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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 11 – Zaid, the Son of Islam

My eyes 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.

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

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 | Chapter 10

Saturday, February 6, 2010 – 9:00 am
Fresno, California

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.

Welcome to California

“The Golden State.”

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:

Ha Meem.

[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.

Rolled up newspaper

“I opened the newspaper…”

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.

Sphinx carving

“Atop the table sat a yellow marble carving of the sphinx.”

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.

Suture needleOkay. 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.

“Wait!”

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.

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.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Huda

    August 15, 2017 at 3:03 AM

    SubhanAllah! I have goosebumps!
    Very well written! Can’t predict what will happen next.
    Stay strong Zaid!

  2. Avatar

    Aishat

    August 15, 2017 at 11:24 AM

    as always, you write so well maashaAllah

  3. Avatar

    Amatullah

    August 17, 2017 at 1:19 AM

    Amazing again! I somehow want Safaa to pay deeply for everything she’s doing to Zaid. Leaving him alone to suffer. Someday, she should be the one struggling.
    Please make the next episode longer.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 17, 2017 at 1:55 AM

      Sister Amatullah, remind me never to get on your bad side.

      • Avatar

        Bint A

        August 17, 2017 at 6:20 PM

        lol @ the reply to Amatullah’s comment

        Great chapter, I liked the ebb of it after all that action. Twice my eyes filled with tears…. at the moment of sajdah al-shukr and the moment where Salman discovers the news of the Prophet after his long difficult journey. How merciful is Allah…! love the way you tie his story into Zaid’s and the descriptions you provide of his internal struggle are just so ….relevant subhanAllah. can totally relate to it…may Allah make it easy on all the Muslims to rectify their relationship with Him ameen

        Still have a bit of an issue with your metaphors/similes…. the last one felt really awkward when reading:
        “and no one’s opinion of me would matter more than a rainstorm matters to a mountain.”
        I think it would end nicely if you just finished straight off:

        “That was all I needed, by God. I would survive and thrive, Insha’Allah, and no one’s opinion of me would matter.”

        PS- in reply to last week’s comment, yes I really like the cover of Pieces. please keep it that way. Keeps us guessing and has an element of curiosity. Things are serene on top but may take a turn for the worse. Having the couple shot right on the cover would make it no different than the million other covers with the man/woman love tension theme and reduces the element of curiosity. Furthermore it hinders imagination when you see the character (or elements of how they look) rather than conjure up their image in your brain. Please allow our freedom to “dream” :)

        • Avatar

          Amatullah

          August 18, 2017 at 1:36 AM

          Hey, “and no one’s opinion of me would matter more than a rainstorm matters to a mountain.” — this is the line I liked the Most! Zaid had cried so hard and then brought himself up by recollecting the story of Salman, then he resolves to become stronger (like a mountain). And when he took the resolve, the anger he faced from his mom & tant began to look so small that it hardly mattered. I think this phrase beautifully fit in!

      • Avatar

        Amatullah

        August 18, 2017 at 1:37 AM

        I think I just got a picture of what is to come up :-X

  4. Avatar

    N

    August 18, 2017 at 12:17 AM

    This chapter really made me cry. Zaid’s life reminds me soooo much of my own and reading this chapter provided closure, reassurance, and was cathartic. Thank you for writing it the way you did. It was one of the most meaningful chapters I’ve read

  5. Avatar

    Layyinah

    August 22, 2017 at 10:01 AM

    This chapter was hard to digest. I felt so sorry for Zaid. He’s trying so hard to be a solid Muslim and he’s devoted to his family but he just can!t seem to get a break. I admire his strength and most of all, I admire his faith. This is just one of the features of your characters that thoroughly enjoy: their strong faith. I love all of the characters for this reason.

  6. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 4, 2017 at 2:13 PM

    MashaAllah very well done,
    Awesome writer!!
    That actually made me cry the mother part and “I couldn’t take much more….”

  7. Avatar

    SZH

    September 10, 2017 at 6:24 PM

    Another epic episode. Another short episode [;-)]
    A correction, in the starting of this chapter, you wrote the Hadith “Man la yarha la yurham”, you missed the “m” in “yarha”. Not a big one, but I wanted to point it out.
    I have lost few elements of this story from my mind, and you changed some bits. I think it is right time to re-read the whole story.
    JazakAllah Khair

  8. Avatar

    Khan

    September 27, 2017 at 9:13 PM

    This is so marvelous! You need to publish this

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 27, 2017 at 10:04 PM

      Thank you Khan. I will do so when it’s complete, Insha’Allah. Though I’ll have to edit it down a bit, as it’s currently too long for a standard novel.

  9. Avatar

    Kulz

    October 13, 2017 at 3:28 PM

    “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.”

    This is what every interracial couple trying to get married in a Muslim family should say. Absolutely stunning words.

  10. Avatar

    Khalida

    November 15, 2017 at 9:56 PM

    Assalaamu ‘alaikum
    This was so sad, I cried.

    A couple of typos: It should be “man laa yarham…,” not “man laa yarha…”; “Dr. Ehab,” instead of, “Dr. Ebab” when Zaid is talking to him.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 16, 2017 at 12:11 AM

      Thanks Khalida, I’ll correct those Insha’Allah.

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#Culture

Of Dreams and Shadows

A short story

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By Saulat Pervez

Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.

That night, she wrote in her journal,

We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.

***

“So, how were the latest test results?”

“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”

“And, how old did you say she was?”

“She’s 80.”

“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.

He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?

“Anything new today?” she asked.

***

He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.

He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.

***

Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.

She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.

The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.

She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive? 

She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.

She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.

***

Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.

She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.

It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.

It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).

Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).

They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.

***

Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.

She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.

Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.

It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.

*** 

“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”

“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”

“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”

 

“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.

She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.

Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.

The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?

Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.

As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.

She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.

She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.

She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.

-end-

Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.

As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.

Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com

This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel. 

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#Culture

To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?

As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.

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As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.

However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating).  All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?

Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.

Why Decorate or not to Decorate

There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.

But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)

Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.

The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship.  What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way?  If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) or scholars have advised us to do in any way?

Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.    

How to Decorate or not to Decorate

It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.

The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.   

The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.

  • Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
  • Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
  • Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?

The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating

So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.

It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,

  • Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
  • Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
  • Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
  • Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.

I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.

Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)

Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.

Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating

The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.

And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.  

The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).

حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،‏.‏ وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ‏”‏‏.‏

We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)     

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How to Teach Your Kids About Easter

Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.

Zeba Khan

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Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.

Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.

My mother put up her Christmas tree every year.  We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.

I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.

As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.

That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:

  1. The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
  2. Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
  3. We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
  4. The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.

So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.

There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.

There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:

Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.

Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.

Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.

Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.

If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.

Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.

We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.

So what do we believe?

Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.

  1. Allah is One.
  2. Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
  3. He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
  4. There is nothing like Allah in the universe

Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.

  1. Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
  2. We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
  3. We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.

When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.

You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.

If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:

  • Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
  • Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
  • Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
  • Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
  • Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
  • Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
  • You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.

We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.

It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.

Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah.  We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.

The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.

Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast.   Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.

You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them.  No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.

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