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.
Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
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