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.
My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.
“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”
In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.
It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.
Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.
When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.
Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone
In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.
The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah as well.
The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.
We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15
On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.
Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.
وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22
But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?
The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.
It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.
You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.
There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.
Being Alone Has Its Own Perks
It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.
Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.
Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.
When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.
Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”
All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.
We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone
The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.
You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji
As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations. We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.
Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion. Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone. There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.
No, it’s not ikhtilaf
The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat. The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.
It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined, free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically, the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.
The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds. We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?
Show Your Work
We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules. In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.
Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.
You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2
Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them? Why or why not?
Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts? What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.
In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor. There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.
The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.
As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent. Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.
People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble. Fisabilillah.
Dawa is the new Jihad
Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past. Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.
Indeed dawah is a broad category. For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah. Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.
No Standards or Accountability
Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.
The Shift to Meaninglessness
Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.
Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it. It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.
- The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
- In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.
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