s sweet earth that Omar was going to become one of those silent bystanders, letting apathy make him complicit in cruelty.

Apparently the bullies didn’t believe him.

The next day, after school dismissal, the Muhammad sisters’ mother, Sister Farida, had offered Omar a ride home. He was about to climb into their SUV when he realized he’d forgotten his homework folder in his desk. The 9th to 12th grade classrooms were located in an outbuilding behind the main building, flanking the basketball court. He went out there, retrieved the folder, and had just exited the classroom when he saw a drama developing between Fuad and the two older boys.

Fuad was apparently retrieving books from his locker. As he did, Mahboob and Asad stood behind him, blocking his way. The yard was mostly empty at that point, with only a few younger kids milling about, and no teachers. No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

As he watched, Fuad said something to the boys and tried to walk away, but Mahboob stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fuad fell heavily on his face. His glasses skittered away, and his backpack opened, the books tumbling out.

The boys laughed. Omar saw Fuad put a hand to his mouth. It came away bloody.

Omar’s vision turned as red as a forest fire. His hands tightened into fists as he strode toward the bullies, not even hearing the clatter of his cane as it fell to the ground.

The look on his face must have been unmistakeable, because when Mahboob saw him coming he raised his hands in fists. His stance was terrible, however. He held his fists along the sides of his ears, as if he were one of the pre-Islamic Arabs trying not to hear the Quran. It was obvious he had no training.

Where the head goes, the body follows – one of the martial arts principles that Sensei Alan had drilled into him over the years. Omar could not lift Mahboob, but he could control the bigger boy’s head. Slapping Mahboob’s hands out of the way, he seized the boy’s hair in one hand and his throat in the other. Giving the twelfth grader no time to react, he used Mahboob’s head to drag him toward the trash can. Mahboob shouted, as did the others, but Omar paid no mind. With a heave, he chucked Mahboob headfirst into the trash barrel, which was brimming with the day’s food leftovers and chewed gum balls. The can could not hold him, and tipped over, dumping the trash onto Mahboob’s head.

Asad jabbed a finger at Omar. “You can’t do that!”

Omar seized the finger and bent it backwards, forcing Asad down to the ground, until he was lying on his stomach. Omar stepped on his neck. Mahboob was up by then, wet, sticky garbage clinging to his shirt and hair. His face was purple with rage and embarrassment. He and the other two boys glared at Omar. Comically, Mahboob took off his sandal and lifted it as if to slap Omar with it. Thank goodness he has no confidence, Omar thought. Or he would just pick me up and slam me.

“I can do this all day,” Omar said calmly. The red fog was gone. He knew what he had done, and didn’t care. Boys like this were wild dogs. His days of backing down to dogs were over. “So far it’s garbage and a bent finger. You want to move up to broken bones?” He turned a fierce stare onto Mahboob. Under the weight of his glare, the hefty boy dropped the sandal and slipped his foot back into it.

Asad screamed and thrashed beneath his foot. Omar removed his foot and stepped back.

“You know about those dogs that attacked me?”

“Yeah, we know!” Asad shouted as he rose to his feet. Tears filled his eyes. “So what?”

“You know what happened to them?”

“No.”

“They’re dead. If you bully Fuad again, I’ll come after you. You outnumber me, but I don’t stop. You’ll have to kill me, or I will kill you.”

Mahboob pointed a shaking finger at Omar, then – apparently remembering what had happened to Hamada – retracted it quickly. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. He turned away, and Asad followed. Mahboob kicked the basketball pole, then cried out in pain and limped on, pulling garbage out of his hair.

Someone touched his shoulder and Omar was surprised to find Fuad standing beside him. The boy had recovered his belongings. His lower lip was split, and he’d apparently wiped the blood away with his white school shirt. The bloodstains looked ghastly.

“You did not have to do that,” Fuad said. “But I thank you nonetheless.”

Omar suppressed a grin at Fuad’s oddly proper English. “It’s nothing.”

The main building’s back door opened, and Nabila stuck her head out. “Omar! We’re waiting for you.”

Omar slapped his forehead. He’d forgotten. Nodding goodbye to Fuad, he retrieved his cane and hustled out to the parking lot. As he settled himself in the van, Nadia said, “What took you so long? I’m writing a book called Rip Van Omar.”

“Oh.” Omar wiped sweat from his forehead. “I got caught in a parade.”

Neither a Miracle Nor a Brute

Omar was worried about the repercussions of the fight. He could be permanently expelled. Nothing happened, however. The other boys apparently did not report the incident. Still, word must have gotten out, because no one so much as spoke a slantwise word to Fuad after that.

Omar also noticed that the deference the other kids afforded him seemed to increase, to the point where he got more respect than the principal. Younger kids came running to him instead of a teacher when someone pushed them around. Some kids brought him fruit or chips. When he made his way down a crowded hallway it cleared in front of him.

Omar and Fuad began eating lunch together. Once Omar got used to the thick accent, he found Fuad to be smart and funny, though his sense of humor – all math and physics jokes – took some getting used to. (Two atoms are walking down the street. One says, “I think I lost an electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first one says, “Yes, I’m positive.”)

One weekend Fuad invited Omar to come to his house to play cards and have dinner. Omar didn’t know any card games, but he accepted. Aside from Fuad and his parents, there was a younger brother with equally thick hair and glasses – Omar had seen him at school, he was a fourth grader – and a little girl named Anika who continually charged around the apartment waving a toy lightsaber.

Indian rice and cauliflower dish When dinner was served, Omar started in on a dish of rice, stewed beef and cauliflower. He took two bites before his mouth began to burn. He gulped down water, but that only made it worse. His eyes began to water, and he was sure his face was cherry red.

Fuad’s mother was apologetic. In spite of Omar’s protests, she went into the kitchen and, ten minutes later, returned with a dish of rice and cauliflower sans spice. For the rest of the evening, nearly everyone teased him about his “tender tongue.” After dinner, Fuad taught him a game called hearts, then the entire family sat to play.

In the middle of the game, Fuad suddenly leaped up and rushed off to the bathroom. Omar laughed. “He does that at school too! Like it’s always an emergency.”

Fuad’s father, a gentle man with a thick moustache, touched Omar’s arm. “He has epilepsy. The medication stops the grand mal seizures, but he still gets petit mal attacks. He can feel them coming, so he runs away to hide. He’s very embarrassed by it.”

Omar was mortified. Fuad’s father must have seen that, because he touched Omar’s arm again. “You did not know. Fuad told us what you did for him. We are grateful.”

Omar visited Fuad many times after that. It was always the same: Fuad’s mom would make one meal for the family, and a separate meal for Omar. Then the family would either play cards, watch a movie or all go for a walk together.

Omar enjoyed these visits, but at the same time he felt like he did not belong. These people were part of something Omar had rarely seen: a happy family. The only other one he’d seen, in fact, was Tio Niko and Tia Teresa’s family. They at least were relatives, and were Panamanians, with all the familiarity, loudness and general nuttiness that implied. But Fuad’s family were polite and soft-spoken – even Anika, the sword wielder, who would charge around waving her lightsaber then lightly tap Omar on the shoulder and say, “Touché, dear sir.”

They were gentle, normal people. Omar had a feeling none had ever committed a violent act, or been a victim of one. Whereas his own life had been immersed in violence for years. His father’s murder. Nemesio beating him. Sparring in karate class. The dog attack. The mugging. He couldn’t escape it. When he sat with Fuad’s family he felt like a fraud. His voice was too loud, his hands too rough, his scars too visible. He was a brute, and he did not belong.

At times, during these visits, Omar felt almost overwhelmed by these feelings. When that happened, he often remembered Samia saying, “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Sometimes the memory of these words would bring tears to his eyes, and he would excuse himself and go to the bathroom to wash his face. As strange as this was to admit, a part of him felt like if anyone truly understood him, it was Samia. He didn’t think he was truly a miracle, as she claimed. But maybe he was not a brute either. Maybe he was something in the middle. Maybe he was just human.

A Lifeline in a Choppy Sea

Aside from the persistent, low-level pain from his injuries – particularly in his left leg, which had actually been broken by the dogs’ teeth – he felt better this year than at any time since his father’s death. Still, there were times when he was dizzied by all the changes, and fell into sadness. Part of him missed having Hani around, exchanging banter with Halima, and practicing karate.

And as crazy as it was, he almost – almost – felt like he missed the abuse and bullying he’d been subjected to. He felt baffled and angry at himself for feeling this way, and cursed himself for being an idiot. What was wrong with him? But the thing was, as terrible as the last four years had been, the viciousness had given his life purpose. Every day he’d awakened and known that the day would be a battle, and he could rely on no one but himself to survive it. Whether it meant keeping his head down and hiding, or turning himself into a stone, so that nothing affected him, his mission was to get through the day without letting it break him. He even missed having to run away to Tia Teresa and Tio Niko’s house when the abuse became intolerable. The constant struggle had defined him.

Now, he felt directionless. There were his studies, sure. And he helped his mom with Puro Panameño after school, boxing products and printing shipping labels. But what was he really doing? Where was he going? He’d never had the luxury of being able to think about these things before.

He’d always been attentive to his salat, but not rigorously so, and had often missed prayers. Now, though, he found himself turning to the salat as if to a lifeline thrown to an overboard sailor in a choppy sea. It wasn’t a conscious choice. The salat reminded him of his days as a small child, when his father had taught him what to say and how to move. It was a respite from confusion. A few still, calm moments in which he knew once again who he was:  not an abused boy entering each new day like a soldier at war, but a servant of Allah, a worshiper, and a member of a nation of 1.5 billion souls. If he had a mission and a purpose, then it must be tied to that, because in the end, nothing else was real.

Love Letter

The year went by, and the next. Every two or three months there would be a new prank. He did not feel bullied by them, though. They were a mystery to be solved. But in two years he never discovered the perpetrator.

He graduated high school with high honors. The scars on his face were much less noticeable, though his ear would always be disfigured. He’d pushed himself with physical therapy and had resumed karate class, though he had to make adjustments. He could not kick with his left leg, for example, and found himself relying more on hand techniques. Sparring was out of the question. He no longer needed a cane, but still walked with a limp.

His mother’s company, Puro Panameño, now had a small warehouse space on the Transistmica, and two full-time employees. Omar worked there part time, taking customer service calls. The customers were almost all women, and the regulars got to know him by name. Some had seen him on TV. They’d ask about his life, and flirt with him in the harmless way many Panamanian women did.

Pink envelope On the last day of school, Halima gave him a small golden envelope, telling him to open it at home. Later, sitting on the edge of his bed, he opened it to find an ornately folded letter. When he unfolded it, a pressed rose fell out. He picked it up, set it on the bed and began to read the  handwritten letter:

I’m sorry that I have not been friendly the last few years. After the Day of the Dogs, I found myself thinking of you all the time, and I had to admit to myself that I loved you. I have never known anyone so strong, brave and smart like you. And not only because of what you did that day. Even before that, I knew your life wasn’t easy, and I admired the way you never let anyone stop you from advancing.

I never told you this because there’s no point. I know you would not want to do anything haram, and I feel the same. Now my father is sending me to Universidad Nacional de Colombia, his alma mater. I will live with my aunt. So I will never see you again. Besides, I’m not good enough for you. I never was. Take care of yourself. I will always remember you.

Your dear friend,
Halima

Omar was stunned. Never in his wildest imaginings would he have thought Halima had such feelings for him. And what did she mean that she was not good enough for him? He wanted to rush to her house and say, “No, don’t leave, you are good enough for me. I love you too!” But did he actually love her? He wasn’t sure he knew what love was.

Sure, there was the Hollywood version where two people were caught up in a wonderful, heated passion. Those romances always ended in disaster, at least in the movies. One of them killed the other, or one was a con artist, or an undercover cop. Then there was the version where the straight-laced, boring man fell in love with the mad, hot, out-of-control woman. That didn’t seem to apply. Oh yeah, and the one where one of the pair was not who they were portraying to be. The prince who pretended to be a commoner, or the college professor who was mistaken for a spy. Omar didn’t see how any of those related to his situation.

He liked Halima for sure, but love? He guessed not. Plus, she was leaving, and it was probably true that they’d never see each other again. Shaking his head, he let out a perplexed sigh. Life was confusing. At times like this he wished his father was alive.

He slid the letter and rose back into the envelope, stuck it in the bottom of a shoebox that contained miscellaneous old letters and postcards, and did his best to forget it.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 8:  Rich and Poor

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

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

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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Podcast: The Fiqh of FIFA | Mufti Hussain Kamani

Zeba Khan

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It’s estimated that 3 billion people play some sort of video game, whether on a computer, console, or smart phone.  For the millions of Muslims included in this number, what’s the halal and haram of this? Is gaming a good thing? When is gaming a bad thing?

“I know a lot of kids in our community who play Minecraft to develop skills. I respect that because it’s now a tool being used for their education.” -Mufti Hussain Kamani

In this podcast, Zeba Khan talks to Mufti Hussain Kamani, a hafiz, scholar, and -surprise!- gamer, about the Islamic perspective on gaming, entertainment, and the fiqh of FIFA loot boxes.

“Do loot boxes and their contents carry any value or not? Is there a monetary value to that Messi card? If it’s all ones and zeros then you can’t technically classify that as gambling, but I believe that’s too simplistic. We live in a world of cryptocurrency. There are things that carry value beyond physical objects.” – Mufti Hussain Kamani

Is gaming halal? Are lootboxes haram? Does Mufti Hussain Kamani play FIFA, and can I join his league? Click To Tweet
Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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Then and Now: Rereading Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

Zainab (AnonyMouse)

Published

In 2007, at the brash, naive, and frankly moronic age of 16, I penned a scathing review of Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” for this very website, MuslimMatters.org. Thirteen years later, I read it again – only to find myself deeply, utterly in love with this book.

Khadra Shamy is the American daughter of Syrian immigrants, Wajdy and Ebtahaj, who dreamt of little more than dedicating themselves to the Da’wah in their tiny Muslim community in Indiana. Khadra grows up immersed in the culture of conservative da’wah: of the Deen being black and white, of certain rules followed scrupulously, of culture frowned upon in exchange for the purity of Islam. As she moves from a 10 year old child overwhelmed with guilt for accidentally eating gelatin-containing candy corn, to a black-clad, angry teenager who reads Qutb and supports the Iranian Revolution, to a college student who dutifully marries young, Khadra finds the foundations of her worldview slowly cracking. 

Going for Hajj was not spiritually revolutionary, but a dark glimpse of what Arab youth get up to in the heartland of Islam; after devoting herself to tajweed and hifdh, Khadra is told that she must stop reciting Qur’an in mixed gatherings and that Qur’an competitions are only open to men. Her ideal Islamic marriage begins to crumble when her husband evokes the Qawwam card to prohibit her from riding her bike in public – and when she gets pregnant, only to decide on an abortion, and then a divorce, Khadra creates a schism between herself, her community, and all that she has known. In the years that follow, Khadra breaks down and recreates her identity as a Muslim and her beliefs about Islam. 

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

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In many ways, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is both a love letter and a breakup note to conservative Muslims. Kahf’s book traces, with intimate authenticity, what it is to be a Western-raised child of parents immersed in the Da’wah; our quirks and eccentricities and ties to a back home culture that we don’t always understand; our hidden hypocrisies and our secret shames. She breathes into words the tenderness of our bonds of faith, the flames of our religious passion, the complexities of our relationships. She knows who we are, how we are, and she speaks to us in our own words. Perhaps ahead of her time, she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims, of the almost insurmountable distance between the theory of Islam for Muslim women, and the reality of what Muslim women experience.

Of course, it comes with a price. Kahf ends her novel by having Khadra follow the by-now-predictable trajectory that we have seen from many Muslims of a progressive bent: Sufism is the only acceptable fluffy-enough type of Islam; all paths, even outside of Islam, lead to God; conservative Muslims are embarrassing, suffocating, and are holding their communities back from true spiritual enlightenment. To be fair, Kahf doesn’t hold back from pointing out the hypocrisies of secular liberal types either, and she is far softer and more tender in her portrayals of conservatives as well. 

It is worth taking a closer look at how Kahf chose to take Khadra down the path of progressiveness. Khadra’s story is a mirror of so many true stories, of children from religious families whose resentment over their experiences pushed them to choose an easier way, one less rooted in following Shari’ah and more a vague idea of spirituality. This narrative portrays turning progressive as the only logical conclusion to such experiences, which is in itself deeply problematic. In truth, there are many Muslims – born Muslims and converts alike – who have suffered far worse than merely restrictive upbringings, or unhappy marriages, and who have chosen instead to commit themselves even more determinedly to orthodoxy. Spirituality is not the sole domain of Sufis or liberals; it is part and parcel of Islam itself, even in its most conservative form. To imply otherwise is a dishonesty that is found all too often amongst those who have their own biases and agendas against any form of Islam that does not feel flexible enough for their own tastes.

As a particularly ridiculous 16-year-old Salafi, I was too consumed in my outrage at Khadra leaving the aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jamaa’ah, and too busy agreeing with her ex-husband on the inappropriateness of Muslim women riding bikes in public, to understand or appreciate this deeply emotional journey. Fast forward 13 years, and 29-year-old me identifies far more with Khadra than my past self could ever have imagined. Little had I known, that first time, that I too would experience what Khadra and so many other Muslim women have: the painfully cliche toxic marriage to controlling Muslim men who use Islam to suffocate our souls and our spirits. (But really, 16yo Zainab??? You legit thought that Khadra’s husband was justified in stopping her from riding her bike??? You almost deserved going through practically the same thing, you idiot.)

Rereading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as an adult, having lived through my own traumas and growth, through spiritual crisis and rediscovery, was a very different experience. My own upbringing was very similar to Khadra’s: in a religious da’wah bubble, surrounded by an insistence on Islamic ideals, blithely ignoring Muslim realities (and occasionally denying them outright). The self righteous ignorance in my 2007 review has me dying a thousand deaths of mortification, and I am all too aware of just how much like teenaged Khadra I was back then. Thirteen years later, my cynicism knows no bounds, my bitterness sours all idealism, and I feel a deep urge to slap my past self upside the head. There’s some Divine irony in all of this, I suppose; certainly, it is cause for reflection on the value of personal growth and maturity, of how the years and one’s experiences can turn one into the very person they once derided. I relate far more to Khadra today than my teenaged self could ever have imagined, and in many ways, I only wish that I could have retained the blithe innocence (if not the ignorance) that I once had in abundance. Following Khadra on her journey was to retrace my own steps, to remember precisely how and when I, too, made the choice to become someone new.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim.Click To Tweet

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim. Kahf does not waste time explaining things to a non-Muslim audience, nor does she hold back from dishing out hard truths to Muslim readers. She knows us, inside and out, and it is this startling familiarity that pulls one in and doesn’t let go until we find ourselves shocked that we’ve reached the end of the book. In the era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Mohja Kahf was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of diverse fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a damned good book – one that will have you blinking away furious tears and lay awake at night, feeling your heart ache with unforgotten, unseen bruises.

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