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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.

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

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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.

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDMWael 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.

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        #Culture

        Day of the Dogs, Part 4: You Are the Miracle

        Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did?

        Goat standing on a cow's back

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

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

        Krägä Bianga

        “Fear no one.” – Samia

        Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

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

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

        Hospital IV bagLIGHTS IN HIS EYES AND PAIN EVERYWHERE… warmth pouring into his veins like liquid honey… his mother’s face close to his, saying his name… darkness…

        His mother and a doctor talking… everything blurry… his face hurt. He tried to touch his face, but his mother grabbed his hand and stopped him… sleep…

        Someone sobbing… why?… pain everywhere in his body. He moaned then fell into darkness…

        A nightmare, hands dragging him down into a well, and at the bottom of the well, sharp teeth and claws. He struggled, until a warm hand took his, and he settled into silence…

        An old woman in a red Ngäbe dress standing over him, singing. Her skin was walnut colored and deeply seamed. Her long ebony hair hung free, falling below her waist. She spooned something into his mouth and he swallowed. It was bitter, but as it slid into his stomach he felt it nourishing and strengthening him. The woman’s night-black eyes stared unblinking into his as she whispered a single word in a language he did not understand. His eyelids came down like shuttered doors, and once again he was asleep…

        The next morning he was somewhat aware. It was the third day after surgery. His mother and a doctor spoke at his bedside. He tried to eat something but could only manage a cup of pudding.

        “There was a woman,” he said, and his voice sounded like radio static. “Singing.”

        His mother touched his forehead. “A krägä bianga. A healer of my people.”

        “But we’re Muslims.”

        “Hush,” Mamá said. “She is a krägä bianga, not a curandera. Medicine, not magic.”

        That evening, Omar’s mind was completely clear for the first time. The doctor spoke to him personally about his surgery and recovery. He was able to eat some solid food. Samia came for a visit as well, and he learned about what had happened to her. At some point, as Samia was speaking, he fell asleep.

        The Old Nightmare

        The fourth day, the old nightmare returned. The spiders.

        Red boxing spiderTHE SPINIFLEX RUBIROSA LARVAE WERE IN HIS BODY, and they were hatching. They ate their way out, chewing through muscle and cartilage, fat and veins, destroying his body as thoroughly as if he’d stepped on a landmine. There was no point calling out for his mother. She was nowhere to be found.

        The spiders burst out through his skin, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and through a crimson curtain of pain Omar saw that they had the bodies of spiders, but the heads of vicious dogs. Dewed with his blood, they growled, thousands of tiny dog voices joining into a single rumble.

        He rolled onto his back and saw that he lay on the muddy, putrid stretch of beach below the Panama City seawall. The ground was littered with rotting seaweed, plastic bags and used diapers. Above the seawall, the city was burning. Flames engulfed the tall towers, pouring from shattered windows. Smoke darkened the sky. Not a soul could be seen. The metropolis was dying.

        The Spinifex hatchlings advanced up his body toward his face, intending to eat his eyes. Their little dog eyes were solid ruby red, as if filled with blood. Omar thrashed, slapping his own face and crying out in terror.

        Where was Mamá, where was Papá, where were Samia, Halima, Hani, anybody? Anybody anybody the Ruby was killing him…

        Eighty Seven Bites

        “Hey. Wake up.” Someone touched his shoulder.

        Omar’s eyes flew open and he gasped as he shot up to a sitting position in the bed, looking around wildly. His racing heart began to slow as he realized that he was still in the hospital, of course.

        Samia sat in a chair beside his bed, wearing a fluffy gray robe and an orange hijab, and still reading Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. One side of her face and head were completely bandaged, so he could only see her mouth, nose and one eye. Her skull had been fractured in two places from the attack. The doctors had shaved her hair, she had told him, but she wore her hijab on top of the head bandage, which made her head look about the same as usual.

        “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

        “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

        Omar’s mother slept next to Samia in a chair, her head tipped back against the wall, her mouth slack. She wore black pants and a dark blouse rather than her traditional dress, with a gray hijab. She looked exhausted, with purple circles beneath her eyes.

        He groaned and sank back. He hurt everywhere. It was not the pain of the Ruby hatchlings burrowing out of his body, but of the wounds from the eighty-seven bites he’d received in the dog attack. It must be almost time for his pain medication.

        He’d been here for five days. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, his organs had been on the verge of shutting down due to massive blood loss. He’d been in surgery that entire first day and halfway through the night, they told him.

        It hurt even to breathe, as he had a tube in his nose to prevent his nasal airway from collapsing, as Dr. Medrano had explained to Omar and his mother. A jaunty, heavyset man with thick black hair, Dr. Medrano had smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels as he detailed Omar’s injuries and the surgeries that had repaired him.

        A stent had been placed under Omar’s left eye. It drained out of his nose to keep his tear duct system from collapsing as well. He’d lost a piece of the upper half of his left ear. He had lines of stitches everywhere, like Frankenstein’s monster. Several parts of his body, including his face, had required primary reconstruction during surgery, to repair or replace flesh and skin that had been torn away. Much of his body was still purple and swollen with bruising. He was receiving aggressive antibiotic treatment to prevent infection from the many deep punctures. His left forearm might never recover to full strength.

        He would require multiple follow-up procedures, including secondary face, hand and calf reconstructions, as well as fat grafting to fill in depressed areas, cartilage grafting to reconstruct his nose, and ongoing scar treatments.

        Goat standing on a cow's back“Hey,” Samia said, interrupting Omar’s morose mental review of his Frankenstein-like reconstruction. Samia had been in his room daily, when she wasn’t in her own. “Remember we were talking about unlikely things? You know what else is unlikely? A goat standing on a cow’s back. But I saw that once.”

        Omar turned his head to look at her. The girl was certifiably crazy. He felt a laugh begin to form inside him, but it hurt to laugh, and it came out sounding like a cross between a chuckle and a moan.

        Bruises

        The sound awakened his mother. She stood with a soft exhalation of, “La ilaha il-Allah.” She came to his bedside and bent over him, gently stroking his cheek, taking care to avoid his injuries. “¿Cómo estás mi amor?”

        Omar began to reply, but then, seeing his mother’s face up close, noticed something. The discolorations beneath her eyes were not the result of exhaustion. They were bruises. Her cheek was bruised as well, and she’d made an effort to conceal it with makeup. She’d been beaten.

        Tio. Omar’s face settled into a hard mask. He seethed, wishing he could leap out of this bed and go thrash the little rat, taking the man apart limb by limb. For a moment these thoughts surprised him, as he had never been inclined to fight back against Nemesio in the past. Something had changed inside him.

        Beating up Nemesio was not the solution, however. Omar had bested him that last time because Nemesio had been drunk. But the two of them fighting sober would turn into an all-out brawl. He needed another solution.

        Mistaking his expression, Mamá said, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll be as strong as ever. And these scars will fade.”

        Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

        “I’m going to go to the cafeteria,” Mamá said. “Can I bring you some guava juice?”

        The doctor had prescribed a post-op dietary regimen for Omar, but it was so bland it was like eating paper. Normally Omar would have said yes to some tasty tropical juice, but he was too angry right now.

        “I don’t want anything.”

        Mamá hesitated, looking between him and Samia. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll be back soon.”

        When she was gone, Omar spoke to Samia without looking at her. “You should leave now.” His fists were curled into balls beneath the blanket. Seeing the bruise on his mother’s face had brought it all back, pushing his rage to penetrate his very bones. His nightmare of a life just went on and on. Oh, you need something to break up the routine? life said. How about a dog attack? Okay, now back to the daily mess.

        It wasn’t only his foul excuse for an uncle he was angry with, but everyone who was supposed to have been responsible for him, who was supposed to have cared. He resented his mother for not being strong enough to protect herself, or him. The principal and teachers at his school had surely seen the bullying directed at him year after year, and had done nothing. Even his father he blamed for dying and leaving him. Why had his father done that? Why had it been more important to stop the mugging of some stranger on a bus than to survive for his own family? And lastly, Omar blamed himself for being a victim. His father would have expected more from him.

        He had to do something. Life could not continue like this. He heard Sensei Alan saying, “The only failure is the failure to act.” But what could he do here, in this bed, with his body torn half to shreds?

        Fear No One

        “I’ve been reading Surat An-Najm,” Samia said, hefting her book. “You want to hear?”

        He had forgotten she was there. He wiped his tears with jerky motions. “No, I told you-”

        Samia recited:

        “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses, and Abraham who fulfilled his mission; That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another; And that there is nothing for man but what he strives for; And that his effort will be seen, and then he will be rewarded for it generously?
        And that to your Lord is the final return; And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep; And that it is He who causes death and gives life…”

        A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Al-Ghazali says,” Samia went on, “that we must recognize Allah’s power over everything, and know that no man can control another’s fate. There is nothing for man but what he strives for. If you want something, make a plan and go after it. Fear no one.”

        “Do I even have to tell you this?” she continued. “Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did? How many did? Nobody. Only you. You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant.” A tear ran down one cheek and she wiped it away.

        She finished in Spanish, something she almost never did: “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Rolling her Spanish r’s hard, sounding almost like Halima, and almost bitter. How strange.

        “Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.” Samia commanded.

        Omar did so, then Samia stood and shuffled away slowly, one chubby hand grasping her book.

        Omar felt like Samia had taken a hammer and smashed the diamond-hard shell of fury that had encased him, shattering it. She was somehow able to see through his emotional walls as if they did not exist. Was she like this with everyone? And had she really just happened to be reading that surah, or had she chosen it specifically for him?

        Alone in his room, Omar began to think. He was still angry but it was cold anger now, the kind that did not interfere with his ability to reason. Make a plan. The only failure is the failure to act.

        Friends

        When Mamá returned from the cafeteria with cups of mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese for him – he could only eat soft foods for now – Omar said, “Tell Nemesio to come see me.”

        Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

        “Just tell him.”

        “He will not come, I think.”

        “Tell him I know a way to profit from this thing.” He waved a hand to indicate his ravaged body. “I want to consult with him.” That’ll get him here.

        She studied his face uncertainly. “Your friends are here again. The doctor says you are ready for visitors now, but only two at a time, and only ten minutes each.”

        He nodded his head, and his mother and Samia withdrew.

        First in were the three Muhammad sisters, all with large black eyes and rings in their left nostrils. Nadia and Naris were decked out in colorful shalwar khamees outfits,  looking like young mahogany trees hung with bright fabrics for a festival, while Nabila wore jeans, a band t-shirt and hi-top sneakers. One or all of them wore a musky, jasmine-scented perfume that filled the small hospital room.

        Many of the teachers and students at IIAP could not tell the sisters apart, but Omar always could. Nadia was quick to laugh, goofy and wide-eyed, as if constantly surprised. Naris was solemn, and asked hard questions, or gave uninvited criticism. Nabila – she of the band shirts and hi-tops – couldn’t stand still. She danced to her own music, ran when other people walked, and rarely spoke. Even now she was swaying her hips and rotating her hands Bollywood style. She had her own Youtube channel where she showed off dance moves. Omar had heard she was making money with it.

        “I thought it was only supposed to be two at a time.”

        Nadia grinned. “We dazzled them with our triplicate identicalness.”

        “They wanted to know,” Naris said seriously, “if we were Hindu princesses.”

        “Did you tell them you were Muslim princesses?” Omar asked. Nadia giggled, while Naris looked at him solemnly, as if he’d said something profound.

        “We’re sorry about what happened to you and Samia,” Nabila broke in, ceasing her dancing momentarily. “Our family’s been praying for you. Everyone has.”

        “Thanks,” Omar said, and he meant it. “So what’s new?”

        “Árabe Unido beat FCDeeeeee,” Nabila sang, and she did a little dance that ended in a victory pose, her fingers in Vs.

        “Halima and Hani are here to see you too,” Nadia said. “And the principal, and a couple of teachers, and the TV news people.”

        Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

        “And if you’re wondering if Tameem is out there,” Naris added, “he’s not. He wouldn’t dare show his face. He and his coward sidekick Basem.”

        Not surprising. Tameem would never bother visiting him. “Why do you call them cowards?”

        “He was the one who said to run, wasn’t he?”

        “Didn’t you all run too?” Omar was not accusing, just trying to understand.

        Nadia let out an explosive laugh. Naris shot her sister a chiding look, then said, “Yes, but we came back. Tameem and Hani kept going. I think they ran all the way to the main road. We haven’t seen them since the Day of the Dogs.”

        When Omar raised his eyebrows she added, “That’s what we’re calling it now. You know what, I heard they were laughing about it later. If I ever see them again I’ll stick kebab skewers in their eyes.”

        Omar sighed and adjusted his head on the pillow. His pain level was increasing, and he was tired.

        “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

        Omar thanked them for coming, and asked them to send in Halima and Hani. He was exhausted just from this short visit, but he needed to see those two. His memories of the attack were a mayhem of images and sensory impressions as overwhelming as a fireworks show. Teeth and claws, pain, slick blood on his skin, the hot metallic taste in his mouth, the smell of dog fur, the sound of Samia screaming, others shouting… a knife and a gun. People standing around as if they’d just witnessed a massacre. And Halima and Hani right there, above him. He needed to talk to someone who’d been there.

        Panama Rainforest

        Halima and Hani would not meet his eyes. Hani with his long face and nose that reminded Omar of a horse; shoulder-length greasy hair, and persistent acne. Halima, as lovely as a daydream, her eyes as green as the Panamanian rainforest.

        Omar remembered his fantasy of marrying Halima one day. If she’d been out of his league before, how about now? He was a mangled mess.

        He tried to put such useless thoughts out of his head. “What’s the matter with you two?”

        “We’re sorry about what happened,” Halima said. “I’m the one who pressured you to come. If I hadn’t done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

        “If you hadn’t done that, Samia might be dead,” Omar countered, then immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing by reminding them that they had done nothing to save Samia.

        “It was all Tameem’s fault,” Hani said, glancing up to meet Omar’s eyes, then looking away again.

        Omar said nothing.

        “I know what you’re thinking,” Hani went on. “I’ve been following Tameem like a robot. You and I were friends, and I abandoned you. I’m sorry. I know he’s no good. I can’t explain, man. He’s rich, and everyone admires him, and when you’re around him you feel important. But I’m done with him now. My eyes are open.”

        “Hani,” Omar said kindly. “My memories are mixed up, but I remember you standing there at the end with a bloody knife in your hand. What happened?”

        “Hani killed the one dog,” Halima said fiercely. “And the cop shot the other.”

        “But I ran away first,” Hani said dejectedly.

        “You were there when it counted. Whatever happened in the past, a lo hecho, pecho. And you, Halima, are a good soul. I remember you standing beside me when everyone else ran away. The Day of the Dogs is done. Let’s look forward.”

        He began to realize that he had changed. In his mind he heard Samia saying, “You might be short, but you’re a giant.” He was not speaking as one in need, but as one who held power, and therefore possessed the ability to forgive. He felt a core of iron within himself, yet strangely enough, from that iron flowed benediction. Cowardly Tameem and Basem didn’t matter. Omar saw now how meaningless they were, how petty.

        He thought of the verses of Surat An-Najm: That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another... And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep…

        Let Tameem and Basem bear their own burdens, laugh their own laughter, cry their own tears. Omar would be his own man, in the universe of his own soul.

        A nurse came with Omar’s medication, and instructed his visitors to leave. On the way out, Halima turned back with a quizzical expression and said, “Day of the Dogs?”

        Omar shrugged. “That’s what we’re calling it now.”

        Get Out

        He was awakened by a rough thumping on his shoulder. Nemesio stood there with his short, barrel-body and gold teeth, dressed in an expensive but rumpled yellow suit, the broken veins in his nose betraying his alcoholism. His breath stank and his cheeks were shadowed with a week’s growth of beard. A fat canary on a bender.

        “What’s this nonsense ‘bout making money?” Nemesio demanded. “You thinking to sue? The dog owner is a policia nacional captain. Sue him, you bring a heap of trouble on your head. Stupid boy.”

        In spite of Nemesio’s words, the man must have thought the possibility of a lawsuit held some promise, or he wouldn’t have come. Omar was going to have to disappoint him.

        “You know,” Omar said casually. “The police captain came to see me. The one whose dogs attacked me.” This was not true, but Nemesio would not know that. “He was extremely apologetic. He said if I ever need anything, I should only ask.”

        “Ah, I see.” Nemesio nodded knowingly and stroked his chin. “You wanna ask for compensation for the attack.”

        “No. I want to ask him to investigate the fire that burned down your gas station.”

        “Whaaa?” Nemesio’s eyes bugged and his cheeks turned beet red. He seized Omar’s bandaged wrist. “Watchu talking, you little bastard?”

        Omar ignored the pain flaring in his wrist from the puncture wounds there. He kept his tone calm, and began a carefully rehearsed speech. “I seem to recall that gas prices were at rock bottom around the time your station burned. And you were always complaining about your employees stealing from you. You couldn’t have been making much of a profit. What did the fire inspectors say? An electrical problem? Did you bribe someone to say that?” This was pure speculation on his part, but he saw Nemesio’s eyes widen and knew he’d struck pay dirt. “Then you had a huge insurance payout, but you didn’t restore the station. You abandoned it. I think the police captain would find all this very interesting. And you don’t have anything left to bribe him with, do you? You’ll end up rotting in La Joya for fraud.”

        Still gripping Omar’s wrist, Nemesio raised a fist.

        “Go ahead,” Omar said. “The captain can add assault to your charges.”

        Nemesio released Omar’s wrist and stepped back, looking as if he’d just released a viper. His chin trembled and a speck of spittle dribbled from his bottom lip as he spoke. “Watchu want?”

        Man walking away, leaving Omar brought his voice to a low hiss, letting some of his rage show. “I know you’ve been beating my mother again, Nemesio.” Normally he would never dare to call the man by his given name as it would bring a terrible beating, but now he spat it like a curse. “I want you gone, today. Pack your things, leave and never come back. If I ever see you again I will beat you to a pulp myself. If you don’t think I can, wait and see. Then I’ll report you to the police.”

        “I-” Nemesio stuttered. “I don’t got nowhere to go.”

        “That’s your problem. Leave today, you understand? And don’t you dare touch my mother again. Now get out.”

        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 5:  Sorceress of the Forest

        * * *

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

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

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

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        Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

        The dog spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face…

        Doberman pinscher

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

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

        Stop Pitying Yourself

        “I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” – Samia

        Playa Santa Clara, Panama
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        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

        OMAR DID NOT FIND A SEASHELL. At one point he heard the sound of muffled sobbing, and followed it to where Samia sat in her cabana. She had her face tucked into her knees, her forehead pressing against the book she’d been reading. When Omar said, “What’s the matter?” she looked up with a startled, tear-streaked face.

        “Nothing.” She wiped her face with her scarf.

        Omar shifted his weight and looked at the ground, unwilling to either press her or leave her alone.

        “My parents are getting divorced,” she said finally.

        “Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought you guys were a perfect little Islamic family.”

        “Yes, well. Things are not always what they seem.”

        That sure was the truth. “Will you go back to Malaysia?”

        “No. My dad’s going back. I’ll stay with my mom.”

        That struck Omar as odd. Wasn’t it usually it was the man who traveled to work and the woman who accompanied him?

        Seeming to read his mind, Samia explained: “She’s an executive for Petronas. She interfaces with oil company executives from all over Latin America. My dad owned an electronics shop back home, which is fine, you know, it’s a good, halal business. I just think…” Her mouth twisted to one side as she tried to hide her distress. “I think he was happier back home.”

        Omar pointed with his lips to her book. “What are you reading?”

        “That’s so Panamanian. Pointing with your mouth.”

        “I am Panamanian.”

        A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Oh yeah. It’s Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. Hey, can I give you a little advice?”

        Uh-oh. Omar’s shields went up. Samia always thought she knew best. Before he could say anything, she went on: “You should stop pitying yourself.”

        He glared. “Excuse me?”

        “How long have I known you? You think I don’t see you’re miserable? I know there’s something wrong.”

        “That’s not your business.”

        Samia sighed. “Would you listen? I’m trying to say that you’re so strong and smart. Almost as smart as me.” She grinned. “Whatever’s going on, you’ll get through it if you stop pitying yourself and just keep on working. You’ll come out on top. You’ll see.”

        “Unlikely.” She sounded like Sensei Alan, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

        “Is it? I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” Seeing his quizzical look, she added, “Halima told me you were reading Alice in Wonderland.”

        He wasn’t reading it. And if he recalled correctly, the White Queen believed in six impossible things before breakfast. But whatever. “That’s fine for you and Alice. You don’t have my life.”

        “Oh really?” Her voice was sharp. “Where’s your imaan, akhi? Allah always makes a way, don’t you know? You want to know something else unlikely? I’m unlikely!”

        “What do you mean?” he muttered, chastised.

        “One: My family comes from Kedah province, on the coast of Malaysia. On December 29, 2004, my father, who was not my father yet, was invited by my grandfather to go sailing on a boat he had bought. They were boarding the boat when my father received a mobile call from the wife of his best school friend. The man had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital at Jitra, an inland city. My father said goodbye to my grandfather and went to see his friend. One hour later, you know what happened?”

        Omar shook his head.

        Indian Ocean tsunami

        Indian Ocean tsunami

        “The Indian Ocean tsunami. One hour later! You may have heard of it? It killed a quarter of a million people, including my grandfather, who was never found.”

        Omar made a sympathetic face, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” he managed.

        “Two.” Counting on her fingers. “My father’s taxi was buried in mud, and he should have died, but the mud left his face exposed. He was able to breathe, and to lick rainwater that ran down the inside of the crushed car.

        “Three: He was rescued by a volunteer relief worker. She was my mother. Soon they married.

        “Four: My mother’s pregnancy was difficult. The doctors said she might lose the baby. I was born premature. In fact I was not breathing, but the doctors revived me.

        “Five: I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

        “Six: When I was five I had bacterial meningitis. My body didn’t respond to treatment and at one point the doctors told my parents I would die by morning. I remember hallucinating that the doctor was a wolf with a muzzle and huge black eyes. I tried to scream but didn’t have the breath. It was terrifying. My mother told me later that she spent that entire night making dua by my bedside. In the morning my fever broke and by noon I was walking. No one could explain it.”

        Seven.” She paused, touching index finger to index finger, then shrugged. “I don’t have a seven. But my point is, you say it’s unlikely that your life might improve? My entire existence is unlikely. But Allah does what He wills.”

        Omar hadn’t known any of that, and didn’t know what Samia was trying to tell him.

        Samia snapped her fingers. “I’m saying, the unlikely happens every day. And you know what else? Ramadan is coming. Ramadan is about not only the unlikely, but the impossible. Miracles. Angels pouring out of Jannah by the millions. The battle of Badr. Think about that, akhi. Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.”

        Omar said it.

        “Go back to your wanderings.”

        The Gate Opens

        It was funny how people kept telling him to go away. What was he, a bad smell?

        At noon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, the kids ate at a beach restaurant that served only fish and chips. Omar didn’t have enough money for that, but that was okay. He sat in a cabana eating the peanut butter sandwich from home. It was smashed into a trapezoid and the bread was soggy, but it tasted fine.

        They prayed Dhuhr in congregation, with Tameem leading. Omar didn’t mind. It was not about who stood in front, but about his personal connection with Allah. Though sometimes he wondered about that connection. Not about Allah, but about his own heart. The Creator felt distant sometimes, and Omar knew that was his own fault. But he didn’t know how to fix it.

        The group headed back up the road at two o’clock, wanting to make it to the highway before the afternoon rains came. As they passed the house with the vicious dog, the creature was nowhere in sight. Tameem kicked the gate and shouted, “Oye perro estupido!” and the dog came running, barking like firecrackers going off.

        Doberman pinscher

        Doberman pinscher

        This time a second dog, a tall doberman pinscher with alert ears and a black muzzle, rounded the house as well and sped toward them on the other’s heels. Drool flew from its mouth as it growled and bared its terrifying teeth. Again the kids screamed and ran, except for Omar, who only shook his head and trotted away quickly, and Samia, who was not a fan of running.

        A few houses further up the street they stopped and watched a massive silver-colored 4×4 truck cruising down the road. It might have been three meters tall, jacked up on oversized tires, with chrome running boards, and a top-mounted light bar that could probably turn night into day. On the front were bull bars that could be used to ram another vehicle.

        As it passed they saw it bore the logo of the National Police, and had a rifle mounted in the cab, though the driver was not wearing a police uniform. He was a youngish man, in his late twenties maybe, sporting shades and a cowboy hat. Spanish gangster rap battered its way out of the truck’s speakers. Heading right for the awestruck kids, the truck blasted its horn. The kids jumped out of the way, a few of them cursing the driver.

        The truck stopped in front of the house with the dogs, and the driver must have hit a remote control, because the gate began to roll quietly open.

        The two dogs came flying out, snarling, and charged straight at the kids. The German shepherd was in the lead, its large fangs flashing white in the sun, but the doberman was gaining ground. Both dogs were enraged, in full attack mode. The driver yelled at the dogs to stop, but they were so inflamed by Tameem’s provocations that they ignored him.

        The hair raised up on Omar’s arms and neck. He stood rooted, unsure what to do. Watching the dogs come was like watching a pair of nuclear torpedoes shooting at him. Living torpedoes of bone and claw, muscle and sinew, burning brain and vengeful heart. Their feet flew across the dirt, and their eyes were filled with rage.

        The Attack

        SAMIA HAD STOPPED TO CATCH HER BREATH after her brief trot and was now at the tail end of the group, closest to the dogs, with Omar just ahead of her, and Halima beyond him. All the kids froze utterly for one second, as if they were playing a game of red light green light where the losers would be shot dead. In that numb, dumb moment, the dogs covered half the distance from the gate to their motionless victims. Then Basem made a wordless whimpering sound, and Hani whispered, “Oh my God.” One of the girls screamed.

        Halima started to say, “Nobody run,” but was cut off as Tameem bellowed, “RUN!”

        Omar shot a glance in the direction of the group and saw they were all fleeing in a panic, led by Tameem and Basem. Only Halima was hesitating. He turned back toward the dogs and saw instantly that Samia wasn’t going to make it. She was jogging toward him but her run was little more than a fast waddle. The dogs were almost on her as they blazed forward with ears tucked and teeth bared. They would kill her.

        He could not let that happen. It was not even a decision – there was no decision to make. The believers are a single body. The only failure is the failure to act. He ran toward Samia and the charging dogs.

        Seeing him running toward them, the dogs hesitated, slowing just enough to buy Omar the time he needed. Samia’s eyes were wide with terror, and she looked like she might have a heart attack.

        Just as Omar reached Samia, the German shepherd leaped at her from behind. Omar tackled Samia, taking her to the ground. The dog sailed over them where they lay in the dirt. He shrugged off his backpack and thrust it at Samia, shouting, “Shield your face!” Then he turned toward the other charging dog and started to rise, bringing his arms up defensively, with a crazy idea that he could use his copper bracelet to block the dog’s teeth – then the animal was on him, crashing into him with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking him back to the ground.

        German shepherd

        German shepherd

        Pain exploded in his forearm as the dog’s fangs stabbed deeply into his flesh. He grunted in shock, but remained clear-headed. Falling back to his years of karate training, he used his free arm to deliver powerful elbow strikes to the dog’s nose and eyes. Not releasing its bite, it snarled and shook its head as if trying to rip the meat loose from Omar’s arm. He screamed as he felt the muscles in his forearm begin to tear.

        The doberman, meanwhile, had overshot. It turned and charged back. Samia lay on the ground just behind him and to the side, calling out loudly for help. Goaded by her cries, the doberman aimed not for Omar but for Samia.

        As the doberman raced past him, Omar shot out his good arm and made a desperate grab for the dog’s spiked collar. He caught it! But the dog’s momentum stretched his arm out until he felt something pop in his elbow. Between that and the spikes digging into his hand, he could not hold on. The doberman pulled free, and an instant later Samia cried out again. This time it was not a cry of fear, but a chilling wail of pain, shock and horror. Omar turned his head to look. Oh God. Samia must have begun to roll away before the dog reached her, because the beast straddled her side, and was biting the top of her head as she clutched the backpack tightly to her face.

        Desperately, with every shred of strength he possessed, Omar struck the German shepherd repeatedly in the face with his wrist, using his copper bracelet as a weapon. Dazed, the dog released its bite and stood over him, swaying. Anguished over Samia and given fortitude by this outrage, Omar pushed, flinging the monster off him. He turned and scrabbled toward Samia. The doberman straddled her, not biting once and clamping down like the shepherd had done to him, but biting repeatedly about her head and shoulders, and sometimes biting the backpack as well.

        The neighborhood Omar lived in was poor, and there were plenty of stray dogs, many of them hungry, rabid or vicious. He’d seen dog attacks, and knew what to do. He seized the doberman’s sleek black tail, and pulled it backward and up as hard as he could. The big black dog gave a yelp of surprise as it was dragged away from Samia’s weeping form. Then it spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face, penetrating his forehead and cheek. At the same moment the German shepherd, recovered now, bit his calf, its teeth sinking into the muscle like the jaws of a bear trap. The pain was so shocking that he could not even draw a breath to scream.

        They were both on him. He rolled and fought as best he could, punching, kicking, clawing at the dogs’ faces, even biting the shepherd in the neck at one point. And the whole time the dogs were biting him. He felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood.

        The blood in his eyes blinded him, so that he saw the world faintly, through a sheet of stinging red. He tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

        Some of the kids must have come back to help, because he heard voices shouting and crying, men and women, but above them all he heard Halima very near, screaming, “What do I do, Omar? What do I do?”

        “Knife,” he managed to croak. “Hani’s knife.” Then louder, mustering his panic and fright, “Get me Hani’s knife!”

        The dogs continued to bite and tear at his flesh, and he fought, but his strength was giving out. His arms wouldn’t work properly. Then the doberman yelped in pain and was gone, pulled off him. The shepherd was still on top of him, its teeth deep in his upper arm. Omar put a thumb in its eye and it yelped and released his arm, then went for his throat. He turned, and felt its teeth sink deeply into his shoulder. His body went slack. He couldn’t fight anymore. Cold seeped into his body and mind. Even the pain was beginning to recede.

        Drifting Out to Sea

        A tremendous blast rang through the air. The shepherd wailed in agony and released his shoulder. Another blast, and the dog was gone. Not on him anymore. He heard terrible, anguished weeping, and realized after a moment that it was him. Tears flooded his eyes, clearing the blood, and he saw people standing over him, their faces registering horror and disbelief. Halima and Hani were closest. Hani’s knife was in his hand, and the blade was bloody to the hilt. His eyes were wide with shock.

        A man in a cowboy hat also stood over him, and Omar saw that the man was carrying a pistol, and that smoke wisped from the barrel. The man’s face was drained of blood, white as a bone. Who was he? Omar couldn’t think. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore, or why he was lying here on the ground, burning with agony and covered in something wet.

        “Samia,” he managed to say, and wasn’t sure why he said that. Then his body began to shake. His teeth chattered and his limbs convulsed, and he couldn’t stop. He was cold, and didn’t understand why. Panama was not supposed to be cold. His heart raced and he could hear it thrumming in his ears, pulsing and crashing like ocean waves.

        He was half-conscious through all that followed. Hands doing something to him. Sirens. Someone wrapping him in something and lifting him up. Moaning rhythmically, asking for his father. A ride in the back of a vehicle, rocking. The pain going away, ebbing like the tide, to be replaced with a feeling of warmth and comfort, and a deep drowsiness. Something over his face, forcing air into his lungs.

        Then he was gone, lying on the deck of a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, drifting out to sea, borne on the back of a giant, warm wave. He would live on this sailboat, and Allah would provide for him as He had provided for Maryam, and he would be content. He would sail the world with Alice and Halima and Niko and the white rabbit, and…

        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 4:  You Are the Miracle

        * * *

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

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

        Avatar

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

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        Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

        He felt a need for Allah, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he prayed Isha’ on the grass that bordered Avenida Balboa, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

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

        A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

        “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you.” – Sensei Alan

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        Old tennis shoes shoesAFTER GRADUATION OMAR TOSSED HIS GOWN INTO THE DUMPSTER in the school parking lot and went walking through the streets of the city, still wearing his school uniform of navy pants and white shirt, along with a pair of ratty old sneakers that were separating between the uppers and the soles.

        He had a little money in an envelope that his mother had given him as a graduating present. Remembering what Halima had said about Black Panther playing at the cinema, he took a bus to Multicentro mall, bought a large bucket of popcorn and sat in the very front row, letting the noise and light of the movie drive all thoughts from his head.

        After the movie he wandered into an electronics shop in the mall. Árabe Unido was playing Alianza on the large screen TV, and a knot of men were gathered. Árabe Unido, founded by Arab immigrants to Panama, was Omar’s favorite football team. He stood wedged between a burly man with the forearms of a construction worker, and a middle-aged man wearing shorts, flip flops and a polo shirt. They watched as Leslie Heráldez lofted a high shot to the brilliant Carlos Small, who stopped it with his chest, deftly steered the ball past two defenders, then banged it into the goal. All the men cheered, and Omar threw up his arms and shouted, “Goaaaaal!”

        A moment later a grasshopper-faced salesman, decked out in a cheap suit and obviously trying to mask his utter lack of interest in the game, stepped in front of the TV to begin his pitch.

        “You see how amazing this television is? Doesn’t it feel like you are right on the pitch? It includes built-in wifi and the highest LCD picture quality. You can own this TV today with a monthly payment of only $49.95…”

        The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

        “Sorry,” Omar offered, consoling the salesman. “It’s a nice TV, though.”

        The salesman waved him off.

        Stepping outside the mall, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon. The sun would be down soon. Was it a coincidence that malls had no windows? He prayed ‘Asr in the small grassy area outside the main entrance, leaping over a low wall to do so. In the middle of his prayer, a mall security guard walked up to him and said, “This area is off limits, kid. Move along.” When Omar did not respond, the man keyed his radio. “Pereira here. I need backup. I got a kid doing yoga or a protest or something.”

        By the time Omar was on the last rak’ah another guard had arrived.

        “I’ll grab his hands,” the original guard said, “and you take his feet.”

        “Wait,” the newcomer said. “He’s not causing any problems.”

        “At least let me taser him.”

        No, Pereira.”

        “It’s not fair,” the first guard grumbled. “We never get to do anything.”

        Omar finished his prayer and stood. The original guard, a thin young man with a scowl that looked superglued into place, stepped back, startled. The newcomer, a fit black man in his fifties, merely raised his eyebrows.

        Omar smiled. “I was praying. You wouldn’t want to stop a kid from getting into heaven, would you?”

        The older man laughed. When Omar hopped back over the wall and strolled away, the younger guard shouted after him, “You better not come back!”

        Karate is Life

        DojoHe took another bus down to the Carolina district, and walked into the karate dojo as class was bowing in. The dojo was small, with pear-colored tatami mats on the floor, traditional weapons mounted on racks, and a Japanese flag on one wall. At the moment there were fifteen students training in the cramped space, ranging from thirteen years old to twenty-five. The dojo had no air conditioning, and the room was ripe with the tang of sweat. Shedding his shoes at the door, he bowed to Sensei Alan.

        Sensei was a muscular, smooth-faced man in his forties, with an oddly contrasting head of white hair. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Spanish. “I thought you were taking the day off for graduation.”

        Omar shrugged. “Graduation is crap. I’m only graduating tenth grade, it doesn’t mean anything.”

        Sensei addressed Evangelista, a short woman in her 20’s who sported a blue mohawk and was one rank below Omar himself. “Get class started. Forms one to five.”

        Sensei took in Omar’s school uniform, the popcorn butter stain on his shirt, the bruises on his face… Sensei Alan had known Omar’s papá, and since his passing had witnessed the changes in Omar’s life.

        “You will always be you,” Sensei said without preamble. “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you. If you live in an abusive situation, with people who do not care for you, you are still you. Not in relation to them, but in the chambers of your heart. When you leave that abusive situation behind, as I guarantee you will, and if you end up wealthy, or happily married with kids, you will still be you. Not as others imagine you, but as you exist in the sanctity of your own mind. I could say that I admire you, and I do, seonbae-nim. But if your happiness is dependent on my admiration then you have failed, because what if I did not respect you? So the question is, who are you? Not in relation to anything else. But alone, in the universe that is your soul.”

        This was the longest speech he’d ever heard Sensei give. And why did the man address him as seonbae, an honorific given to a prized student? Usually he just called him Omar.

        “That is not to say,” Sensei continued, “that the outer world does not exist. It acts upon us. But you know how to handle that.”

        Normally Sensei did not like questions, but this statement seemed to invite one. “I do?”

        “Karate is life. When an attack is imminent?”

        “Hit first and hard.”

        When the attacker pushes forward…”

        “Yield and counter.” Sensei had repeated these aphorisms many times.

        “The only failure…”

        “Is the failure to act.”

        Sensei waved a hand. “Come back when you have considered my words.”

        Omar was confused. The dojo had classes every day except Sunday. “You mean…”

        “You will know.”

        The discussion was over. Omar bowed. “Oss!”

        It was fully dark outside now. He walked around the city thinking over all that had happened that day. As he walked, women of the night propositioned him, calling out, “Oye, chiquito! Quieres dulces?” Gangsters shouted out insults, street vendors tried to sell him mangoes or cigarettes, and always the traffic ran through the concrete gulches of the city like great schools of fish in the sea: swarming, racing and pulsing, though unlike fish the traffic was never silent, but hooted and blared perpetually.

        He puzzled over Sensei’s statement. You will always be you. Was that a Zen thing Alan had learned in one of his visits to Japan? Like the story about the man who came to a wide river that had no bridge or ferry, and called out to an old man on the opposite shore, wanting to know how to get to the other side. And the old man said, “You are on the other side.”

        But Omar didn’t want to be on this side.

        Night rainLightning flashed, thunder rolled across the city like a steamroller, and the skies opened like the floodgates of a dam, dropping water by the ton onto the rich and poor, bloated and starving, arrogant and desperate. Within a minute he was waterlogged, water squeezing out of his shoes with every step. But the rain was as warm as blood, so he walked on.

        He felt a need for Allah, a need to be comforted, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he made wudu’ with the rainwater and prayed Isha’ on the grassy strip that bordered the Avenida Balboa embarcadero, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain percolating into his skin and maybe into his bones, washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

        Rogue Planets

        HE ENDED UP IN CASCO VIEJO, TO HIS OWN SURPRISE. Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived nearby, and he realized that his feet had been taking him there of their own accord. But it was late, he was dripping wet, and he did not want to drop in on them unannounced. So he walked down to the tip of the small peninsula, where the seawall looked out over the entrance to the Panama Canal.

        Casco Viejo, Panama

        Casco Viejo, Panama

        The rain had stopped, and he stood watching the gargantuan ships queued up in the bay, waiting their turns to enter the canal. Fog lay upon the water, so that Omar could see only the lights of the ships hanging in the darkness. He pretended that each ship was its own rogue planet inhabited by jinn, elves and fairies. They only appeared at night, in the fog, and would disappear by day, or so he imagined.

        If he could swim out to one of those ships, and climb up onto its deck, the strange inhabitants would welcome him as a refugee from the crumbling civilizations of humankind. They would grant him asylum, and set him up in a job tending to the elfin gardens, or teaching karate to the young fairies. He would become a part of their world, their rogue planet, and over time the memories of his past life would fade. Flashes of his mother’s and father’s faces might come to him now and then, but they would be like images in a dusty book, yellowed around the edges, the paper flaking away.

        He would be a unique figure – the only human in an inhuman reality. Some would hate him and plot against him, but many would love him. He would become advisor to the fairy king, and marry a fairy princess. And if he ever heard the word Panama, he would pause, his head tilted to one side, trying to recall where he had heard that name before.

        He sighed. It was late, and he was far from home. He had enough money left for a taxi, so he flagged one and closed his eyes, letting the motion of the vehicle rock him. The driver left the windows open, and the night air hit his wet clothing and chilled him. By the time he arrived home he was shivering.

        He lived in a rundown seaside barrio on the eastern edge of Panama City. It was called Panama Viejo, named after the ruins of the original Spanish settlement of 1519. It was the kind of neighborhood where a stranger would be robbed in the first ten minutes. But Omar knew everyone here, and knew which streets to avoid, and when to duck into the shadows.

        The front gate of his home was secured with a combination padlock, and the front door had two separate locks. When he let himself in, Mamá emerged from her bedroom, wanting to know why he was so late.

        He told her of his day’s travels. He hoped that she would say something to assure him of the future. Some promise, even a hollow one, that life would be different. But before she could say anything, Nemesio came barging out of his room. His open shirt revealed a mat of curly chest hair and a belly that hung over his waistband. He reeked of alcohol and dried sweat.

        “You little bastard,” Nemesio snarled. “Stay out late, worry your mother. Watchu doin’? Selling drugs? Gimme the money.” He came forward, arms outstretched to seize Omar. Always Omar had let him do so, willing to be the object of Tio’s aggression as long as the man left Mamá alone. But this night, Sensei’s reminders were fresh in his head: When the attacker pushes forward, yield and counter. The only failure is the failure to act. So when Nemesio came at him, Omar sidestepped deftly and gave the man the slightest push, adding to the momentum he already had.

        Nemesio careened past Omar, out of control. He tumbled into the sofa, which overturned, dumping him over the other side where he crashed head-first into the wall, and was knocked unconscious. Mamá screamed and ran to him. She probed his skull, then said with relief, “He is fine, I think. Just knocked out, or maybe passed out from the alcohol.”

        “Who cares?”

        “Omar!

        He looked at Nemesio’s sorry form, lying crumpled against the wall. His head had made a dent in the plaster. The man would be on a tear tomorrow, ready to commit serious violence. But at that moment, Omar was beyond caring. He was tired, and wanted only to go away and never return. He imagined himself sitting on the beach on one of Panama’s Pearl Islands – a place he’d seen on the map but never with his own eyes – sheltering in the shade of a tree. Like Maryam when she retreated from the people and clutched a palm tree, and Allah provided her with water and fresh, ripe dates, so Allah would provide for him too.

        But he was not Maryam. He was a kid that no one wanted. He trudged to his room, stripped off his wet clothes and dumped them on the floor, then toppled into bed.

        Spiniflex Rubirosa

        That night, Omar awoke with a terrible burning on the back of his neck. He knew instantly what was happening. Anyone would. There had been nothing else in the news for the last two months.

        A new and deadly spider had appeared in the world, perhaps a mutation, or perhaps something ancient uncovered beneath the melting ice of the glaciers of Asia or Europe. It was a tiny thing, less than half the size of a fingernail, pink and red, and almost pretty if you didn’t know what it could do. It was called Spiniflex Rubirosa, though most people just called it the Ruby.

        Red boxing spiderThe Ruby reproduced by crawling onto a sleeping or unaware human, extending a tiny tubule from its abdomen, and injecting a spray of thousands of eggs into the human’s skin, preferably on the back of the neck or between the shoulder blades. Sensing the warmth of their host, the eggs hatched immediately, and the larvae burrowed down into the hypodermal layer, where they fed on rich blood and tissue fat, growing larger.

        As the larvae burrowed in, the infected human experienced a terrible burning sensation, as if the affected area were on fire. It was not uncommon for sufferers to scrape away the outer layers of their skin with their fingernails or even with knives. This, however, only prompted the Ruby to burrow deeper.

        Once they were in place, however, the larvae secreted an anesthetic, so that the pain faded, and sufferers often thought their initial symptoms had been a false alarm.

        The larval stage lasted three days, after which the larvae would cocoon for a week then hatch. Thousands of spiders would emerge from the cocoons and – using sharp pincers – chew their way out of the infected person’s body, resulting in massive blood loss.

        Panicked crowds fled at the rumor of infestations, carrying the spider or its eggs all over the world. In a matter of weeks, half the world’s population was dead or dying.

        Now the Ruby was on Omar. He felt it on the back of his neck, the scorching pain flaring higher and higher as the larvae burrowed into his body. He cried for his mother and she came running, but froze in place when she saw him frantically clawing the back of his neck, scraping away his own skin until his fingernails came away bloody.

        “Do something!” he pleaded. “Get it off of me!” But she only stood and stared, her expression wide-eyed and stunned. Why wouldn’t she help him? She could not become infected unless the Ruby laid eggs on her. She had to help him, he was dying!

        * * *

        He woke thrashing in bed, reaching for the back of his neck, panting in terror. But he made no noise. He’d learned over the years that waking up loudly from nightmares would bring beatings from Tio, so he had somehow taught himself to dream silently, even when the dreams were visions of darkness and dread.

        It was early, just a glimmer of pale blue light easing through the window. He’d shed his clothes last night before bed but had not showered, and somehow the scent of rain had transferred to the bed sheets, so that his bed smelled like ozone and musk. The house was silent but for the hum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner in Nemesio’s room. Mamá preferred not to use the AC at night to save money, but Nemesio insisted he could not sleep without it. What did that bum care? He didn’t pay the bill.

        Omar dressed quietly, putting on a pair of old jeans and his blue and white Árabe Unido jersey bearing number 58, Carlos Small’s number. He performed wudu’ and prayed Fajr, then quietly made himself a sandwich, stuffed a towel into his school backpack, and slipped out the door.

        Chicken Heart

        Panama Viejo was a long walk from Albrook. Omar could have taken a bus, but he’d found that sustained exercise cleared his mind and settled his spirit like nothing else. Two hours later the sun was hot enough to fry a fish on the pavement as he arrived at Albrook Mall, which doubled as the national bus terminal. Scores of buses departed constantly for every part of Panama and beyond, even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Playa Santa Clara was two hours and twenty minutes away. You had to take a $4 bus to Santiago, then a $4 taxi to Santa Clara village, then walk. It was a lot, but Halima said Playa Santa Clara was the best beach on the Pacific side of Panama. A hidden gem.

        The group boarded one of the buses. Omar sat alone in the back, taking a window seat. He hadn’t been out of Panama City in years, and wanted to see the sights.

        Aside from Omar and Halima, Samia was there, the three Muhammad sisters, Tameem, and two other boys named Hani and Basem. Nine kids altogether. Hani, a thin Egyptian boy with long hair and bad skin, was Omar’s age and from the same neighborhood. When they were younger they used to play football together in the street, or chess on rainy days. They’d been good friends back then.

        Tameem was the real games expert, though. His game consisted of playing people against people, shaming them for their choices of friends, and forcing them to compete for his attention. Eventually Hani, embarrassed to be friends with the “Patacon,” had moved into Tameem’s orbit and cut Omar out of his life.

        Basem, a chunky Emirati boy with a surly attitude, had arrived only last year. He laughed at everything Tameem said, bought the same brands of clothing as him, and copied him in bullying Omar. Interestingly, when Tameem was not around, Basem ignored Omar completely. Either way, Omar wanted nothing to do with him.

        Those three boys – Tameem, Basem and Hani – sat together now, speaking loudly over the reggaeton music pounding from the bus’s speakers. The five girls sat in a group as well, chatting and laughing. Samia did not acknowledge Omar, but Halima and the Muhammad triplets turned and waved to him. The triplets were Fijian Indians, slender and chestnut-skinned, with shining black hair that cascaded to their waists. They could have passed for indigenous Panamanians, Omar thought. Because they were all identical, they drew looks wherever they went.

        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

        Pressing his forehead to the window, his breath condensing on the chilled glass, Omar watched as the bus threaded its way past El Chorrillo, where his Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived. Then they crossed over the Puente de Las Americas, and he gazed down at the navy blue water of the canal, surrounded on both sides by thick emerald jungle.

        A gargantuan container ship – perhaps one of the same ones he’d seen in the queue last night – was traversing the canal, piled with thousands of shipping containers. Omar had heard that these vessels were run by skeleton crews, since most of the ships’ processes were automated. For a moment he wondered what it must be like to work on such a ship, hardly seeing a human face, wandering alone through the decks, hearing your voice echo off the vast steel bulkheads. Then he realized he knew exactly what it was like.

        He’d worn a light windbreaker in case of rain. He zipped it up all the way to ward off the chill of the bus’s AC, which must have been set on “Mt. Everest” or “Viking Warrior.”

        At Santiago they crowded into two taxis, boys in one and girls in the other. Hani sat in the front passenger seat, while Omar was in the back seat next to Basem, with Tameem on the other side. “Don’t worry, Patacon,” Tameem sneered. “I’ll pay for the taxi. My father is rich, unlike yours who – oops!”

        Basem sniggered at this.

        Hani turned around in the front seat, said, “Hey, that’s not cool, man. That’s going too far.” Hani shot Omar an apologetic look, but Omar ignored him. They may have been friends once, but Hani was just another of Tameem’s toadies now.

        “Shut up, Hani,” Tameem said roughly. “Or you can get out and walk the rest of the way.”

        Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

        “I’ll pay my share,” Omar insisted. “And as for my father, he’s in a place you’ll never see, you ghoul.”

        Tameem shot Omar a look of furious rage, then pretended to laugh it off. “Good one, Punching Bag.”

        “I may be a punching bag, but I’ll never be your punching bag, chicken-heart.”

        Tameem made no response, as Omar knew he would not. The boy could toss out whatever insults he liked, but it would never be more than that. And that was fine, Omar told himself. He could handle insults. Sticks and stones, and all that. But then why was he so full of anger?

        The Blue Express

        The taxis took them as far as the end of the paved street. From there it was a fifteen minute walk through the village of Santa Clara and down a dirt road. They trooped along, Omar bringing up the rear. The village homes were traditionally Panamanian: small, cement-block houses with tiled floors, shuttered windows and corrugated zinc roofs painted red.

        Many of the doors stood open, the inhabitants sitting in plastic chairs on the patios. The older women were attired in colorful pollera dresses, while the men sported straw hats. The younger women wore t-shirts and jeans so tight he wondered how they even managed to put them on. Children played marbles in the dirt, rode bicycles, or kicked soccer balls. The smells of cooking food filled the air- arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, tostones, grilled fish with garlic and tomatoes.

        People greeted the teenagers, wishing them a good morning. If anyone thought Samia and Halima’s hijabs were strange, they didn’t show it. One middle-aged man in a rocking chair called out to Omar in Spanish: “Go Árabe Unido! We are having a good season, eh?”

        Omar pumped his fist. “El Expreso Azul!” The Blue Express, the fans’ nickname for the team.

        Mango treeThe road was lined with thick-limbed mango trees. The mangoes were in season, hanging heavy on the branches like Ramadan lamps. Many had fallen into the road and lay there, whole or split, exuding a scent so rich you could almost see it, like a sweet orange mist in the air.

        Omar watched Hani pick up a mango, rub it on his shirt, then stab into it with his little pocket knife. Omar remembered that knife. Hani had received it as a gift from his father on his tenth birthday – one of the few gifts the boy had ever been given by his dad, who paid him little attention. It had a wooden handle into which Hani had burned his own initials, and a dull little blade that could barely cut.

        Hani sliced the mango with some difficulty and passed pieces to the other boys (Omar not included) and they ate as they walked.

        In front of a house with peeling paint and listing window shutters, an anorexic woman smoked a cigarette and argued into a cell phone as her dusty-faced toddler sat in the dirt. As the teens walked by, the little boy watched them. When Omar approached, the toddler stood and reached out his arms to be picked up. Omar’s feet faltered. Why was the boy reaching to him?

        Noticing him, the smoking mother said, “¡Piérdase!” Get lost.

        Omar wanted to move, but his feet wouldn’t budge. The boy’s eyes were brown and pleading. His little arms reached skyward. From the corner of his eye, Omar saw the boy’s mother begin to move toward him. She was shouting something.

        A hand tugged on the sleeve of his windbreaker and the spell was broken. He looked at the person pulling him forward, expecting to see Halima. It was Samia. She was breathing hard just from the exertion of this walk. The girl seriously needed to exercise more.

        “You can let go,” Omar said.

        “That wasn’t very funny what you did with the cockroaches.”

        “What do you mean?”

        “The cockroaches in my school bag yesterday. I thought we were past that kiddie stuff.”

        “Oh!” Omar said indignantly. “Naturally you accuse me?”

        “Well…” Uncertain now. “I’m sorry, I just thought-”

        “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

        Samia’s mouth fell open. “You jerk! You had me feeling sorry for you.” She stalked ahead to join the others, leaving Omar in the rear again.

        The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

        Peace be upon the bringer of light
        his turban black, his jubbah white,
        when round the ka’bah he turned,
        by his people mocked and spurned,
        while others came in the depths of night,
        whispers they’d heard
        of a Prophet
        reciting Allah’s word.

        Just before they reached the beach, they passed a cluster of wealthy homes with landscaped gardens and fountains in the yards. Many were weekend homes for rich Panama City families. One had a high brick wall with an arched steel gate topped by a family crest. As the three boys in the lead passed the gate, a huge German shepherd came running up, barking ferociously. The dog was tall and barrel-chested, with lustrous golden fur on its chest and legs, and a black face and back. It wore a collar studded with metal spikes that gleamed in the sun, but this didn’t restrict its voice, which was explosive and penetrating.

        The girls screamed and darted away. Tameem laughed and kicked the lock, enraging the dog who threw itself at the gate, snarling and baring his teeth. Tameem bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it into the dog’s face. Rather than shy away, the beast went into a frenzy. It lunged, trying to force its head between the bars to bite Tameem. Saliva flew from its mouth.

        “Stop that you idiot!” Samia shouted. “What if it gets out?”

        Tameem laughed. “Okay maestra chub-a-lub.”

        Omar shook his head as he gave the dog a wide berth. Why had he agreed to come on this trip?

        This Time for Panama

        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

        The beach was deserted aside from a few families whose parents sheltered in the free cabanas set up in two long rows, while the kids built sand castles or played at the edge of the surf. Omar rolled up his pants and strolled on the wet sand, squinting against the light that reflected off the sea. He could not swim, and contented himself with enjoying the cool water on his feet and the smell of salt in the air, and looking for shells. The other boys ran into the waves.

        The Muhammad sisters changed into knee-length shorts and t-shirts and played in the shallows. Halima wore an Islamic style swimsuit, what did they call it? A burkini. She dove into the water and swam powerfully to the deeper water past the surf break, cutting through the water like a swordfish. Omar watched her. He hadn’t known she could swim like that. She was amazing. As for Samia, she spread out a towel in the shade of a cabana and sat cross-legged, reading a book.

        Maybe Samia was right about Ramadan. Maybe it was a time of miracles. Only a few days away now. But Omar could not imagine what shape a miracle might take. Why was Samia suddenly so concerned about him, anyway? Did she like him? He tried to imagine himself, five or ten years from now, married to Samia. Ugh. No. It wasn’t her pudginess that bothered him, but her pedantic bossiness, as if she were an Imam or life coach on a world tour, making a side stop in this Central American backwater to set Omar’s life straight.

        Halima, on the other hand… He could definitely see himself married to her. Whew! What an intriguing and exciting trip that would be. He chuckled at his own foolishness, knowing that Halima was out of his league. Might as well try to marry Shakira. Waka waka eh eh. This time for Panama.

        He remembered a trip to another beach with his parents when he was small. He built a sand castle with Papá, then went beachcombing with Mamá. Mamá found a perfect conch shell. She squealed with excitement and blew into it, but nothing happened. But when Papá blew into it, a sound like a ship’s horn burst forth. Little Omar was in awe. They took the shell home and put it in a display case in the living room.

        But after Papá died, and before Nemesio came, Mamá sold the shell to buy food.

        Omar hoped he would find another such shell today. He pictured the way his mother’s face would light up. Or would it make her sad, remembering that long-ago day? As he searched, the waves pounded in, undeterred by their failure to mount the land and claim it all for their blue depths. Your time is coming, Omar thought. You’ll drown us all like the people of Nuh one day. He imagined the waves were speaking to him, exhorting him in thunderous tones to do something dramatic. CHANGE, they were saying. And then shhhhhhh, as the water receded across the sand. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. But he did not know what change they demanded.

        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 3:  The Attack

        * * *

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

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

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

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