Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?
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Saturday, February 6, 2010 – 9:00 am
I slept straight through Fajr, which I was not happy about but knew was probably inevitable considering my state of utter depletion last night. I finally jerked awake from a terrible nightmare in which I was being attacked by eight foot tall robots with wings. They were armed with long serrated knives, and wherever I tried to run they flew after me in pursuit. I carried a pair of flaming Kali sticks, and when I struck one of the robots it would burst into flame, but in that moment of destruction or death it would change form, revealing itself to be someone I knew. One turned into Imam Abdus-Samad, another into Dr. Ehab Anwar, and another into my wife, Safaa.
That last one shocked me awake and I sat up in my cot with a cry on my lips. Realizing it had only been a dream, I collapsed back into the cot, my hands on my face. Why did Safaa have to join the robots against me, I thought bitterly.
Yes, I was being ridiculous, but I’m a dreamer. My dreams are powerful and often feel as real as waking life, and I have a hard time setting aside the emotions I experience in them. Sometimes I believe the dreams represent real life situations, and that my subconscious is trying to clue me in on something important.
I was rested, but my wounded left arm felt like it was on fire. Blood had soaked through the bandage and even messed up my bedsheets and blanket. Damn that Baldy and his partner. What kind of people try to kill someone they’ve never met just for a few bucks? I hope the guy is paralyzed, I thought savagely, and in that moment I think I meant it. The other events of the previous day flooded into my mind and I groaned. I’d participated in a felony murder. My friend Tarek was dead. And I’d been seen in a strip club by Safaa’s relative. So I could go to prison for life, give my client the worst news possible, and possibly see my marriage irrevocably destroyed.
Another day in the Golden State.
I sighed. First things first. My arm was killing me. I removed the stained bandage and checked the knife wound. The edges of the gash were swollen and red. It needed stitches, if I was honest with myself, but I didn’t have time for that. I disinfected the wound yet again, then used superglue to close it up. It was a slow and painful process. I went a millimeter at a time, pulling the edges together, holding them closed until the glue set, then moving up. The skin was hot to the touch, and the entire process was agonizing, but I gritted my teeth and got through it.
When I was done I performed wudu’, re-bandaged the arm, then made up the morning prayer. After that I spent a few minutes reading the Quran. It was something I tried to do daily, even when I was in a hurry.
I began at the start of Surah 41, called Fussilat:
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
[This is] a revelation from the Compassionate, the Merciful
A Book whose verses have been detailed, an Arabic Qur’an for a people who know,
As a giver of good tidings and a warner; but most of them turn away, so they do not hear.
And they say, “Our hearts are within coverings from that to which you invite us, and in our ears is deafness, and between us and you is a partition, so work; indeed, we are working.”
Say, O [Muhammad], “I am only a man like you to whom it has been revealed that your deity is but One God; so take a straight course to Him and seek His forgiveness…”
The part about people who refused to hear the truth was interesting, but what really caught my eye was that sixth verse: “I am only a man like you to whom it has been revealed that your deity is but One God.” Only a man like you. Not a superman, not an angel, not infallible from error in mundane matters. And yet the Prophet, peace be upon him, withstood so much suffering, persisted in the face of so much opposition, and did it all for the glory of God and the betterment of humanity, never for his own benefit.
I remembered Shaykh Rashid, my teacher in Qatar, saying that any human being could reach the same level of piety and faith as the Sahabah – the righteous companions of the Prophet – for if the presence of the Prophet himself – peace be upon him – had been a requisite for the achievement of faith then the message would not be universal. Therefore while there might never be an entire generation like them again, on an individual level there was no bar to achieving what they did.
Then there was the last part of the sixth ayah: “so take a straight course to Him and seek His forgiveness.” That certainly applied to me. Astaghfirullah, I said out loud. I seek Allah’s forgiveness. It felt like trying to apply a Band-Aid to a sucking chest wound, but I repeated it nonetheless: astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah.
Perhaps, as a seeker of forgiveness myself, I could forgive Safaa for being a flying robot and attacking me. Man la yarha la yurham, went a well known hadith. Whoever shows no mercy will be shown no mercy.
I put away the Quran and attempted to practice a little Kali – again, something I felt compelled to do daily. When I picked up my sticks and began working the basic heaven-six sinawali pattern, a wave of dizziness hit me. I stumbled and struck my hip painfully on the edge of my desk. I put a hand on the desk until the dizziness passed.
When had I last eaten? My stomach felt like the Grand Canyon, like I could drop a food truck in there and it wouldn’t make a dent. I put away the sticks and checked my kitchen corner to see if Jalal had completed his shopping errands. I found my mini fridge and the three-tiered plastic shelf I kept in the corner stocked with groceries. Ma-sha-Allah, good job Jalal. I made myself a quesadilla with jack cheese, avocado and diced jalapenos, which I toasted on the hot plate with a little butter, and washed it down with a tall glass of orange juice.
There was a mini-mart about a block away. I locked up my office and walked down the street to buy the newspaper. I wanted to see what was being reported about the shootout at the stash house and the girl’s death.
The owners of the mini-mart a.k.a. liquor store were Arabs. They had an entire wall of liquor bottles behind the counter, the glass on those bottles gleaming green, brown, burgundy and every other shade of the alcoholic rainbow. Above that wall of sin hung a plaque with an Arabic verse from the Quran: “wa lasawf yo’teeka rabbuka fa tardaa.” And your Lord is going to give you, and you will be satisfied. Surat-ad-Duha again. It was interesting how that Surah kept cropping up in my life lately.
I’d always been appalled at the nerve of these people, hanging an ayah of Quran above a liquor display. I had always felt these dope-slinging Arabs – and yes, liquor was another kind of dope – were an embarrassment to my community. Whenever I went into their store to buy something I kept my head down and restricted conversation to a minimum, wanting to get in and out as quickly as possible.
Today, though, I felt unable to judge anyone. Who was I? I was the worst kind of sinner.
I went in the store and picked up the newspaper and, on impulse, a chocolate bar. Somehow guilt never seemed to affect my appetite. The two young men behind the counter greeted me in Arabic. They were both slender and dark-skinned, with curly hair and handsome faces. Their names were Basim and Jasim Ibrahimi, I knew. Brothers. Many of the liquor store owners in Fresno were Yemeni, but the Ibrahimi family were Palestinian. Like my own family, they hailed originally from Bethlehem, though when my family was driven out by the Israelis in the Nakbah – the catastrophe of 1948 – they ended up in refugee camps in Lebanon, while the Ibrahimis had fled to Syria. I had an idea they might even be distantly related to me – like third cousins twice removed, or something. Okay, I made that up, but it was something remote like that.
I mumbled a reply to the brothers’ greeting, purchased my newspaper and chocolate, and headed back to the office.
With some trepidation, I opened the newspaper. The stash house robbery was the front page story. The headline blared in bold letters:
Gang War Leaves Three Wounded in South Fresno
I stared at the words. Three wounded? What about the girl? I quickly scanned the article:
A massive gun battle in a quiet residential neighborhood of south Fresno left residents shaken yesterday. Police sources say the incident, which took place just after high noon on a normally placid block of Casa Verde Street, appears to be the result of a turf war between a Samoan gang known as the Two-Ton Valley Crips, and another, unidentified gang.
“It might have been much worse,” a police source commented, “but it appears that one side was using primarily non-lethal weapons.” Police say two men suffered non-serious impact wounds, possibly from shotgun rounds known as bean bags. A third victim, identified as Valerie Kincaid of Porterville, suffered a gunshot to the chest and is reportedly in critical but stable condition. Kincaid is 21 years old and has previous arrests for prostitution and drug possession.
“We do have leads, and we are following them up,” stated veteran FPD detective Reina Saladino.
A local resident described the battle as sounding like the end of world. “I swear,” said Crystal Tines, 54, who lives across the street. “I thought it was the Rapture. Come and take me Jesus, that’s what I said, just ask my husband.”
There was more, including a few photos of the outside of the stash house and a mug shot of Valerie Kincaid from a previous arrest. My eyes, however, kept coming back to four words: “critical but stable condition.” My scalp prickled and the hair stood up on the back on my neck as I read those words again and again, hardly able to believe it. I studied the mugshot of the woman. It was a black and white photo, but the resemblance was unmistakable. It was the same woman Pinkie had shot in the shower.
Alive. She was alive!
The chocolate bar slipped from my hand and fell to the sidewalk. I was about halfway down the block on the way back to my office, but I fell to my knees on the cracked and stained sidewalk and prostrated in the direction of the Qiblah, right there in front of the Salvation Army thrift store. I put my forehead on the dirty cement and gave thanks to God. Subhan Allah wa bihamdihi, I whispered. Glory to Allah and praise be to Him.
“Amigo, estás bien? You need the help?”
I raised my forehead and looked up. It was the lean, bearded homeless man in the watchcap. The man I’d purchased the burrito and apple bread for yesterday morning. Had that really been only yesterday? So much had happened since then, it seemed like a year had passed.
“Yeah man,” I replied. “I’m okay. Estoy bien.”
He held out a hand to me and I took it, and he heaved me up off the sidewalk. Then he bent down and picked up the chocolate bar and tried to hand it to me. “That’s okay,” I said. “You keep that.” A surge of euphoria passed through me, as if my blood had been made of lead and someone had just rinsed it clean, so that now I had sunlight running through my veins. I felt ten years younger. I pointed to my office down the street. “That’s my office,” I told the homeless man. “Mi oficina. Cuando tienes hambre, anytime you’re hungry, you knock on my door. If I have food, I’ll share it.”
“Eh… muchas gracias,” the man stammered. I wondered if he thought I was some kind of nutjob, handing out food and prostrating on the sidewalk.
I was almost at my office when my stomach rebelled. Without warning, I found myself bending over in front of my own door and retching. I lost most of my breakfast. Shaking my head, I got some paper towels from my office and cleaned up, thinking the entire time that Allah was good to me, and I was grateful. Yes, physically I felt terrible – my entire body ached, my arm was hot, and I couldn’t shake a growing feeling of dizziness and nausea – but emotionally I was re-energized. All the problems that had seemed insurmountable – my marriage, this case, and my own personal salvation – now seemed suddenly solvable.
Of course, Tarek was still dead. But the knowledge that I was not a murderer – that I did not have to face Allah with that terrible burden of sin – gave me perspective.
Speaking of Tarek, I knew intellectually that his death had been inevitable. He was a drug addict. He’d long since made choices that led him down this ill-fated path. He’d rejected all attempts to help him, even running away from rehab. There was nothing I or anyone else could have done about it.
Emotionally, however, that line of reasoning didn’t seem to matter. I was angry at Tarek for throwing his life away. I was angry at him for abandoning his wife and child, for taking what I saw as the easy way out, the coward’s way out. And I was angry at myself for I knew not what, for failing him in some way, for not being there to physically drag him out of the muck, shake some sense into him, and save him.
I had to go see the Anwars today. I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Before I did that, I opened my computer and went to a discount travel website. I had very few leads on Angie, but it hadn’t escaped my attention that everyone I talked to seemed to mention one thing: Panama. Angie still had family there, and she spoke wistfully of her childhood in Colon. Maybe she intended to take the forty five thousand and start a new life there. Maybe she was fleeing from whoever she’d stolen the money from. In any case it was worth pursuing. I checked my bank account online – I had a healthy balance now, thanks to this case. I searched flights leaving for Panama that very day, and used my debit card to book a flight that left at 5:30 pm.
With that done, I shuttered my office and headed out to see the Anwars.
* * *
The Anwars lived in Woodward Lakes, a sprawling residential development in north Fresno consisting of million dollar homes constructed around a caterpillar-shaped artificial lake called – you guessed it – Woodward Lake. Wedged as it was between the San Joaquin River, the Fort Washington Golf Club and the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, the neighborhood was almost invisible to outsiders. This was the ultimate white flight refuge, a hidden conclave where all the bankers, insurance execs and industrialists went to be apart from the working class hoi polloi and the darker hued masses of central and south Fresno – myself among them.
I rolled into the circular driveway of the Anwars’ gargantuan home on Mariners Circle – I had to laugh at these these pretentious street names, as if any real mariner had ever been within a hundred miles of this place – and parked next to a meticulously structured front garden with square stone tiles, perfectly clipped hedges, and square planters bursting with petunias and snapdragons.
It was odd that there were no other cars here. The Anwars’ car might be in the garage, but where were all the mourners? Maybe it was too early. The word might not have gone out until this morning. The Anwars’ daughter Mina would probably not arrive from New York until tonight, and Dalya might be on her way from Merced even now. But surely some of the Anwars’ friends would have arrived already, not the least of which would be my own parents.
I rang the doorbell and Farah Anwar herself opened the door. She made a sour face and said, “What do you want?”
I realized instantly that she had not yet been informed about her son’s death. There was no sign of weeping or grief on her face. Well. Perhaps it was better this way. They would hear the news from someone who cared.
“I need to speak to you and Dr. Ehab,” I said politely.
Farah glanced back to the interior of the house as if worried that someone might overhear, then turned back to me. “We are busy and don’t have time for your nonsense,” she hissed. “Go away, idiot!”
I could not for the life of me understand this woman. Hadn’t they hired me and paid me ten thousand dollars to find their granddaughter? And now she was treating me like a traveling snake oil salesman.
“Who is it Farah?” Dr. Ehab called from inside.
“No one ya Baba,” Farah called back. “Just watch your program.”
“I don’t mean to bother you Tant,” I said calmly. I was being generous by calling her auntie. “But I have important news.”
Dr. Ehab appeared at the door beside her, dressed in green cotton pajamas, his hair still rumpled from sleep. “Why didn’t you tell me it was Zaid? Tafaddal ya ibni, come in.”
Farah glared daggers at me but stepped aside. The interior of the home was as beautifully and expensively furnished as one might expect, with gleaming hardwood floors, thick Persian rugs, an elegant wooden staircase that curved along one wall to a second floor, and chandeliers overhead. The house was also immaculate and almost sterile, as if it were only a showpiece, not intended for actual human use.
Ehab led me to a sitting room with burgundy colored walls, cream and green striped sofas, a towering grandfather clock in one corner and a piano in the other. The two of them sat on one sofa, and I sat opposite. Between us was a stunning Ottoman-style wooden coffee table with geometric, floral and arabesque designs as well as Quranic ayahs inlaid in ivory. Even the legs were inlaid with ivory. If it was a genuine antique it was probably worth a fortune.
Atop the table sat a yellow marble carving of the sphinx. This contrast was typical of Egyptians, I’d noticed. They never seemed sure which heritage they should celebrate more: the Pharaonic legacy, or the Islamic, in spite of the fact that the two were in direct conflict ideologically.
“Would you like some Turkish coffee?” Ehab asked. “I always start my Saturday with thick Turkish coffee and a football game. Real football you know, not this barbaric American kind. We get it on the satellite. Farah, please bring us some coffee.”
“No,” she replied flatly. She crossed her arms and stared at me as if I were a mud-covered warthog despoiling her sofa.
“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I’m afraid I have bad news. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this.” I paused, not sure how to continue.
Dr. Ehab frowned. “Did you learn something about Anna?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But the bad news concerns your son. Ammu, Tant, I’m sorry to tell you that Tarek is dead. I found him last night. It appeared he had been dead for some days. It looked like a drug overdose. I am truly so sorry. Allah yarhamuh. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon.” May Allah have mercy on him. We belong to Allah and to him we shall return.
All the anger went out of Farah Anwar. She sagged as if her bones had turned to rubber. Her chin fell onto her chest. I worried she might be having a heart attack. As for Dr. Ehab, he merely stared at me.
“There must be a mistake,” Dr. Ehab said finally. “We have heard nothing. Tarek is a young man. I don’t see how he could be dead.” He shook his head. “You are mistaken, I’m sure.”
“I’m sorry Dr. Ebab,” I said gently. “There is no mistake. I was there. The paramedics put him in a body bag. It appeared to be a heroin overdose.”
“But…” Ehab paused, at a loss for words. “Why has no one contacted us? Where…” His lower lip began to tremble, and tears came to his eyes. “Where is he? Where is my son?”
I swallowed, trying not to cry myself. “The paramedics would have taken his body to the county morgue on American Avenue. His body was discovered last night. Today is Saturday and they might have only one medical person on staff. I’m sure they will contact you soon. Or you can call them. I have their number in my phone.”
Dr. Ehab collapsed back into the sofa and put his hands on his head. His breathing came in ragged gasps.
“There’s something else,” I went on. “I know the timing is terrible. But you hired me to find Anna. I’ve learned that Angie got her hands on some money. She may have stolen it from a drug dealer, or from a local gang.” I couldn’t tell if they were listening. Ehab stared ahead vacantly, while Farah’s head still rested on her chest, her eyes downcast. Nevertheless, I plowed on. “The only place I can think that she might have gone is Panama.” I explained my reasoning, then continued. “I’m leaving today. I’ve had some expenses so far, but that can wait. For now I will cover the costs from what you’ve paid me so far.”
If not for the news about Tarek I would have asked them to reimburse me for expenses so far, including my flight to Panama. But the timing was horrible. I couldn’t ask them for money right now.
Farah Anwar slowly raised her head and focused on me. Her eyes were rimmed with red and filled with a profound, undiluted hatred – a hatred unmistakably directed at me. The sheer virulence of it rocked me and made me flinch.
“Expenses,” she said slowly, then repeated the word more loudly. “Expenses?” She stood, bent forward and seized the stone sculpture of the sphinx that rested on the table. Before I could think to react she drew one arm back and heaved the sculpture at me.
If it had been some street thug throwing the object d’art at me I could have easily ducked or dodged. But Farah’s action was so out of context that I sat frozen, unable to believe that she would do such a thing. The heavy sculpture struck me on my left eyebrow. I cried out in pain and put a hand to my eye. Blood poured into my eye and down my cheek.
“Ya harami!” Farah Anwar screamed at me. “Ya ibn al-haram! My son is dead, and you come here to take our money? Ya wisikh! You are a waste of life! Your mother kept the wrong child! She should have kept the lame one and aborted you! Get out of my house, get out!”
“Farah!” Dr. Ehab cried out. “Bitamili eh? Are you crazy?”
I rose to my feet and listed toward the door, still pressing one hand to my eye. Behind me, Farah’s insults went on. Dr. Ehab was saying something, but I paid no mind. I opened the door myself, fumbling for the latch with hands slick with blood, then stumbled out to my car.
I sat in the car for a moment, my breath coming hard. What a disaster that had been. I started the car, drove for about a block, then parked in the shade beneath a large tree on a quiet residential street.
What had Farah screamed at me? That my mother should have kept the other one and aborted me? What other one? What was she raving about? It made no sense at all.
I reminded myself, as I had so many times before, that I had a job to do. The first thing was to clean up the blood staining my face and clothing, and even messing up the steering wheel and the car seat. I retrieved the first aid kit from the trunk. The bleeding from the cut above my eye had slowed to a steady ooze. I bandaged it with heavy gauze, then grabbed a roll of paper towels and cleaned the car and myself as best I could. Lastly I shed the bloody t-shirt I wore and replaced it with one of the spares I kept in the trunk, a cream-colored T with a logo that said, “California Medical Delivery Service.”
I texted Jalal: “Need your help again. My office, one hour.”
The eye cut was going to continue bleeding until it was stitched, I was pretty sure. I didn’t have time to wait hours for treatment at a hospital. I searched my phone for medical supply houses and found a Ray Fisher Pharmacy on Blackstone, not far from my parents’ house. Good.
As I walked into the pharmacy ten minutes later, the clerk behind the counter gaped at me. I must have looked like a ghoul. My jeans were stained with blood, and streaks of blood still showed on my skin. Dry paper towels don’t clean blood very well – little tip there.
“Do you need an ambulance?” the man asked.
“No thanks. Listen, if I wanted to close up a cut myself, should I use stitches or one of those fancy staple guns?”
“Uh… well…” the man stammered. “The staples allow for rapid wound closure and result in less inflammation, and they’re easy to remove. But, I mean, are you alone?”
“Let’s say I am.”
“Then you’ll want stitches. Staples require two people, one to pull the wound closed with forceps and one to staple. Stitches you can do alone, I mean, if you know how.”
I nodded. “Stitches then.”
“You, uh, I mean, you could buy a suture kit. It’ll have everything you need.”
I took his suggestion and purchased said kit and a topical anesthetic. “Do you have a restroom here?” I asked.
“Well… yeah, I mean, over there.” He pointed.
I made my way to the restroom where I removed the bandage, washed my face with soap and water, then applied the topical anesthetic. It was made for insect bites and bee stings, not stitching a wound, but it would have to do. I threaded the surgical needle, a wickedly curved piece of stainless steel with a razor sharp tip. I actually knew how to sew, as I’d taken home economics in middle school, the year before we moved to Qatar, but I’d never handled anything like this.
I took out my phone, pulled up an article on how to suture a wound, and propped the phone on the washbasin. I opened the kit, which contained all manner of stuff I didn’t need, including scalpel, forceps, probe, and surgical scissors.
I scanned the article. Sterilize the equipment, it said. Okay. The kit contained rubbing alcohol. I poured it generously over the cruel looking needle. Next: pain relief. I’d done what I could in that regard. Next: clean and irrigate the wound, removing all foreign matter. That wasn’t really necessary. I’d been struck with a blunt object. There had been no penetration. Instead I poured antibacterial disinfectant over the cut, taking care not to get it in my eye. Next: use the surgical scissors to cut away loose or ragged flesh. Forget it, I was so not doing that. Besides, there wasn’t any. The next step was to thread the needle and use something called a hemostat – it was included in the kit, apparently – to grip it.
Okay. I was ready. Gripping the needle with the hemostat, I inserted it at the top of the cut for the first stitch.
Ouch! Ow, ow ow! SubhanAllah, that hurt. Fresh blood poured from the cut. I bent over, covering my eye with one hand, grimacing. That was much worse than I expected. A wave of dizziness and nausea rocked me and I hurried to the toilet and threw up again, putting a hand on the toilet tank to steady myself. I was sweating and hot, in spite of this being a cool February day. What was wrong with me?
I washed my hands thoroughly, rinsed my mouth out, and stood, breathing deeply. I could do this. It was just pain. I was used to pain. I’d been injured in Kali training more times than I could count, though they were always minor injuries like welts, sprains and bruises.
I girded myself, gritted my teeth, said bismillah, and resumed. The pain was still there, but I took it. I imagined soaking up the pain and transforming it into resolve. I could barely see because of the blood so I sewed by feel. My hand was steady as a stone. Seven stitches later I was done. I tied the thread on both ends with tiny knots, then put a bandage over it, washed up, packed up the kit and headed out. The entire procedure had taken less than ten minutes.
* * *
My parents lived in the Old Fig Garden. It was an unincorporated district right in the center of the city. There were no sidewalks or traffic signals, just stop signs. The homes were old but large and mostly well maintained, with mature trees that gave the neighborhood a woodsy feeling.
I was a mess, I knew, but I was pressed for time and my parents’ house was near the pharmacy, so it was logically the next stop. I rang the doorbell, waited, rang again, and finally my father opened the door. He was a tall man with swarthy skin and a full head of jet black hair. He must dye it, I supposed. He was dressed in slacks and Italian loafers, a baby blue dress shirt and a gray evening jacket. He looked like he should be smoking a cigar in some posh private club.
My father looked me up and down, taking in my feverish appearance, bloodstained jeans and boots, medical delivery t-shirt, and bandaged arm and forehead. He shook his head and said, “Your mother will have words for you.” Then he simply turned and walked away.
This was the maddening thing about my father. I’d spent my entire childhood trying to get him to notice me, talk to me, interact with me in any way. But he’d always been more interested in his engineering work, and had been absent for long periods of time. Sometimes I had deliberately misbehaved to get him to notice me, and it had worked, alright. My father was a normally dispassionate and placid man, but when he blew his top, he exploded like a nuclear bomb. When I misbehaved badly enough he’d go into a frenzy, beating me with his belt as if he were trying to score the devil out of me.
I still remembered when, as a little kid, my father missed my fifth birthday because he was away on an engineering job. He sent a lovely pair of handmade leather sandals as a gift. When he finally returned two weeks later, I greeted him wearing the sandals, hoping he would notice. He merely patted my head – not even a hug to go with it – and told me to go play outside. I promptly went down to the swamp, which was the name we kids gave to a boggy field of wetlands across the street from our apartment complex. I splashed about for an hour, completely ruining the sandals. When I returned home, my father whipped me until my throat grew hoarse from crying. I remember taking a kind of grim satisfaction in this.
In many ways, the various teachers and mentors I had known – Shaykh Rashid, Imam Abdus-Samad, Malik Sulawesi – had been more like fathers than my own. The only sign I’d had in many years that my own father even knew I existed was when he’d sent me books in prison, assuming it was actually him and not someone he’d paid to do it.
Maybe that was, in part, why I’d come here in this ragged state. To see how he’d react. To stimulate a response. That was childish, of course, and once again it failed. Sometimes I wonder if I have changed at all since I was five.
Well. There was no point explaining to my father why I was here, as he clearly did not care. I headed for the internal door to the garage. I was pretty sure that my passport was in a box there, along with some old books and miscellaneous letters and postcards. That was what I’d come here for.
My mother was in the kitchen making what looked like maqlooba. She was a small woman with large blue eyes and age-spotted pale skin, still attractive in spite of her advancing years. She wore a short sleeved dress and an apron, and house slippers. Her long blond hair was tied back into a ponytail. She was Palestinian like my father, but looked like a European.
She must not have heard the doorbell. When she saw me she rounded on me, furious. “What are you doing here?”
I exhaled loudly. “As-salamu alaykum Mom. I need my passport, it’s in the garage.”
She grimaced as if she’d tasted something foul. “What have you done now? Farah Anwar called. She said that Tarek is dead, and you had something to do with it. Why, Zaid, why? Why do you continue to shame us? What did I do, that Allah is punishing me like this?” She was working herself into one of her hysterical bouts, and sure enough, the tears began to flow. She raised her arms to the sky and pleaded with God. “What have I done? What sins have I committed in my life to be punished this way?” She turned her attention to me again. “I thought you left all this evil behind. How can we hold our heads up in the community? How did I raise a son like you?”
I hung my head, not in shame but in weariness and the desire to avoid conflict. I made my way to the garage. I went through several boxes in the garage before I found the passport. I checked the date and found it still valid, alhamdulillah. On the way out I called to my parents, who were arguing in the family room. “I’m leaving. As-salamu alaykum. Love you both.” I headed toward the door.
I turned to see my mom hurrying after me. “Where are you going?” she demanded. “What do you need the passport for? Did you commit a crime again? Are you running away?”
“I’m on a case. I’m going to Panama.”
“But… do you have to leave immediately? Why don’t you stay a while?”
I closed my eyes and gave a mental eye roll. A moment ago I was a shame on the family, and now she wanted me to stay and visit. “I don’t exactly feel welcome,” I said matter of factly.
My mother shook her head and sighed as if her heart were breaking. “Why is it so difficult with us? I feel there is a shaytan here.”
My jaw tensed. “Are you calling me a shaytan?”
She clucked her tongue. “No. I am saying there is a shaytan dividing us. I just want you to succeed in life, to make us proud. I want you to do better, stop making these awful mistakes, stop being foolish.”
I knew she was referring to my entire life to date, as in her mind it was all one big mistake. Still, this was the calmest I’d seen her in a while. “Can I ask you something?” I said. The words came out of my mouth without planning. “Farah Anwar said something when I was there. She cursed me, and said that you should have aborted me and kept the lame one. What was she talking about?”
My mother stepped back and her face turned white as an eggshell. I mean she was already naturally pale, but every trace of color drained from her face, as if she were an animated corpse. Then she stepped forward and slapped me across the face. She must have put all her strength into it because the blow hit hard. It caught me off guard and I stumbled back a step, almost falling. I tasted blood in my mouth.
“You lie!” my mother shouted. “Farah would never say such a thing! You are spreading slanders about me. How dare you! Get out of my house!”
Wow. I was living a nightmare version of deja vu. Once again I found myself stumbling toward the door, carried along by curses like driftwood on a raging current.
Again I drove only about a block. My hands were shaking too hard to control the wheel. I pulled over and parked.
I couldn’t take much more. My wounded arm ached badly. I felt feverish and sick to my stomach. My eyes filled with tears and I began to cry. I sobbed out loud, shaking, pounding the steering wheel with one fist. Tears poured down my cheeks and mucus dripped from my nose. I had not wept that way in years, maybe since I was a kid. It wasn’t all because of the insults, whether Farah’s or my mom’s. In fact I hardly cared about that. Or so I told myself. It was… I didn’t know what it was. Everything. I missed my wife and child. I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to for help. I was tired of being hated, tired of being looked down on and misunderstood.
Mentally I grasped for something to hold on to, some rope to steady myself. And I remembered Salman Al-Farisi.
Salman, Salman. My hero, my favorite Sahabi. When I had last mentally reviewed his story, he had been sold into slavery. My sobs abated and my breath turned to hitching gasps. I reclined the car seat and tipped my head back, closing my eyes as I continued the story in my head, recalling it in Salman’s own words:
I worked as a slave. Eventually my master sold me to a nephew of his belonging to the tribe of Banu Quraydah. This nephew took me to Yathrib, the city of palm groves, which was just as the Christian at Ammuriyah had described it.
At that time the Prophet was inviting his people in Makkah to Islam but I did not hear anything about him because of the harsh duties which slavery imposed upon me.
When the Prophet reached Yathrib after his hijrah from Makkah, I was in fact at the top of a palm tree belonging to my master doing some work. My master was sitting under the tree. A nephew of his came up and said:
“May God declare war on the Aws and the Khazraj (the two main Arab tribes of Yathrib). By God, they are now gathering at Quba to meet a man who has today come from Makkah and who claims he is a Prophet.”
My entire body flushed with heat as soon as I heard these words. I began to shiver so violently that I was afraid that I might fall on my master. I quickly got down from the tree and spoke to my master’s nephew.
“What did you say? Repeat the news for me.”
My master was furious and gave me a terrible blow. “What does this matter to you’? Go back to what you were doing!” he shouted.
That evening, I took some dates I had gathered and went to the place where the Prophet had alighted. I went up to him and said:
“I have heard you are a righteous man and that you have companions with you who are strangers and are in need. Here is something from me as sadaqah. I see that you are more deserving of it than others.”
The Prophet ordered his companions to eat but he himself did not eat of it. I gathered some more dates and when the Prophet left Quba for Madinah I went to him and said: “I noticed that you did not eat of the sadaqah I gave. This however is a gift for you.” Of this gift of dates, both he and his companions ate.
* * *
Refusal to eat from sadaqah was one of the signs the righteous priest had told Salman to look for. There was another: the seal of prophethood. When Salman attempted to look at the Prophet’s back, the Messenger of Islam (peace be upon him) lowered his cloak so Salman could see the mark on his back. Realizing this was the Prophet he had been told about, Salman fell to his knees, kissed the Prophet’s feet and started to cry.
The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) listened to Salman’s story and learned that his owner would free him in exchange for 300 planted palm trees and 1,600 silver coins. The Prophet urged his companions to contribute generously. When Salman was freed, he remained close to the Prophet. When some people inquired about his ancestry (an important subject with the Arabs), Salman boldly replied: “I am Salman, the son of Islam from the children of Adam.”
* * *
I thought of Salman working as a slave, beaten by his master and treated with contempt even as he labored in the scorching heat of the Arabian sun without recompense. Yet he carried no self-pity, no anger or frustration. He was a man on a mission, seeking a true Prophet of God as he had done all his life, bearing all hardships with patience. He was Salman, the son of Islam.
My own hardships were nothing compared to his. Look at all the blessings I had: a child who loved me (even if my wife did not), a career I enjoyed (even if it was not always successful), and now Allah had blessed me with a case and money so I could eat and care for my family. And – let’s not forget – the woman was alive. The woman Pinkie had shot. What a huge relief that was, what a blessing.
Most of all, I had the gift of faith. Allah had drawn me to Himself and chosen to guide me. That was priceless. I could not imagine my life without my religion.
Okay. Enough self-pity, enough wallowing. I was back in control. I took a deep breath and let it out.
Let everyone think what they wanted. Let them curse me, hate me. Let it all fall from me like water from a sea lion’s back. I knew who I was and what I was about, no matter what anyone thought. To borrow Salman Al-Farisi’s saying, I was Zaid, the son of Islam from the children of Adam. I was a good father, a good private detective, and struggling daily to be a good Muslim. That was all I needed, by God. I would survive and thrive, Insha’Allah, and no one’s opinion of me would matter more than a rainstorm matters to a mountain.
Next: Chapter 12: Fever Dreams
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
The Creation Of The Stereotypical Arab
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?
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)
Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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