See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Note to Readers:
As of August 1st 2017 I’ve made many changes in the previous chapters, so you might want to go back and re-read. For those who don’t have time, here’s a summary of the most important changes:
- Chapter 1 – I added the fact that Zaid received a presidential pardon for his crimes and was released from prison. The specific incident leading to this has not yet been described.
- Chapter 4 – Zaid’s wife was previously a nurse. Now she is a teacher at FIA, the Fresno Islamic Academy. Previously they met for the first time as teenagers at summer camp. This has been changed so they met as children in elementary school, lost contact, then met again at camp.
- Chapter 5 – A discovery Zaid made about Anna has been removed. If you know what I mean, please do not mention it. I apologize that the surprise is spoiled for you. This is one of the drawbacks in writing serially like this.
- Chapter 5 – I added a new character – Yusuf Cruz, an old prison buddy from Panama.
- Chapter 6 – In the fight with the Asian gangsters, the gangsters were specifically looking for Tarek, for reasons unknown.
Friday, February 5, 2010 – 4:00 pm
The hotel lobby was a chamber of horrors. It was dimly and strangely lit by a few isolated slivers of sunshine that managed to worm their way through gaps in the boarding that covered the windows, and by the pale light of a butane torch that sat on the floor, hissing with a steady blue flame. Beside the burner a shirtless man slept half on and half off a mattress that was stained and sporting large burn holes.
The room reeked of bodily fluids, urine, burned plastic and cigarette smoke. Litter was strewn everywhere: empty liquor bottles, used syringes, crack vials of every color, latex gloves, fast food takeout containers, playing cards, cigarette butts and ash, bottles of malt liquor filled with what looked like urine, and other miscellaneous garbage.
There were also people. Some were teens, while others were as old as fifty or sixty – it was hard to tell, as they were all thin and aged, worn out before their time. Many were unconscious or asleep, sprawled on the few pieces of dirty furniture, or on the floor. Others stood against the walls, looking predatory and alien in the weird light. A few of these stared at me, and one made a move in my direction. I slid my hand down to my thigh to rest on my knife, and the man stopped, returning to his perch against the wall.
There were also scenes of depravity that I will not describe. Suffice it to say that desperate women trading their bodies for drugs has always been one of the sick pillars of drug culture.
I remained in that room only long enough to ascertain that none of the occupants were Tarek. Then I went down a corridor and past a restroom with a broken mirror, a shattered urinal and a foul toilet. I came to the hotel rooms and began to search room by room.
Many of the rooms did not have doors, and those that did had no working locks. Most were unoccupied and defaced with graffiti, littered with trash or fouled with waste. In a few, addicts slept on the floor or on dirty mattresses. Most ignored me. A few cursed at me. One threw an empty shampoo bottle at me. One young man with a pink mohawk and rotten teeth leaped up and attacked me the instant I opened the door. I drove him back with a hard kick to the belly and moved on as he lay on the floor moaning. I felt like I was in a horror movie: the last human in a world full of zombies, looking for one particular zombie who was not fully turned and could possibly be saved.
I completed my search of the first floor and moved on to the second. It was more of the same. Moving up to the third floor, I had to step over a family that was camped on the staircase. The scene was revolting and too miserable to describe. Finally I completed my search of the fourth and final floor. I felt overexposed and feverish, as if I’d been exposed to radiation. I desperately wanted to get out of that hotel of horrors. The words of a popular rock song came to me:
Looking for gold in the Golden State
but the nuggets are piled on other men’s plates
and they’ll burn you out at half past eight
welcome to California
I practically stumbled down the stairs in my haste to flee that place. In the lobby, the drug dealers and addicts ignored me or watched listlessly as I pushed my way out through the boards.
Back in my car I sat breathing raggedly and obsessively cleaning my hands with a packet of wet wipes that I kept in the glove box. I hadn’t known that such places existed. Drugs, man. Drugs. What a foul, evil thing the drug business was. Kids who thought drugs were cool, fun or glamorous should be brought to places like this and given a tour of hell on earth, so they could see where the drug trip inevitably led.
Thank God I’d never gotten sucked into that. Alhamdulillah for the mercies we take for granted.
And yet I was not done. When I had my composure back, I exited the car and went in search of other drug houses.
Over the course of the afternoon I managed to find two more drug dens. In the last one, I was attacked without warning by two heavily tattooed Hispanic men in their twenties – dealers, I think. One – a burly bald man who looked like he couldn’t walk without his thighs rubbing together – tried to open my throat with an eight inch hunting knife, presumably in order to rob me.
Only my years of training saved me. I instinctively side stepped, just as I’d practiced a million times. I threw up an arm and managed to block the slash, but took a deep cut across the back of my left forearm in the process. An instant later I kicked the outside of Baldy’s knee as hard as I could and heard something snap. He went down with a scream, and I stomped on his ankle to seal the deal, feeling the small bones crunch and shatter. He screamed again at an even higher pitch, as if auditioning for a soprano gig with the Fresno opera.
I picked up the dealer’s hunting knife and held it before me. My nostrils were dilated. I was as calm as the eye of a hurricane. The second attacker – a thin man with a scraggly goatee who looked more like a junkie than a dealer – backed up with his hands in the air in surrender. I kicked the downed man for good measure, one hard soccer kick to the base of the spine with the toe of my shoe, causing Baldy’s entire body to spasm. Then I motioned to his friend and snarled, “Get your friend to the hospital.”
I went on my way, holding the knife in a reverse grip so that it lay alongside my arm. I searched the rest of the den as blood dripped from my left arm. I encountered a few residents but none were Tarek, and none bothered me.
I felt like a man standing at a dry well, pulling up one empty bucket after another. Doing the same thing again and again and hoping for a different result – wasn’t that one definition of insanity?
I returned to my car. I tossed the knife into the trunk and took out the first aid kit I kept there. I disinfected my wound liberally, then bound my forearm tightly. The cut was bad. I could have used Badger’s surgical stapler right about now. I should have gone to the hospital but I was exhausted and traumatized by all I’d seen that day, and not in the mood to sit around a waiting room for hours.
I started the car and drove away. Two blocks down the street I noticed a group of about a dozen homeless youths who had gathered in the entrance of a derelict art deco building that had probably been beautiful once.
I parked the car and went to talk to them. They were teens, with one or two who might have been as young as thirteen or fourteen. Runaways, I figured. Wearing rags and leather, some looking like hippies while others were more punkish, they sat huddled in a tight circle, talking quietly and passing around a single cigarette. Several had the symbol for anarchy – a capital A in a circle – hand drawn on their clothing. A few kept dogs on leashes. I greeted them and showed them Tarek’s picture. A few muttered, “No, sorry,” or shook their heads. One cursed at me. Most ignored me.
“Spare some change?” one asked. He was a curly haired boy of fifteen or so.
Seeing my hesitation and no doubt deducing the reason, he added, “It’s for food, man. We’re hungry.”
“I’ll buy you food,” I offered. “Give me a grocery list.”
They all turned toward me. “Bread and cheese,” the curly haired boy said. “And baloney.” Someone else requested chips and bananas. “Tampons,” a pink-haired girl said. Peanut butter, canned tuna, dog food – the requests went on.
My offer to go grocery shopping had been a bluff, and they’d called it.
“I don’t have time,” I confessed. “I’ll give you the money.” I took a hundred dollars from my wallet. “Who should I give it to?”
“Doesn’t matter,” the pink-haired girl said. “We share everything.”
This reminded me of the Muslim brothers in prison, the way we used to support one another. We always had welcome packages ready for brothers who were newly incarcerated or transferred in from other institutions. The packages included hygiene supplies, foodstuffs that could be purchased from the prison commissary, and maybe even a prayer rug and kufi cap. No prisoner was allowed to hoard goods, so the care package would be distributed among several men, to be assembled when needed.
Never in my life – before prison or after – have I encountered the kind of solidarity that I experienced while incarcerated. Anytime I entered a new penal institution – and I had been in several, with the way the feds liked to transfer prisoners like pieces on a game board – the first thing I did was look for the Muslims. If I found Muslims there, I knew I was safe.
I gave the money to the curly haired boy.
“Hey,” he said. “Why you looking for that guy? You a cop?”
I shook my head. “He’s a friend. His daughter is missing and I’m trying to help.”
“If he’s your friend, what’s his nickname?”
“T-Bone,” I said without hesitation.
“Anybody might know that,” the pink-haired girl objected. “If he’s really your friend, what kind of cigarettes does he smoke?”
I raised my eyebrows, then chuckled. That was an easy one. Tarek began smoking when he was thirteen. I tried to talk him out of it many times, but he said it made him feel good. He only ever smoked one brand.
“Camels,” I said. “He always used to say-“
The homeless youths all chimed in: “What else would an Egyptian smoke?” They laughed.
“Yeah, we know T-Bone.” Curly pointed west. “He shares food when he has it.” He pointed west. “He stays in a boarded up yellow house a couple of blocks that way. There’s this weird ditch in the front yard, like someone was trying to dig up the pipes or something.”
* * *
The sun was going down. Wispy white clouds were finger-painted across an orange sky. To the east, the buildings of downtown Fresno loomed darkly against the sky like black-painted cutouts. The air smelled of fireplace smoke and farm dust. Good God, I wished it would rain. Just a little clean water to cleanse the air, cleanse my skin, cleanse the world.
Safaa had never called me back. I should go home and rest, but I wanted to pursue this lead. My wounded arm throbbed. I had a bottle of ibuprofen in the car. I took four and tossed them into my mouth, swallowing them dry. I knew that taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach could damage the stomach lining, but the pain was so distracting that I couldn’t think, and I didn’t have any food at the moment.
I drove around and found the yellow house without difficulty. I keep a small, high-powered LED flashlight in the glove box. I took it and approached the house. Holding my arm close against my side so as not to injure it further, I tried the front door of the yellow house. It opened a tiny bit then stopped, apparently barred by something heavy. I put my shoulder into it and managed to open it enough to slip through. It turned out someone had pushed an old oven in front of it.
I shone the light around the house. The interior was nearly bare, and layered in dust. The air smelled rotten. Someone had torn open the walls to steal the wiring and pipes. There were scorch marks on the floor, maybe where someone had made a fire. I went through the entire home. The sound of my feet shuffling on the floor seemed very loud. Shadows leaped as I moved the flashlight about. But there was nothing in the house but the old oven, a wooden chair with no legs, a greasy orange rag in the kitchen, and a broken-down refrigerator lying on its side in one of the bedrooms, close to the wall.
Another dead end. I sighed in weariness and frustration. Maybe Tarek wasn’t here in Fresno after all. Maybe when he’d fled the rehab center in Visalia he’d gone no further than that city’s own drug dens. Or maybe he was in Fresno but in some other part of town. This wasn’t the only street with dope houses. He could be anywhere. Maybe he’d hooked up with Angie and the two of them had taken off for strange horizons, spending that bundle of money that Angie was hauling around.
But the homeless kids said Tarek stayed here. It didn’t make sense. Had they lied to me?
I was about to turn away and leave this minor waystation on the road to hell when a thought occurred to me. The old refrigerator. It had been lying with its back to me. I had not seen inside it. A refrigerator was highly insulated and would make a good shelter against the cold. Only someone small could fit inside it, of course. A woman or a child, or a short man. Tarek was only 5’7”. I went back into the bedroom and looked at the old refrigerator, then walked around it slowly. As I did, I saw something sticking out. I shone the light on it. The bottom of a tennis shoe. I took another step: there was a leg attached to the shoe. The rotten stench that filled the house was stronger here, so much so that I had to breathe through my mouth.
I stopped for a moment, feeling my heart sink with dismay and dread. I didn’t want to see what was lying inside that refrigerator. I didn’t want to look. If I didn’t look, maybe it wouldn’t be real. If I didn’t look, maybe I wouldn’t have nightmares about it later.
My breath caught and I had to stop myself from turning away and leaving this place. The owner of the leg might not be Tarek, I told myself, and if it was, he might only be asleep.
But no. This was my job. This was what I did. I followed clues and walked down dark paths that showed me the worst of human nature. I faced the stark truths of life dead on, and did not flinch. I’d found bodies before. But it had always been someone else’s spouse or child. Someone else’s friend. Ah, subhanAllah. La ilaha il-Allah.
I stepped slowly around to the other side of the fridge.
It was Tarek, of course. He wore tattered jeans, a red t-shirt with a torn chest pocket, and boat shoes with no socks. He lay on his side inside the refrigerator, only his legs sticking out, his body curved like a comma, as if this were only a pause in motion before his story continued.
Except that it would not continue. Even before I knelt to take his pulse, I knew he was dead. There was a quality of utter stillness to his repose that he had never possessed in life. Tarek was darker-skinned than either of his parents, and the lean angles of his brown face – for he was very thin – almost seemed to shine, even in the dark, and even with the sores and ulcers that disfigured his features. His left arm was tied off for an injection, and the needle was still embedded in his forearm. His arms were studded with track marks – old needle injection scars and abscesses.
Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez had gotten her wish, it seemed. Tarek had indeed come to a ruinous end.
I studied Tarek’s face. His lips were dry and cracked, while his dark, half-lidded eyes seemed to gaze at me with a combination of reproach and vindication. You always knew I’d end up this way, his eyes seemed to say. But it’s alright. I finally caught that high I’ve been chasing.
I knelt beside him and felt along his neck, flinching at the deathly cold of his skin. There was no pulse. I felt in front of his mouth and nose for breath. But no. He’d been dead for days was my sense of it. His body was loose and relaxed, which meant that rigor mortis had already passed. So thirty six hours at least.
I called emergency services and reported it. While I waited for the ambulance – they always sent an ambulance first, just in case – I checked his pockets.
It wasn’t that I was cool headed, or so accustomed to death that this horror did not faze me. I was stunned. I had known Tarek since I was a kid. We’d had so many adventures together, spent so many afternoons talking about the things we’d do one day, the places we’d see. But a preternatural stillness had settled over me – the proverbial calm before the storm. I had a job to do.
I searched Tarek’s pockets, taking care not to puncture my hands on any spare needles. I found a pencil stub, two individual Life Savers candies coated in lint, four pennies, an uncancelled stamp torn from an envelope, a pack of Camels with two cigarettes remaining – what else would an Egyptian smoke, I thought crazily – and a book of matches.
The matchbook was adorned with a graphic of a woman slithering around a pole, kicking one leg in the air. “Chi-Chi’s,” it said. Obviously a strip club. In tiny gold lettering it gave an address on Golden State Boulevard, outside the city limits.
I studied all these objects, then put them back in Tarek’s pockets just I’d found them.
I took Tarek’s cold hand and held it between mine, as if I could warm it. “Wa lal-aakhiratu khayrun laka min al-uwlaa,” I recited. Surat Ad-Duha again. “And the Hereafter is better for you than the first life. And your Lord will give you, and you will be satisfied.” I prayed that Tarek, who had never found satisfaction in anything in life, and who’d spent every day of his existence chasing something he could not name, had finally found a place of peace.
I remembered the rest of that song I’d been thinking of earlier:
Looking for love at the edge of the West
running out of time, can’t catch my breath
liars and players walk ten abreast
welcome to California.
Lord don’t make me a player too
I’m not staying, just passing through
On my way to find You, to love You
It fit Tarek to a T, so to speak. He was beyond California now, that was sure, and I could only hope that he had found mercy with Allah at the end of the journey. My hands began to shake. I sat and hugged myself tightly, feeling suddenly very cold. After a moment I stood and went outside. I needed fresh air, and felt it would be best if I were outside when the cops arrived. I began to practice Kali on the dead grass of the front lawn, moving in the pale light of a distant streetlamp, doing the footwork – forward V, backward V, side to side, diamond pattern, hourglass pattern, star pattern, faster and faster.
The shakes passed. Standing in place, breathing hard, I took the photo of Anna out of my pocket and shone my flashlight on it. She stood in front of a tree covered in purple blossoms, wearing her school uniform and white Adidas sneakers with black stripes. As I looked at her she looked right back at me, solemn, her dark eyes conveying a message that I could not read.
I put the photo back, and addressed Tarek, wherever he might be. “I will find your daughter, akhi,” I said softly. “That’s the only promise I can make. Allah help me.”
I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the cops. They were certainly taking their time. I guess a dead addict didn’t warrant an emergency response. My phone rang. It was Safaa, finally calling me back. It was Hajar’s bedtime, I knew. At least I would get to speak to her before she slept. I answered, and Hajar greeted me with “Sala ‘laykum Baba!”
I smiled, and felt emotions roiling in my chest – embarrassment and shame at the fact that I was able to smile with my dead friend lying inside a refrigerator, along with detached amusement at the unpredictability of my own heart. At the same time, I breathed a sigh of relief. There were times when I thought my heart would throw up its arteries in frustration and sheer weariness and resign without the courtesy of giving notice. Sometimes it felt like the only thing keeping me going was Hajar.
“Wa alaykum as-salam, honey. How was school today?”
“It was fine. Mama’s taking me to buy new shoes ‘cause my shoes have holes like the moon.” This was followed by a burbling sound.
“What’s that sound?” I asked.
“I’m blowing in the milk with my straw. It makes bubbles.”
“You shouldn’t do that, honey. It’s not good to play with your food.”
There was a pause during which I knew that Hajar was thinking of a response. She never liked to admit that anything she did was wrong, and would always find some way to debate the issue. “Kids do that,” she said finally, “to keep the milk healthy.” She went on, not giving me a chance to dispute this. “You know Baba, I’m only gonna drink milk today.”
“Oh yes? Why is that?”
“Because that’s my padwen.” I didn’t know what this meant, but I figured it out as she went on: “I drink milk one day, then water one day, then juice one day. That’s my padwen.”
I smiled. “Okay, sweetie. That’s a good pattern.”
“You sound sad, Baba.” This caught me off guard and jarred me. I’d been trying hard to sound cheerful, and thought I was succeeding. Before I could wrestle myself back under control, tears sprung from my eyes and I choked back a sob.
“I am,” I replied, my voice quavering. “But not because of you.”
“Then why are you sad?”
“One of my friends died.”
“Oh.” Hajar’s voice was solemn. “Like the dinosaurs.”
“Yes, honey. Like the dinosaurs.” Lights flashing, an ambulance approached. “I have to go now kiddo. I love you forever and always. You’re my number one kiddo.”
“I love you forever and always Baba.”
* * *
The paramedics arrived first, followed a minute later by two uniformed police officers who asked me a few questions about my presence here, then instructed me to wait for the detectives.
The detectives arrived a half hour later. One was a heavyset, middle-aged white man in a nicer suit than I would have expected on a civil servant. The other was a hard-faced young black woman with her straightened hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.
I remained outside while they went in to examine the scene and the body. One of the uniformed officers stayed with me to make sure I didn’t leave.
When the detectives emerged about ten minutes later, they studied my P.I. license and badge. I told them forthrightly that I’d been hired by Tarek’s parents to find his child, and that I’d worn down some shoe leather to locate Tarek here. I gave them the Anwars’ address and phone number. The white cop in particular seemed bored and ready to write the whole thing off as another junkie O.D. The black cop asked a few questions about Tarek’s habits and friends. I knew little about such things, and told her so. She asked about the bandage on my arm and I told her about the attack in the drug den, leaving out the part where I kicked Baldy in the spine after he was down.
As the detectives were questioning me, two people arrived from the coroner’s office. A tiny, slim redhead and a blonde fellow with a waxed mustache went inside then came out with Tarek’s body bundled into a bodybag and lying on a stretcher – I was surprised that that the little redhead could handle her end of it. They loaded him into the ambulance and drove away.
Eventually the detectives let me go, with the usual admonition that they might want to speak to me again in the future. Standing in the early evening air, I felt small and humbled, unnerved by being in the presence of so much death lately, and very aware of my powerlessness in the face of Allah’s might and decree.
This wasn’t the first time I’d found a body in the course of an investigation. I knew that Tarek’s body would be taken to the Fresno County Coroner’s office. It was very unlikely that the cops would investigate the death, or that the coroner would perform an autopsy. They’d write it up as an O.D., notify the next of kin, and release the body after 48 hours to a funeral home of the Anwars’ choosing. That was fine with me. It wasn’t like there was any question about the cause of death. Not about the obvious physical reality anyway. As for the true cause of death – not the how but the why – I would always have questions about that, I was sure.
Ah, Tarek. You stupid, self destructive fool. Why, man? Why?
* * *
I headed west to the club on Golden State, the one from the matchbook in Tarek’s pocket. Tarek had never struck me as the strip club type, and I wanted to know what that matchbook was doing in his pocket. Clubs like this only operated at night, so I might as well go now.
The matchbook was almost certainly nothing, but one never knew. Everything was a part of the pattern of life, part of the ebb and flow of energy and matter that made up the universe, and sometimes a little thing turned into a big thing, and vice versa.
The Chi-Chi club was on a country road all by itself, surrounded by almond farms and orange groves. The parking lot was a field covered in gravel. It was no place for a Muslim, and I didn’t want to go in. But I had to follow this lead. I would keep my head down, do my business and leave.
As I headed toward the front door it opened and a woman exited in a wash of garish purple light. Thumping music poured out through the open doorway, along with the sounds of cheers and whistles. The woman was African-American, about my height, maybe thirty years old, with straight hair cut in a bob and glitter on her eyelids. She wore a trench coat that hung to her knees. Even with the coat pulled tightly against the evening chill, her muscularity and grace were obvious. It didn’t take a genius to deduce that she was one of the club’s dancers.
“Excuse me,” I called out.
The woman looked up in alarm. One hand shot into her coat pocket, no doubt reaching for pepper spray or maybe a gun. Her face was all sharp planes and uncompromising lines, her eyes dark and hard. She made me think of a fortified castle – a place of beauty surrounded by walls and moats. A place where archers manned the ramparts and would shoot anyone who approached unannounced.
“Whoa!” I stopped and raised my hands. “I’m a private detective. I just want to ask you a few questions. I can show you my badge if you like.”
She jerked her chin in my direction. “Show it.”
I reached into my pocket slowly and drew out my wallet, then opened it, showing my badge and P.I. license. The young woman nodded, and I took that as a cue to approach her. I smiled and introduced myself. “Sorry I scared you,” I added.
“I’m just jumpy. We get stalkers.”
“Right. Well let me show you a picture.” I took Tarek’s photo from my wallet and held it up. “Do you know this man?”
She looked from the photo to my face, giving me a penetrating stare, then looked away. “Why do you ask? What is it you want?”
So she knew something. She recognized the photo. “He’s dead. Heroin overdose. I found a matchbook from this place in his pocket. I’m trying to find out what business he had here. Was he a customer?”
“Damn,” the woman said. She bit her bottom lip. “Yeah, I know him. That’s Tarek.” She pronounced it Tareek, rhyming with “meek.” He’s Glitter’s boyfriend. She’s one of our dancers. He used to pick her up sometimes, but she hasn’t been in lately.”
“You mean Angie? Angie Rodriguez? She’s Glitter?”
She eyed me sharply. “You didn’t say you knew Angie. What are you investigating exactly?”
“I didn’t say because I didn’t know she worked here.” I laid it all out for her, explaining that I’d been hired to find Anna, and that Angie had gone missing, and that Tarek was in fact my friend. When I said the word “friend” I felt a surge of emotion and my voice caught, just for a split second. Zenobia noticed it. She looked at me and truly relaxed for the first time, the tension falling away from her face.
“The thing is ma’am,” I went on, “Angie’s sister says Angie showed up with a backpack full of money. And little Anna was in bad shape, beat up and hungry.”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t know about any of that. I mean, Angie always had problems. The dope, you know. I tried to get her into a program but that girl was a helicopter spinning out of control. Get too close, you’d get cut in half. She always chose the worst men. And you don’t have to call me ma’am by the way. My name is Zenobia. My real name.” She smiled, and it transformed her. All that hardness, all those defensive walls, melted away. I suddenly realized that she was younger than I’d first thought – no more than twenty two or twenty three.
“By worst men, you mean Tarek?”
She shrugged. “Tarek was a dope fiend, but at least he wasn’t violent. But Angie was never one for fidelity. She went home with customers, if they paid her. She was beaten up more than once.”
“Could she have stolen the money from one of the men she went with?”
“How much money?”
“Forty five thousand dollars.”
Zenobia whistled softly. “I don’t know. If you’re asking was Angie capable of it, then I’d say yes. She was certainly larcenous enough – no one loved money more than Angie – and probably stupid enough.”
“It doesn’t sound like you think highly of her.”
She smiled ruefully. “I’ve always been one for lost causes.” Again she studied me, her eyes roaming from my worn shoes and bandaged arm to my battered fedora. “Lost puppies too,” she added.
The club door opened again and four young Arab-looking men exited, laughing and clapping each other on the back. One glanced my way and I realized that I knew him. His name was Yahya. He was an Iraqi brother who used to be quite active at Masjid Madinah. In fact he used to open the masjid every morning for Fajr prayer. Then his cousin came to stay with him. His cousin was a boozer and a partier, and he sucked Yahya into his lifestyle. I hadn’t seen Yahya in over a year.
Yahya was also the brother-in-law of Safaa’s second cousin, or something like that.
When I met his eyes he gave me a wide grin and said something to his companions, who all turned to look at me. A few of them laughed. I could only imagine what Yahya had said: “See that guy, I know him. He goes to the mosque, pretends to be religious. He’s married to my relative. Just wait until she hears about this.”
The four Arabs continued on their way to the parking lot and I cursed my bad luck. Just what I needed. If Safaa heard that I’d been spotted in a strip club, that was it. She’d never trust me again. Our marriage would be over for sure. La hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah. Maybe I should never have come to this place.
“You alright?” Zenobia asked. “You know those guys?
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. I exhaled and tried to get back on track. “Where would Angie go if she came into a lot of money?”
Zenobia fingered the buttons on her coat. “She used to talk about Panama. How she and her sister would play in the plantations, eating bananas and mangoes whenever they were hungry. How she used to swim in Lake Gatun but had to watch out for crocodiles. She sounded so wistful whenever she talked about it.”
I asked a few more questions about Angie’s possible acquaintances or friends, but Zenobia had little more to offer. I stood to leave, thanking her for her time.
“Hey, uhh, Zaid? Is that how you say your name?”
“Aren’t you supposed to give me your card? In case I think of anything else? Or in case I just, you know, want to call you?” She gave me a shy look and I found myself surprised by human nature all over again, how the child within us, the innocent and bashful soul, never truly departs.
Of course as a professional I should give her my card – just as she said, in case she remembered anything else. But she was a very attractive woman, and intelligent. The kind of woman who could tempt any man, especially one separated from his wife and desperate for a little love.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. Take care, Zenobia.”
“It’s Michelle.” The bashful smile again. “My really real name, I mean.”
* * *
This had been one of the longest and most difficult days of my life. In a single day I’d alienated Chausiku Sulawesi, participated in a gun battle in which a woman was killed, damaged my friendship with Aziz Al-Ansari, seen more horror than I ever wished to remember, been wounded, and found my friend lying dead in a refrigerator. I was so tired and emotionally exhausted I could barely stand.
I drove to my office on autopilot. The electricity was back on – Jalal at least had not let me down. I removed the bandage on my arm, washed and disinfected the wound, and used superglue to seal the edges of the cut. Then I performed wudu’ and rebandaged the arm. There had been no opportunity to pray Maghreb, so I prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha, willing my eyes to stay open. Even so, I think I might have fallen asleep in sujood at one point.
When I was done I collapsed into my cot. I closed my eyes and for some reason remembered an incident from when Tarek and I were young, maybe seven or eight years old. Back then Farah Anwar used to bake pies and cakes for the Muslim women’s halaqas that she held in her house.
Tarek for some reason had a fascination with the raw dough. Whenever possible he would steal handfuls of dough and we’d play with them, fashioning them into snakes or tiny people. One time, Tarek’s grandmother was asleep on the sofa, and Tarek had the brilliant idea to make tiny dough caterpillars and stick them in her nostrils. I knew this would end badly, so I held back and watched as Tarek carried out his plan. Next thing we knew, his grandmother was up off the sofa, screaming in Arabic at the top of her lungs, batting her nose frantically and chasing us around the house.
Tarek put the blame on me, saying it was my idea, and his mother believed him. My father took me home and whipped me with his belt so badly I could not sit down for days.
Tarek Anwar’s days of getting into trouble were over. Any trouble he faced now existed in a dimension and on a scale beyond human perception. I could do nothing for him, but I would honor his memory by finding his daughter. O Allah, I prayed as sleep came over me, forgive my friend and protect him, and make him among the people of Paradise, and give me the strength to carry this task through to the end.
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To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
Gravedigger: A Short Story
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.
She never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.
Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?
And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.
She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.
Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.
Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.
She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray. Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.
Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.
Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.
One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.
She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.
She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.
Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.
A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.
Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”
“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.
“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”
Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.
She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.
On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.
For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.
This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.
On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.
The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.
Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.
* * *
She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.
The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.
Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.
The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.
As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.
They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.
“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.
Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.
“I’ve said it all.”
“So you two are good?”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“You’ve changed since you started here.”
“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”
“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”
She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”
Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”
“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.
She said nothing.
“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”
“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”
“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”
“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”
It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”
“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”
“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”
Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”
“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.
She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”
Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.
* * *
“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”
Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.
Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.
Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.
She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.
What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.
Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.
The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.
Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”
* * *
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