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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 14 – Panama, a Dream of Love

People walked in every direction, tarp-covered carts sold street food, young men washed windshields with dirty bucket water, well-dressed black women performed manicures in makeshift booths, and old men and women sold lottery tickets in large wooden racks…

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13

Monday, February 7, 2010 – 3 pm
Colon, Panama

When I woke up, the bus was rounding the curved shore of a huge lake. The afternoon sunlight sparkled deep yellow on the water as a multistoried cruise ship glided along. I knew that the Panama Canal merged with Lake Gatún at one point. I wondered if this was it. On the other side of the road, primeval rainforest towered thick and emerald, as impenetrable and mysterious as the next moment and the next day. It was like a vivid scene from a postcard.

“Mi Panamá,” Niko murmured, “sueño de amor.” My Panama, a dream of love.

“Carlos Francisco again?” Niko was such a paradox: a muscular roughneck ex-convict who quoted poetry.

“Beatriz Spiegel de Viquez. We are almost there. Look.”

I looked where he pointed and saw a white cathedral spire rising over the rainforest to the northeast. Ten minutes later we rounded a bend in the road and arrived. Where the capital city was on the Pacific side, situated at the southern terminus of the Panama Canal, Colon was on the Caribbean side, sitting on a promontory at the canal’s northern mouth.

At the Colon bus station, I made wudu’ in a restroom that charged twenty five cents for admittance. The restroom had two women permanently stationed in the men’s room, a fact I found highly disconcerting. Every time a man finished using the facilities, one of the women would immediately step in and mop up.

In the station, I took a few minutes to pray Dhuhr and Asr as Niko watched over me, then we stepped onto the street, where heat and humidity enveloped me like a wool blanket. Where the air of Panama City had been broth, Colon’s air was vegetable soup.

Panama diablo rojo bus

Diablo rojo bus

I stood there watching the diablos rojos or red devils – which is what the multicolored, hand-painted buses were called – drive up and pull away in a steady stream, belching black exhaust in their wake. Niko must have seen in my face how clueless and lost I felt, because he took charge in a businesslike manner.

“Okay, Zayn. What información you have about the missing girl?”

Right. Information. “Her name is Anna Anwar. Her grandfather is Lenin William Rodriguez.”

Niko’s brow furrowed. “Don’t make sense. Anwar is Arabe name, no? And Lenin William Rodriguez sound Afro-Antillano.”

“What’s Afro-Antillano?”

“Ay Zayn. You know nothing? Is three kinds of blacks in Panama. Afro-Colonials are descended from slaves brought to Panama beginning 500 years ago. Cimarrones also were brought as slaves but they rebel and win freedom. Afro-Antillanos came from the British West Indies in 1800’s to work on the railroad and canal. Most of them have English names.”

I digested this. “Well, Anna’s father is Arab, yes. But her mother Angie is Panamanian, and yes, she’s black.”

My companion nodded. “Okay. So we find Mr. Afro-Antillano Lenin William Rodriguez. You are Musulman, no?”

Musulman was Spanish for Muslim. “Yes.”

“We can go to the Musulmanes for help. Is big Musulman community in Colon. Maybe they know this William Lenin.”

“Are they from India like the ones I saw in Panama?” I was thinking that such people would not be inclined to help, and would not know anything anyway, as they were probably culturally isolated.

“Not in Colon. El Centro Islamico Cultural is Arabes. Totalmente Arab.”

I snorted. “That’s no better. Isn’t there a convert mosque?”

“What is convert?”

“You know. People who became Muslim. Local people, black people, indigenous people.”

“Oh, convertidos. Si, I know the place.”

Niko hailed a taxi, gave some directions in Spanish too rapid for me to follow, and we were off. The driver, a bearded Rastafarian type with long dreadlocks tied in a ponytail, drove with the windows open and reggae music playing loud. As he drove he made swimming motions with one long-fingered black hand, in time with the beat. A red, yellow and green leather badge depicting an image of Africa hung from the rear view mirror.

“How do you know so much about Colon?” I asked Niko.

“I grow up here. My mother was Afro-Antillano from Jamaica. She was killed by a rabiblanco, a rich white man, when I was fourteen. I was send to Panama to live with my auntie.” As he said this, his face colored with anger, and his calloused hands balled into fists.

For a moment I was speechless. “I’m sorry,” I said eventually.

Niko looked away. “Is nothing.” I noticed, however, that his hands remained curled into fists.

Colon Panama wires overhead

Colon, Panama

I looked out of the window and took in the dilapidated, crowded, chaotic ruin that was Colon. It was an overwhelmingly black city. It appeared to have been a wealthy city at some point in the past, but had obviously been neglected by the government for decades. The architecture consisted of two and three story Spanish colonial buildings that must have once been beautiful, but were now crumbling, faded, weather stained, and covered in rampant growth of weeds and moss. Spiderwebs of wires and plastic tubing hung from buildings, indications of jerry-rigged electricity and water connections. Some buildings appeared to have been gutted, only the pillars and ceilings still standing, while people built makeshift corrugated tin shacks on the empty floors. Lines of laundry were strung between pillars.

The litter-strewn streets ran with smelly water. People walked in every direction, tarp-covered carts sold fruit or street food, young men washed car windshields with dirty bucket water, well-dressed black women performed manicures in makeshift booths, and old men and women sold lottery tickets in large wooden racks, set up in front of every corner store and market. Bare-chested young men with heavily tattooed arms and torsos hung out in doorways. They looked hard as stone, and dangerous.

Everywhere I looked I saw liquor stores, internet cafes, boxing gyms and the crosses of storefront churches. In every available open space, a riot of vegetation grew. Plantain trees ripe with fruit sprung up in litter-lined lots. Palm trees swayed overhead. Vines, tall grass, weeds and moss seemed to be trying to colonize the city.

More than once I saw police cruise by on motorcycles, two on each bike. They wore full camouflage gear, gloves, knee-high leather boots, helmets and bulletproof vests. They must have been suffocating from the heat in those outfits. The passenger cop invariably carried a submachine gun slung around his neck.

Estadio Armando Dely Valdes in Panama

We stopped across the street from a huge blue and white stadium. The sign said Estadio Armando Dely Valdés. I paid the driver.

“What is that place?” I pointed.

“Stadium for Arabe Unido,” Niko replied. “Arabic football team. They win thirteen Liga Panameña de Fútbol championships. Good players.”

The Arabs had their own professional soccer team? Fascinating, but beside the point. “I told you, I need to talk to converts.”

“I know, Zayn.” Niko grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to face the building behind us. It was a lemon yellow warehouse with peeling paint and a faded wooden sign that depicted a pair of boxing gloves along with the words, “Club Deportivo Islamico.” So not a mosque, but an Islamic boxing gym? Weird.

Inside, the gym was huge and dimly lit, the only light entering through square skyports cut in the corrugated tin roof, and covered with clear plastic. It smelled of sweat and bleach. There were two boxing rings, a long line of heavy bags hanging from chains, and mounted speed bags. Lean, wiry bodies were everywhere as people boxed, shuffled, worked the heavy bags, or ran laps. They were mostly black, though I saw some who looked Arab.

One wall featured a large mural of the Ka’bah, above the words laa ilaha il-Allah in Arabic. High overhead, a pair of ceiling-mounted swamp coolers hummed. They didn’t do much – the building was sweltering hot. I’d been sweating ever since arriving in Colon, and now I began to perspire in earnest, the sweat dripping down the sides of my nose, and running down my back into my pants.

Several of the boxers wore stretch kufis that hugged their scalps. Others had the sleeved tattooes that I’d always associated with gang members. To my surprise, there were a handful of women boxers, including two teenaged black girls in hijab who were gloved up, helmeted and sparring in one of the rings. They danced in and out, throwing punches and showing good use of body rotation.

I didn’t understand how these boxers could train in this broiling, muggy heat, let alone in hijab. I’d be falling down after five minutes.

Niko nudged me and gestured to an old man who stood beside the ring, watching the girls, one hand resting on his chin. He was tall, thin and the color of aged teak, with gray hair and a trimmed beard that had gone entirely white. He wore brown slacks, sandals, and a yellow and red African dashiki. He stood preternaturally still, as if he were a hardwood carving. The only sign he was alive were his eyes, which darted this way and that, watching the movement of the boxers.

The old man whistled through his fingers. Both boxers stopped and looked. “Sahara!” the old man called out, then he shouted an instruction in Spanish and moved. When I say moved, he went from a motionless state to suddenly cross-stepping, side-stepping and throwing a combination of punches so fast I could barely track them. I think it was a low left hook, high left hook and a right uppercut. He used his entire body, ducking and twisting. Any one of those punches would be a knockout. He motioned to the girls then returned to his self-assured pose as they resumed sparring.

We approached the old man and I greeted him with salam. He returned my salam warmly, extending his hand for a handshake and clasping my hand between his. His hands were large and his palms rough.

“Zaid,” I said, introducing myself. Niko followed suit.

“Qayyum. Bienvenidos.”

I cleared my throat. “Soy un visitante aquí-”

He cut me off with a gesture of his finger. “I speak English.” His accent was odd, somewhere between Jamaican and Spanish.

“Oh. I like your gym. Ma-sha-Allah, this is amazing.”

He acknowledged this with the slightest of nods. “Thank you. What can I do for you, Zaid?”

“Right. I’ve come to Panama in search of a missing girl. The only information I have is that the girl’s grandfather is named Lenin William Rodriguez, and that he used to be a musician.”

“Surely man. He was one of the greats. Used to play with Mauricio Smith and Simón Urbina.”

I was excited to hear this. “Do you know where he lives?”

“You don’t want to go there.”

“Why?”

“It’s a bad part of town, man. We have fifty gangs in Colon. Three murders per week. Desperate people.”

I considered this, then shrugged. “I have to go.”

Qayyum studied me with unreadable eyes. “Then I will send two of my fighters with you. You are a guest in my country. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Niko thumped his chest. “I will keep him safe! I am not afraid of anyone.”

Qayyum’s eyes flicked to Niko, then to the knives clipped to my pockets, then to my face. “Suit yourself man. I haven’t seen Lenin in a few years, but he used to live on Kingston Lane.” He rattled off a series of directions, all based on landmarks rather than street addresses.

A thought occurred to me. I’d met men like Qayyum before. Older brothers who’d been around and seen it all, but mostly kept their knowledge to themselves. I’d be willing to bet he could tell stories that would make me quake in my shoes, laugh, and wonder. I was also sure that he knew a lot of people in Colon and probably in Panama in general. So I asked a question.

“Brother Qayyum, do you know a man named Jose Arosemana Cruz?”

“Zayn!” Niko exclaimed, then immediately began telling Qayyum how I was crazy in my head because I was taking medication.

Qayyum merely raised one eyebrow. “What did you say your last name was?”

“Karim. Well, technically Al-Husayni. Zaid Karim Al-Husayni.”

Qayyum’s black eyes were flat. “No one by the name Cruz around here.”

* * *

“We could have used the help he offered,” I commented to Niko when we were outside. “Especially if the neighborhood is as dangerous as they say.”

“No! El poeta lucha, sin luchar, qué haría? Sin lucha y resistencia, no hay victoria.”

God help me. More poetry. “What does that mean?” I asked with a sigh.

Niko clenched a fist. “It mean the poet struggles, and without struggle, what will he do? Without struggle and resistance there is no victory. So says Amelia Denis de Icaza.”

I shook my head as I tried to hail a taxi. Niko might be a crazy person, but he was the crazy person Allah had sent to help me, and I would stick with him.

Two taxis stopped. Each time, when we gave them Rodriguez’s address, the drivers refused to take us and drove off.

“How far is it?” I asked.

Niko looked up, as if he’d find the answer in the sky, which, by the way, was darkening with clouds. “Twenty blocks.”

I shook my head. That was too far in this oppressive heat. The air had become so humid I felt like I was breathing water. “Try another taxi, see how close he’ll take us.”

The next driver said he would take us as far as the Catedral Inmaculada Concepción. We piled in. The street we drove down, Paseo del Centenario, didn’t seem that bad. It was wide and tree-lined, with a median on which grass and shrubs grew. Many of the Spanish colonial buildings seemed well preserved. They were badly weather stained, the paint was peeling, and mold grew everywhere, but at least they weren’t falling apart.

The driver turned onto another street, and the area took an instant turn for the worse. The colonial buildings were painted blue, green, burgundy, purple, pink and orange – sometimes all on a single building – but the paint was faded and the structures rotted where they stood. The windows were shattered, boarded with plywood, or covered with plastic sheeting. And yet people stood on the balconies, smoking, drinking or dancing. Music played from apartments. A group of children played football in a street in which sewage ran down an open channel. Flies drifted in and out of the open taxi windows. There were even businesses open and running – a barbershop, corner store, internet cafe, restaurant, pharmacy. Every one of these businesses, without fail, had an armed guard standing in front, except for the pharmacy, which had two. The guards wore bulletproof vests and carried shotguns, and their stances indicated they would not hesitate to use them.

The driver let us off in front of a grand old church. The huge Catedral Inmaculada Concepción, or Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, appeared to be one of the tallest buildings in Colon, perhaps the one I’d seen from the highway. Painted entirely white, it was built in a neo-Gothic style, with twin spires, arched windows – most of them broken – and a statue of Mary mounted on the roof, her arms outstretched. It was also stained and pitted, overgrown with mold, and surrounded by a chain link fence topped with concertina wire.

In the square in front of the cathedral, a permanent open air market was bustling. The smells of seafood, cilantro and grated coconut filled the air. Beneath a huge tin roof, hundreds of covered stalls sold fruits, meat, spices, plants, crafts and clothing. Women carried woven baskets, and sellers called out their wares. A teenaged girl carrying a baby approached me and asked me in accented English if I could give her a dollar to buy food. I reached for my wallet but Niko stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Don’t show your wallet here,” he told me. I followed his advice and instead reached into my back pocket, drew out two twenty five cent coins and gave them to the girl.

Niko gestured to the cathedral. “I make a prayer.” I slapped at a mosquito that had landed on my arm and followed my companion. A security guard opened a gate for us, frisked us, and took my knives, telling me I could retrieve them on the way out.

The church was deserted. A long aisle ran between two rows of mahogany pews. Our feet left prints in the thick layer of dust that coated the black and white marble floors. Niko approached an altar, kneeled before a statue of Mary, bowed his head and clasped his hands.

When he was done and we were on our way out, he said, “No worry now. La Virgen will protect us.”

“I appreciate that, Niko, but I am Muslim. I don’t pray to the Virgin Mary. Only to God.”

Niko stopped and stared at me in outrage. “Musulmanes don’t believe in La Virgen?”

“We do. We believe in Jesus also. But we consider them to be human beings. We do not pray to them. We pray only to God, El Señor, El Creador.”

The Panamanian’s eyes narrowed and I could see he wanted to debate the issue further. I put up a hand. “We have a job do do.”

We made our way outside, and I recovered my knives from the guard. We walked a block and turned onto Kingston Lane. Immediately the neighborhood took a turn for the worse – much, much worse.

Dirty street in Colon, Panama

“The neighborhood took a turn for the worse…”

Unlike the other parts of the city I’d seen, there was almost no one outside here. The few who passed by did so furtively, hurrying along and looking over their shoulders. There was not a single car in sight. The narrow, mud-covered alley smelled of urine, burnt rubber and garbage, and was littered with rusted shopping carts and all manner of trash. Some of the buildings had partly collapsed, so that rebar rods projected from ragged concrete, and piles of rubble lay in courtyards and empty fields. I could hardly believe anyone lived here. Yet even here I heard music coming from some of the apartments, and saw a few people on balconies, watching me and Niko pass by.

I’d never seen such squalid conditions in my life. I didn’t know anyone lived like this in the Western hemisphere. I guess that shows how naive I was. If I had a choice between being back in prison or living here, I wasn’t sure which I would pick. But of course the people who lived here had no choice.

I drew one of my knives, opened it, and carried it discreetly along the inside of my arm.

The sky had grown dark and ominous. A peal of thunder boomed across the city, and a moment later the rain came sheeting down. Niko and I trudged on, the rain streaming down our faces and bodies and fauceting from our fingertips.

We walked two blocks like this, when suddenly a teenaged boy stepped out of a doorway and blocked our way. He was barefoot, and wore cargo shorts, a yellow tank top and – comically – a two foot tall white and blue striped soccer hat with a wide brim. The colors matched those of the Arabe Unido stadium. He must be a fan. I might have laughed if not for the fact that he had a gun pointed straight at us. It was an old revolver that looked like it might have been used in World War I, but the barrel was long and wide, and I had no doubt it would blast a hole the size of a grapefruit in my body.

Another man stepped out beside the youth. He was maybe thirty five and carried a machete, letting it dangle casually. He looked quite natty in Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt and chic reflective sunglasses – though why anyone would wear sunglasses in the rain I did not know. I presumed he was the leader.

Instinctively I turned and looked behind me, in the direction from which we’d come. Another man stood there, a hard faced, tattooed teenager, wearing jeans with no shirt, and carrying a machete as well.

Tu dinero o tus vidas!” the boy with the gun cried in a reedy voice that sounded like the trill of a mourning dove. Your money or your lives. What, did he think this was a Hollywood film? Of all the cliched lines.

I considered. There was nothing I could do against a gun, not at this range. It wouldn’t kill me to surrender my wallet. The bulk of my cash, along with my passport and my important cards were in my secret pockets. I was about to take out my wallet and toss it to the robbers when Niko strode forward, directly toward soccer hat boy. What was he doing? I clenched my teeth. We might have gotten out of this with no harm done. Now my capricious companion was forcing my hand.

“Stop!” Soccer Boy cried in Spanish. “I’ll shoot you!” This gave me a glint of hope. If the kid were truly inclined to shoot, he would have done so already. If Niko could overpower him, I would deal with the other two.

With the robbers distracted by Niko, I slid several quiet steps forward. Niko advanced until he stood directly in front of Soccer Boy. The young robber raised the revolver and touched the barrel to Niko’s forehead.

I readied myself, thinking Niko would make his move. Instead he spread his arms wide and screamed in Spanish, “Kill me! Shoot me if you have the nerve!”

I groaned to myself. Was the lunatic trying to kill himself again?

“I will!” Soccer Boy shouted back, though there was a fearful tone in his voice. His gun hand trembled.

Niko yelled something I didn’t understand. Perhaps it was an insult, because Soccer Boy pulled the trigger.

Whether he did it on purpose or it was an involuntary spasm, I do not know. I heard a click as the gun misfired. There was a moment of stillness in which I felt like I was living a strange dream, standing in a place that looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic science fiction film, all five of us looking at each other, as rain cascaded down like heaven itself wanted to wash us away.

Everyone exploded into motion. Niko tackled Soccer Boy and they tumbled to the mud, wrestling for the gun. The elder robber raised his machete and loomed over the fighting pair, preparing to deliver Niko a killing blow. I burst into a run, not bothering to watch the man behind me. I could not deal with both machete wielders at the same time. I leaped and sailed through the air at the chic leader. Duplicating the move I’d used on one of the Asian gangsters who’d tried to rob me only a few days ago, I crashed into the man, wrapped my legs around his torso and rode him down like a bull as he fell backward. He must have gotten his machete between us because I felt fire lance through my shoulder. I had my knife in my hand and for a split second I thought about planting it in the mugger’s throat. I could have done so easily. Some impulse of my better self held me back. Instead I brought my elbow forward. As we hit the ground, my elbow drove into the mugger’s face with all my weight behind it, crushing his nose.

I rolled and came to my feet. The fight was all but over. Niko had the gun, and Soccer Boy had fled, leaving his tall soccer hat behind. The leader was on the ground, blood spurting from his nose. I kicked him hard in the floating ribs and he cried out, rolled to all fours and crawled away in the mud. I let him go, resisting the impulse to kick him further.

The shirtless youth who’d been behind us had vanished. I supposed he’d seen what happened to his friends and cut out. Or maybe he’d gone for help.

I put away my knife, picked up Soccer Boy’s Arabe Unido hat and put it on my head. See, I knew I’d find a good hat in Panama. Finally I picked up the leader’s machete. I turned to face Niko, who stood in the rain unhurt, his nostrils flared wide.

“Why did you do that, Niko?” I demanded angrily. “Were you trying to kill yourself again?”

He lifted the revolver and popped the cylinder out. “No bullets.”

“But you didn’t know that, did you?”

He inspected me. “You are bleeding.” He gestured with his lips to my shoulder. A long, shallow slash ran from the front of my shoulder to my left nipple. It was bleeding, but not too badly. My arm was beginning to ache as well. It was time to take my medication.

I looked at Niko and he looked at me. He hadn’t answered my question, but I let it go for now.

“How far?”

“One block. But what about him?” He pointed to the man still crawling away in the mud. Maybe I’d kicked him harder than I thought.

“What about him?” I began to walk down the middle of the road, and Niko fell in beside me. I carried the machete openly, as Niko did with the pistol. The expression on my face was grim, and if anyone saw us they must have steered clear, because we saw no one.

Niko stopped in front of a four story concrete building with tiny windows. Black fungus stains marred the faded green paint. In front stood a solitary acacia tree.

“Here,” the Panamanian said. “Second floor, third door from stairs.”

We walked into the building carrying our weapons openly and dripping water and – in my case – blood. The stairway was narrow and dark. We passed a group of young men drinking liquor and playing dice on one of the landings. They flattened themselves against the wall and let us pass.

At the third door from the stairs, I knocked. It was a heavy wooden door, and seemed to absorb the knock like a sponge, so I knocked louder.

“Come in,” a deep voice called in Caribbean accented English. We walked into a tiny apartment that was lit only by a single 60 watt bulb. I left the machete beside the door and closed it behind me. An old man sat in a wooden chair, miming as if playing a trumpet and tapping one foot to keep the beat. He was thin, and his dark skin had an ashen tint. The apartment – with no air conditioning or even a fan – was sweltering, yet the man wore a flat cap, slacks, sandals and a short sleeved dress shirt – much like Niko, not counting the hat.

“If you here to queng I,” the old man said, “Me got no’ting of value. Me livin’ in sufferation.” The weak light cast strange shadows, and I couldn’t quite see his face. Though the apartment was small and meagerly furnished, with crumbling walls and exposed piping in some places, it was clean.

“I don’t understand.”

“Queng I. Kill I. Rob I.”

“No sir. We’re not here to rob you. I’m a private detective from California. Are you Lenin William Rodriguez?”

He did not answer. Just kept tapping and playing his nonexistent trumpet, his fingers moving rapidly in the air. It was so quiet in that apartment I could hear the rainwater and blood dripping from my fingertips onto the bare cement floor. I felt bad about messing up the man’s home.

“I’m looking for Angie, your granddaughter, and her daughter Anna. I was hired by Anna’s grandparents. They’re worried. Have you seen them?”

Rodriguez stopped playing and leaned forward in his chair, studying me. “What you do if you find dem?”

My heart beat faster. His answer implied that he had seen them. I had not made this trip and gone through this hardship for nothing. But what should I say? If I said I might take Anna away, the elder Rodriguez might refuse to talk to me. I decided to tell the truth.

“It depends on what I find. If Anna is happy and healthy, I’ll leave her be. But if she’s being mistreated, I’ll take her to her grandparents.”

He nodded slowly. “Dat be good. You take de child back. Angie come here before a week, head gone, ask I to keep Anna. So I do. Back she come den, few day latah, lookin’ terrible bad gyal. She drape me up, treat me rough. Steal me pension check and me trumpet, only ting of value me evah own. Take Anna.”

“Where did she go?”

Rodriguez went back to tapping his foot and playing the ghostly horn. “Me don’t know. She be lookin’ like a prostitute. You try Avenida Viejo maybe. De little Angie I remembah had a good head. This Angie become a avaricious gyal, a bad gyal. No’ting but lies on her tongue. Cold like ice. It wound I inna heart. For this me pappy leave Jamaica? Me feel the world be mashed down. All be lost.”

“Wait,” I said. “Are you saying she is actually a prostitute? How do you know that?” If this was true it was shocking, as it meant she had hit bottom. Though of course she’d been working as a stripper back in Fresno, and Zenobia had hinted that Angie was not above going home with a paying customer. So maybe it wasn’t such a precipitous drop after all.

He shrugged. “Me don’t know for sure.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t leave this man alone with no money – he said Angie had stolen his monthly pension check – and probably no food. I took $100 in soggy bills from my wallet. “Take this for your trouble,” I said. I tried to hand the money to the old man but he ignored me and continued playing the invisible horn. So I put it in his shirt pocket.

I turned to leave.

“Me see you bway,” Rodriguez said.

I turned back to face him. “What do you mean?”

“Me see you comin’ down like a hurricane. You a duppy conqueror, nevah take no for de ansah. You ovahcome all, find Anna, take she home. Galang bout yuh business, walk good. God be wit’ you.”

I understood about half of Rodriguez’s speech, but I got the gist of it. I stammered out a thank you and made my exit, retrieving the machete on the way out. We left the old man still tapping his foot and playing the memory of a thing. I could almost hear his trumpet singing those long, clear notes, wailing for hopes dashed on the shores of a new land, for what might have been, for promise ruined by a heroin needle and a dime bag of crack.

“Que dice el hombre?” Niko asked as we exited the building. “I don’t understand nothing he say. He was speaking English?”

“Didn’t you say your mother was Afro-Antillano?”

“Yes but from four generations. I don’t speak this kind of boya boya.”

The rainstorm was over. The sun was low in the sky, and building shadows stretched across the wretched alley like grasping ghosts. I told Niko all that Rodriguez had said. “Let’s head for Avenida Viejo,” I concluded. “Where the prostitutes are.”

“Is not a good idea, Zayn. You are bleeding. The sun is going down soon. Colon is much worst at night, very dangerous. We go to the Corredor Zona Libre, is safe and has good hotels. Then we look tomorrow.”

I’d read that the Zona Libre – the Free Trade Zone – was a huge import-export zone where goods came in from all over the world and were sold wholesale and retail. It would surely be a highly secure area. A night in a good hotel, where I could sleep in safety, recuperate, and tend to my wounds, sounded nice.

But… Angie had tried to unload Anna on her sister, then she’d come all the way to Panama, possibly with an armful of cash, and dumped the kid on her grandfather. Then she’d come back and taken Anna. Why? If she’d blown all the money and was willing to steal from her grandfather – steal his trumpet even, his only prized possession – and had fallen so low as to work as a streetwalker, then why take Anna? She obviously couldn’t care for her. Angie was on a downward spiral, and people on that trajectory didn’t suddenly reform and become good parents. I had a bad feeling about this. My gut told me that Angie was on an express train to self-destruction, and that I needed to find the child quickly before she was pulled along into a fiery crash.

“No,” I told Niko. “I will not stop. I understand if you want to go back to Panama. You have a wife and children to worry about.”

Niko glared with bugged-out eyes and jabbed me in the chest with a finger. “Why you say this to me Zayn? Didn’t I make a swear that I will not leave you until you find this girl? Even to the point of death? Why do you insult me as a man?”

His outrage was genuine. In fact, he looked as if he might cry. I had offended his Latino sense of machismo and challenged his honor. “Okay,” I said, patting his shoulder. “I know you’re not afraid. I was only thinking of your family. I appreciate your help.”

He nodded, mollified, and we proceeded down the lane, shoulder to shoulder.

We walked several blocks. The bleeding from my shoulder cut slowed to an ooze. My shirt was stained with blood from neck to belly button. The sun fell from the sky as if shot by a hunter’s gun, and the city grew dark. We passed a busy commercial street, where Niko hid his pistol in his waistband at the small of his back. I wrapped the machete in my spare set of clothes and put it in my backpack. Only the handle stuck out, and no one seemed to care. I drew a few looks with my bloodstained shirt and the silly soccer hat on my hat – an Arab Unido hat for an Arab – but on the whole the people of Colon seemed a laissez faire lot, everyone going about their business to the beat of their own Caribbean drums, whether that business was selling grilled fish and fried plantains at the side of the road, peddling pencils for five cents and roses for ten, performing streetside massages, or robbing people.

Unwilling to surrender the machete to a security guard, I sent Niko into a chino – which was what the locals called the corner stores, as they were all owned by Chinese – to buy disinfectant and a bandage for my shoulder wound. Also a bottle of water so I could take my meds, and a clean shirt. I treated my shoulder and took the antibiotics, but not the pain meds. My left arm throbbed as if I had snakes embedded in my flesh instead of bones, and the shoulder wound was a constant bother, but the pain meds would make me drowsy and I couldn’t have that. I put on the new shirt – a plain white Tee – discarding the old one in a trash can.

Colon Panama

We came to Avenida Viejo, a dour commercial strip in which every open storefront was guarded by armed security. The businesses that had already closed were secured with heavy rolldown metal doors. Men loitered in darkened doorways, singly or in groups, smoking or simply waiting their chance to pounce.

Nearly naked women strutted up and down the strip, calling out to the odd car that drove by, and sometimes fighting with each other for the best corners. They catcalled to Niko and I, offering themselves and naming their prices. None were the least bit tempting. Even had I not been a Muslim with an awareness of Allah and a commitment to my faith, these women were mostly broken down. They looked weathered and aged before their time. I knew intellectually that many were victims: runaways, sufferers of abuse, or victims of human trafficking. I felt some sympathy, but I also found them repellent and utterly foreign, as if they were squabbling aliens who’d been deported from their home planet and unloaded on earth.

We traveled up and down the strip. On one especially gloomy block, five swaggering young men approached us from the darkness. I reached behind my back and drew the machete from the backpack while Niko pulled the huge pistol from his waistband. Like a pack of wolves acting in concert, the youths changed direction and detoured around us.

From the way Niko muttered to himself, I knew he was frustrated and ready to call it quits. I also knew he would never say so, not since I’d challenged his manhood, or so he thought.

“Do you have any suggestions?” I asked.

Niko flapped his lips. “Not all the prostitutes work on the street Zayn. Many work in brothels. But we cannot go knocking on doors with weapons in our hands. Is impossible.”

I stood there, out of ideas. I remembered something Imam Saleh used to say: when you’re out of ideas, ask Allah. We’re human. We’re not meant to have the answers to all questions, nor are we capable of it. When there’s no human helper to fall back on, no one else to turn to, Allah is still there, caring for us and ready to answer our prayers.

I realized that Maghreb time was nearly over and I had not prayed. We’d passed an empty lot a block back. I gestured to Niko and we headed that way. The lot was carpeted with garbage and weeds, but I made wudu’ from the bottle of water I’d purchased, took the shirt from my backpack and laid it down, and prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha as Niko stood guard. After that I prayed one rak’ah of witr, the voluntary night prayer, and made dua’ to Allah to help me find this child.

After my prayer, I took Anna’s picture from my wallet and gazed at it again. The lot was dark, but I knew the details of the image by heart: Anna’s thin face, dark brown skin and willowy brown hair. Her blue pants, white collared shirt and blue school jumper, and the white Adidas sneakers with the black stripes. Her always serious mien, as if she’d seen more than a child her age should.

I put away the photo, hauled myself to my feet, hefted the backpack and put on the soccer hat. “Again,” I said to Niko. “Let’s walk the strip again.”

To his credit, the muscular Panamanian did not complain. He nodded and we set out to traverse the mile long red light district once more. We walked all the way to the sea, where an ancient and pitted seawall looked over the dark Atlantic waters, then back to the filthy lot where I’d prayed. My legs were tired and my feet sore, while my arm ached so badly that I had to work to think clearly. I stood there staring at the night sky. It was packed with clouds. Now and then the moon made a darting appearance then disappeared, as if it too were afraid to show itself in Colon at night.

A movement caught my eye. A man stepped from behind a mango sapling in a dark corner of the lot, and hurried off. A moment later a woman stepped out, adjusting her short faux-leather skirt. Aside from the skirt, she wore a red tank top, red high heels, and nothing else. Even at this distance I recognized her.

I have a good eye for the way people move, the way they walk and carry themselves. Maybe it comes from a lifetime of martial arts training, or maybe it’s an awareness I developed in prison, where reading a person’s body language correctly could save your life. This woman’s body was in a perpetual state of self-contradiction: she was slightly pigeon toed, but carried her shoulders proudly. I’d noticed it the first time I met her, years ago. It was Angie, of course. She picked her way through the litter, walking carefully on her high heels.

I’d prayed for help in this case and now here was Angie. An atheist would look at this unfolding of events and label it coincidence. “There are billions of people praying for the fulfillment of wishes great and small,” the atheist might argue. “In a world where anything can happen, some of those wishes are bound to come true. That’s not divine intervention. It’s life.”

I could see the atheist’s point. Life is not a connect-the-dots coloring book with handy numbers proving that (1) prayer leads to (2) the fulfillment of one’s wish. But how many times in my life had I been in situations that should have killed me and didn’t? Not the least of these was my near drowning in the Río Curundú this very day, and the confrontation with three armed robbers a few hours ago. Just as many times I’d been caught in serious life traps with no obvious exits, then suddenly found a door opening before me, offering a way forward.

I’m a private detective. I might believe in one coincidence or two, but when the “coincidences” begin to mount, I – like any good detective – look for the pattern behind the chaos. I look for the Power that in turn is looking out for me, protecting me, guiding me with a touch and a nudge, and sometimes a solid rap on my skull.

To whom could I give the credit but Allah? Who else kept saving me from myself? Who else found such value in my sorry existence?

I touched Niko’s shoulder and he followed me as I crossed the street and planted myself in front of Angie. She looked terrible. Her formerly muscular frame had melted away. She was dangerously thin, her clothes were stained, her eyes were red and puffy, and her long, braided hair had been hacked short. I wondered if she’d sold it. It was impossible not to notice the track marks – bruises and scabs from needle injections – that ran along the insides of both arms. She smelled of layers of unwashed sweat and decay covered with cheap perfume.

“Fifteen dollars for half an hour,” she said in Spanish, still busy adjusting her clothing and not looking at our faces.

“Where’s Anna?” I said in English. “Where’s your daughter, Angie?”

She reacted as if I’d slapped her. Her head snapped up, her feet turning partly away as if she might run. Her face registered fear, shame, anger and suspicion all mixed together. She looked me up and down. “Who are you?” she demanded in English. “You’re not a cop.”

“Think about it.”

She took her time. I saw wonder dawn on her face, then just as quickly turn to calculation as she began figuring how she could exploit me. “Stick,” she said warmly. She was a good actress. “You’re Tarek’s friend.” She reached out and touched my arm. “What are you doing here? Listen, I’m glad I ran into you. I’m going through a hard time. You think you could loan me some money? Just like, a thousand. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

“I asked you a question. Where’s your daughter? Where’s Anna?”

She frowned. “What do you care about that? You gonna loan me the money or not?”

I seized her upper arm tightly and spoke slowly but intensely. “Where’s Anna?”

“Hey!” She tried to yank her arm free, but my grip was a vise. She cursed me, then said, “I’ll call the police!”

Niko laughed. “Police at night in Colon? On Avenida Viejo? Who else you will call, a magic genie?”

Angie stopped struggling and looked me and Niko over more carefully. I saw her take in the handle of the machete sticking out of my backpack, the knives clipped to my pockets, and my companion’s muscular frame and enlarged knuckles. Her eyes became hooded as she spoke in what she must have thought was a seductive tone: “You guys wanna party? I’ll give you a great time. Whatever you want. I just need a little money for food, you know. Come on Stick, we’re friends, be nice to me.”

“We don’t want that. But you can have this.” I took $100 out of my wallet and held it in front of her face. She reached for it greedily but I pulled it back. “First tell me where Anna is?”

“Why do you keep asking about that?” she snarled. “What do you care? Just give me the money.”

“I was hired by the Anwars to find you and her,” I explained patiently. “I need to make sure she’s safe, that’s all.”

Angie gave a short, bitter snicker. “That’s a laugh. Anyway she’s fine. She’s with her father back in California.”

I felt my heart sink. Why was she lying? I had an extremely bad feeling about this. “I just saw him a few days ago,” I said. “She’s not with him.”

“Yeah… I know. I mean she was with him. But I dropped her off with my sister in San Francisco. She wanted a little auntie time.” She reached for the money.

I shut my fist on the cash. “You’re lying. I’ve been to see Alejandra.”

Surprise crossed Angie’s face. “I… I mean we visited there. But Angie is with my grandfather here in Colon. She’s fine.”

I was suddenly furious with this lying, sniveling junkie. My grip tightened on her arm and she squealed in pain. What had she done with her daughter, for God’s sake? I wanted to slap her silly. I wanted to drag her down the street and hold her by her ankles over the seawall until she told the truth. But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of that. On some level I felt sorry for Angie. And I’d known her for years. I could not abuse her.

I felt a combination of fury and restraint – a mutually nullifying combination that rendered me impotent. Niko must have seen this on my face. He took Angie’s arm from me and dragged her toward the rear of the lot, to the dark corner behind the mango tree. She cried out, but this block was nearly deserted, and the few passers by merely ducked their heads and continued on their way. I followed listlessly, wanting to tell Niko to stop, but knowing that I needed my questions answered. My companion shoved Angie against the wall of the building that bordered the lot, drew his huge pistol and pointed the gun at Angie’s face. The gun had no bullets of course, but Angie didn’t know that.

“Give the word, boss,” Niko said, “and I kill her.”

Angie’s eyes were wide, but she still refused to break. She spat in my direction. “You won’t murder me! I know you, you don’t have the stones.”

“He’s not the one with the gun,” Niko said with an evil grin. “And since you do not answer the questions, we have no use for you.” He pulled back the hammer on the revolver. “Ve con Dios, chica,” he said. “Te veré en el infierno.” Go with God, girl. I’ll see you in Hell.

“No!” Angie cried. Her terror was genuine.

“Stop!” I said. “Just stop.” This was wrong. I felt ashamed. I hadn’t been raised to treat women this way. There had to be a better way. I gestured to Niko to lower the gun. He backed off and I approached Angie.

“You’re right,” I told the frightened, wretched woman. “I’m sorry. That’s not me. I’m a man of faith. And I have faith in you, Angie. You’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I know deep in your heart you love Anna. If something bad has happened, share it with me and let me help. I know you’re an intelligent woman. You went to college. You never messed with drugs until Tarek got you started. This-” I gestured to the bruises and scabs on her arms “-is not the sum of who you are. You’re more than this. You’re a human being, a woman, a mother. I believe in you, Angie. I know you love your daughter, and I know you’re in pain.”

Was this all true? Did I believe in Angie? On some level, yes. I believed that every human being could be redeemed. Islam taught that the door of tawbah, of repentance, was always open. Faith – not only faith in God, but the faith that others invest in us – is a powerful, transformative thing. How long had it been since anyone had said these words to Angie? How long since anyone believed in her?

My speech did not garner the expected response. As I spoke, rather than being inspired or moved, Angie looked stricken. She looked more horrified, in fact, than she had when Niko pointed the gun at her. By the end of my speech she’d covered her face with her hands.

I reached out and touched her shoulder gently. “It’s okay,” I told her. “You can tell me.”

Angie dropped her hands. Her expression was haunted. “I sold her!” she screamed. Her thin legs gave out and her back slid down against the wall until she sat in the weeds and garbage of the lot. She began to weep. “I sold her to my pimp. He said he knew a rich man who needed a housemaid. Anna would be well treated, she’d have every luxury. She’s better off!”

I staggered back a step. “You sold her? You sold your child? Good God, Angie. How could you do that?”

“She’s better off!” she repeated. “I can’t care for her. I tried to leave her with my sister but she wouldn’t take her.”

“Your grandfather was willing to care for her!” I roared.

“I needed the money!” Angie spasmed as she screamed this, throwing her arms and legs out like a child having a tantrum. “I needed a fix. I was sick.” Her sobs continued.

I took deep breaths, fighting to calm myself. “Where do I find your pimp? Describe him.”

“What do you think you’re going to do?” Her tone was bitter, her eyes downcast. “Anna is gone. You’ll never get her back.”

“Describe him!”

Bonelessly, devoid of hope, Angie described a short, muscular man with a shiny bald head, a diamond tooth and a nasty temper, and told us where to find him. She called him
El Pelado – Spanish for Baldy, and she warned us that he was a gun nut. “He always has a gun,” she said. “Night and day. He will kill you.” She added this last bitterly, as a dire prediction and an expression of despair.

I stood there for a moment, watching Angie weep. How could a mother – an intelligent woman, a former university student – be reduced to this? Drugs, I thought. This is what drugs do. They turn people into ghouls. May Allah protect us all.

“Where did you pawn your grandfather’s trumpet?”

Angie stared at me as if I’d asked her if it was true that the moon was made of cheese, but sputtered out the name of a pawnshop. I dropped the $100 into her lap and turned to walk away.

“Wait!” Angie said. “What… what will you do with Anna if you get her back?”

So her heart hadn’t rotted all the way through after all. “What do you want me to do?” I countered.

“Take her to my sister Alejandra.”

I didn’t think that was likely. Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez had made it pretty clear that she didn’t want the child. But I would keep it in mind. I left Angie sitting amid the litter of the lot, contemplating the wreckage of her life, as we set off in search of an angry, bald, body-building, gun-toting pimp. I was still stunned and seething over what Angie had done. My body was exhausted, wounded and sick, and my arm was on fire with pain, but I was on a mission to save a child, and I would not be stopped.

* * *

We made our way to a half-ruined building two blocks over, following the directions Angie gave us. The pimp’s ground floor apartment was easy enough to locate, as a steady stream of hookers entered and exited, dropping off payments no doubt. We hid in a shadowed doorway across the street and watched. Shouting occasionally rose from within. More than one hooker came out clutching her belly, as if she’d been punched or kicked. I assumed the pimp didn’t want to affect the street value of his “merchandise” by hitting them in the face.

We got lucky. A muscular tattooed man – I couldn’t say whether he was a rival pimp, a disgruntled customer or an angry boyfriend – showed up with a wooden baseball bat. He pounded on the door, and when El Pelado came waving a silver plated .45 Colt pistol and shouting – I could see his diamond tooth glinting from across the street – the guy ambushed him, clocking him with a hard shot to the head. He gave him one more hit to the ribs for good measure, then left. As the pimp lay on the ground groaning, Niko and I hurried over, disarmed the man and dragged him back into his apartment. Though he was short he was heavy with muscle and not easy to move.

We evicted the few hookers who were smoking crack in one of the bedrooms, locked the door and bound the man to an armchair with a roll of electrical tape we found under the sink. The apartment was garishly furnished in black leather and red velvet, and was messy, with discarded food and drug paraphernalia everywhere.

Ignoring the hookers who occasionally showed up to knock on the door and call out, we splashed some water into El Pelado’s face to wake him, then stood over him, Niko with the .45 and me with the machete, and questioned him about Anna. When he refused to tell us anything, Niko tried the same trick of putting the gun – the .45 this time – to his forehead and cocking the hammer.

The pimp broke out in a sweat but remained mute. Niko’s finger tightened on the trigger. His face was red with anger and I had a sudden gut feeling that he was actually going to shoot the man. “Niko!” I started to say, but the pimp must have read the same intention in Niko’s eyes because he shouted in Spanish, “Los Ochos! Don’t shoot. I sold her to Los Ochos.”

“Where?” Niko screamed, also in Spanish. “Where did they take her?”

The pimp began to weep. I believe he saw the face of death before him in that moment. He blubbered something I could not understand, except for the word “demon.”

“What did he say?” I demanded.

“He say he sold her to Los Ochos gang. Their leader, El Demonio, likes the young girls.”

“For what?” Though of course I already knew the answer.

“You know.”

Yes. Rage flooded through me like the water of the Río Curundú. I wanted to lift my machete and cut this man in half. I clenched my jaw. “Ask him where to find this El Demonio.”

Niko quirked his mouth downward unhappily. “Everyone in Panama know where, Zayn.”

“Then we’re done here.”

As if reading my thoughts, Niko gestured to the bound pimp and said, “We should kill him.”

My eyes flicked to the criminal. The man had sold a child in sexual slavery, and probably not for the first time, or – if we let him live – the last. He deserved to die. I wanted to say yes, do it. But I was not a judge, jury and executioner. I couldn’t go around killing anyone I believed to be a criminal. What would I do in front of Allah with the blood I’d shed? How would I account for myself?

“That would be murder,” I said. “I’m a Muslim. I don’t do that.”

“You don’t understand, Zayn. He will tell Los Ochos that we are asking about the girl. They will find us. We will not live until sunrise.”

“Then let them come,” I said fiercely. “I am not a murderer. We can tape his mouth, shut him in a closet and leave him. Maybe by the time anyone finds him we’ll have Anna.”

“And what about the one who told us where to find him? This piece of garbage” – he kicked El Pelado’s shin – “will kill that person.”

It was smart of Niko not to say Angie’s name out loud, but he was right, the pimp would figure it out. “It’s up to that person,” I countered, “to disappear, move away, or whatever. I can’t kill a man for what he might do.”

Niko flapped his lips in frustration. “These are not bullies of the school, Zayn. These people have hearts like frozen stones. We cannot play games with them. Do you imagine you will get Anna back without killing? You fool yourself. Do you know why Los Ochos are named such? Because they chop their enemies in eight pieces. Arm, arm, head, leg, leg-”

I cut him off with a sharp wave. Everything he said made sense. But it was impossible. To kill a man in cold blood? There was no universe in which I could do such a thing. “No,” I said again.

I jumped as a gunshot rang out. At first I thought Niko had killed El Pelado despite my refusal, but Niko cried out and fell back, clutching his arm and dropping the silver .45. While we’d been distracted with our argument, El Pelado had somehow gotten his hands free and drawn what looked like a .38 from an ankle holster. His feet were still bound, but he had the .38 trained on my chest, and his hand was steady. Blood trickled from the side of his head where the mystery man had clobbered him with the bat, but the diamond from his tooth glittered as he grinned at me.

“He shot me,” Niko moaned. I gave him a quick glance. The bullet looked to have grazed his forearm, taking a chunk out of the muscle. He’d live.

“Use your foot,” the pimp said in accented but fluent English, “to kick the Colt closer to me. Move very slowly. I will not hesitate to kill you both.”

Oh, blast it. How had we let this happen? Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la billah. Never mind, I could castigate myself for my stupidity later. Right now I needed to find a way out of this. I did as the pimp instructed, kicking the gun over. “Hey,” I said casually. “We got off on the wrong foot. I’m sorry about that. My name is Amir and this is my friend Saladino.”

“Shut up,” El Pelado replied. “Take off your backpack and toss it aside.”

I did so.

“Now take those cute little knives from your pockets. Slide one over to me, and hand me the other butt first, using your index finger and thumb only.”

“Your English is very good,” I commented. “Have you lived in the U.S.?

“Do what I told you!” he barked.

I did, all the while looking for an opportunity to go for his gun. But he kept it well away, down by his hip, and never took his eyes off me as he picked up the knife with his free hand. He cut his ankles free. Then he ordered me down on the floor beside Niko, tossed the duct tape to me, and ordered me to tape Niko’s hands and ankles.

“We could pay you,” I said, “if you let us go. I have a lot of money in the bank. How does fifty thousand dollars sound?”

El Pelado raised the .38 and pointed it at my stomach. I could see that he wasn’t bluffing. He was about to put a slug in me.

“Okay! I’m doing it.” When I was done he had me tape my own feet, then tape one of my hands to my feet. Then he instructed me to toss the tape to him. He strode over to me, and before I could think of how I might use my free hand to fight, he kicked me hard in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. Something cracked inside me and pain exploded in my side. I groaned and writhed in pain, and while I did so El Pelado seized my free hand and taped it to my feet as well. I was trussed like a pig on a spit, ready to be roasted. I was completely helpless.

The pimp seized my hair and yanked on it painfully. He brought his face close to mine and I could smell the fish he’d eaten for dinner on his breath, as well as his sweat. Light glinted off the diamond on his tooth.

“Who sent you?” he demanded. “Was it Muerte Rojo?”

Apparently he thought some other gang had sent us after him. I wasn’t sure how to answer. If he realized that I was alone here, with no backing or compadres behind me, he might kill me. On the other hand, he probably intended to kill me anyway. I went with the truth. “I’m a private detective. I’m just after the girl. I’m not interested in you. You heard us talking. I wasn’t planning to kill you.”

He spat in my face and released my hair. “That’s your mistake.” He searched my pockets and found my wallet, which contained nothing but a little cash. He threw it in my face and checked the backpack. “A machete?” he sneered. “What, you think you’re a Mexican folk hero?” Crossing to Niko, he checked his Niko’s pockets. He found two butterscotch candies, a few dollars in change, and Niko’s cedula – his Panama I.D. card.

“So,” the pimp said, studying the card. “You are Niko Osvaldo Tiburon. So what?” He flicked the card at Niko’s eyes. “A couple of nobodies. Soon to be dead nobodies.”

“How much is the life of a little girl worth?” I snapped. “How much did El Demonio pay you? Don’t you have a shred of human decency?”

The pimp walked to the front door, went outside for a moment and returned with the wooden baseball bat. “So this is what you hit me with? Now you’ll see what it’s like to be on the other end.”

“No,” I started to say. “It wasn’t-”

He slammed the bat onto my wounded shoulder. Blinding pain exploded in my shoulder. The bat came away bloody and I knew my cut had reopened.

“The next one is your head,” the pimp snarled. “I’m going to splatter your brains all over the floor. Then I’ll kill your friend.” The muscles in his arms bunched as he lifted the bat high, preparing to crush my head. As he brought it down I squirmed, thrashing like a caught fish, and the bat only clipped me a grazing blow to the ear. My head rang and fireworks burst before my eyes. He lifted the bat again. I was too stunned to move. I couldn’t get my tongue to work but I recited the shahadah in the privacy of my mind. I was deeply disappointed that it was all ending this way. I’d accomplished nothing. Anna was lost, and now my daughter would lose her father as well.

An ear-splitting roar filled the apartment. At first, in my dazed state, I thought another of those massive Panamanian thunder peals had erupted. El Pelado gave a short scream. His body jerked and danced, then tumbled to the ground. I turned my head to look at him. His torso was nearly cut in half. I breathed deeply, clearing my head, then managed to sit up. A high pitched whine still sounded in my ears.

Angie stood in the doorway to one of the bedrooms, holding an AK-47 in her arms. I’m no expert on guns, but I’d seen enough AKs in movies to recognize the distinctive shape of the most popular combat rifle in the world. Angie’s eyes were wide, her teeth bared in a rictus. Her badly cut hair stuck out in every direction. “I heard what he said,” she snarled. “He sold my daughter to El Demonio. He lied to me.”

I could barely hear her. Her voice sounded muffled, as if I had cotton in my ears. “Okay Angie,” I said, trying to sound calm. “Put down the gun.”

She turned to face me and stared blankly. The barrel pointed directly at my head. Remembering the way Niko had roughed her up, I feared her intentions for us. I couldn’t help grimacing and flinching, anticipating another monstrous blast from the Russian machine gun, one that would tear through me like a hunting knife through a napkin.

“Please Angie,” I said. “Put down the AK. We’re trying to help your daughter, remember?”

“What’s a AK?”

“The gun, Angie.”

“Huh? Oh.” She lowered the rifle and leaned it against the wall.

I breathed a sigh of relief. “How did you get in?”

“I know all his secrets. How to open the back door, where he keeps his guns and drugs, everything.”

Without me asking, Angie retrieved one of my knives and cut my hands free. I took the knife and freed my feet. The act of standing up made me groan with pain. My right side felt like it had been kicked in by a mule, and my head hurt. I was pretty sure I had a fractured rib. For a moment the world spun and I almost fell. When I had it under control, I freed Niko. He immediately went to the AK-47 and secured it as I recovered my backpack and my other knife. Niko’s arm was bleeding badly.

“Come,” Angie said. “I’ll show you.”

“Find some alcohol to disinfect your wound,” I told Niko, “and something to bandage it with.” I followed Angie into the back bedroom. A walk-in closet stood open. The back of the closet was apparently a false wall. Angie had already opened it to reveal a small room that housed a six-foot iron safe and a collection of twenty weapons mounted on the wall. Angie went to the safe and punched a code.

“He thinks I didn’t see because I was high,” she said, “but I did. I studied organic chemistry you know. I’m good at memorizing.” The safe clicked and Angie swung the heavy door open. A stack of U.S. currency stood a foot high on an upper shelf. Angie picked up two bundles of bills and held them in white-knuckled fists. “This is my daughter’s blood money.” She dropped the cash and fell to her knees, covering her face and moaning, “Anna, Anna.”

El Pelado was not the only one who’d sold Anna. He’d been the middleman, but Angie herself was the wholesaler, and her betrayal was infinitely worse.

“If you knew how to open this safe,” I said, “why didn’t you steal this money before, instead of selling your child?”

Angie looked up with red eyes. “I was afraid of El Pelado.”

“And now you’re not?”

“You – you believed in me,” she stammered. “You said you had faith in me. No one has ever said that to me before. No one.”

Huh. I hadn’t exactly meant she should go and kill her pimp, but I wasn’t sorry that she had. She’d saved my life, after all. I picked up the money she’d dropped and inspected the stack in the safe. There was over twenty thousand dollars. “Niko,” I called quietly. “Come in here.”

He walked into the bedroom, saw the safe and cash, and whistled. His arm was bandaged with a hand towel secured with duct tape. Blood was already seeping through the towel, which smelled of liquor – no doubt what he’d used to disinfect the wound.

“How much will it cost for your son’s operation?”

His eyes met mine, and I saw the look of a man who has lost something precious, and now dares to hope that he may recover it. “Five thousand.”

I counted out ten thousand and handed it to him. “Take it. Send it to your family tomorrow.”

He accepted the money with trembling hands. His eyes closed and his lips moved but he said nothing. Finally he opened his eyes and said, “You don’t know what this mean to me. Ay, Zayn.”

“Don’t thank me,” I said. “Thank God, who opens a way from directions we do not expect.”

I separated the remaining 10K into halves and tried to hand a bundle to Angie. “Take this. Leave Colon. Return to California. Check into rehab, get clean. You and Anna could still be reunited.”

She shook her head. “It’s too late. I’ve been a junkie since I was nineteen. Whatever you give me I’ll shoot into my veins. Take Anna back to California. Tell her I’m sorry.” With that she stood and shambled out of the apartment.

I stuffed the remaining $10,000 into my backpack. I didn’t feel bad about taking the money. This was most likely the cash El Pelado had received from trafficking Anna. I might as well put it to good use. If I could use it to find her, I would savor the irony.

“Come on,” I told Niko. “We have to go. That rifle made enough noise to wake the dinosaurs.”

Niko snatched up the silver-plated .45 and a box of ammunition. We emerged from the apartment to find the street dark and deserted. Only the barking of dogs indicated that anything had happened. Apparently no one in this area cared to investigate gunshots.

* * *

“Tell me about this El Demonio,” I said as we limped down the street, me favoring my left side and Niko cradling his wounded arm.

“Is not good. He is very brutal, a psicópata, how you say?”

“Psychopath?”

“Si. Psychopath.”

“I need to find him. Now.”

Niko squared his shoulders and crossed his arms. “We need rest. Look at you amigo, you can hardly stand. What can you do in this condition? Also, to attack El Demonio is very impossible.” He put up a hand, forestalling my objections. “I don’t say no! I made a swear. I will help you even if I die. But it requires planning. Tonight, we rest. Tomorrow we plan. Is the only way Zayn.”

I narrowed my eyes and tightened my jaw. It galled me to admit it, but Niko was right. I was close to collapse.

We found a taxi, and a half hour later were comfortably ensconced in the Radisson Colon 2000 hotel, on the eastern side of the Colon peninsula, overlooking the Caribbean. The hotel was clean, air conditioned, and highly secure. I showered and tended to my wounds, as did Niko. I was wrong about the stitches on my arm. They were still sound. Dr. Alfred was clearly very skilled. But the shoulder wound had indeed opened up. I bandaged it as well as I could. There was nothing I could do for my cracked rib. It would heal in time.

I took my medication – including the pain meds this time – then we ate in the hotel restaurant, where we dined on overpriced but tasty garlic corvina (me) and stewed beef (Niko). We ate in silence. I was deeply tired and my head pounded. I was also wary of being overheard.

Back in the room, Niko and I sat facing each other on opposite beds. He explained that El Demonio, whose real name was Manuel Carretera, lived in a fortified mansion on a private island called Ougadiri. The island was part of the San Blas archipelago, several miles offshore, northeast of Colon. The archipelago belonged to the Kuna Yala Comarca, an autonomous province of the Kuna Indian tribe. The Panamanian police could not go there.

The government had tried El Demonio three times in absentia for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder to kidnapping and torture. He’d been acquitted all three times. The popular feeling was that corruption was responsible. Meaning El Demonio had paid off the judges, prosecutors, cops, or all three.

“We’ll need a boat, I said blearily, “and a guide.”

Niko gestured to the bed. “Lie down, and I will tell you my thoughts.”

I laid on the bed, and Niko began to talk about his childhood in Colon, and how he’d worked as a deckhand on a fishing boat. He spoke about the character of the sea, and how it could change as quickly as the leap of a fish. He talked about Panama’s hundreds of Caribbean islands, and how he’d learned to navigate between them…

I don’t know what else he talked about, because I was asleep within minutes.

* * *

Next: Chapter 15: Ouagadiri Island

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

    Bint A

    September 5, 2017 at 7:24 PM

    Intense.

    Feels like im navigating a video game.The danger slowly increasing by degrees, tackling one enemy after another until we reach the “big boss” at the last level, on his territory, for the epic battle that wil decide all…

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 5, 2017 at 9:50 PM

      Lol, I hope it is more original and creative than a video game though. But I get the analogy.

  2. Avatar

    Abdullah Ahmad

    September 5, 2017 at 7:29 PM

    Mashaallah brother Wael. Excellent as usual. The story is progressing with lots of action and adventure. Can’t wait till it’s done!

  3. Avatar

    Naz

    September 5, 2017 at 9:06 PM

    Thank you for the long chapter, what a treat!

    My comments this chapter was deep, it showed trusting ALLAH s.w.t, even in the thicket of danger. And not letting our anger impact our decision making!

    Zaid has no idea he’s a hero. He’s been misunderstood for soooo long. I think we dont realize our true potential or how amazing we are, till someone especially a stranger tells us. Because a stranger wont give us a biased opinion or tell us what we want to hear, they see us for who we are, but often we dont believe them.

    Angie’s grandfather spoke the truth when he called Zaid a valiant hero.

    Im just mad at Angie for selling her daughter, and I hope Zaid and Niko get home safely.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 5, 2017 at 9:49 PM

      Naz, you’re welcome :-) I really appreciate your insights into Zaid’s character. What do you think about Niko, by the way? No one has commented on him as a character.

      • Avatar

        Naz

        September 10, 2017 at 1:14 AM

        Unfortunately, I cant reply to the thread. Niko is the type of friend we all wish we had, and we all need. Niko is a rare breed-eccentric, emotional, yet his loyalty knows no bounds. He is the type of friend who will put their friends above themselves. There are very few such people much less friends like that in the world. Zaid is blessed to have found Niko, like a guiding lighting in the jungle of darkness. I just hope Niko doesnt die and they can both return to their respective families. And, that Angie’s grandfather gets his flute back.

        • Avatar

          Wael Abdelgawad

          September 10, 2017 at 1:37 AM

          Naz, I loved your comment. It amazes me sometimes how my readers have a deeper insight into my characters than I do. Oh, and it was a trumpet, not a flute, ha ha – but yeah, I hope so too.

  4. Avatar

    Mohd

    September 5, 2017 at 10:26 PM

    The build up of suspense in this chapter is nerve wracking – I literally couldn’t put it down till I finished reading it.
    Niko is a very genuine character who shows the warm and courageous side of Panama. I really like the way you have also captured his accent.
    My only criticism of this chapter is that I felt that there were too many events happening in one day. It just seemed a little impossible that Zaid and Niko would labor on even after they were wounded… I think the first time Niko suggested a break sounded like a good time to take one.

  5. Avatar

    Malika

    September 6, 2017 at 1:32 AM

    That was such a good read! So much suspense around this mysterious character Jose Cruz. Can’t wait to see how this will unfold!

  6. Avatar

    Taban

    September 7, 2017 at 3:08 AM

    “”I could see the atheist’s point. Life is not a connect-the-dots coloring book with handy numbers proving that (1) prayer leads to (2) the fulfillment of one’s wish. But how many times in my life had I been in situations that should have killed me and didn’t? Not the least of these was my near drowning in the Río Curundú this very day, and the confrontation with three armed robbers a few hours ago. Just as many times I’d been caught in serious life traps with no obvious exits, then suddenly found a door opening before me, offering a way forward.

    I’m a private detective. I might believe in one coincidence or two, but when the “coincidences” begin to mount, I – like any good detective – look for the pattern behind the chaos. I look for the Power that in turn is looking out for me, protecting me, guiding me with a touch and a nudge, and sometimes a solid rap on my skull.

    To whom could I give the credit but Allah? Who else kept saving me from myself? Who else found such value in my sorry existence?””
    I found this piece awesome, no more words…..

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 8, 2017 at 1:22 AM

      Thank you Taban for your comment and for your loyal readership.

  7. Avatar

    Umm Muhammad

    September 7, 2017 at 3:27 AM

    I loved the description of the places as if I could literally picture them in my head. As a teacher of young children the point of believing in people really hits home to me. I always love to see the kids faces light up when I tell them I know they can do something.
    Despite Angie’s broken state there is always hope

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 8, 2017 at 1:21 AM

      Agreed. Some people just need someone to have faith in them.

  8. Avatar

    Vendula

    September 7, 2017 at 4:01 PM

    My head is spinning! Yesterday I realized that you were posting again and I just caught up with the story now in lieu of doing my chores and other obligations. Love the way you have developed Zaid and added these other colorful characters to the mix. It’s true that it seems unlikely for so many events to happen in one day but then again this is fiction so anything can happen. Reading this story has been a thousand times better than any Hollywood film I’ve seen…LOVE the Islamic reminders which make reading your stories a form of dhikr…my emaan is positively affected from reading your work alhamdulillah. You mentioned taking out the strip club scene from earlier but I say keep the raw elements of the story in place. Those are real world reminders of the darkness and filth of life, especially a life of drugs. Many times while reading i was reminded of a stop for gas i made in Modesto a few months ago and the decrepit faces of the meth heads in that area…so so sad, may Allah help all those addicted and protect us and our children.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 8, 2017 at 1:21 AM

      Vendula, thanks so much for your comments. It’s so funny how, whenever one reader says they don’t like some part of my story, another reader says, “No, I like that part!”

      So you are in California? It’s true that Central Valley cities like Modesto, Stockton, Merced and others have been hit hard by the spread of drugs. In fact it’s been an epidemic across most small American cities in recent years. Alhamdulillah we have a deen that protects us and teaches us better.

  9. Avatar

    FM

    September 9, 2017 at 3:22 PM

    Thank you. Your stories are an inspiration, to stay strong in the most difficult of circumstances when there’s no one but Allah swt, to trust and have good hope in him always.
    Jazakallahu khair!!!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 10, 2017 at 1:36 AM

      Thank you too, FM. Your comment reminded me who Zaid Karim is at his core, and helped me write a scene tonight.

  10. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 12, 2017 at 10:15 AM

    Oh my god I loved it!! I was losing hope in fact I already lost hope in her I was really upset that an idiot would sell her daughter for money and everything. Excuse me I was just really upset and you bought her back up by shooting the pimp.

    I just hope the ahead chapter is how she saves her own daughter or something like that. So far, it’s awesome loved Hassan’s chapter the best.

    Good Writer MashaAllah!!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 12, 2017 at 12:37 PM

      Thanks Maryam. Apparently Hassan is so popular, all he has to do is be mentioned and that becomes the favorite chapter, ha ha.

  11. Avatar

    Layyinah

    September 12, 2017 at 12:15 PM

    As mentioned previously, this was an unbelievably long day. BUT, this is your style, I think, you want to write about people that go above and beyond for others. If nothing else, Zayed is determined and committed, to his job, family, and faith. I am glad that you gave Angie the opportunity to redeem herself. I love happy endings and I hope our two characters make it to the end of the story.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 12, 2017 at 12:45 PM

      Yes Layyinah, you got it exactly. It’s all about people pushing themselves past their limits, and past the point where any sane, reasonable person would stop.

  12. Avatar

    Umm Sayyid

    September 13, 2017 at 8:56 PM

    Salam,
    Just stumbled upon your story, and somehow got hooked, its very interesting Masha Allah. I am going to keep following and reading. All characters are real & scene depiction very detailed & colorful. Keep it up & we will keep reading on.

  13. Avatar

    Layyinah

    September 21, 2017 at 3:55 PM

    Niko is obviously a little depressed about his son BUT it’s obvious that he’s another devoted husband and father. Likewise, he’s a faithful person, a person of his word. Again, you’ve created a character that is honorable and is putting the need of someone else, a stranger practically, above himself. I really enjoy the way you develop the protagonist and emphasize the importance of faith in their lives. Keep up the great work and may Allah bless you with success.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 21, 2017 at 5:27 PM

      Thank you sister Layyinah for your kind comment and your dua’. I appreciate it.

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Books

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

Omar Usman

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grit

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.

To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter

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#Culture

To Kill a Muslim – Part 1

Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.

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1. Ragheads

Rotting wooden porch steps

Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.

It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.

Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.

Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.

So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.

So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.

It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.

He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.

As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.

Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.

But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.

He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.

But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.

But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.

2. Moving Day

Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.

His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”

He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.

“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”

Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”

He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.

They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.

Craftsman bungalow cottage

The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.

It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.

It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.

̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.

He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨

She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨

He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.

The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.

As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.

Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.

As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.

He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.

Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.

Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.

“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.

While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.

As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.

Cop with gun drawn

What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?

“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”

Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?

“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”

SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.

This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.

The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.

He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.

“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”

“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.

* * *

Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus

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Go Visit Bosnia

Abu Reem

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Visit Bosnia

I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.

Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.

To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.

Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.

What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?

So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.

However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.

Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.

Travel Bosnia, Visit Bosnia

Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.

Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.

Sarajevo

Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a compact city on the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps. Its center has museums commemorating local history, including Sarajevo 1878–1918, which covers the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. Landmarks of the old quarter, Baš?aršija, include the Ottoman-era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque.

Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.

The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.

As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.

Visit Bosnia

As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.

 

 

As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.

Visit Bosnia, SarajevoOur trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.

Visit Bosnia

Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.

You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city.  I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.

Visit Bosnia

A view from Hecco Deluxe Hotel, Bosnia

Visit Bosnia

In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!

Watering hole structure for stray cats and dogs

Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.

If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.

Vrelo Bosne:

 

Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.

Visit Bosnia

Museum Tunnel of War:

This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.

A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.

Blagaj

This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.

Travnik

Visit Bosnia

This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.

Jajce

It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans.  The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.

Mostar

Visit Bosnia

It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.

 

Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.

Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.

Visit Bosnia

Mostar Old Bridge (1567) (UNESCO World Heritage List)

Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica

Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman.  Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.

Bosnia

Srebrenica

Visit Bosnia

Srebenica, Bosnia

Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.

We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.

Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.

 

This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.

Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.

Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):

Woodcrafts in Konjic, Bosnia

On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.

Visit Bosnia

You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Visit Bosnia, Sunnyland

Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.

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