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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 10 – Finding Tarek

The sun was going down. Safaa had never called me back. I should go home and rest, but I wanted to pursue this lead. My wounded arm throbbed with pain. I had a bottle of ibuprofen in the car. I took four and tossed them into my mouth, swallowing them dry.

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

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

Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9

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
Fresno, California

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:

Welcome to California

“Looking for gold in the Golden State…”

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.”

* * *

Sunset over downtown Fresno.

Sunset over downtown Fresno.

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
beyond California.

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.”

1969 Dodge Dart GTS

1969 Dodge Dart GTS

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Cookie dough

“Tarek had a fascination with raw dough.”

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.

***

Next: Chapter 11 – Zaid, the Son of Islam

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

Wael Abdelgawad's latest novel is Pieces of a Dream. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com.Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches 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.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Aishat

    August 10, 2017 at 6:15 PM

    Great as always, it was worth the wait, jazakallahu khayr

  2. Avatar

    Bint A

    August 11, 2017 at 12:03 AM

    Welcome back br Wael
    Congrats on the publishing of Pieces of a Dream… the front cover works perfectly with the content…. subtle on top but holding a lot of turbulence underneath :)

    InshaAllah looking forward to Hassan’s Tale being published as well!

    Zaid’s story…. kind of looking bleak atm… very grim descriptions… and realistically speaking, it’s true that it has been a “long day…” i didn’t realize all of these events took place on the same day. Doesnt seem that plausible …maybe you want to consider breaking it up into 2 separate days?
    Just a suggestion

    Anyways, glad to have this series back up. I had forgotton about it and randomly accessed MM today after about a few months. Perfect timing !

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 11, 2017 at 12:40 AM

      “i didn’t realize all of these events took place on the same day.”

      Just another day in the life of a private detective, my dear :-)

      Do you really like the cover for Pieces of a Dream? I’ve been thinking of changing it: A tall white man stands in front of a taxi. He’s wearing a long shirt and a kufi, so we know he’s Muslim. He is gazing at a beautiful African American Muslim woman, who stands in profile to him, looking at something in the distance.

      It would be a photo. I’ve been looking for the right couple to pose for it.

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      August 13, 2017 at 7:45 PM

      Me too!! Oh my god it was the perfect timing yesterday not exactly it was at one at night yesterday, but I was waiting and when I randomly checked I was like I’m reading to matter what and after doing all my chores and H.W. just finished it.

  3. Avatar

    Amatullah

    August 11, 2017 at 3:45 AM

    I felt like Zaid just from reading it – “I was so tired and emotionally exhausted I could barely stand.”
    Finally I see it coming together which is nice indeed. I’m not one who can take in negativity and brush it off. So the hotel room you described hit me a bit hard. I need Salah! But yeah, if you think of it, this world is literally filled with such dungeons of hell which go beyond our imagination, may Allah always protect us from even the sight of them.

  4. Avatar

    Layyinah

    August 11, 2017 at 9:47 AM

    It’s good to read about Zaid again; It was a good read. And as always, it finished too soon. Your descriptions were great; I can picture drug houses and it’s not a pleasant picture. May Allah protect us. Looking forward to Part 11.

  5. Avatar

    Huda

    August 12, 2017 at 3:22 AM

    Good to have Zaid back :)

    I reread all of Zaid’s story and it ll laces up well. Some places I feel there is a lot of information, for instance the details of the numerous characters in the story but at the end of the day I’m glad to know each character that well and maybe its just my impatience at wanting to know how the story will end.

    Also, as with Pieces of a Dream, each characters’ introspect is what pulls me to your stories again and again.
    I absolutely love how they stay concious of Allah swt and relate everything, big or small in their lives, actively back to their Creator. Moreso because of the hadith that “A man is on the religion of his friends, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.”
    There IS a lack of humane and noble hearted friends in todays world and Hassan, Layth, Khadija, Muhammad, to name a few, resonated with my own ideals, filled the void of the friends we all wish to have, taught me how to have a better relationship with Allah Azzawajal and how to be a better person. Thank you for these friends you have given us!
    Looking forward to the coming parts and I’m sure the questions I may have with the storytelling will be silenced by the end.
    Allahy baarik!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 12, 2017 at 4:01 AM

      Huda, I love your comment. Someone once told me that I create an idealized version of Muslim friendship and community in my stories, and I think that’s true. I think I create what I lack in my own life, or what I wish I had. We haven’t seen as much of that with Zaid Karim, as he is more solitary and isolated than Hassan & company. He’s had a difficult life, and he’s still struggling to rid himself of anger and resentment. In future novels, if I write them, we might see Zaid mature and learn to trust the people around him. If he can reunite with his family I think that will go a long way toward healing his heart.

      Another thing I’ve tried to do in my stories is to avoid preachiness. I don’t write to teach people about Islam. My goal is to create authentic characters who are simply living their lives and struggling to grow closer to Allah SWT. As we travel the journey with them, we share in that struggle.

      I agree with you that some of the background info in the story could be cut. So far I’ve written 13 chapters out of 17, and it’s already at 83K words. 90K is about the limit for a modern novel. So when I’m ready to publish in ebook and print format I’ll ask my editors to go through and help me trim it down a bit, Insha’Allah.

      • Avatar

        Huda

        August 12, 2017 at 12:13 PM

        “My goal is to create authentic characters who are simply living their lives and struggling to grow closer to Allah SWT.”

        You’ve achieved what most of us try and fail at, turning theory into practice, ma shaa Allah!

        May Allah SWT ease it all for you!

      • Avatar

        Amatullah

        August 14, 2017 at 3:04 AM

        No please! You are NOT being preachy. That was the least you should be putting in your novels as a Muslim writer + for the audience. It is nice to see the timely reminders/ayaat you put in, so please don’t give up on those. The novel also has these gloomy parts and there should be something Islamic mentioned right after so that you set a perspective about how ones outlook should be.

  6. Avatar

    SZH

    August 13, 2017 at 7:30 PM

    Another well written part of Zaid’s story. Good enough to compensate for the long absence.
    When I was at the part where Zaid saw a show “and leg attached to it”, and when he was certain through observation that Tarek was no more, I was wishing that Tarek was just in coma or something. It is not easy to overcome death of an established character.
    Khair, good going.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 13, 2017 at 11:19 PM

      Thanks for the comment, brother. Yes, it was a sad scene to write.

  7. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    August 13, 2017 at 10:49 PM

    Br. Wael, you did an amazing job it was worth the wait. Jazk it was awesome.

    Just a note for Layth if I remember his name it’s been a while reading about him:- You know how he has a scar on side of the neck maybe when the man is posing for the picture you can make an illusion with a marker. Just a suggestion. I have crazy ideas. Just trying to visualize it as realistic as Huda.

  8. Avatar

    Asmeeni

    August 23, 2017 at 8:34 AM

    Assalamualaikum,

    I love this story, love how realistic it is, love the descriptions, and most of all love the characterization. Just a suggestion, maybe at the beginning of each part you could have a very brief summary of the story so far, so that especially for when there’s been a long break in between posting, it’s easy for the reader to catch up.
    Your writing is an inspiration!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 23, 2017 at 6:11 PM

      Wa alaykum as-salam, thank you Asmeeni. I appreciate your comment.

  9. Avatar

    Sahra

    October 4, 2017 at 7:59 AM

    MaashaAllah
    Welcome back brother, I couldn’t wait to read this part as I was busy to read it earlier. JazakaAllahu khayran for this

Leave a Reply

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#Culture

The Creation Of The Stereotypical Arab

Omar Sayadi

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stereotype Arabs
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Robert Entman, professor of media and public affairs, published an excellent study in  1993 in which he explained the inner workings of framing. Framing is a well-known concept within communication sciences and the study of mass communication, and concerns according to Entman both selection and promotion. He describes it as:

“The selection of some aspects of a perceived reality to make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. (Entman 1993)

A typical frame consists therefore of four qualities. It selects a specific problem by considering and checking the related actors, with which resources they act and observed from their own cultural framework. Then, the greater forces behind the problem are identified, i.e. the broader context. Subsequently, ethical questions are raised that interpret and evaluate the effects and actions of what is taking place. Eventually, solutions and treatments are offered.

Entman illustrates this by giving the example of the Cold War. According to him, American media made during that time frame extensive use of the so-called “Cold War frame”. This frame selected for example the Vietnamese Civil War as a specific problem. It then identified the actors and greater forces behind that war, usually Communist rebels supported by the Soviet-Union and China. Subsequently, these media ethically appraised the whole situation, interpreting the war as instances of severe Atheist agression. This frame could then eventually lead to the promotion of specific solutions being presented to the common man, among which support of the United Stated to the opponents of Communism, and military intervention.

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The caption of the Looney Tunes show Ali-Baba Bound reads: “Ali Baba, the mad dog of the desert.”

Framing is a means used by mass media to transmit specific messages to the audience. This is accomplished by using the classic transmission model, i.e. the sender who sends a message to the receiver through a channel/medium. However, Entman adds culture as an additional element for the transmission of a frame. Professor mass communication, writer and expert on racial and ethnical stereotypes in the media, Jack Shaheen, expands on this theory. After all, the framing phenomenon can not be completely understood when detached from the social and cultural context in which the message is transmitted to the audience. The era of Communism and the “Cold War frame” may be over, traditional mass media keep using frames to promote specific images among their audience.

Images that would certainly have a hard time to take root where it not for it adaption to existing and established cultural convictions. Convictions that were built up and developed through decades-long illustrations and representations within cultural productions, most notably in the movie industry.

Hollywood

Shaheen did some extensive research on the cultural depiction of Arabs in the Hollywood society. The results of his observations were brought together in the documentary Reel Bad Arabs (2006), one I’d recommend everyone interested in this subject. “Arabs are the most malign group in the history of Hollywood. They’re portrayed basically as sub-humans,” says Jack Shaheen to open his argument. “These images have been with us for more than a century.”

During no less than thirty years he watched thousands of movies, from the oldest ones to modern blockbusters, to observe and analyse the depiction of Arabs en Muslims in Western cinema. He subsequently discerns a dangerous and systematic pattern of hateful and racist stereotypes that strip a whole people of its humanity and depicts them as the embodiment of evil, fanaticism, and ignorance. According to Shaheen, this is an established fact from which filmmakers rarely deviate.

The land of the Arabs! An image Hollywood eagerly adopted from long-lost British and French explorers and writers that depicted the Arabs based on their own biased imagination of the Orient, the strange and exotic land that seemingly emanated stories like “One Thousand and One Nights”. The land with its eternal deserts, its threatening roughness, and ominous music. The desolate wilderness littered with palaces of rich and decadent pashas and their harem. The mysterious melodies that guide the movements of voluptuous belly dancers and snake charmers, watched by the all-seeing eyes of the scimitar wearing guards in movies like Invitation to the Dance from 1956.

Even today, such stereotypes are being used, even in children’s movies. Disney’s Alladin (1992) has been watched by millions of children all over the world but recycles nearly every stereotype that had been already used by the silent black-and-white Hollywood past to depict the so-called Arabland. A rough, unfriendly desert landscape where “they cut off your ear when they don’t like your face”, as stated in the opening song of the movie.

In the Looney Tunes animated cartoon Ali-Baba Bound (1940), we see the fairy tale character depicted as a cunning, insidiously grinning Arab with a beard, big nose and evil eye-brows who calls his companions by literally barking at them like a dog. The caption of the show reads: “Ali Baba, the mad dog of the desert.

Not only children, but adults as well see Arabs depicted in movies as hot-headed and impulsive simpletons who deliver some cheap and funny laughs. Take for example the India Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in which Indiana ends up face-to-face with a threatening and completely random armed Arab. The man tries to impress the American hero with his evil smile and some sword tricks, to which Indiana simply shoots him dead and runs off to continue his adventure.

The same Arab that prefers dogs over women. Indeed, an Arab states in The Happy Hooker goes to Washington from 1977 that “dogs are better than sheep. They’re cleaner, I know, I’ve tried dogs.” And if it isn’t dogs or sheep (think of the popular nickname “goatf*#ker” used by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to publicly denote Moroccans), than it is blond, American women.

The stereotype of the obtrusive Arab obsessed with white women appears so many times that it becomes ridiculous.Click To Tweet
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Two Lebanese terrorists from “The Delta Force” (Cannon Film) – 1986

 

In the Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983), Kim Bassinger is being undressed by a filthy  Arab businessman to be sold, with an unintelligible gurgling and crackling (Hollywood Arabic), to a bunch of miserable Bedouins. Arabs are being depicted as primitive and aggressive desert dwellers obsessed with American women as a welcome change to their usual covered and invisible womenfolk hidden in their palaces.

Those Arabs, on the other hand, that do effectively have access to modern society, technology and progress are being imagined as a faceless nuisance to Western society or death and destruction craving terrorists anxious to ruin the West.

Two businessmen in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) jokingly state that Arabs “don’t go anywhere without their animals.” Note that they were talking about a recent trip by plane!

How was London?” the main character of the movie Chapter Two (1979) is being asked. “Full of Arabs,” he replies. Movies that are in no way related to Arabs or Muslims and aren’t connected to the Middle-East in any way still can’t resist to the urge of making racist and humiliating comments on screen.

Back To The Future

Even in the hugely popular Back to the Future from 1985, the above statement is sadly the case. The movie is a plain, American Sci-Fi picture for teenagers in which stereotypes about Arabs are nevertheless again introduced. Emmett Brown, scientist and the inventor of the time-traveling car is minding his own business when he suddenly gets shot at, without any motive or reason, by a bunch of Libyan terrorists. They shoot him and then focus on the main character Marty McFly. The shooter curses violently when his weapon jams and fails to kill McFly. When he finally resolves the issue with his machine gun, their car breaks down so they again fail in an almost cartoonish way to continue.

The reason for this sudden and random occurrence is completely unknown, and all throughout the rest of the story no reference is made to it. But the fact remains established, a group of inept Arabs killed the beloved professor.

Foreign Policy

Just like the above-mentioned Cold War frame, this frame on Arabs and Muslims is a perfectly suited tool of the mass media and the political establishment to help shape American foreign policy in the Middle-East and North Africa in the minds of the American citizens. Four different events caused Hollywood to radically increase its use of Arab and Muslim stereotypes. Before anything else, the creation and establishment of Israel in 1948 en the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars resulted in a clear positioning of the United States and Hollywood on the side of their Israeli ally. The Arab embargo that hit Europe and the USA during the 1970’s and the Iranian Revolution further contributed to the role of Arabs as thugs and greedy businessmen. The notorious War on Terror could count as the fourth reason for the establishment and representation of the Arab and Muslim as enemy of progress and freedom.

Take for example the plans of a rich Arab oil sheikh to buy his way up through the United States, conquering it in the process. In the movie Network from 1976, it’s insinuated that a group of Arab businessmen threat to almost run over the Unites States financially by buying up several companies and building plots. The character of Howard Beal than calls live on television to rise against these Arabs, that are planning to buy his TV network. A memorable and frightening scene than follows in which the audience can see a mob of angry citizens take to the streets to express their rage, an image of social hatred against a common enemy, the Arab.

The Ultimate Demon

If it’s not an evil, perverse, and decadent Arab businessman, the Arab gets the role of dangerous and hostile terrorist assigned. Reserved for Russians and Cubans during the days of the Cold War, Palestinians would later figure as the antagonists of the hero in American action movies. The terrorist antagonist stripped from any bit of motive and humanity, serving as fleshly embodiment of the ultimate evil.

This image is already used as early as 1960 in the movie Exodus, where the Palestinians are depicted as invisible enemies hiding in the desert who perform appalling acts against the innocent Jewish colonists because of their radical antisemitism. It’s no wonder that this movie was considered a major promotion for Zionist thought and a support for the Israeli cause.

Theologian and writer Roland Boer writes in his 2009 work on Biblical themes that the depiction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in American cinema still influences American citizens to this day with regard to their opinion on the conflict.

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Palestinian terrorists in “True Lies” – 1994

Over a decade later, we find the same old story in the movie Black Sunday (1977). A Palestinian female terrorist wished to detonate a blimp over a typical American sports stadium during the Super Bowl, with about 80.000 ordinary Americans present. The caption of the movie on its release poster reads: “It could be tomorrow!” Again, a decade later, Arnold Schwarzenegger faces a group of Palestinian terrorists that wishes to destroy American cities with nuclear missiles in True Lies from 1994. Again and again, Arabs and Muslims are being identified with hatred, terror and the ultimate failure of their plans due to the American action hero.

An image that, not unimportantly, was fed extensively by two Israeli producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who created The Cannon Group company. For over twenty years, The Cannon Group produced at least thirty movies in which everything Arab is being mocked and demonized. Yes, the political relationship between the USA and Israel does indeed trickle in the world of cinema. What could be a more effective weapon than a seemingly unending source of full-length movies in which enmity and distrust against a certain people is promoted? A cultural alliance to dismiss these Arabs, “sand n#^*rs”, “goat f*^#rs” and “ragheads”, fed by a billion dollar business.

The most striking example of this would be the movie Rules of Engagement from 2000. The film leads the audience to Yemen, where a mob of dusty Yemenis are protesting loudly in front of the American embassy. American marines are being asked to evacuate the present staff, when they suddenly open fire and mow down every single protester, including women and children. As a result of this event, an investigation is started to examine the decision of the marines to open fire. Towards the end of the movie, however, the audience is revealed a whole other story than initially portrayed. Plot twist, the Arab protesters were armed themselves and they opened fire on the American soldiers.

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“Rules of Engagement” (Paramount Pictures) – 2000

Men and woman wildly brandishing guns and even a little girl that aims her pistol on an American soldier. A little, Arab girl that wasn’t nearly as innocent as she looked. A whole bunch of Arabs that weren’t as innocent as initially thought. They deserved to die! It was their own fault they attacked the mighty American army of the free! The marines had the right to kill them, to protect themselves! Sure, it was a massacre, but a legitimate one against the enemies of the USA. Against faceless, unknown human beings killed like animals.

Debunking Cultural Practices

Such movies present complicated and nuanced conflicts as a caricatural fight between Good and Evil. They polarize the wars in the Middle-East and North Africa by presenting the American cause as the necessary and just fight against demonized and inhuman enemy, an intrinsic evil. A propaganda weapon arises on a massive scale because of popular cultural injections.

Entman also describes culture as the “stock of commonly invoked frames“. In fact, he defines culture as “the empirically demonstrable set of common frames exhibited in the discourse and thinking of most people in a social grouping.” The fact that framing is then used extensively in the mass media, which includes movies, soaps and news reporting, could be explained from this point of view.

Because of the prolonged cultural impact of Hollywood, the frame of the Arab and Muslim is undoubtedly established within those societies that lie within its sphere of influence. The frame is developed as a cultural element within that society and determines how people look at messages and images that fit within that frame. The Arab that appears in the news is usually no individual. He’s a terrorist, a religious extremist, a zealot, a Muslim, a Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian or Iranian. These are all frames that evoke certain connotations among the traditional receiving audience, developed within a shared consciousness.

It’s a dangerous trend, but the best solution is the simplest one of all: look beyond the message alone. Don’t let popular culture or traditional news reporting decide how you see the world, because there’ll always be agendas being followed to guide and manipulate you. Common sense, an open mind, and sufficient dialogue can debunk the most stubborn cultural prejudices.

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#Culture

Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

On the border of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, several families live their lives torn apart—they were born on the wrong side of a wall. Now, faith groups are joining together to give them hope through prayer. Since the Mexican-American War in 1848, the boundary that divided the two countries transformed from an imaginary line, to a monument, to a simple barb-wire fence where people on either side could meet, greet, hold hands, or exchange a warm smile, to a heavily monitored steel wall stretching across almost 15 miles between San Diego and Tijuana. 

In recent years, crime, drug trafficking, an influx of undocumented workers, and increasingly white nationalism created stricter immigration policies in the U.S., directly impacting those who live straddling both sides of the border. Included in these are families whose loved ones have been deported – parents, spouses, children, and other relatives – to Mexico, undocumented workers providing for their families, and relatives who have not made physical contact with each other in years, sometimes decades. They gather along the steel mesh barriers of the border wall at Friendship Park to touch each other’s fingertips and pray.

The documentary, “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” produced by CAIR California, MoveOn, and Beyond Borders Studios captured some of these emotive moments during a Sunday prayer service held by the Border Church in partnership with the Border Mosque. Christians and Muslims came together in solidarity at Friendship Park on September 30, 2019, and held a joint bilingual ceremony, led by Reverend John Fanestil, Pastor Guillermo Navarrete, Imam Taha Hassane, and Imam Wesley Lebrón.

Imam Lebrón, National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for WhyIslam, witnessed the nightmare families separated at the border endure when he was invited to participate in this first meeting of the Border Church and Border Mosque. As a Puerto Rican, U.S. born citizen who never experienced the hardships of immigration, he was moved by what he witnessed. He said, 

“I entered Mexico and reached the border at Friendship Park and immediately noticed families speaking to each other through the tiny spaces of an enormous metal wall. They were not able to touch except for their fingers, which I later learned was the way they kissed each other.”

He described families discussing legal matters and children crying because they could not embrace a parent who traveled for days only to speak to them briefly behind the cold steel mesh partition. 

“Walls are meant to provide refuge and safety from the elements and they are not meant to prevent human beings from having a better life,” he explained, “As I stood behind that wall, I felt hopeless, angry, and had many other mixed emotions for our Mexican brethren who have been completely stripped of the opportunities many of us take for granted.” During the service he addressed the crowd gathered on the Mexican side of Friendship Park and recited the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. It was the first time the call was heard in Friendship Park, but not the last. 

The Border Church and Border Mosque will continue to provide a joint service on the last Sunday of every month and are calling for a binational day of prayer on Sunday, October 27th. They will be joined by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and indigenous spiritual leaders to “Pray Beyond Borders.” The event will be filmed and possibly live-streamed to a global audience with the objective of raising awareness and requesting financial support to address issues related to family separation in the region. 

On October 7th CAIR California with MoveOn, Faith in Action, MPower Change, and a social media team and distribution partners released the film “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” With the digital launch of this film in English and Spanish they wish to reach millions of viewers in telling the story of the Border Church and the Border Mosque and bring more faith leaders and activists on board to protect families’ right to gather. Please join them at Pray Beyond Borders – A Binational Day of Prayer – Sunday, October 27th at Friendship Park. 

when the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles(Psalm 34:17 – NIV).

“And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah ]” (Qur’an 2:45)

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

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Books

Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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grit
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

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