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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 13 – The First Thing is Loyalty

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.

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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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
Panama, Panama

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.”

“What happened?”

“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.

* * *

Panama city, Panama

Panama city, 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.

Old station wagon

“He pulled up in a beat-up old station wagon…”

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?”

“It’s loud.”

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.

“Okay Flaco.”

“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.

Underwater

“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.”

“Okay Flaco.”

“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.

* * *

Next: Chapter 14: Panama, a Dream of Love

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.

Wael Abdelgawad's latest novel is Pieces of a Dream. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com.Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Um Ibrahim

    August 29, 2017 at 2:35 AM

    The last two sentences of this paragraph hit me hard. Really hard. So true. Isn’t this what tawakkul boils down to? Love those sentences.

    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.

  2. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    August 30, 2017 at 1:53 AM

    Just so you guys know, I have a 10 comments requirement before I post the next chapter.

    • Avatar

      Bint A

      August 31, 2017 at 12:00 AM

      Interesting stipulation :)

      I thought i’d take a break from commenting unless I had a substantial thought to offer, but I guess this changes the dynamic a bit

      I have a question: How long does it take you to write the first draft of a chapter of this length?

      Secondly I was mulling over the names of Safaa and Hajar and how they are interlinked. Since Safaa is the mountain that Hajar climbed atop of, will it be that Hajar becomes the reason to conquer (Mt.) Safaa and become the means of her reunion to Zaid?
      What do you think? Have you thought this far? ;)

      Lastly, the chapter was a good read. I think the suspense is building so thats prob why the comments have decreased a bit. We’re just waiting to know what happens next so we can let you know our thoughts if it was epic or not :D

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        August 31, 2017 at 1:03 AM

        Bint A, I was only half joking about the comments requirement, but thank you for chiming in! I just like to know that people are actually reading it.

        The time it takes to write a chapter mostly depends on the amount of research required, and whether I already have the storyline in my head. I research everything for authenticity. For this chapter I contacted someone familiar with immigration procedure to find out what would happen to a very sick person who lands in a country on a plane. I had to research the Rio Curundu, but aside from that Panama City required no research (I’ve lived there). So I was able to crank out this chapter in about three days.

        Other chapters take longer. Chapter 14 required a LOT of research because it’s set in Colon and I’ve never been there. I pored over maps, satellite images, photos and travel blogs, and interviewed a Panamanian newsman who grew up there.

        Now I’m working on chapter 15 and making slow progress. I just scrapped the whole thing and started over because what I wrote did not feel authentic.

        I did not ponder the Safaa/Hajar connection that deeply. But I like your observation.

    • Avatar

      Layyinah

      September 12, 2017 at 11:20 AM

      You had me worried with your comment requirements. :-). I am also an avid fan. I love historical fiction and always recommend your writings to others. Keep them coming. May Allah bless you with good in this life and the next.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        September 12, 2017 at 12:38 PM

        Thank you Layyinah, ameen to your dua’ and for you as well.

  3. Avatar

    Walid

    August 31, 2017 at 7:55 AM

    Its my first time commenting on your work and I’d like to let you know that I am a huge fan. I really loved reading your historical novel about Hasan and the Lebanese Civil War… It really gave an important dimension and creative aspect to historical fiction. If our youth were to read it they would never say history was boring again! Moreover it provided really good role models.
    In relation to this story I found some of the scenes a little confronting (drug scenes and stripper club) nonetheless it is a reality and hopefully people can understand just how bad it is from reading your novel.
    In relation to this chapter I really really enjoyed the details about life in Panama and the warmth of its people… Really great work.. Jazakum Allah Khair an.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      August 31, 2017 at 3:21 PM

      Walid, welcome to a long-time reader but first time commenter! Thanks for your comments. I look forward to publishign Hassan’s Tale as a paperback novel, probably next year Insha’Allah.

      I know what you mean about this story. Actually I had second thoughts about the strip club scene and I might delete it. I’m not sure it is necessary to the story.

      I lived in Panama for three years and enjoyed my time there. Costa Rica, the neighboring country, is even more beautiful and friendly.

      • Avatar

        Khalida

        November 17, 2017 at 7:48 PM

        As-salaamu ‘alaikum Br. Wael:

        I really liked the moment in the hospital where Zaid is surprised his belongings weren’t stolen and then makes that very nice comment. My absolute favorite scene is when Niko says that poem about loyalty and sounds all melodramatic about why he must go on with Zaid. It doesn’t sound too realistic in my world, but I like it because I wish more people like that actually did exist.

        A few constructive critiques:
        – The scene in one of the previous chapters when Zaid enters the club actually surprised me. Before entering, Zaid mentioned that he will lower his gaze, but it didn’t appear as though he was doing that. I know he has to be vigilant of his surroundings, but maybe you could have him avoiding the stages?
        – The scene in this chapter where Zaid is swimming seemed a little unclear to me. I kept wondering about Zaid’s arm and how it’s possible that he could fall in there as if he’s not experiencing much pain and stinging from the very beginning. It was also a little difficult for me to imagine how the river/sea looks, exactly where the pillar is located, and how tall/huge the pillar is. Other than that, the scene was well-written, maa shaa Allah.

        And I am so scared for Zaid and Niko!!

  4. Avatar

    aishat

    August 31, 2017 at 2:40 PM

    Thanks for the chapter, you write so well it seems one is witnessing it. Maasha Allah

  5. Avatar

    Avid Reader

    September 1, 2017 at 2:30 AM

    My favorite line in this episode:

    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.

  6. Avatar

    Sumaiyah

    September 1, 2017 at 8:16 AM

    Jazakallakhair for your writing! Loved the bit about tawakkul – was a reminder to me too alhamdulillah.

  7. Avatar

    Ahmed

    September 5, 2017 at 1:10 PM

    Assalaalamalykum wr wb,
    Another longtime reader, first time commenter. Love your stories, parts inspire and parts just make us more inquisitive as to where is the story going. We need more of Muslim fiction writers like you who use their talent to subtly benefit the community. Like the way you touch some of the key issues facing the community in your stories. Please keep up the good work.

    Also, since there seems to be no new chapter posted this week I thought of coming up with a conspiracy theory. Could Niko be one of Jose Cruz’s men secretly shadowing Zaid? If yes then why? Is he protecting him or trying to spy on him?

    Waiting for the rest of the chapters to be posted to see where this story goes to.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 5, 2017 at 1:12 PM

      Ahmed, wa alaykum as-salam, thank you for your comment. I appreciate your thoughts. This week’s chapter has just been posted, by the way.

  8. Avatar

    Humam

    September 7, 2017 at 6:48 PM

    ASA akhi,

    Your story has gotten me interested in reading non fiction again. I admire how you weave reality and spirituality to make Islam real to the reader.

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but I wanted to bring to your attention a potential error. You had written that Zaid’s medication was stolen with the vehicle, but then a few paragraphs later you wrote tjat he’s taking it with his meal and passion fruit juice.

    Thanks again for such a long engaging story.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 8, 2017 at 1:14 AM

      Human, wa alaykum as-salam. I’m so glad that my story has rekindled your interest in fiction. I do believe that fiction has a way of opening our eyes to different human experiences, and showing us from inside what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

      I do sometimes make errors, and I always appreciate it when my readers point them out, but in this case I plead not guilty. Quoting from the story:

      “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.”

  9. Avatar

    Humam

    September 8, 2017 at 2:27 AM

    My mistake, habibi. Thank you for clarifying.

    May Allah reward your hard work in this life and the next.

  10. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 11, 2017 at 12:46 PM

    Yes me too!! I comment on every chapter but it seems kind non-sense but it’s fine right Brother Wael?

    I loved Hassan’s part and really want charlie to go on with his life and find a wife just like his brother. I was recently thinking about that connection and I was going to tell you but I went on a trip, that’s why my comment is a little late, usually I’m waiting for Tuesday to come up. This time I saved up chapters to read after my vacation. It’s totally wroth it and awesome.

    I knew it but you never answered me back it’s fine though. I connected the two your story it connected to your personal life. You were a dispatcher and etc, I read it in the cover page after the cover of Pieces of a Dream. It had a Introduction about you.

    * In fact just a something I’ve told people about you stories and that you’ve recently published Pieces of a Dream!! Even recommended it to my English teacher.

    Sincerly,

    Interested Reader.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 11, 2017 at 2:06 PM

      The more comments the better! Thank you. And thanks for recommending Pieces of a Dream, I appreciate it.

  11. Avatar

    Ahmed Rashed

    September 12, 2017 at 11:57 AM

    Assalaamu alaikum, Wael.

    I am another long-time reader but first time commenter. Forgive me for commenting two weeks after this episode was posted, but I was going back on forth on whether to offer this feedback. After I read your thoughts on the strip-club scene, I decided to go ahead and offer you my two cents. Please understand my intention is constructive criticism.

    The river-jumping scene seemed contrived. My suspension of disbelief was broken and it took me a bit to get back into the story. Your part 14 and 15 made it up for me, but to have Niko randomly jump into the river and be rescued by Zaid just didn’t work for me. While I understand that certain plot-points have to be hit: show that Niko is not quite stable, explain why Niko pledges a life-debt to Zaid, have Zaid lose his gear, and the car is stolen. . . however, I think you can write an alternative way to have that happen without risking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Maybe they get car-jacked. Maybe they get caught in a gang cross-fire. I don’t know. . . maybe just have Niko go on his mad rant as he walks away (no jumping) and Zaid talks him down but when they return they find the car stolen.

    Love your writing and cannot wait for more!

    May peace be with you,
    Ahmed

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 12, 2017 at 12:42 PM

      No problem brother Ahmed. I sometimes get comments years after the publication date. I love getting intelligent criticism, especially from a fellow author like yourself. So I really appreciate your thoughts on the river jumping scene. I’m not prepared to remove that scene altogether, but I’ll see if I can make some changes to make it more believable, perhaps by giving Niko a history of suicide attempts (maybe Zaid notices some old scars on his wrists where he cut himself) and playing up the self-destructive aspect of his character a bit more.

    • Avatar

      Sithara

      September 4, 2019 at 4:55 PM

      As Salamu Alaikum,

      I am a first time commenter as well! (I tried to post a very long comment about Ouroboros, but I don’t think it was accepted by MuslimMatters.org).

      Great work! I actually prefer Zaid’s character to Hussain, because Hussain seems to me to be too much of a superhero. But Zaid seems to me to be a very real, flawed character. He gets misled by bad advice, he leaps before he thinks, and he even succumbs to peer pressure…

      Apologies for posting this comment 2 years after this chapter was published, but you have mentioned that you were interested in constructive criticism, so here goes! (Hopefully it will help when you write the novel?)

      Like Ahmed, I did find this chapter unrealistic. In addition to what he stated, here is my reason why:

      Zaid’s arm is described as badly infected, all the way to the bone. The doctor mentions that Zaid will eventually recover 80% strength and mobility, but right now, his arm is almost certainly 100% immobile. On top of that, its likely that with such a serious infection, the doctor’s did not even remove all the infectious/necrotic material the first time around, but will need multiple surgeries to do so. Underneath the dressings, the surgeon may not even have closed the wound – rather, he may have packed it with dressings but left it raw. He may even have a wound vac applied to his arm: which helps draw out fluids and promotes healing. He would also be on iv antibiotics and iv painkillers.

      Yes, he could leave against medical advice at this point (some people do!). If he did, the physician, in addition to giving him a stern warning, antibiotics and pain killers, would also have to give him careful instruction on wound care, including a referral to a wound care center, to have the dressings and wound vac reviewed/changed at a minimum a couple times a week.

      He would not get very far. I hope he would not be crazy enough to dive into a river with sewage floating in it in such a condition. If he did, he would be as crazy as Niko. His affected arm would be totally useless – it certainly would not be able to support the dead weight of a full grown drowning man. An open wound would get infected very quickly, and, if Zaid did not end up dead, he would almost certainly be right back in the ICU.

      I am not an expert in this area, but, since you have mentioned that you are very interested in getting details accurately, I recommending interviewing a vascular surgeon, or an orthopedic surgeon, or a nurse who specializes in wound care.

      My other point is that I found Niko – the way his character is presented, as well as Zaid’s response to him, a bit stereotypical. He comes across as the typical hot-blooded, maniacal, Latin American character – who is baffling and exasperating to Americans. I do think a bit more nuance could be added, or some of the over-the top descriptions could be taken out. (By the way, I loved the character of Inspector Katrina Sanchez!)

  12. Avatar

    Khalida

    November 17, 2017 at 7:52 PM

    As-salaamu ‘alaikum Br. Wael:

    I really liked the moment in the hospital where Zaid is surprised his belongings weren’t stolen and then makes that very nice comment. My absolute favorite scene is when Niko says that poem about loyalty and sounds all melodramatic about why he must go on with Zaid. It doesn’t sound too realistic in my world, but I like it because I wish more people like that actually did exist.

    A few constructive critiques:
    – The scene in one of the previous chapters when Zaid enters the club actually surprised me. Before entering, Zaid mentioned that he will lower his gaze, but it didn’t appear as though he was doing that. I know he has to be vigilant of his surroundings, but maybe you could have him avoiding the stages?
    – The scene in this chapter where Zaid is swimming seemed a little unclear to me. I kept wondering about Zaid’s arm and how it’s possible that he could fall in there as if he’s not experiencing much pain/stinging from the very beginning. It was also a little difficult for me to imagine how the river/sea looks, exactly where the pillar is located, and how tall/huge the pillar is. Other than that, the scene was well-written, maa shaa Allah.

    And I am so scared for Zaid and Niko!!

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#Culture

The Creation Of The Stereotypical Arab

Omar Sayadi

Published

on

stereotype Arabs
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Robert Entman, professor of media and public affairs, published an excellent study in  1993 in which he explained the inner workings of framing. Framing is a well-known concept within communication sciences and the study of mass communication, and concerns according to Entman both selection and promotion. He describes it as:

“The selection of some aspects of a perceived reality to make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. (Entman 1993)

A typical frame consists therefore of four qualities. It selects a specific problem by considering and checking the related actors, with which resources they act and observed from their own cultural framework. Then, the greater forces behind the problem are identified, i.e. the broader context. Subsequently, ethical questions are raised that interpret and evaluate the effects and actions of what is taking place. Eventually, solutions and treatments are offered.

Entman illustrates this by giving the example of the Cold War. According to him, American media made during that time frame extensive use of the so-called “Cold War frame”. This frame selected for example the Vietnamese Civil War as a specific problem. It then identified the actors and greater forces behind that war, usually Communist rebels supported by the Soviet-Union and China. Subsequently, these media ethically appraised the whole situation, interpreting the war as instances of severe Atheist agression. This frame could then eventually lead to the promotion of specific solutions being presented to the common man, among which support of the United Stated to the opponents of Communism, and military intervention.

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The caption of the Looney Tunes show Ali-Baba Bound reads: “Ali Baba, the mad dog of the desert.”

Framing is a means used by mass media to transmit specific messages to the audience. This is accomplished by using the classic transmission model, i.e. the sender who sends a message to the receiver through a channel/medium. However, Entman adds culture as an additional element for the transmission of a frame. Professor mass communication, writer and expert on racial and ethnical stereotypes in the media, Jack Shaheen, expands on this theory. After all, the framing phenomenon can not be completely understood when detached from the social and cultural context in which the message is transmitted to the audience. The era of Communism and the “Cold War frame” may be over, traditional mass media keep using frames to promote specific images among their audience.

Images that would certainly have a hard time to take root where it not for it adaption to existing and established cultural convictions. Convictions that were built up and developed through decades-long illustrations and representations within cultural productions, most notably in the movie industry.

Hollywood

Shaheen did some extensive research on the cultural depiction of Arabs in the Hollywood society. The results of his observations were brought together in the documentary Reel Bad Arabs (2006), one I’d recommend everyone interested in this subject. “Arabs are the most malign group in the history of Hollywood. They’re portrayed basically as sub-humans,” says Jack Shaheen to open his argument. “These images have been with us for more than a century.”

During no less than thirty years he watched thousands of movies, from the oldest ones to modern blockbusters, to observe and analyse the depiction of Arabs en Muslims in Western cinema. He subsequently discerns a dangerous and systematic pattern of hateful and racist stereotypes that strip a whole people of its humanity and depicts them as the embodiment of evil, fanaticism, and ignorance. According to Shaheen, this is an established fact from which filmmakers rarely deviate.

The land of the Arabs! An image Hollywood eagerly adopted from long-lost British and French explorers and writers that depicted the Arabs based on their own biased imagination of the Orient, the strange and exotic land that seemingly emanated stories like “One Thousand and One Nights”. The land with its eternal deserts, its threatening roughness, and ominous music. The desolate wilderness littered with palaces of rich and decadent pashas and their harem. The mysterious melodies that guide the movements of voluptuous belly dancers and snake charmers, watched by the all-seeing eyes of the scimitar wearing guards in movies like Invitation to the Dance from 1956.

Even today, such stereotypes are being used, even in children’s movies. Disney’s Alladin (1992) has been watched by millions of children all over the world but recycles nearly every stereotype that had been already used by the silent black-and-white Hollywood past to depict the so-called Arabland. A rough, unfriendly desert landscape where “they cut off your ear when they don’t like your face”, as stated in the opening song of the movie.

In the Looney Tunes animated cartoon Ali-Baba Bound (1940), we see the fairy tale character depicted as a cunning, insidiously grinning Arab with a beard, big nose and evil eye-brows who calls his companions by literally barking at them like a dog. The caption of the show reads: “Ali Baba, the mad dog of the desert.

Not only children, but adults as well see Arabs depicted in movies as hot-headed and impulsive simpletons who deliver some cheap and funny laughs. Take for example the India Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in which Indiana ends up face-to-face with a threatening and completely random armed Arab. The man tries to impress the American hero with his evil smile and some sword tricks, to which Indiana simply shoots him dead and runs off to continue his adventure.

The same Arab that prefers dogs over women. Indeed, an Arab states in The Happy Hooker goes to Washington from 1977 that “dogs are better than sheep. They’re cleaner, I know, I’ve tried dogs.” And if it isn’t dogs or sheep (think of the popular nickname “goatf*#ker” used by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to publicly denote Moroccans), than it is blond, American women.

The stereotype of the obtrusive Arab obsessed with white women appears so many times that it becomes ridiculous.Click To Tweet
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Two Lebanese terrorists from “The Delta Force” (Cannon Film) – 1986

 

In the Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983), Kim Bassinger is being undressed by a filthy  Arab businessman to be sold, with an unintelligible gurgling and crackling (Hollywood Arabic), to a bunch of miserable Bedouins. Arabs are being depicted as primitive and aggressive desert dwellers obsessed with American women as a welcome change to their usual covered and invisible womenfolk hidden in their palaces.

Those Arabs, on the other hand, that do effectively have access to modern society, technology and progress are being imagined as a faceless nuisance to Western society or death and destruction craving terrorists anxious to ruin the West.

Two businessmen in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) jokingly state that Arabs “don’t go anywhere without their animals.” Note that they were talking about a recent trip by plane!

How was London?” the main character of the movie Chapter Two (1979) is being asked. “Full of Arabs,” he replies. Movies that are in no way related to Arabs or Muslims and aren’t connected to the Middle-East in any way still can’t resist to the urge of making racist and humiliating comments on screen.

Back To The Future

Even in the hugely popular Back to the Future from 1985, the above statement is sadly the case. The movie is a plain, American Sci-Fi picture for teenagers in which stereotypes about Arabs are nevertheless again introduced. Emmett Brown, scientist and the inventor of the time-traveling car is minding his own business when he suddenly gets shot at, without any motive or reason, by a bunch of Libyan terrorists. They shoot him and then focus on the main character Marty McFly. The shooter curses violently when his weapon jams and fails to kill McFly. When he finally resolves the issue with his machine gun, their car breaks down so they again fail in an almost cartoonish way to continue.

The reason for this sudden and random occurrence is completely unknown, and all throughout the rest of the story no reference is made to it. But the fact remains established, a group of inept Arabs killed the beloved professor.

Foreign Policy

Just like the above-mentioned Cold War frame, this frame on Arabs and Muslims is a perfectly suited tool of the mass media and the political establishment to help shape American foreign policy in the Middle-East and North Africa in the minds of the American citizens. Four different events caused Hollywood to radically increase its use of Arab and Muslim stereotypes. Before anything else, the creation and establishment of Israel in 1948 en the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars resulted in a clear positioning of the United States and Hollywood on the side of their Israeli ally. The Arab embargo that hit Europe and the USA during the 1970’s and the Iranian Revolution further contributed to the role of Arabs as thugs and greedy businessmen. The notorious War on Terror could count as the fourth reason for the establishment and representation of the Arab and Muslim as enemy of progress and freedom.

Take for example the plans of a rich Arab oil sheikh to buy his way up through the United States, conquering it in the process. In the movie Network from 1976, it’s insinuated that a group of Arab businessmen threat to almost run over the Unites States financially by buying up several companies and building plots. The character of Howard Beal than calls live on television to rise against these Arabs, that are planning to buy his TV network. A memorable and frightening scene than follows in which the audience can see a mob of angry citizens take to the streets to express their rage, an image of social hatred against a common enemy, the Arab.

The Ultimate Demon

If it’s not an evil, perverse, and decadent Arab businessman, the Arab gets the role of dangerous and hostile terrorist assigned. Reserved for Russians and Cubans during the days of the Cold War, Palestinians would later figure as the antagonists of the hero in American action movies. The terrorist antagonist stripped from any bit of motive and humanity, serving as fleshly embodiment of the ultimate evil.

This image is already used as early as 1960 in the movie Exodus, where the Palestinians are depicted as invisible enemies hiding in the desert who perform appalling acts against the innocent Jewish colonists because of their radical antisemitism. It’s no wonder that this movie was considered a major promotion for Zionist thought and a support for the Israeli cause.

Theologian and writer Roland Boer writes in his 2009 work on Biblical themes that the depiction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in American cinema still influences American citizens to this day with regard to their opinion on the conflict.

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Palestinian terrorists in “True Lies” – 1994

Over a decade later, we find the same old story in the movie Black Sunday (1977). A Palestinian female terrorist wished to detonate a blimp over a typical American sports stadium during the Super Bowl, with about 80.000 ordinary Americans present. The caption of the movie on its release poster reads: “It could be tomorrow!” Again, a decade later, Arnold Schwarzenegger faces a group of Palestinian terrorists that wishes to destroy American cities with nuclear missiles in True Lies from 1994. Again and again, Arabs and Muslims are being identified with hatred, terror and the ultimate failure of their plans due to the American action hero.

An image that, not unimportantly, was fed extensively by two Israeli producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who created The Cannon Group company. For over twenty years, The Cannon Group produced at least thirty movies in which everything Arab is being mocked and demonized. Yes, the political relationship between the USA and Israel does indeed trickle in the world of cinema. What could be a more effective weapon than a seemingly unending source of full-length movies in which enmity and distrust against a certain people is promoted? A cultural alliance to dismiss these Arabs, “sand n#^*rs”, “goat f*^#rs” and “ragheads”, fed by a billion dollar business.

The most striking example of this would be the movie Rules of Engagement from 2000. The film leads the audience to Yemen, where a mob of dusty Yemenis are protesting loudly in front of the American embassy. American marines are being asked to evacuate the present staff, when they suddenly open fire and mow down every single protester, including women and children. As a result of this event, an investigation is started to examine the decision of the marines to open fire. Towards the end of the movie, however, the audience is revealed a whole other story than initially portrayed. Plot twist, the Arab protesters were armed themselves and they opened fire on the American soldiers.

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“Rules of Engagement” (Paramount Pictures) – 2000

Men and woman wildly brandishing guns and even a little girl that aims her pistol on an American soldier. A little, Arab girl that wasn’t nearly as innocent as she looked. A whole bunch of Arabs that weren’t as innocent as initially thought. They deserved to die! It was their own fault they attacked the mighty American army of the free! The marines had the right to kill them, to protect themselves! Sure, it was a massacre, but a legitimate one against the enemies of the USA. Against faceless, unknown human beings killed like animals.

Debunking Cultural Practices

Such movies present complicated and nuanced conflicts as a caricatural fight between Good and Evil. They polarize the wars in the Middle-East and North Africa by presenting the American cause as the necessary and just fight against demonized and inhuman enemy, an intrinsic evil. A propaganda weapon arises on a massive scale because of popular cultural injections.

Entman also describes culture as the “stock of commonly invoked frames“. In fact, he defines culture as “the empirically demonstrable set of common frames exhibited in the discourse and thinking of most people in a social grouping.” The fact that framing is then used extensively in the mass media, which includes movies, soaps and news reporting, could be explained from this point of view.

Because of the prolonged cultural impact of Hollywood, the frame of the Arab and Muslim is undoubtedly established within those societies that lie within its sphere of influence. The frame is developed as a cultural element within that society and determines how people look at messages and images that fit within that frame. The Arab that appears in the news is usually no individual. He’s a terrorist, a religious extremist, a zealot, a Muslim, a Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian or Iranian. These are all frames that evoke certain connotations among the traditional receiving audience, developed within a shared consciousness.

It’s a dangerous trend, but the best solution is the simplest one of all: look beyond the message alone. Don’t let popular culture or traditional news reporting decide how you see the world, because there’ll always be agendas being followed to guide and manipulate you. Common sense, an open mind, and sufficient dialogue can debunk the most stubborn cultural prejudices.

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#Culture

Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

On the border of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, several families live their lives torn apart—they were born on the wrong side of a wall. Now, faith groups are joining together to give them hope through prayer. Since the Mexican-American War in 1848, the boundary that divided the two countries transformed from an imaginary line, to a monument, to a simple barb-wire fence where people on either side could meet, greet, hold hands, or exchange a warm smile, to a heavily monitored steel wall stretching across almost 15 miles between San Diego and Tijuana. 

In recent years, crime, drug trafficking, an influx of undocumented workers, and increasingly white nationalism created stricter immigration policies in the U.S., directly impacting those who live straddling both sides of the border. Included in these are families whose loved ones have been deported – parents, spouses, children, and other relatives – to Mexico, undocumented workers providing for their families, and relatives who have not made physical contact with each other in years, sometimes decades. They gather along the steel mesh barriers of the border wall at Friendship Park to touch each other’s fingertips and pray.

The documentary, “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” produced by CAIR California, MoveOn, and Beyond Borders Studios captured some of these emotive moments during a Sunday prayer service held by the Border Church in partnership with the Border Mosque. Christians and Muslims came together in solidarity at Friendship Park on September 30, 2019, and held a joint bilingual ceremony, led by Reverend John Fanestil, Pastor Guillermo Navarrete, Imam Taha Hassane, and Imam Wesley Lebrón.

Imam Lebrón, National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for WhyIslam, witnessed the nightmare families separated at the border endure when he was invited to participate in this first meeting of the Border Church and Border Mosque. As a Puerto Rican, U.S. born citizen who never experienced the hardships of immigration, he was moved by what he witnessed. He said, 

“I entered Mexico and reached the border at Friendship Park and immediately noticed families speaking to each other through the tiny spaces of an enormous metal wall. They were not able to touch except for their fingers, which I later learned was the way they kissed each other.”

He described families discussing legal matters and children crying because they could not embrace a parent who traveled for days only to speak to them briefly behind the cold steel mesh partition. 

“Walls are meant to provide refuge and safety from the elements and they are not meant to prevent human beings from having a better life,” he explained, “As I stood behind that wall, I felt hopeless, angry, and had many other mixed emotions for our Mexican brethren who have been completely stripped of the opportunities many of us take for granted.” During the service he addressed the crowd gathered on the Mexican side of Friendship Park and recited the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. It was the first time the call was heard in Friendship Park, but not the last. 

The Border Church and Border Mosque will continue to provide a joint service on the last Sunday of every month and are calling for a binational day of prayer on Sunday, October 27th. They will be joined by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and indigenous spiritual leaders to “Pray Beyond Borders.” The event will be filmed and possibly live-streamed to a global audience with the objective of raising awareness and requesting financial support to address issues related to family separation in the region. 

On October 7th CAIR California with MoveOn, Faith in Action, MPower Change, and a social media team and distribution partners released the film “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” With the digital launch of this film in English and Spanish they wish to reach millions of viewers in telling the story of the Border Church and the Border Mosque and bring more faith leaders and activists on board to protect families’ right to gather. Please join them at Pray Beyond Borders – A Binational Day of Prayer – Sunday, October 27th at Friendship Park. 

when the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles(Psalm 34:17 – NIV).

“And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah ]” (Qur’an 2:45)

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

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Books

Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

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