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 | Chapter 11
Saturday, February 6, 1 pm
I stopped at the Salvation Army thrift store on Belmont Avenue not far from my office, where I bought a small wheeled suitcase. It was pink with purple polkadots, but it functioned. Maybe when Hajar started first grade she could use it.
Back at the office I showered – covering my bandaged arm with a plastic bag – and changed my clothes. My body felt fragile, as if my bones had turned to glass. I moved carefully, afraid that another dizzy spell might strike without warning.
I had a special pair of jeans with two hidden pockets sewed on the inside just below hip level. Safaa had made the pockets for me last year when I’d been hired by an Iraq war veteran’s family after the man suddenly disappeared. I tracked him to Los Angeles’s downtown Skid Row, where I went undercover for two days as a homeless person. I needed a way to store my cash and cards so they couldn’t be stolen or even seen. The valuables could only be accessed by taking the pants off or sticking my hand way down inside. It was inconvenient, but made the pants pickpocket-proof.
I had $2,200 in cash remaining out of the money Dr. Anwar had paid me, not counting what Jalal had deposited for me in the bank. I kept $200 in my wallet and put the rest in the secret pockets of the jeans, which I put on. I prayed dhuhr, then packed the pink suitcase along with the old high school backpack as my carry-on.
I thought my fedora might be a bit hot for tropical Panama, so I did not pack it. Maybe I’d buy one of those famous Panama hats instead.
Jalal showed up, looking morose as usual. I put up a hand to forestall the imminent lament of heartbreak and woe over his ex-girlfriend. “You’re better off akhi,” I said, wiping sweat from my forehead. I felt like I’d swallowed a radiator – I couldn’t seem to cool off – and my head was pounding. “Trust me. You’ll find someone better Insha’Allah. Get a good Muslim girl, and you’ll forget all about that ingrate.”
“I guess,” he agreed reluctantly. “Hey, you don’t look so good.”
“I know. I think it’s a cold, or the flu, or maybe I’m just exhausted.”
“I could take you to the doctor.”
“No time. I need you to take me to the airport.” I handed him two hundred dollars and my car key. “Then take my car to be professionally cleaned.”
“Can I clean it myself and keep the cash?”
I chuckled. “Sure. But it’s a bear of a job. Let me pack a bag real quick.” I threw some clothes into a backpack, along with my camera, parabolic microphone and accompanying noise cancelling headphones, and the remainder of the cash Dr. Anwar had given me. I would have loved to take my knife, but that was obviously impossible.
I locked up my office and got in the passenger seat of Jalal’s car. He drove a battered little green Toyota Camry that looked like it had been used as a football by giants.
“Stop at my place first,” I requested. “I mean my wife’s apartment, where I used to live, you remember?”
I needed to see Hajar before I left. If I asked Safaa first, she might say no. So I’d just stop by.
Ashlan Meadows was one of those rare apartment complexes that was almost true to its name. It was an older complex on East Ashlan near Maple, but was well maintained. With its grassy lawns and tall willow trees it was an oasis wedged between crisscrossing freeways, flood control basins, and the National Guard base. It even had a pond with fountains and koi fish – in which I had once seen a heron standing as still as a statue – and a nice playground for the kids.
Safaa lived in apartment 95B. In our family we always left our shoes at the door. I knew Safaa was home when I saw her neon orange sneakers and Hajar’s blue Crocs. I gave my trademark knock – tun ta ta tun-tun – and heard Hajar shriek, “Baba!” Running feet pounded their way to the door, a lock turned, then the door swung open and Hajar threw herself at my legs. I knelt down and embraced her. Hajar wrapped her arms around my neck so tightly I had to struggle for breath – the kid had a future as a wrestler – but that was fine with me. I felt such an aching mixture of joy and sadness in that moment. Joy because I held my sweet daughter in my arms, and sadness because it was such a rare event.
“You should have called first,” Safaa said from the doorway. “You can’t just drop by whenever you like.”
I almost laughed. Sometimes Safaa was so predictable. I was relieved, though, that she clearly had not heard anything about me being at the strip club. If she had, she’d be tearing into me like the big bad wolf into the first little pig’s straw house.
Ignoring Safaa’s comment, I pulled back from Hajar and smiled at her. Her curly brown hair was tied in pigtails – there ought to be a better name for that hairstyle, one more suitable for a little Muslim girl – and a wide grin stretched across her face. She’d been in the sun and her skin was dark, not quite as dark as her mother’s but a lovely shade of tawny copper. Her eyes were light brown, and she had the cutest little nose and perfect teeth. Such a beautiful child, subhanAllah.
She frowned and pointed to the bandage above my eye. “Baba, you got a boo boo.”
I smiled. “Yes. And my arm too.” I showed her the bandaged arm. “But they don’t hurt anymore.” This wasn’t completely true. The cut above the eye didn’t bother me much, but the arm ached and throbbed, and it was starting to feel stiff, like it was swelling up.
“What about your friend?” Hajar said. “Did he get better?”
“No honey. When someone dies they don’t get better from that.”
“Who was it?” Safaa asked. “Anyone I know?”
I looked up at her. She wasn’t wearing hijab, and was dressed casually in black leggings and a billowy blue top, but she stood well inside the doorway where passers-by could not see. I wanted to sit there and gaze into her amazing eyes, those black pools flecked with blue, like ice floating in a dark sea.
Like me, she wore a simple platinum wedding band on her right hand. My eyes flicked to it. I had a secret fear that I’d see her one day and she would have taken it off, and I’d know it was all over between us.
“It was Tarek Anwar,” I told her.
She gasped. “La ilaha il-Allah. What happened?”
Hajar gazed at me solemnly. “What’s a oh deed, Baba?”
I gave her a rueful look. “He died from using bad drugs. But you don’t worry about that, okay? What are you and Mama doing today?”
“My dolls are having a meeting. Come and see!” She grabbed my index finger and pulled.
I glanced up at Safaa, who shrugged in resignation and waved her hand to indicate my admittance. I shed my shoes and followed Hajar across the thickly carpeted room and through the small but clean apartment. The place was crowded with too much old fashioned furniture, including a pair of lavender-colored Bixby chairs, an Amish rolltop desk, and a sage green sofa that was probably worth quite a lot but looked like a refugee from a 1950’s movie set. Much of this had belonged to Safaa’s mother. When she remarried she sold her house, gave the furniture to Safaa, and moved in with her new husband – a much older, wealthy business owner who’d been married five times before.
The house smelled of burnt cheese. I guessed that Safaa had baked a frozen pizza for lunch.
Hajar pulled me along to her room, which was cluttered with toys and clothing. Against one wall stood a small wooden writing desk painted pink and white, and a bookshelf crammed with books that Safaa and I had acquired at library sales or yard sales. A small bed with Dora the Explorer sheets rested against another wall. The walls were decorated with Hajar’s own drawings and crafts. A ceiling fan turned slowly, making a tick – tick – tick sound.
In the center of the floor two semicircles of dolls sat facing each other. Group A were a mixture of stuffed animals – including a “Muslim doll” that wore hijab and said things like As-salamu alaykum and Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Raheem – and Hajar’s own handmade dolls, including a figure made of popsicle sticks and tape, another crafted from pipe cleaners and paper, and another from twigs she’d found outside. Group B consisted of plastic animal figurines and Magic Clips – little Disney princess dolls with interchangeable dresses, like the one I’d found in the sofa at Dr. Rodriguez’s apartment.
“You sit here Baba,” Hajar commanded. “These dolls” – she pointed to the Magic Clip and animal clique – “are from the bathtub. But today, they’re visiting the bedroom.” She addressed the dolls. “Bath animals, this is my room. Bedroom dolls, be on your bestest behavior because we have some animals visiting who have never been out of the bathtub, and they want to see what it’s like. Animals, don’t worry, nobody will hurt you or chase you, unless if you are playing tag. You are just in time because we were about to have a meeting, and there will be food and drinks. I don’t have enough food for everyone, but don’t panic, I have drinks, and you can all share. I’m going to get them. Don’t panic, I will be right back.”
At this Hajar grabbed a toy teacup set and ran off to the kitchen. Safaa came into the room and sat on Hajar’s bed. “So what happened?” she asked, gesturing to my wounded arm and eye.
My eyes traveled up her body, taking in the firm shapeliness of her calves beneath her leggings, and the dark smoothness of her toned arms. Her eyes were as deep and dark as the Euphrates River, with those captivating specks of blue like the glistening of moonlight on the water. Her long black hair was a nighttime desert breeze, admitting no flaw. How I missed this woman. I remembered a trip we took to Baja California before Hajar was born, and how we’d lain out on the beach at night, watching the bright bustle of stars, listening to the lapping of the waves, and talking about our dreams for the future. How happy I’d been then. How full of excitement for the future.
Safaa met my frank gaze and held it. Her face was unreadable, showing no irritation but conceding no love.
I sighed and looked away. “Just work stuff. I have to talk to you about something. The Anwars hired me to find Anna, Tarek’s daughter. I have reason to believe she’s in Panama. I’m leaving in a few hours. Farah Anwar is very upset with me right now. She’s behaving strangely. You might hear some things.”
Safaa waved this off. “You mean Panama, like the country? Is this job dangerous?”
I considered this. “Honestly, I don’t know. There’s a lot about this case that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, I want you to think about what I said earlier. I love you, Safaa. You and Hajar are the center of my universe.” I did not look at her as I said this, not wanting to witness any expression of displeasure she might reveal.
Before she could reply, Hajar returned with a serving tray and the little plastic cups.
“Is that milk?” Safaa demanded. “Oh, sweetie. That’s a waste. You should have brought water.”
“But they’re guests!” Hajar protested. She sat down and began to set the teacups before the dolls. “Now dolls, there’s not enough cups so you have to share like the muhajideen and ansar.”
This made me smile. “Muhajireen,” I corrected.
Hajar gave me a snooty look. “That’s what I said. You’re old so you don’t hear.” She turned back to the dolls. “Baba is visiting too, see?” She turned a few of the dolls to face me. “Does anyone have any questions for Baba?”
One of the dolls, a stuffed bear wearing a snow hat, stood – with Hajar’s help – and waved a paw. This one, I knew, was named Brown Bear. Hajar made her voice a little deeper: “I have a question.”
“Yes Brown Bear,” I said seriously. “What is your question?”
“Are you going to died in Panama like your friend?”
I pursed my lips and closed my eyes. Hajar had obviously been listening to our conversation. When I opened my eyes she was watching me solemnly. I leaned forward and scooped my daughter and Brown Bear in my arms. I didn’t want to kiss Hajar’s face in case I was sick, so I kissed the top of her head, then held up brown bear and addressed him. “No Brown Bear, I will not die.” I knew I could not make this promise, but I did anyway, because sometimes you have to say what you have to say. “My friend died because he was using bad drugs. I don’t do that. I’m smart and strong alhamdulillah. I’m a good private detective. I will solve this case and I’ll be back soon, I promise. Okay?”
Hajar grasped Brown Bear’s head and made him nod up and down. “Okay.”
Safaa walked me out. “Take better care of yourself,” she said at the door. “You look like a dog’s dinner.”
“Thanks for that,” I said lightly. “I have a nervous disorder. It’s called missing-my-family-itis.”
Safaa made a clucking sound. I expected her to say something critical or shut the door in my face but instead she merely stood there looking at me, saying nothing.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you remember when we were kids, and you attacked that bully who was beating me up?”
Safaa gave the faintest trace of a smile. “Sure.”
“And how you used to write to me when I was in prison. The high point of my day was 4:30 mail call. The guards would set the mail sack on a pool table at the center of the unit, and everyone would gather round as they drew out letters one at a time and called out names. Anytime I heard my name my heart would practically leap out of my mouth with expectation. Sometimes it was a book from my dad. But most of the time it was you. I’d take the letter back to my cell and read it again and again, until I knew it almost by heart. I was in rough seas and those letters were beams of light from a lighthouse, calling me back to shore. I’d smell the paper too, did I ever tell you that?”
She made a face. “No.”
“The letters smelled like you, like spice, oranges and lavender. All the sweetest scents of Iraq and California, left on the paper by your fingers. I was thinking about all that recently. You’ve always been loyal to me, from the very beginning. When nearly everyone else abandoned me, you were there. I don’t know if I can convey how much that means to me. I’ve-” I choked up, trying to get control of my emotions. “I’ve been needing a friend. And I’ve never had a better friend than you. Trust your heart, habibti. Trust your instincts.” I clamped my mouth shut, not trusting myself to say more.
Safaa looked away, the muscles in her jaw working. I thought she would retort with the same old accusations, but instead she threw up her hands and said, “I don’t know, Zaid.”
I nodded. Progress. That was progress. I walked down the steps, feeling the weight of Safaa’s gaze on my back, and fantasized that she would suddenly call me back, tell me she loved me, and embrace me. When I reached the bottom of the steps and looked back, the door was closed.
* * *
Back in the car I reclined the passenger seat and closed my eyes. That visit was harder than I’d expected. Saying goodbye was the hardest part of all. Every time I left my daughter, not knowing when I would see her again, it felt like leaving a piece of my soul behind.
Jalal drove to the airport. Along the way, he asked about my arm and forehead. I told him what had happened and he whistled. “So do you still have a case? Or did the Anwars fire you?”
Good question. It wasn’t clear whether I still had a client, and whether Dr. Ehab would reimburse any of my past or future expenses. What I did have was a missing girl, and as far as I was concerned I was still on the case.
I took out my phone and googled Yusuf Cruz. I was fairly sure he’d be out of prison by now. Even though his sentence had been longer than mine, he’d been on the tail end of it when I knew him. Before he was imprisoned, he was – to hear him tell it – one of the most powerful crime lords in Panama, running everything from illegal cigarette imports and gambling to prostitution and cocaine exports. He wasn’t bragging about all of that. Just being honest about his sins.
Yusuf always used to say that when he was released he would return to Panama and open a chain of internet cafes. No more crime. If he was indeed back in Panama, maybe he could meet me at the airport there and help me out.
I couldn’t find anything. There were zero results for Yusuf Cruz in Panama. I tried “Yusuf Cruz Miami” and got a million results, none of which had anything to do with my Yusuf Cruz. I tried his pre-Muslim name, Jose Cruz, and received 15,800,000 results, the majority of which related to a Puerto Rican baseball player.
Giving it one more shot, I tried his full name, Jose Arosemena Cruz, and encased it in quotation marks to limit the responses to that exact phrase. This time there were zero results. Crazy technology. It either gave you millions or nothing. I sighed in frustration and shut off the phone.
“I admire what you’re doing,” Jalal said out of the blue.
“What do you mean?”
“Going all the way to Panama to find that missing kid. Dude, you’re like a U.S. Marshal in the Old West. I know it’s not easy. I mean, just look at you.” He gestured to my face and arm with one hand. “But you’re unstoppable.”
I chuckled. “That’s kind of you, Jalal, but I’m far from unstoppable, and I’m no one to be admired. I’m a mess.”
“It’s not just me,” Jalal insisted. “A lot of the younger brothers think you’re cool as ice. You’re a self-made man, following your own path.”
I shook my head, thinking of all the suffering I’d experienced, the years of loneliness and regret, the pain I’d caused to others and the pain I had lived through myself. “Let one of those young brothers walk in my shoes,” I countered, “then see if they think my life is cool.”
At the airport Jalal pulled up in front of the terminal. “I’ll go with you if you want,” he offered. “Just say the word. I’ll back you up.”
I smiled, “Thanks brother. But your mother and your brothers and sisters need you. Besides, do you even have a passport?”
“Oh. No I don’t.”
I left Jalal my office keys and asked him to water my plants and keep an eye on my car. I took my pink suitcase and school backpack and headed into the airport. I checked the suitcase, which held my surveillance equipment, a few changes of clothing, and one of Hajar’s stuffed animals – a little spotted deer that she’d left at my office on her last visit. In my carry-on I had a pack of gum, a bottle of ibuprofen and little else.
I felt like a wet rag that had been twisted dry and tossed in a corner. I was hot and sweating, my throat was sore, and I was racked with waves of nausea. Apparently the TSA screeners were used to seeing sick travelers. They waved me right through.
The flight to Los Angeles was quick. From there I had a two-hour layover before my connection to Panama City. My stomach was utterly empty, but just the thought of food made me feel like putting myself into cryosleep and waiting for more advanced future human beings to thaw me out. I spent the layover time huddled over my phone, searching uselessly for information on Yusuf Cruz, and every now and then rushing to the bathroom, as my body had decided all my symptoms weren’t bad enough, and I needed a case of diarrhea thrown into the mix. I took a couple of ibuprofen and soon felt marginally better.
I had the idea to try an image search. I tried Yusuf Cruz, then Jose Cruz. The first two pages of results yielded nothing, but on the third page I saw a photo of two men shaking hands in front of a construction site. They wore suits and hard hats.
The one on the left was thin and goateed, with hollow cheeks and a long nose that had been broken at least once. It was Yusuf. The one on the right was short and round, like a Latino Tweedledum. The caption on the photo read, “Jose Cruz, presidente de Construcción Yuza, con Gobernador Camacho de la provincia de Coclé.” I translated in my head: “Jose Cruz, president of Yuza Construction, with Governor Camacho of Coclé Province.” I clicked on the link to the accompanying article, but the link was invalid. There was no additional information.
So Yusuf was indeed back in Panama, and apparently was head of a construction firm – more money in construction than in internet cafes, no doubt. Even feeling as sick as I did, this made me smile. Yusuf had kept his word and gone straight. He was a legitimate businessman and his life was apparently going well, alhamdulillah. I was happy for him.
I ran a search for “Construcción Yuza”. At first I found nothing, but deep in the results I found a link – construccionyuza.com – to a defunct website. I checked the WHOIS record to learn the owner of the domain name, but the record was private. I found all this very odd. A successful construction company should have easily accessible public records. Unless… unless the company was a front for criminal activity, such as a money laundering operation. I really hoped that was not the case.
I tried archive.org, also known as the Wayback Machine. This was a tool that took periodic snapshots of every website in the world, and could show you what that website looked like in the past. I inputted construccionyuza.com and found the bare bones of a website that had been taken down a couple of years ago. In it, I unearthed a telephone contact number. I called the number.
I used my sleeve to mop sweat from my forehead and the sides of my nose as the phone rang several times. Just when I thought it would go to voicemail, a man’s voice answered. “Digame,” the man said in Spanish. Speak to me. His voice was deep and rough. He sounded like someone I would not want to meet in a dark alley.
I put a hand to my stomach, which was sending sudden and urgent signals that something bad was imminent unless I ran to the bathroom again. Not now, I told myself.
“Hola,” I said in what I hoped was a cheerful and confident tone. “Es esta la oficina de Construcción Yuza? Habla usted Inglés? You speak English?”
There was a long pause. I wondered if the line had been disconnected, when the man replied in heavily accented English: “Who is this? How you get this number?”
My stomach wouldn’t wait any longer. I began to walk toward the bathroom, anticipating the awkwardness of carrying on a conversation while sitting on the toilet. “I’m trying to reach Jose Cruz,” I said. “I’m an old friend of his. I’m coming to Panama, I’d like to see him.”
Another long pause ensued, during which utter silence came from the other end, as if the phone had been muted. My stomach sent up an urgent protest and I began to run, my backpack bouncing on my back. At the same instant I heard them call over the intercom that my flight was boarding.
Finally someone came back on the line. “There is no Jose Cruz here,” the rough-voiced man said curtly. “Who are you? How you get this number?”
“My name is Zaid,” I said with as much patience as I could muster. “Listen, just tell him-” a dizzy spell snatched my equilibrium away and I nearly fell over. I dropped the phone, and it shattered into three pieces. I shouted in frustration. I managed to recover the pieces, stuff them into my pocket and stumble to the bathroom just in time.
When I was done I washed up and hurried back to the gate. I was the last to board. One of the flight attendants – a slightly chubby, fortyish blonde who wore a silver and turquoise brooch in the shape of a hummingbird and a name tag that said Marsha – was presiding over an argument between two women. The overhead storage bin was full, and one woman was complaining that the other had taken her space. Her bag jutted out so that the compartment would not close. Other passengers watched in amusement or annoyance. One was actually filming on his smartphone.
“I’ve got it,” I told Marsha. I studied the bags and saw that with a little maneuvering they would all fit. It was like a game of Tetris. I shoved a few bags around and closed the bin.
The attendant gave me a sunny smile and beamed with kind blue eyes. “Thank you so much sir.” She had a southern accent, maybe Alabama or Georgia.
I had a middle seat all the way at the rear, which was good because it was next to the restroom. I buckled in and inspected my phone. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. The back cover plate had come off and the battery had fallen out, that was all. It was a simple matter to fix.
“Turn your mobile device off sir,” Marsha reminded me gently.
I sighed and shut it off. I felt woozy and thick headed, as if a scorching July day was in full bloom inside my head, complete with clouds of gnats and the smell of hot asphalt. I sighed, sat back in my seat and fell asleep. That’s an extraordinary thing for me, as I normally have trouble sleeping upright. My body must have been exhausted.
* * *
@@@ The year was 2000. In that year, the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon after twenty two years of occupation, the 87th Tour de France went without a winner when Lance Armstrong was disqualified, and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a former Black Panther once known as H. Rap Brown, was arrested and framed for murder.
I was twenty years old, locked up in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, a maximum security pile of stone and steel set amid the rolling grasslands of northeast Kansas. It was winter, the ground outside was white with snow, and a riot was coming.
Two years before, a man named Hassan Amir had almost single-handedly crushed the Aryan Brotherhood at USP Atlanta. Whether this was truth or a legend, no one knew for sure – the stories about Hassan Amir sounded more like myth than reality – but since then the Muslims and the AB had been in a de facto state of war in prisons across America. Here in Leavenworth, they’d killed one of ours, and we’d retaliated in kind. All the gangs were choosing sides. Then, like a spark flying toward a barrel full of fireworks, the hacks – the guards – killed Halfway Willie, a universally respected convict who had been working to put an end to racial conflicts here in Leavenworth.
The prison was ready to explode. There was no mistaking the feeling of supercharged fury, as if the storm to end all storms was bearing down. Men pounded the floors with their feet and chanted. The steel of the tiers rang and vibrated. A prison riot was the ultimate paroxysm of violence. In a riot, it was said, every imaginable atrocity could and would be committed. Myself and my cellie – a long-haired, taciturn Navajo who always tied a blue bandana around his forehead – maneuvered our lockers against the bars of our cells, then armored ourselves by tearing our blankets in strips and tying magazines to our chests and backs.
There was snow piling up on the floor of the cell. Why was their snow in the cell? I was cold, so cold. I looked up, imagining I’d see that the riot had begun and the ceiling itself had somehow cracked open to let the freezing weather in. @@@
* * *
I woke to find myself shaking violently. My body shuddered with spasms as my teeth chattered. I was on a plane. Reality seeped back into my awareness. Panama. I’m going to Panama. The people on either side of me were gone, and someone had draped a blanket over me. My left arm baked with pain, and was so stiff I could hardly bend the elbow. There was a foul, rotten odor in the air. I hoped it wasn’t me.
“Oh you’re awake.” The blonde attendant bent over me, adjusting the blanket. “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Do you have any medicine you need to take?”
“I don’t know,” I said through a quivering jaw. “Flu. I’m so cold. I have some ibuprofen.” I reached weakly for the backpack I’d stowed beneath the seat in front of me.
“I’ll get it.”
Marsha unzipped my backpack, found the pills, fished out three ibuprofen tablets and brought a cup of apple juice and another blanket.
The rest of the flight was a cross between a fever dream and a peyote trip, or at least what I imagine a peyote trip might be like. The captain came into the cabin to see me and promptly struck me across the face. Spit sprayed into my face as he screamed that I was a living bomb, and that because of me the airplane was doomed, and all the passengers would die. An alligator slithered down the aisle, then turned and regarded me with huge mournful eyes before hissing, “What have you done with my pale baby?” Chausiku Sulawesi sat saucily on my lap, then choked me with two hands and demanded to know what had happened to her husband. A passenger far in the front had her back to me and I was sure it was Anna Anwar, but whenever I tried to make my way up the aisle to see her face, the aisle itself twisted back on itself, and I found myself back in my seat. A voice boomed over the intercom, saying, “Your mother kept the wrong child! She should have kept the lame one and aborted you!” What does that mean? I moaned in response. Who is the lame one?
I’m sure I babbled, and possibly shouted once or twice. I remember Marsha being there, wiping my forehead with a wet cloth, and saying soothing words.
The plane landed. I was loaded onto a stretcher and strapped down. I bucked and writhed, then settled down as a needle penetrated my skin and something warm and comfortable rushed into my veins. All my aches and pains faded away. After so many years of struggling against my past and present, bucking the earthly bonds that always seemed to want to drag me to the ground, I was at peace with the world. I loved everyone and was happy to be alive.
Bright lights in my eyes. The bandage was removed from my arm. I heard a gasp and an exclamation in Spanish as the stench of rot and disease assaulted my nostrils. “Podría perder el brazo,” someone said. Might lose the arm. Someone else barked something in rapid Spanish, of which I understood none except “cirugía inmediata.” Immediate surgery. They were talking about cutting off my arm.
Panic badgered its way into my haven of tranquility, my mental clearing in the forest of life. Not my arm! These barbarians were going to hack off my arm! NO! I struggled to get free. Blurred faces swam before me. I heard a shout and felt arms holding me down.
More warmth whispered into my veins. My muscles went limp. Warm, so warm. The strident objection – my arm! – was still there, but I let it go. What would happen would happen. Trust in Allah and he will feed you as he feeds the birds. Would he also heal me as he healed the birds? Did he heal the birds? I could not think. I was at peace in my sunny haven, my little place of shelter against the dangers of the world.
If my arm had to go, so be it. I would wish it well. Perhaps it would make something of itself, achieve great things, become the arm of a doctor or scientist, and my parents would finally be proud.
My eyes closed against the overhead lights, and my bright little haven faded to black.
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.
Of Dreams and Shadows
A short story
By Saulat Pervez
Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.
That night, she wrote in her journal,
We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.
“So, how were the latest test results?”
“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”
“And, how old did you say she was?”
“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.
He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?
“Anything new today?” she asked.
He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.
He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.
Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.
She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.
The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.
She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive?
She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.
She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.
Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.
She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.
It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.
It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).
Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).
They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.
She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.
Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.
It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.
“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”
“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”
“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”
“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.
She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.
Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.
The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?
Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.
As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.
She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.
She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.
She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.
Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.
As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.
Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on Amazon.com.
This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel.
To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?
As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.
As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.
However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating). All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?
Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.
Why Decorate or not to Decorate
There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.
But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)
Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.
The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship. What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way? If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet or scholars have advised us to do in any way?
Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.
How to Decorate or not to Decorate
It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.
The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.
The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.
- Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
- Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
- Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?
The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating
So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.
It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,
- Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
- Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
- Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
- Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.
I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.
Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)
Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.
Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating
The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.
And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،. وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم “ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ”.
We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)
How to Teach Your Kids About Easter
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.
My mother put up her Christmas tree every year. We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.
I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.
As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.
That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:
- The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
- Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
- We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
- The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.
So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.
There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.
There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:
Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.
Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.
Allah Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.
Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.
Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.
If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.
Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.
We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.
So what do we believe?
Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.
- Allah is One.
- Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
- He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
- There is nothing like Allah in the universe
Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.
- Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
- We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
- We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.
When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.
You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.
If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:
- Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
- Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
- Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
- Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
- Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
- You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.
We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.
It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.
Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah. We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.
The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.
Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast. Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.
You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them. No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.
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