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 | Chapter 12
Sunday, February 7, 2010
I woke up groggy, my mind full of fog that swirled and condensed onto my thoughts. Bright lights overhead, a bed with railings, an IV attached to my right arm, a light green blanket covering my legs. I wore a white cotton gown with polka dots and short sleeves. A slender vertical window showed a night sky and city lights. I was in a hospital room. The hospital was quiet, with only the whisper of air conditioning and the sounds of car horns outside.
A thought pushed itself forward out of the fog in my brain: My arm. They were going to cut off my arm. With a panicked, incoherent cry I pawed at the blanket with my right arm and lifted my left – and found it intact, or at least apparently so, since it was heavily bandaged from wrist to shoulder.
My second thought was, Anna. I have to find Anna. No time. She could be in real trouble. My third thought was, My pants. Where are my pants?
All my cash and cards were in those pants. And where was my backpack with my phone and clothes, and my rollbag with all my surveillance equipment?
I tried to push myself to a sitting position and nearly fainted as the world spun like a carousel. I laid back in bed, intending to rest for a moment. The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes again and it was daytime. Bright sunlight shone through the narrow window. My earlier dizziness was gone. A nurse came into the room, saw I was awake, and gave me a wide, lovely smile. She was a black woman with Asian-looking eyes and straightened hair pulled into a ponytail. Her name tag read, “Johnson.” That didn’t sound like a Panamanian name. Where on earth was I?
I tried to speak but my throat was sandpaper. The nurse poured a cup of water. I sipped as she checked my IV and the bandage on my arm, then took my temperature and blood pressure. When she was done she told me in Spanish to wait, then left.
Ten minutes later a doctor entered the room. He was my height and completely bald. He wore expensive looking glasses and a typical long white coat over green scrubs. He was accompanied by two cops. One was a six-foot, burly uniformed officer who looked like he could pick me up and use my body as a golf club. It didn’t escape my attention that his hand rested on the butt of his gun. Oh man. I was in trouble, that was clear.
As for the the other man, he wore a silver-colored silk suit and yellow tie, but was a cop as well, judging by the badge clipped to his belt. He was short, with a dark complexion and close-cropped hair, and I had a feeling he was probably a lieutenant or captain.
“Hello, I am Dr. Alfred,” the doc said in impeccable and barely accented English. “How do you feel?”
“I’m-” In spite of the water my voice came out sounding like a door on rusty hinges. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Where am I?”
The doctor smiled. “You are in Hospital Nacional in Panama, Panama.”
“You are a lucky man, that’s what. The wound on your arm was badly infected. It was a deep, aggressive infection, all the way down to the bone. Another three or four hours and you would have lost the arm. I had to remove some of your muscle tissue. You will require rehab, but you should regain eighty percent of your arm strength and mobility.”
I was shocked. Removed my muscle tissue?
The doctor read my face. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. With rehab and time you will hardly notice the difference.”
I let out a breath. It was what it was. Alhamdulillah that I was alive and whole. I had a job to get back to. “Okay,” I said. “So… can I go?”
“Naturally not. You are not well. You need a week of treatment with antibiotics and fluids, as well as rehab, as I said. Also, these gentlemen have questions for you.”
On cue, the plainclothes cop stepped forward and fired a series of questions in rapid-fire Spanish that I could not follow. His Spanish seemed slurred somehow – I had the impression he was dropping the final syllable of each word. It must be some sort of Panamanian dialectical quirk. All I understood was “equipment” and “authorized.” I shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t understand.”
Dr. Alfred translated. “Lieutenant Moscoso wants to know your purpose in Panama. Why are you carrying surveillance equipment? Are you a police officer? You should know that it is illegal for you to operate on Panamanian soil.”
“Yes, my equipment! I had a checked bag, it’s pink with polka-”
“The police have it,” the doctor said, cutting me off. “As I said, they wish to know if you are police.”
“Private detective,” I replied automatically. I was about to tell them my real reason for being here, then stopped myself. Police everywhere take a withering view of private citizens poking their noses into active cases, even private eyes. A foreign detective, roaming their streets and surveilling their citizens? They’d be more likely to lock me up or put me on a plane back to the U.S. than release me.
“I’m a security consultant,” I improvised. “I’ve been hired by a wealthy Panamanian businessman to assess his security.” Then I gave them the name of the only Panamanian businessman I knew: “His name is Jose Arosemena Cruz.”
I did not expect any particular response. I imagined they’d have more questions for me – questions I would not be able to answer. I had a feeling that no matter what I said, this interrogation would end badly.
Instead it was as if I’d dropped one of Jelly’s flash-bang grenades into the room. A shocked silence ensued. The blood drained from the swarthy lieutenant’s face as he turned the color of his silver suit. Silent seconds ticked by. Then the lieutenant made a hurried gesture to the burly cop, who took a passport from one pocket, a hand stamp and ink pad from the other, opened the passport and stamped it. The short lieutenant snatched it, handed it to me and said, “Bienveni’o a Panama.” That much at least I understood. Welcome to Panama. The two cops spun on their heels and walked out.
I looked at the passport: it was mine. I’d been carrying it in the front pocket of my jeans.
The doctor cleared his throat. “Very well. I will check on you later to-”
“Hold on doc,” I said. I didn’t know what had just happened and didn’t care. At this point everything could be measured by whether it was good for me or bad for me. I had a job to do. Cops suddenly giving in and clearing my way: good for me. Lack of pants: bad for me.
“I need my stuff. My bags and clothes.”
“Your things are here.” The doc waved to a cabinet along the wall. “But you cannot leave. You must recuperate.”
“I have a job to do.” I swung my legs over the side of the bed.
The doctor’s tone became alarmed. “Without treatment you risk the infection returning. You could-”
“Can’t you supply medication I can take with me?” I slid my feet down to the ground and tested my balance. So far so good.
“The medication must be administered on schedule. Please, this-”
I cut him off yet again. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I didn’t have time to dawdle. “I’m sorry doctor. I have work to do. Señor Cruz doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” Couldn’t hurt to toss his name out one more time, since it seemed to have such a disconcerting effect. “How much do I owe you?” I dreaded the answer to this question. In the U.S. even a minor surgery and hospital stay would run tens of thousands of dollars. I did not have health insurance, and even if I had I doubted it would cover overseas hospitalizations. What would happen if I could not pay? Maybe I’d end up in a Panamanian jail cell after all.
Frowning deeply, the doctor made a dismissive motion. “There is no charge. Please convey my regards to Señor Cruz. Just wait a moment for the nurse to disconnect your IV. Stop at the pharmacy on your way out. I will prescribe medications. You must take them faithfully, do you understand? For the record, this is foolish and against my advice.”
“I understand, doctor. Thank you. I appreciate what you’ve done for me.”
The doctor left. So Jose Cruz was known here. I’d love to talk to him but I couldn’t exactly ask the police or the doctor how to find him. I’d claimed to be working for him, after all. Rolling the IV pole beside me, I opened the cabinet and checked my belongings. I feared the worst, but nothing was missing. The surveillance equipment, the cash in the hidden pockets of my pants, even the $200 I’d had in my wallet: it was all there. Not everyone is corrupt, I chided myself. Just because these people are poor by U.S. standards it doesn’t make them thieves.
The nurse came in, withdrew the IV and bandaged the insertion point. As I was changing my clothes, the burly police officer returned with my pink rollbag. He left it in my room and departed without a word. I slipped on my backpack, took the rollbag, and stopped at the pharmacy on the ground floor. They gave me two antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory and a painkiller. I tossed them in my backpack and exited into the heat, noise and bustle of Panama, Panama.
* * *
My first impressions of Panama city: gleaming skyscrapers crowding as thick as straws in a box, some as tall as anything you’d see in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and more going up everywhere. Giant cranes moving in the shimmering air. The sun blazing down, and humidity so dense it was like broth. The smell of ocean salt in the air. Trees with widespread canopies, vines crawling on walls, flowers erupting out of window boxes. Traffic so thick it was nearly solid. Giant buses gaily painted with cartoon characters, chauffeured sedans with tinted windows, Mercedes and BMWs, entire herds of taxis, motorcycles, delivery scooters.
Noise, noise, noise: cars honking, jackhammers rattling, construction sounds, bus drivers calling out destinations, car and bus radios blasting a weird mix of Spanish rap and reggae that apparently had to be played at maximum volume.
People impressions: a well-dressed population that was surprisingly dark – I’d always thought of Central Americans as looking mostly like Mexicans – with a significant percentage looking Amerindian, black, or a mixture of the two, though there were plenty of European types as well, and some Chinese. People laughing, chattering, calling out to each other. Tiny mahogany-skinned tribal women with vertical lines painted down the bridges of their noses, wearing colorful dresses and red headscarves. Children and teenagers in school uniforms, businesspeople in suits, beggars, street hawkers.
Panama – the capital city carried the same name as the country – was a metropolis bursting with activity, heady and reckless and giddy with life.
I knew that I needed to get to Colon. I was sure there must be a bus, but I had no idea where the bus station was, or even what part of the city I was in. I tried hailing a taxi. There were certainly enough of them. Roughly a third of all the cars that sped by were taxis. But all the cabs ignored me, running by blithely. Finally one stopped. I opened the rear door to get in but it was locked. The driver rolled down the passenger window. “Pa’ donde?” he demanded in that same rapid, clipped Spanish.
“Colon,” I told him. “Bus, el bus para Colon.”
“No.” He shook his head, rolled the window up and drove off. What the heck? La hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah.
I began to walk, pulling my bag along behind me. I had no clear destination, just a vague idea that maybe I could find a cab stand where taxis waited for passengers. The sun beat down ruthlessly. My backpack grew heavier with every step, until it felt like it was full of lead. My illness had drained me. I kept on walking. Whatever pain medication I’d been on must be fading, because my arm was beginning to ache. Maybe I should have taken the time to study the directions on the medication bottles. Get to Colon, find Anna, that was the job and the mission.
At each intersection I waited with crowds of other pedestrians, then, like them, rushed across the street when there was a gap in traffic, the wheels of my rollbag bouncing on potholes. I gasped, trying to catch my breath, but the air was so humid and cloying that my lungs would not take it in. It all became too much: the noise, traffic, crowds of pedestrians, the pain in my arm and the burning sun. The city spun around me and I fell, striking my hip painfully on the cracked sidewalk. I lay on my side gasping for breath, the weight of the backpack pinning me to the ground.
People walked around me. “Borracho,” I heard one of them mutter. Drunk. Traffic rumbled by only a few feet away.
Looking up from my prone position, I felt a surge of hope as two brown-skinned men with beards came strolling toward me. They wore white shalwaar kameez – the standard dress of Muslim men in the Indian subcontinent and surrounding countries – and white kufis on their heads. They could not be anything but Muslims.
I struggled to a sitting position and called out an enthusiastic “As-salamu alaykum.” It was a profound relief to see brother Muslims here in this strange country. They would surely help me. Maybe they would give me a ride, or flag a taxi for me, or at least tell me where to find the bus I needed to get to Colon.
Like the taxis, the Muslims ignored me. I was sure they’d heard my salam, but they did not reply. One gave me a quick glance, but they did not slow. What kind of place was this, for God’s sake?
I put a hand over my eyes, shutting out the bright sunlight. I felt like crying or shouting. No, I told myself. Pray instead. Pray. Allah hears and cares. I believed that down to my bones. I’d seen it manifested in my own life in so many ways. I could not think of any particular dua’, so I raised my hands and recited Surat Al-Fatihah, then Surat Al-Asr, then Ayat Al-Kursi. I put my heart into the recitation, feeling deeply the meaning of each ayah. When I recited, “ihdinas-sirat-al-mustaqeem” from Al-Fatihah – guide us to the straight path – I meant it spiritually and physically as well. I needed Allah’s guidance in every way right now. I I was helpless without my Lord and I knew it. I needed the touch of the Most Merciful, the push that only Allah could give.
“Oye, Flaco, are you NorteAmericano? Whassa matter with you?”
I looked up to see a man in his mid twenties standing over me. He wore beige factory slacks, a canary-yellow dress shirt with short sleeves, and leather sandals. He had the kind of compact muscles that come from genuine work as opposed to gym weights, and his knuckles were enlarged in the way that comes from too many fistfights won or lost. His face was broad and brown, and his black hair was cut short. There was an unnerving intensity to his gaze, almost as if he were angry or trying to intimidate me. A tattoo adorned his forearm, depicting a pair of hands clasped in prayer, a rosary dangling from them. I’d seen similar tats on Latino prisoners. It was a plea for forgiveness from one’s mother for a life gone wrong.
“Nothing. I’m fine. I’m just lost. Can you tell me how to get to Colon?”
“Colon?” The young man laughed as if I’d made a hilarious joke. Like his stare, his laughter was exaggerated, over the top. “Colon is on the other side of the country. You have to take the autobus. The bus as you say.” He pronounced it boose, so that it rhymed with moose.
“Yes but from where? I can’t get a taxi to stop for me.”
“Is no problem my friend. I help you, okay? My name is Niko. You stay here. I go get a car.”
“Are you a taxi driver?”
Niko tilted his head, staring at me, and again his tone was almost angry. I was beginning to realize that he did not intend this effect. This constant intensity of his was a mannerism. Maybe it was something he’d adopted in prison, and it had become a part of him.
“No,” the Panamanian said. “I have a friend with a car, I borrow it. You wait, Flaco.” Flaco, I knew, meant “skinny” in Spanish. I didn’t take it personally. It was part of Latin American culture to casually refer to people by their physical traits. It was not unusual for people to be called fatty or baldy, and there was never any malicious intent behind it. He walked away quickly, leaving me sitting there on the sidewalk.
Looking around, I saw a beggar standing – if it could be called standing – on the median that separated the two directions of traffic. His body was badly deformed. He stood on one foot and two hands, and wore homemade wooden blocks on his hands, with straps to keep them in place. One of his legs folded over this back and dangled on the same side as the other leg. His limbs were as thin as vines. I was shocked at his condition. I had never seen anything like it.
I thought, alhamdulillah for my health. Thank God for all his blessings. I knew this was vulgar of me, to see someone less fortunate and find in him only a sense of relief that I was not so cursed. It was crass, because I wasn’t seeing the man for who he truly was, but using him only as a means of comparison to myself, to make myself feel better about my own life. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t imagine living as he did, and was so glad that I didn’t have to.
And yet, as I watched, the man grinned and called out to drivers. When traffic stopped at the light and someone proffered a donation, the man clomped over to them and took the money. As he did so he said something and laughed.
A few minutes later Niko pulled up in front of me in a beat-up old station wagon that looked as if it had been unearthed in an archaeological dig. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it collapsed into rubble where it stood. He double parked in the right lane – traffic behind him immediately commenced an outraged cacophony – came around, helped me up and tried to take my bags.
“Hold on,” I said. “Where are you taking me? And how much do you charge?”
Niko tilted his head and eyed me like a offended hawk, if a bird of prey could be offended. “I take you to Albrook Mall to catch autobus to Colon. Or if you like I take you to Colon myself. If I do good job you pay me whatever you like. I only want to help you.”
“Why? Why do you want to help me?”
Niko paused, and his mien softened. “I don’t know. You are like me.” For a moment he looked like he might burst into tears. Then a huge grin transformed his face and he laughed maniacally. “No more questions. Don’t you trust me? Come!” Again he tugged at my bag.
I knew that Niko, if that was his real name, might be planning to rob me. Maybe he would take me somewhere secluded to beat me or kill me. Maybe he had compadres waiting to ambush me. In my weakened state I could hardly resist.
I was exhausted, sick and lost. I had to trust someone. Why not a bipolar ex-convict ruffian? After all, I’d prayed to Allah for help, and Niko had appeared. I had always trusted Allah to have my back, and he’d always taken care of me. In the darkest times of my life, when I’d been lost in wildernesses of my own making, Allah had always sent a savior. When I was in prison it was Safaa, and then Kathleen Yanez, the woman who’d been instrumental in securing my presidential pardon. Later it was Langston “Lonnie” Brown, my mentor. On the airplane ride coming here it was Marsha the flight attendant, and here in Panama the doctor who’d saved my arm – Dr. Alfred. Yes, the world was a cruel place, but mercy was everywhere. Bright souls shone in the darkness like stars in the sky.
“Yes Niko,” I said. “I trust you. My name is Zaid, by the way.”
“Mucho gusto amigo Zayn! Much pleasure.”
I let him take my bags. He helped me into the passenger seat, and the car started up with a cough, sputter and groan. Niko floored the accelerator and the old wreck – to my surprise – shot off down the street carrying me and this crazy stranger, this savior out of the urban wilderness of Panama, Panama.
* * *
I watched buildings and people stream by. Niko drove as if he were attacking the road. He swerved this way and that, used the horn constantly, cursed at other drivers even though we had the windows up and no one could hear us. I kept expecting the station wagon to throw off its hubcaps, or maybe lose a door, but it held together. The AC cooled the car only slightly but it was still sweet relief.
My arm had begun to throb and ache as if it were roasting on a spit. I took out my medications and downed them with a bottle of warm water Niko gave me. My new helper switched on the radio. Out blared the same weird music I’d heard earlier.
“What is that music?” I asked.
“Reggaeton! Our Panamanian invention. You like?”
Niko turned the volume down. “I forget you gringos don’t like loud noise.”
Gringo was a generic epithet for white people, common in much of Latin America. “I’m not a gringo. I’m Arab. Palestinian.”
“Oh, beautiful!” He clapped my shoulder. “I love the Arabs. Osama bin Laden, yes?” Niko rolled down his window, pumped a fist in the air, stuck his head out the window and shouted, “Osama bin Laden, we love you!” Cars honked their horns, whether in agreement or annoyance I had no idea.
“Niko, stop that!”
He rolled up the window. “Why? You don’t like Osama bin Laden?”
“No, of course I don’t like him. He killed innocent people.” I sighed. I didn’t have the energy to launch a discussion of politics and the evils of terrorism. “Just don’t do it,” I concluded lamely.
“Hey, let me ask you something. Back where you picked me up, there was a beggar. His body was deformed, you understand? His leg twisted over his back. He walked on his hands.”
“Oh you mean Antoney. I know him.”
“He was making jokes and laughing. I don’t understand that. How can he be happy in his condition?”
Niko shot me a frown. “Why no? El sol brilla para todos.”
The sun shines for all. “Yes, but-”
“No but. El sol brilla para todos. All the people are equal. God don’t look at our body. He look at our soul. Everyone is the same in front of God.”
I nodded. Yes, of course he was right. Islam taught that all worldly things were temporary. This life was a trial and a test. The measure of a person was not their body, but their faith and character. All a man or woman had to do was strive for truth and patience, and they would succeed. How funny. Niko, though not a Muslim at all, understood the faith better than me.
“Hey, can I ask you something? Have you heard of a man named Jose Arosemana Cruz?”
Niko swerved and nearly crashed into the car in the next lane, a pickup truck with the word “Pescados” hand painted in large letters on the side. The pickup honked and the driver made a hand gesture.
“Estas loco gringo?” My new guide stared at me with wide, furious eyes. “You have a wish for the death? Never say this name, not even in your dreams. How you know this name?”
“He is a friend of mine. Do you know how to reach him?”
“No! And I don’t want to know.”
“Okay, relax. I just thought, since you’ve been in prison…” I gestured to the tattoo on his forearm.
Niko’s expression turned bitter. “Yes. But I am not a criminal. Only one time I steal jewels to save my son. But I fail and get caught. I go to prison three years.”
“What do you mean to save your son?”
Niko grew quiet. After some time he said, “I show you.” He made a series of turns, then slowed and stopped the car. We’d parked next to a wide canal that ran through the middle of a built-up urban area. The brown water sped by, boiling with turbulence.
“This is the Río Curundú,” Niko explained. “My oldest son Emanuel almost die here.”
“I – I’m sorry to hear that.”
Niko stepped out of the car. I followed him and we stood in front of a low wall that ran parallel to the wide canal. From here I could hear the water rushing and splashing against the sides. It smelled faintly of sewage. A profusion of weeds and small trees sprang up from cracks in the steeply sloped sides. I saw at least two stray cats slinking about on the embankments. One carried a kitten in her teeth.
“It happen four years ago,” Niko said. “Emanuel was ten.
I was surprised to hear that Niko had a son who would now be fourteen. He was obviously older than I’d thought.
“He come here with some boys and girls,” Niko continued. “The boys tease him because he is the youngest. They challenge him to swim across the river. He do it to, how you say, impresionar a las chicas.”
“Impress the girls.”
“Si. The water carry him fast.” Niko pointed to a bridge that spanned the canal a hundred meters downstream. Concrete pillars jutted down into the water. “He hit there.”
“Wow. That’s terrible. What happened to him?”
“He break his back! Still now he cannot walk. The doctor say he walk with operación, but I have no money for that.” Niko glared at me with wide, red-rimmed eyes. “How you think for a boy to grow up in a wheelchair? I am supposed to be his father. But I am not a man! Not a father!” He pounded his fist on the low concrete wall.
“Niko!” I put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not your fault, man. Don’t do this to yourself.”
He shrugged my hand off violently. “I don’t deserve the life!” His demeanor suddenly changed, his voice becoming very quiet. “La luna cayó en el río. El río la llevó a la mar. En el mar, unos marinos la quisieron devorar.”
“I don’t understand.”
Instead of replying, Niko climbed up onto the wall and stood atop it. “Hey!” I shouted. “Niko!” I grabbed at his leg.
He jumped, pulling free from my grip. I watched in openmouthed shock as he tumbled down the steep slope, striking a tree trunk on the way down. I hoped he would grab onto the trunk or be snagged there, but he bounced and plummeted into the water. The current immediately began to sweep him downstream toward the same bridge pillars on which his son had broken his back. Rather than sink underwater, as one might expect of someone trying to drown himself, Niko’s survival instinct took over, because he kept his head above water and shouted something unintelligible.
I ran alongside the canal and felt instantly winded. I didn’t have my strength back. My legs felt like chopsticks and my chest heaved. But I ran anyway. Niko was halfway to the bridge. I feared he might strike the pillars just as his son had done. Two men sat atop the bridge, fishing. I shouted to them and pointed to Niko’s bobbing head, but they didn’t seem to hear me or understand because they did not look up. Niko passed under the bridge, apparently missing the pillars, thank God.
I ran past the bridge but there was no sign of him. Had he gotten caught on something beneath the bridge? Had he managed to find a handhold? I scanned downstream and for a split second I thought I saw something: a flash of brown, like a head rising to the surface. Then it was gone.
I slipped over the wall, ran a few out-of-control steps down the steep embankment, and dove into the raging water. I did not think about it. If I had, I’d have been too afraid. I just did it.
The water was cool but not cold. The force of the current, however, was astounding. It seized me like an angry beast and buffeted me this way and that. I swallowed water, spat, and finally managed to get my bearings. I looked around wildly and saw nothing but surging water, eddies, little whitecaps where the wind brushed the water into a frenzy, and spots where the water bubbled up as if flowing over unseen obstacles. I struggled to avoid those spots. Seeing nothing above the water, I dove. The water was murky and my range of vision was limited to two or three feet. I came up for breath and dove again and again. My limbs were growing weak. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up. I dove yet again – and saw something. A flash of yellow, like Niko’s shirt. I thrust myself in that direction, saw an arm tumble past my face, and seized it. I had him!
I surfaced, gasping for breath, holding onto that arm like an eagle to its chick. Niko was unconscious. I maneuvered his body so that I circled my wounded arm around his upper torso and his head was out of the water. Then, using my good arm, I began to fight my way toward the embankment, swimming on my side.
With Niko’s weight partly resting on me, I could hardly swim. I swallowed more water. My injured arm ached and felt as weak as wet spaghetti. I was close to the embankment, so close, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. With Niko’s weight atop me, I was no longer strong enough to hold my head above water. I sank beneath the surface.
I’ll rest for a second, I told myself. I’ll rest, then continue. My lungs burned as I held my breath. I felt myself sinking, and Niko along with me. The need to breathe was overwhelming. As soon as I did so – as soon as I opened my mouth and let the water in – I’d be history. It was time to either resume the struggle or die.
Except I couldn’t. I had nothing left. I was too feeble. We sank, and my eyes closed as the sunlight above faded. I’m not going to make it, I realized. My body would be found in this canal, or maybe the canal would carry me out to sea, to be eaten by fish. Safaa and Hajar would never know what happened to me.
Hajar. I can’t do this to Hajar. She needs me! The thought was rocket fuel in my veins. It was a shot of adrenaline to the heart. My eyes flew open. I felt my feet touch the bottom of the canal. I still had a hand on Niko’s arm. With every last fiber of strength I possessed, I pushed off the bottom, then kicked my legs and swam with one arm, towing Niko behind me, fighting my way toward the surface, battling to survive. The water above me grew lighter, and we broke the surface, me and my motionless burden.
A strong hand seized my arm. The fishermen. The two fishermen from the bridge. They’d made a human chain, one holding onto a tree that grew on the bank. With his free hand, the second man pulled me onto the bank. I in turn dragged Niko behind me.
With what must have been a tremendous effort, the fishermen hauled me and Niko up the slope. About halfway up I managed to get onto my knees. The two men helped me and Niko up and over the wall. I lay on my back sucking in air and coughing, my stomach muscles seizing and cramping. The fishermen fussed over Niko but didn’t seem to know what to do. I crawled to his unconscious form. He wasn’t breathing.
I hunched over him and began CPR. CPR training is not a prerequisite for a P.I.’s license, but I’d chosen to take the course anyway. I positioned my hands at the center of Niko’s chest and pumped hard, twice per second. I performed thirty compressions, then lifted Niko’s mouth, covered it with mine and blew. Nothing. I went through the cycle again, and then again. My arms trembled and I felt like I might pass out.
“Basta, amigo,” one of the fisherman said, touching a hand to my arm. “Se ha ido. Está muerto.” Enough. He’s dead.
I shrugged the arm off and, raising my fist high in the air, slammed it onto Niko’s chest. I bent low and shouted in his ear: “Niko! You promised to help me! Your son needs you! Niko!” I went through another cycle of compressions, then breathed into Niko’s mouth – and the muscular young Panamanian gasped and rolled onto his side, retching. His entire body convulsed and he vomited a huge amount of canal water. The two fishermen cheered, crying “Bravo!” and “Gracias a Dios!”
I fell back and lay on the sidewalk, gasping for breath. Niko lay moaning for some time, sucking in air. Finally I sat up and pulled Niko to a sitting position. He looked around, red-eyed and slack jawed, and said, “Que pasó? What happen?”
I became enraged. I punched him in the shoulder and shouted, “Why did you do that? What’s the matter with you?”
His eyes moved left and right as if searching for an answer. Finally he said, “I am ashamed.”
As if that was an answer. I punched him again. “Don’t do that again!”
“Okay,” he replied meekly.
“I mean it. Don’t ever do that again! Your son needs you.”
“Don’t call me Flaco! I told you my name is Zaid.”
“Okay señor Zayn.”
I waved a hand in exasperation. It was then that I noticed my wedding ring was gone. The platinum band I wore on my right hand. It must have slipped off in the canal. I rested my face on one hand, feeling utterly discouraged. Safaa would never forgive me. I had a sudden thought and checked my right front pocket – my wallet was still there, alhamdulillah.
A few minutes later, when Niko was somewhat recovered, the fishermen bade us goodbye and returned to their pastime or vocation. Niko and I began the long trudge back to the car, dripping water as we walked. I was bone-weary and ready to drop.
“What was that you said before you jumped in?” I asked, mostly to distract myself from my own sour thoughts. “Something about the moon.”
Niko shot me an embarrassed look. “A poem of Carlos Francisco Changmarín, one of our Panamanian poets. The moon fell in the river. The river led her to the sea. At sea, some sailors wanted to devour her.”
I understood. His son was the moon, fallen from its lofty position to become a victim. Or maybe the moon was Niko himself.
At some point in the last half hour, clouds had gathered overhead. An ear-splitting peal of thunder came out of nowhere, making me flinch. I’d never heard anything like it. It sounded like the sky tearing in two, or like a bomb going off. Lightning flashed, and another roar of thunder crashed over the city. Then the sky opened up, and water fell not in drops, but in sheets. The rain wasn’t cold, but was so heavy I could hardly see five feet ahead. I felt a strange sensation rising in my chest, and I began to laugh. It was all just too much, too ridiculous.
My companion must have seen some aspect of insanity in my laugh, because he touched my shoulder in concern. “Is only rain, amigo,” he assured me. “Is normal in Panama.”
His touched snapped me out of my little manic spell, and I recovered my senses. “Didn’t you say Emanuel is your eldest?” I asked as we limped along in the downpour.
“Yes. I have two girls.”
“And their mother?”
“My wife Teresa. A princess.”
“They need you Niko. You may think you have failed, but I am sure they love you. Don’t ever do something like this again, okay?”
“Okay Fla – I mean señor Zayn.”
“You don’t have to call me señor.”
When we finally made it back – the station wagon was gone. It had been stolen.
I stood there incredulous, staring at the spot where the vehicle had been. My stomach felt full of lead. All my surveillance equipment was gone, over ten thousand dollars worth – all the equipment I’d inherited from Lonnie Brown. Also my change of clothing, my phone, and the medication the pharmacy had given me. Oh, and Hajar’s stuffed animal. The spotted deer.
I groaned in dismay and sat heavily on the sidewalk, my back against the canal wall, the rain pouring down on my head. Every inch of my body and clothing was waterlogged. At least I still had my reserve money, my passport and my cards, and the photograph of Anna Anwar, as they were all either in my wallet or tucked into the secret pockets in my pants. Though of course they were soaked.
Niko cursed, then began to apologize. I waved him off. I didn’t want to hear anything more from the crazy lunatic. As if I didn’t have enough trouble already. I closed my eyes and breathed, clutching my left arm to my chest. The humidity in Panama was stifling, my arm ached as if fire ran through the veins, and I was so tired I couldn’t have defended myself against one of the stray kittens I saw everywhere in this neighborhood.
“Mister Zayn. Why you have to get to Colon?”
I replied without opening my eyes. “I have to find a missing girl.”
“Ay Dios.” Niko patted my shoulder. “I help you mister Zayn. You no worry.”
I heard him stand and walk away. I felt unable to move. I think I actually fell asleep, sitting there in the downpour.
“Come on Zayn!” I opened my eyes to see that Niko had found a taxi. He helped me up. The taxi driver peered at us suspiciously. We must have looked a mess. A rapid conversation ensued between Niko and the driver. I couldn’t follow it.
“He say ten dollars to Albrook, because we going to mess his taxi.”
I nodded wearily.
“Pago anticipa’o,” the driver demanded. I understood this. He wanted to be paid in advance. I took out my wallet and handed the driver a soggy bill. He took it reluctantly, but he took it.
Ten minutes later we pulled in front of a huge red, blue and yellow building that looked like a cross between a circus and an airplane hangar, surrounded by palm trees. Inside the Albrook Mall was just as colorful. At one end a carousel spun to the sound of children’s laughter while life-sized sculptures of giraffes, a t-rex, and other animals were interspersed throughout the mall. Life-sized flamingos hung from wires overhead. I purchased a new set of clothes and a new backpack, then Niko led me to a laundromat. I changed into the dry clothes, transferred the photo of Anna to my pocket, and tossed everything else into a dryer: the wet clothes, along with my passport and the two thousand dollars in soggy currency in my inner pockets, and my shoes. Niko seemed to be okay in his wet clothes. I supposed in a tropical country one became used to being rained on.
My mind wanted to dwell on the things I’d lost: the equipment, phone, computer, ring, doll… “Trust in Allah and He will feed you as he feeds the birds,” my subconscious whispered. “Yes,” my stubborn heart replied yet again, “but I’m not a bird, and I live in this world.” If I could only tame that obdurate heart. If I could only believe with every atom of my soul.
To distract myself I asked Niko to tell me about himself and his family.
He’d always loved poetry, he said, even as a child, and had been mocked for it. He fought every day, until he became a skilled enough fighter to silence the critics. He quit school at the age of eleven and worked on fishing boats to help support his mother. After his mother was killed and he was sent to Panama, he met Teresa, who convinced him to return to school. He fathered Emanuel at the age of fifteen, and in spite of that managed to put himself through university, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Latin American literature. In addition to Emanuel he had two daughters, Analisa and India. He spoke of his beautiful wife Teresa, who was literally a princess of the Ngöbe-Bugle tribe, and how the tribal members had threatened him for stealing her away. Niko had planned to get a job teaching school, but then Emanuel had the accident, and his life went off the rails.
When the clothes were done I changed back into the jeans with the secret pockets. We found a pharmacy and refilled my prescriptions, then made our way to the food court. I gave Niko some money and he came back with heaping plates of white rice, lentils, patacones (fried plantain coins), and a grilled white fish he called corvina, along with a cup of passionfruit juice to wash it down. At the sight and smell of the food, my stomach started up with a rumble, like a battle tank ready to go. I wasn’t sure my body was ready for so much solid food, but if I’d tried to hold back I think my stomach would have staged a revolution. I ate it all and it was delicious, and I followed it with my medications.
Niko waved his fork at me and took a lecturing tone. “Colon is dangerous city, even in the daytime. Very poor, and many gangs.”
I snapped my fingers. I’d been meaning to buy a knife upon my arrival in Panama, and Niko’s warning was a good reason to do so. We found a smoke shop that, along with Cuban cigars, tobacco, bong pipes and incense, also sold knives. I bought two identical knives. They were small, innocent looking folders with orange handles and blades sharp enough to slice through an entire watermelon in one swing. I clipped one to my right front pocket, and the other to my left. I suddenly felt more at ease than I had been since I’d arrived. Having a knife on me was like wearing shoes, or combing my hair before going out. It was a part of me.
We made our way outside the mall, where dozens of buses pulled into diagonal parking slots. The rain had stopped, and the air sparkled as if scrubbed with a brush. From Albrook the buses headed out to destinations all over Panama, and even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Niko led me to the Colon bus, which, he explained, cost one twenty five and would take ninety minutes.
“I don’t understand. It’s one hundred twenty five dollars? Why so much?”
Niko goggled and made a circular motion with his finger beside his head. “You gringos so crazy! No, is one dollar twenty five cents.”
“Oh. Wow. Well Niko, thanks for your help, such as it was. And I’m sorry about your friend’s car.” I extended my hand for a handshake. “How much do I owe you?”
Niko frowned. “No way Zayn. I go with you.”
I stared at him. “Why would you want to go with me?”
The muscular Panamanian shook his head sadly, as if I had wounded him. Then he took my shoulders in his hands and, gazing at me with his spine erect and shoulders back, recited:
“Lo primero es la lealtad
con ella se puede ir
hasta el punto de morir
en bien de la humanidad.”
I felt extremely uncomfortable, standing there with this over-emotional Panamanian staring me in the eyes, but I had to ask: “What does that mean?”
“What you think Zayn? Carlos Francisco Changmarín say that the first thing is loyalty, and with it one can go to the point of death in service of humanity. You save my life man! My children have a father because of you. My Teresa have a husband because of you.” He seized my neck with both hands and pulled me to him, embracing me, then pulled back and gazed at me defiantly, though his lower lip trembled as though he might burst into tears. “I say from the beginning that I help you. Now I know you are looking for missing girl. You are a hero, Zayn. You are like a man from the novelas, saving lives everywhere you go. I swear that I will not leave you until you find this girl, no matter what, even to the point of death!”
I didn’t know whether to be grateful or dismayed. On the one hand, having a local guide would be invaluable. On the other, he was a melodramatic, suicidal basket case. Ah well. We plan, and Allah plans, and Allah is the best of planners. Niko had come into my life for a reason, and I would trust that reason, whatever it might be.
“Of course,” I said. “I am honored.” We boarded the bus. It was air conditioned and – blessedly – the driver left the radio off. Normally I’m a very curious traveler and love to look out the window at a new and exotic landscape. But the accumulated exhaustion of the last few days hit me like a tidal wave of cotton. Between that and the pain medication, which had started to kick in, I was asleep before we made it to the highway.
* * *
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.
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
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
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.
Gravedigger: A Short Story
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.
She never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.
Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?
And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.
She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.
Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.
Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.
She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray. Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.
Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.
Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.
One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.
She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.
She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.
Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.
A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.
Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”
“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.
“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”
Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.
She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.
On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.
For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.
This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.
On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.
The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.
Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.
* * *
She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.
The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.
Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.
The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.
As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.
They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.
“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.
Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.
“I’ve said it all.”
“So you two are good?”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“You’ve changed since you started here.”
“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”
“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”
She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”
Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”
“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.
She said nothing.
“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”
“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”
“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”
“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”
It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”
“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”
“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”
Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”
“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.
She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”
Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.
* * *
“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”
Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.
Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.
Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.
She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.
What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.
Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.
The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.
Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”
* * *
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