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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 15 – Ouagadiri Island

There was no way I could challenge the security forces on that island and survive. Our plan, therefore, was based entirely on stealth.




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

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Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

Tuesday, February 8, 2010 – 8 am
Colon, Panama

I woke up to pray Fajr. It helped that Panama time was three hours ahead of California time, so my body thought it was getting extra sleep. My head still ached from the hit with the baseball bat. But in all the strangeness of this trip, my salat, my prayer, was a familiar refuge. It was a quiet moment of peace, a haven in which I turned to my Lord and begged forgiveness for my mistakes. I asked for guidance, and simply experienced the feeling of being present before Allah. All else fell away, and for those few minutes I was at peace.

After prayer I went back to bed. I shouldn’t have been able to sleep. I should have been haunted by the memories of all that had happened. Nearly drowning in the Río Curundú. Niko standing in front of Soccer Boy’s gun, screaming, “Kill me!” Angie’s broken body and spirit. El Pelado raising the bat high, about to crush my skull, and then being cut in two by a hail of gunfire. This case was taking me in the opposite direction from where I needed to go spiritually. I was striving to become less violent and more compassionate, while this case was immersing me in violence. I was a fish swimming in a lake full of blood, and apparently I didn’t mind because I slept like some innocent angel baby, if angels could have babies. I’m not proud of that.

In the morning the headache had lessened a bit. Niko and I ate a quick breakfast of white rice, scrambled eggs, black beans and gallo pinto, then returned to the room. I suggested going to the police. After all, we had a kidnapped child and a suspect. This was a major crime.

Niko proceeded to poke a dozen holes in that idea. Major crimes were an everyday occurrence in Colon; the police were overwhelmed, and we’d make ourselves suspects in the murder of El Pelado. Also, if there was collusion between the cops and El Demonio, we’d only be alerting the kingpin that we were after him. The next thing that would happen was that bad guys would track us down and separate our heads from our shoulders.

I liked my head firmly attached. Things just seemed to work better that way.

If Anna were to be rescued, we would have to do it ourselves. Niko and I brainstormed, outlining ideas on the small writing pad from the room desk. We worked for an hour, tearing up one sheet of paper after another. Every idea was suicide. Neither of us were trained soldiers. We had no training in siege tactics, infiltration or defeating security systems. Any attempt to reach that island and rescue Anna would end in both of us being captured, tortured and killed.

It didn’t matter. I had to try. Tarek had been my friend. And Anna was an innocent child. What if it was Hajar who’d been sold into slavery? What would I do? I would stop at nothing to bring her home. I could do no less for Anna.

I tried to convince Niko to help me find a boat and a pilot, then leave the rest of the job to me. I didn’t want his death on my conscience. I didn’t want to go to my grave knowing I’d made Niko’s wife a widow, and his children orphans. Plus, of course, he was an unstable maniac.

Niko would not hear it. We argued and shouted. At one point he punched the wall and left a dent in it. Great, I thought. They’ll bill that to my credit card.

Finally I gave in. We left the hotel together and took a taxi to a remittance office that also handled Western Union money transfers. Niko sent his entire $10K to his family, while I transferred $7K to Safaa. Then I handed my companion five hundred dollars in cash and sent him off to rent a boat. Meanwhile I took a taxi to the Free Trade Zone.

Colon Free Trade Zone

Colon Free Trade Zone

It wasn’t what I expected. The FTZ turned out to be a huge commercial park with dozens of warehouse sized buildings that sprawled along the Caribbean waterfront, where products from all over the world were imported, assembled, repackaged, exported or sold. These included appliances, electronics, pharmaceuticals, cigarettes and liquor, furniture, clothing and shoes, jewelry, toys, and all manner of home and office supplies.

One of the buildings housed a collection of retail shops including restaurants and an internet cafe. I went into the internet shop and rented a computer station that was set up with a headphone and microphone for internet calls or video chats. There were seven or eight rows of closely packed computers, and many were occupied. Most of the other customers looked Arab, Indian or Chinese.

I needed to talk to Safaa and Hajar. I planned to make my rescue attempt that very evening, and I knew the odds were against my survival. By the end of the night my body would probably be bumping along the bottom of the Caribbean, an Arabic food buffet for crabs – the Zaid Karim special – or maybe I’d be stretched out on the floor of El Demonio’s mansion with my head – as Niko had said – separated from my shoulders and being used as a football by El Demonio’s men.

Okay, so my imagination is not my friend. Point being, I had to see my family’s faces one last time. It was now about 11:00 am on a Tuesday. It would be 8:00 am in Fresno. If Allah Subhanahu wa Taala’s good fortune smiled down on me, I might just catch Safaa on her way out the door to drop Hajar at daycare.

I logged into Skype, and  added money to my Skype account from my bank account. Then I called Safaa’s phone.

“Who is this?” Safaa had me on speakerphone and her voice was muffled by street noise. So they’d already left the house. She was driving.

“It’s me. How are you?”

“Zaid? You didn’t come up on the caller ID. Are you still in Panama?”

“Honey, could you pull over for a minute?”

“Don’t call me honey. And we’re running late.”

I took a deep breath and reined in my desire to slam a fist onto the desk. “Please Safaa. It’s important.”

“You can talk to Hajar. I’ll pass the phone to her. Hajar, talk to Baba.”

Some part of my love for Safaa, some crucial component that made the wheels of my heart turn, shut off inside me then. I felt it in my chest, like a railroad switch that had just been thrown, diverting a train from one track onto another, with an entirely different destination. One of the reasons I loved Safaa so much was that she had always been there for me, always had my back. But that wasn’t the case anymore. My love was based on an obsolete dynamic. I was stuck in the past, refusing to see that my version of the world was dead and fossilized. I’d resisted this truth for months, but I felt it settle now, falling like acid rain in the ventricles of my heart. The train had been switched, the destination altered. In my mind’s eye I could see Safaa on a different track, diverging, moving steadily away.

Hajar, on the other hand, was my daughter and always would be. She was my sweet raspberry, my honey, my cutie pie. I had intended to ask Safaa to turn on the Skype app so we could talk face to face, but it was fine. Voice alone would have to do.

“Sala ‘laykum Baba,” Hajar said cheerily.

I smiled and instantly my eyes became wet. “Wa alaykum as-salam honey. Are you having a good morning?”

“Uh-huh. I had a dream that I was a pony, and I was with Rarity and Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony, and we were going down a slide into a lake of strawberry milk, then the other ponies turned into floating pumpkins so I went home.”

“Wow, ma-sha-Allah. You’d like to have a lake like that, wouldn’t you?”

“I would drink as much as I could, then all my dolls would drink until it was gone!”

“You want to hear about the three aliens?”


This was a little story that Hajar absolutely loved, even though she’d heard it a dozen times. “Three little aliens landed on earth in their spaceship,” I began. “They spread out to learn something about earth people. One went into a diner and heard someone say, ‘I need a fork and knife.’ Wanting to learn earth language, the alien began repeating, ‘Fork and knife, fork and knife, fork and knife.’”

Hajar started to giggle uncontrollably, and continued to laugh as I went on to narrate how the aliens went about mimicking English phrases and using them in inappropriate ways, getting themselves into more and more trouble. When the story was done I said, “Listen sweetie, I have some important things to tell you.”

“Okay, Baba.”

“I love you always and forever no matter what.”

“I already know that Baba, you say that every time.”

“Yes. I know. But…” I struggled to control myself and not let the depth of my emotion show. “Even if you didn’t see me for a while, even if I wasn’t around, I would still love you always and forever. You know that right?”


“Repeat what I said back to me, please.”

“You would always love me forever.”

I nodded and closed my eyes. “Now tell me, what is the most important thing in life?”

“Allah,” she replied without hesitation.

I smiled. “Very good. Always have a good relationship with Allah. Do you know the word relationship?”

“It’s a big boat.”

“No, not a ship. Relationship means to be close to Allah, pray to Him, love Him, think about what He wants you to do, like that.”

“That’s what I meant to say.”

I shook my head and chuckled. This kid could never admit she was wrong. She inherited that from her mom. “Second,” I continued, “your best example in life is the Prophet Muhammad, sal-Allahu alayhi wa-sallam. Third, have a good relationship with Mama. No one will ever love you like her. Always listen to her. When something upsets you, tell her.”

“Okay, Baba.”

There was nothing else to say. I could repeat these same points over and over, make Hajar recite them back, but what was the point? We had either raised her right or we had not. These fundamentals – loving Allah, loving the Prophet, loving her parents – were in her heart, or they were not. And I believed they were. “Now pass the phone to Mama, please.”

“What is it Zaid?” Safaa said, her tone brusque but not rude. “We’re pulling up to Hajar’s daycare.”

“I need you to write something down. Do you have a pen?”

She let out an exasperated breath. “Hold on.” Thirty seconds went by then she said, “Okay, what is it?”

“I sent you seven thousand dollars through Western Union. Here’s the transfer control number.” I slowly listed the ten digit code she would need to pick up the money. “Did you get that?”

“Yeah. Wow. I don’t understand. Are the Anwars still paying you?”

“No, it’s a long story. Listen, I have something to tell you.”

“Okay.” She sounded much more agreeable now that I’d just sent her a sizeable chunk of money.

“I love you,” I said. “I have no anger and no regret. I forgive you for everything. I was always faithful to you, but please forgive me for whatever mistakes I’ve made. Remember me kindly, and don’t let Hajar forget me.” My lower jaw began to quiver, and tears ran down my cheeks.

Safaa’s tone became suddenly serious. “Wait, why are you saying this? What’s happening down there?”

“I’m doing what I have to do. I have to be the man I am. Take care of our little girl. And thank you for all you have done for me. You made my life rich and bright. I have to go now.”


I ended the call. Then I brushed the tears from my face and called brother Saleem, my Pakistani friend who managed the homeless shelter. He was a joker, but I trusted him more than anyone I knew.

He answered on the first ring. “As-salamu alaykum, what it be like?”

“Wa alaykum as-salam, it’s Zaid.”

“Oh hey, my man, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I have some ideas for how to get your wife back.”

“Oh? What are they?”

“One. Reverse Psychology. You run up to her and shout, ‘I’m filing a restraining order against you! Stop calling me!’ Then you draw a chalk line on the floor and dare her to cross it. Then, while she tries to think of what to say, you hug her and say, ‘It’s okay, I forgive you.’ Then me and your other friends step out of hiding and start cheering and throwing marigold petals.”

I chuckled. “Next idea.”

“Okay. Number two: The Hero. Me and your Musketeer friends dress up like thugs with ski masks. We burst into Safaa’s classroom and start tossing textbooks around and scraping our fingernails on the chalkboard. You soar into the room and begin a choreographed action scene where you take everyone out in fine fashion. You deliver the final blow to a dazed enemy – me – by moonwalking toward him and throwing a backfist. The rest is history.”

I laughed out loud. “Next.”

“There’s one more. It’s called Sea Monster, but it’s still in beta development.”

“I see. Thanks for that.”

“No problem. How goes the case? What are you working on?”

“It’s a long story. I’m actually calling you about something important.”

“What is it?”

“I want you to make me a promise.”

“Sure, man.” Saleem must have sensed the tension in my voice, because his tone became serious – a rare thing for him. “Anything.”

“The case I’m on right now… It’s getting hairy. I want you to swear that if anything should happen to me, you’ll look out for Safaa and Hajar. I don’t mean, like, marry her or anything-”

“Marry?” Saleem broke in. “What the heck are you talking about?”

“Never mind. Forget I said marry. I’m just saying, if I don’t return, keep an eye on them, make sure they’re safe and provided for.”

“Why are you saying this bro? You’re scaring me.”

“Just swear to me!” My voice rose, and some of the people around me in the cafe turned to look.

“Okay! I swear. But-”

“Jazak Allah khayr. I have to go. Take care, brother. I love you fee sabeel-illah.” I hung up before Saleem could ask any questions.

I googled Manuel Carretera, aka El Demonio. I read news articles detailing his many crimes, including the hundreds suspected dead at the hands of him and his gang. I studied his face until I could call it up with my eyes closed, down to his missing right ear, apparently lost in a knife fight in his youth. It was the face of evil, of one who has chosen to align himself with the devil, whether one understands that literally or figuratively.

When I was done, I paid for my computer time and walked out into the FTZ to buy the things I needed.

As it turned out, the FTZ was geared toward bulk commercial merchandise, and was not especially affordable for single item purchases. I had to do a lot of walking in the heat from building to building. With every step I took, I experienced a grinding soreness in my right side, where I’d been kicked by El Pelado. My headache grew steadily worse, until it felt like my temples were caught in a vice.

Still, I was able to find what I wanted, though I was hot, tired and in real pain by the time I was done. I left in a taxi, having purchased two night vision goggles, two binoculars, two flashlights, two waterproof watches, diving wetsuits and diving knives, scuba dry bags, swimming flippers and goggles, walkie talkies, and a large first aid supply kit. Thanks to the cash I’d scored off El Pelado, I had plenty left over to get Anna home, Insha’Allah.

* * *

Apparently in the tropics the sun rose and set at nearly the same time all year long. Sunrise was at around 6:30 am here, and sunset at 6:30 pm. I took a nap, giving my body a little more recuperation time, then we checked out of the hotel. I left the tall soccer hat on the bed as a gift for the maid, just in case there were any rumors going around about an Arab in a soccer hat asking questions everywhere.

We took a taxi a half hour eastward up the coast, then inland to the end of a gravel road. From there we walked down a dirt path that led into the rainforest. We’d distributed our supplies between the two scuba packs.

Panama Rainforest

Panama Rainforest

As we walked I found myself entranced by the living, breathing jungle around me, so much so that I almost forgot the constant grinding pain in my right side. The trees closed around and above us, deep and green and vibrant with life. Birds called, monkeys hooted, and small animals bounded through the undergrowth. Lines of leaf cutter ants carried their prizes to their underground dens. Every few minutes I had to slap a mosquito from my skin. We waded a small stream and a tall gray heron with a gracefully curved neck burst into flight.

After a half hour we emerged from the forest to find a small seaside village. The people were simply dressed in jeans or shorts, t-shirts and blouses. Most were barefoot. Kids played soccer in the road while women cooked or washed clothes in buckets. One group of women sat in a circle singing a church hymn. Many waved and greeted us as if we were old friends.

One young woman eyed me speculatively. She was slender, olive skinned and dark haired, and maybe nineteen years old. Perhaps in another life I could marry her and settle down in this sleepy little village, where I’d live a quiet life fishing, napping in hammocks, playing with my children and juggling coconuts. The idea attracted me powerfully, and I realized after a moment’s contemplation that what I truly wanted was love. That was all. I wanted the love of a good woman.

A man came walking slowly up the street. He wore rubber boots, jeans, a t-shirt and a Panama hat. His skin was brown and deeply seamed. His entire manner spoke of his weariness after a long day at work. A little girl burst out of a house and ran to meet him. She carried a handful of blue zinnia flowers in her hand, and she ran to the man, hugged him and gave him the flowers. He accepted the flowers as if they were a treasure. He picked the girl up and they went into the house.

A memory popped into my head and it nearly floored me. How had I forgotten this? Back in 2005, when I first got out of prison, Aziz invited me to the aqiqah for his second child. I literally had only been out of the joint – prison – for three days. I hadn’t married Safaa yet, and hadn’t met Saleem. Almost everyone at the party knew who I was and where I’d been, and no one wanted to talk to me. Or maybe I – fearing their condemnation – didn’t want to talk to them. Tarek was there and we exchanged a few words, then he disappeared, maybe to the bathroom to shoot up. I went out to the backyard and sat in a patio chair, staring at the sky, trying to get used to the idea that I was free. A tiny girl with long brown hair appeared in front of me. She wore a green dress and pink slippers, and in her hand she held a selection of garden flowers she’d obviously picked. She thrust them at me and said, “This is for you, because you seem lonely.” I accepted the flowers and – too moved and choked up to speak – merely nodded. No one had shown me kindness in a long, long time, and just this little act of sweetness overwhelmed my system. The girl smiled and ran off to play with her friends.

That little girl was Anna. She was what, three years old then? And now her father was departed from this world, her mother was lost to demons, and there was no one left to protect her but me.

I had to save this girl. Wallahi, I had to save this girl, though all the forces of Shaytan himself might stand in my way. If I had to tear down Ouagadiri Island stone by stone, I would find this girl, as God was my witness.

“Zayn?” Niko put a hand on my shoulder. “Whass wrong?”

I realized that I’d been standing in place, staring at the house that the father and daughter had disappeared into.

“Come on, Zayn.” Niko took my arm and led me down the road to an open-air beachside restaurant where many of the village’s men were congregated, watching a boxing match on TV. My companion and I sat and ordered nachos and Pepsis, and I took my medication. The nachos were freshly made, topped with real cheese, black beans, and sour cream. They were delicious, alhamdulillah.

Just as it had the previous afternoon, the sky let loose an ear splitting peal of thunder, and a downpour began. The rain was so heavy it was nearly solid. At least I was under the shelter of a corrugated tin roof. The rain on the roof was like a thousand marching feet, drowning out the sound from the TV. I ate and watched the rain forming rivulets and streams and running down the sand of the beach into the sea. In time the rain stopped, and the sun dipped into the sea and disappeared.

I prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha on the beach. We didn’t plan to cast off until 10 pm, so we had time to pass. As the sky turned black, my thoughts darkened with it. I found myself thinking about what Farah had said about my mother. Had my mother aborted some sort of defective fetus before me? How then would Farah know the child was “lame”? Was it possible my mother had actually given birth? Had the child died? I had no answers.

I thought about the crippled man I‘d seen in Panama city, the man who walked on his hands. For some reason his image haunted me. The idea of living with such a shocking disability terrified me, while the charm and ease with which he bore it shamed me.

I thought about my family, my daughter growing up without me, hearing about me secondhand from people who’d never had much affection for me to start with.

Stop, I told myself. This is fruitless. I rubbed my forehead, trying to clear my mind – and remembered Salman, my superhero. The last time I’d mentally reviewed his story, I’d left off at the point of his conversion to Islam.

* * *

Though Salman had accepted Islam wholeheartedly and with great joy, he was still a slave. He missed two of the battles against the pagans. The Prophet (saw) told him: “Write, O Salman,” meaning write a proposal for your freedom to your master. Salman did so, and reached an agreement where he would pay for his freedom forty ounces of gold and would plant and successfully raise three hundred palm trees. Of course Salman had no such resources and it seemed hopeless.

The Prophet (saw) said to his companions, “Help your brother.” All the companions rose to assist Salman. One brought thirty saplings; another brought twenty; a third brought fifteen; a fourth ten, and so on, until they had collected all three hundred as needed. Salman dug holes for the seedlings, upon which the Prophet himself came and planted the first tree with his own hands. Then Salman and the companions took charge of the project, and planted the other trees. Every tree struck roots, and not one out of the three hundred was lost. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)sealed the deal by giving Salman a forty ounce golden egg and saying, “Take this, O Salman, and pay what you owe.” Salman gave it to his master and was released.

Suddenly everything changed for Salman. The gulf between slavery and freedom had appeared unbridgeable. But he had called upon Allah and His Messenger for aid, and they responded, and the gulf was bridged.

Salman became one of the closest companions of the Prophet. He was renowned for his knowledge of both the Christian scriptures and the Quran. He spoke multiple languages including Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Zoroastrian. He was a quiet man, speaking only when necessary, and offering concise wisdom. Because of all these he became known as the Luqman of his nation.

In early February 627, the Messenger of God ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), received intelligence that the polytheists of Makkah, witnessing the establishment of Islam in Madinah and desperate to wipe it out before it challenged their power, had gathered all the tribes of Arabia for an invasion. They possessed a cavalry and infantry of ten thousand seasoned warriors. Their intention was to obliterate Islam in one massive, coordinated attack.

The Muslims did not have the numbers to stop such an attack. They were fortunate, however, to have among them a foreigner who had been to many lands and witnessed many fighting strategies. That foreigner was, of course, Salman. He suggested that the Muslims dig a trench, too deep and wide for horses to leap over, along the exposed perimeter of the city. The trench could be manned by archers, preventing anyone from crossing.

As the trench was dug, Salman, who was rangy and muscular, worked feverishly, lifting his pick high and breaking one stone after another. All the Muslims were impressed. One of the Muhajireen who was watching Salman, claimed him as a Muhajir (an immigrant from Makkah). “Salman is one of us Muhajireen,” he said. But he was at once challenged by the Muslims of Madinah (the Ansar). One said: “No. Salman is one of us, the Ansar.”
A lively argument ensued between the two groups, each claiming Salman for their own.

Presently, the Messenger of Allah arrived on the scene, and he too heard the argument of the Muhajireen and the Ansar. He was amused by the claims of the two sides but put an end to their argument by saying: “Salman is neither Muhajir nor Ansar. He is one of us. He is one of the People of the House.” Meaning the family of the Prophet himself ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

What a tremendous honor! No one else in the entire history of Islam has ever been elevated to such a high rank.

As for the trench, hardly had the last spadeful of earth been cast when the pagan cavaliers arrived, thundering across the desert like a whirlwind. But suddenly they were checked in their charge by a strange new obstacle – the trench.

One of the Makkan generals – Amr ibn Abd Wudd – lost patience with this outlandish, un-Arab mode of fighting, and decided to stir things up by hurdling the trench. He and three of his staff officers discovered a rocky projection which the Muslims had been unable to cut and used it to jump the trench.

Once inside the perimeter of the city, he boldly advanced toward the encampment of the Muslims and challenged them to single combat in the classical tradition of Arabian warfare. A duel between Amr ibn Abd Wud and a teenaged Ali ibn Abi Talib raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him)was fought, with Ali being victorious. As soon as Amr fell, the other three knights hastily retreated across the trench.
The siege went on for more than a month, during which the Muslims manned the trench day and night, in conditions of extreme cold, hunger and fear. In the end a strong wind came and scattered the pagans’ animals, tents and cooking pots. Dispirited, they departed one tribe at a time, and the siege was ended.

The failure of the siege was a most significant even in the history of Islam and Arabia. Never again did the pagans attempt an attack on Madinah, the fortress of Islam. The initiative passed, finally and irreversibly, to the Muslims, and Islam moved into a position of dominance in the Arabian Peninsula, and eventually a large part of the world.

* * *

The time came. Niko and I walked a few hundred meters to where several fishing boats were drawn up onto the beach and moored to the palm trees that grew almost to the waterline. The boat Niko had managed to secure was twenty feet long, a simple wooden boat with a small wheelhouse at the back, a single propeller, and a set of oars as a backup. It was called the Cisne Negro, or Black Swan, and was painted with horizontal green and black stripes. It was good thinking on Niko’s part to select this boat, as it would be nearly invisible on the water at night.

We unmoored the boat, shoved it down to the water, started the engine and cruised northeast into the pitch blackness of the Atlantic Ocean. Niko steered from the wheelhouse. He said he still remembered how to navigate these waters from his days as a ship’s hand in his youth. I chose to trust him, since there was no alternative.

There was no way I could challenge the security forces on that island and survive. Our plan, therefore, was based entirely on stealth. Niko had explained that the Atlantic wind and current came consistently from the east, and that we must approach the island from the windward or western side, otherwise we could be pushed by the wind into the rocky shore. We would seek a geographical feature that would conceal our approach, sidle up alongside it, and drop anchor. Niko would stay with the boat while I infiltrated the island. He’d argued this point, wanting to accompany me, but I was unrelenting. If both of us went it would increase the chances of one being caught. My private reason was that I wasn’t willing to be responsible for his death. Plus, I never knew what to expect from him. Like the Atlantic winds, he could change at any moment from an asset to a liability.

I’d hide, observe, then sneak into the house, find Anna, and bring her back to the boat. If I was caught – if any noises or alarms went off, or if I shot off a flare – Niko was to pull anchor and beeline back to the mainland, where he would alert the American embassy. They wouldn’t be able to do anything, and I’d likely be dead, but at least someone would know what had transpired.

If was a half-baked plan, and I knew it. I wasn’t a Navy Seal or Marine. My arm still ached, I was still recovering from the infection. and I had a cracked rib. I didn’t know what types of security sytems El Demonio might have, or how to defeat them. He might have vicious dogs roaming the grounds, or komodo dragons for all I knew. Did komodo dragons run fast? And did they eat Arabs? Anyway, it was a stupid plan. But it was all I had.

The sea was as flat and black as a mirror. The stars twinkled on the surface as if they had fallen from the sky and begun to drown, and I was seeing their light rising from the depths. The moon was one third full and it too shone on the water, leaving a lighted path that ran to the eastern horizon. A breeze rose, offering a welcome counterpoint to the oppressive heat. It was all heartbreakingly pure and somehow merciless, as if two men on a small boat were inconsequential and beneath notice. In the distance, huge container ships floated by like tiny self-contained worlds.

I found myself reciting an ayah from Surat Ar-Rum: “Wa min ayatihi an yursil ar-riyaha mubasshiratin…” and on to the end of the ayah.

“You speak Arabe, señor Zayn? Whassat mean?”

I translated phrase by phrase: “And of His signs is that He sends the winds as bringers of good news and to let you taste His mercy, and so the ships may sail at His command, and so you may seek of His bounty, and perhaps you will be grateful.”

We were silent for a while, then Niko said, “I am grateful, señor Zayn.”

“For what?”

“Everything. This-” He reached over the side to dip a hand in the water, which splashed and streamed around it. “That-” He waved at the sky, so bright with stars it was as if all the heavens had gathered for a conference to discuss our fate. “This-” He thumped his chest twice with a fist, then twice again, matching the beating of his heart.

I nodded. No matter what happened tonight, no matter whether I lived or died, I was grateful to Allah for all I had seen and done, for the opportunities I’d had to eat good food, see beautiful places, to love and be loved, to lower my forehead and pray, and to make silly voices for my daughter’s dolls.

We chugged along for an hour. I’d begun to think we must be too far out to sea, and that Niko was lost and too macho to admit it, when he killed the engine. He pointed, and I could see the faintest twinkling of light far in the distance. The light was high up in the air, as if it were at the top of a tower, or on the peak of a mountain.

“I think that is Ougadiri,” Niko said softly.

“You think?”

“No, definitely that is Ougadiri.”

We inserted the oars into the oar hooks or muletas as Niko called them, and – facing the back of the boat – began to row, each of us working one oar, keeping our motions in sync. With every stroke I had a terrible jolt of pain in my ribs. With my left arm still weak from the infection and surgery, and my right side on fire, I could hardly row. I distracted myself by making dhikr. When I lifted the oar I said softly, “Subhan Allah” – seeing all the beauty around me – and when I dipped and pulled I said, “wa bihamdihi” – thinking of all I was grateful for. I did this again and again and soon Niko joined me, imitating my words without understanding. After sometime the pain became overwhelming and I began to grunt and wince with every stroke.

“You rest,” Niko said, and he took over both oars. I collapsed onto the bench as my companion quietly and expertly maneuvered the boat closer to the island. Ougadiri materialized into a looming dark shape that blotted out the stars. There was a mountain of maybe two hundred meters in height. The light we’d seen twinkled atop it, but I could make out no details.

As we came closer, we found ourselves at the base of a massive stone cliff that rose to the mountain above. We sidled up beside the cliff. I heard rustling and cooing sounds, and realized that hundreds of seabirds were roosted on the cliff, some on ledges or depressions, and some in the stunted trees that grew from the stone itself. Niko paralleled the cliff, occasionally using an oar to keep us from being smashed against it by stray currents. Suddenly the cliff opened into a dark maw, and I realized we were at the mouth of a cave.

Sea cliff at night

“Wait,” Niko whispered. He dropped the boat’s anchor, then stripped to his underwear, slipped on the wetsuit and flippers, and strapped on a pair of night vision goggles. The goggles were black cone shaped devices that projected six inches from his face, with a large spherical object that nestled in front of his forehead. He looked like some ancient sea chimera that had just risen from the depths to regard the surface world for the first time in eons. He’d go back to his people and say, “The surface world is ours for the taking! Nothing but one Arab in a boat.”

“Those aren’t waterproof,” I hissed.

He waved in acknowledgement, slipped carefully into the water feet first, then swam into the cave’s mouth, keeping his head above water. Ten minutes later he returned. I helped him back into the boat.

“The cave is closed,” he said. “No way to the surface.”

“Just as well. It might be guarded otherwise.”

“Is good for us,” Niko pointed out. “We can anchor the boat inside the cave. No one will see it.”

“Then how do I get to the shore?”

He made a hand gesture that said, Isn’t it obvious? “Swim.”

Right. Of course. We rowed the boat into the cave. It was a tight fit, with the sides of the boat scraping the stone. We dropped anchor, then risked turning on one of the flashlights. The cave was narrow and snaked into the interior of the island for maybe a hundred meters, with rough walls of stone rising on either side and arching overhead.

I took my antibiotics. No sense risking reinfection. If I survived, it would be nice to still have two arms. I stripped off my clothes and put on the wetsuit. My clothing, watch, goggles, flare gun and walkie talkie went into the scuba bag. It was a rubber backpack with welded seams and a rolltop seal that was completely waterproof. I strapped the scuba knife – a wickedly sharp, double-edged fixed blade with a hard plastic sheath – to my thigh, using the two straps that had come with it.

Niko slipped on his scuba pack as well.

“Hold on,” I objected. “You’re staying here.”

“No. I can see and hear nothing from here. I will not know if you are in trouble.”

I chewed my lip. He was right. “Okay. But you go only as far as the shore. Find a covered spot, hide and wait.”

We would have to swim to shore from here, which meant we’d swim out of the cave, around the base of the cliff as far as it went, and search until we found a safe access point to the interior of the island. We threw our legs over the side and prepared to drop into the tenebrous water.

“You know,” Niko remarked, “that there are sharks in these waters, yes? They will smell the blood from our injuries.”

I gave him a flat stare. “Did you have to tell me that? Do you think it helps to tell me that?”

He shrugged. “You never know with NorteAmericanos. They like to have all the facts.” He made quotation marks with his fingers. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

I rolled my eyes. If someone had entered my office last Thursday morning when I was rifling my desk drawers to find enough change to buy a piece of fruit, and told me that six days from then I’d be hiding in a dark sea cave beneath a Caribbean island, about to make a one-man assault on the private bastion of a drug cartel leader, with a suicidal Panamanian poet as my helper, I’d have laughed until my six pack cramped. If I had a six pack. Just goes to show. Never imagine you know what the future holds.

I raised my hands and said a quick dua’, asking Allah to guide my movements, protect me and Niko, protect our families, and help me to succeed in bringing Anna home. Then I dropped into the water with a splash. Niko followed, then led the way out of the cave. The water was cool but not cold. I’d been afraid that the scuba pack would weigh me down, but it was the opposite. The rubber was buoyant and helped me stay afloat.

We went slowly, parallelling the rough stone of the cave wall. Outside the cave Niko shadowed the cliff and I followed. The water became rougher and bounced me into the cliff. If not for the wetsuit I’d have been badly scraped up. As it was I was pretty sure my hip would be black and blue tomorrow. If I lived to see tomorrow.

“We have to swim out farther,” Niko urged. “Is too dangerous this close to the cliff.”

He stroked out into the ocean and I followed. About a hundred meters out he changed direction and began paralleling the island. I swam with my head up, afraid to lose sight of him. Once I thought I felt something brush my leg. Fearing it was a shark, I thrashed in panic. But Niko continued swimming and I had to follow.

I had a sudden thought: what if Niko tried to commit suicide again? What if he simply sank beneath the surface and drowned himself? I’d be alone out here, in a strange sea off the coast of an island occupied by a murderer. The thought terrified me. I stopped swimming and paddled in place, trying to control my fear. I gasped for air as if I’d been swimming underwater all this time.

Niko reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “Easy Zayn. You are doing good. We going to make it, okay?”

I nodded and followed Niko as he continued the trek. The pain in my ribs was terrible, and I feared I bright break the fractured rib altogether. There came a point when I just couldn’t swim anymore. I paddled in place, kicking my feet only, tilting my head back to keep my face above water. Thank goodness for the flippers at least. I was able to generate a lot of propulsion with my legs alone.

Suddenly Niko’s strong arm encircled my upper torso. He pulled me along as he swam. The irony of Niko saving me from drowning was not lost on me.

The cliff declined and became a rocky, tree-covered hillock. Niko kept on swimming. Some time later he said, “there.” I stared and could barely make out a small, sandy cove nestled between two curving spits of rock. Niko headed for it and I helped by kicking my feet. I dragged myself onto the beach, shrugged the dry pack off and lay on my back, gasping with exhaustion and relief.

Niko opened his pack and changed into street clothes, then donned night goggles and watch, slipping one of the walkie talkies into his pocket. I remained a while longer, resting.

In time I let out a low groan, sat up and proceeded to prepare. When I was fully dressed I strapped the scuba knife to my leg. I was about to slip the flare gun and walkie talkie into my pack when I had a realization. If I were caught, these items would clue my captors that I was not alone. They would search the island and possibly find Niko. Before I could reconsider, I heaved the items into the sea.

“Ay, Zayn! Why you do that?”

“Never mind. Let’s go.”

The beach was backed by a short cliff that rose to the hillock I’d seen earlier. We circumvented the cliff by climbing one of the rocky spits that encircled the beach. As soon as we reached the ridge top, which was bare of trees, we dropped to our bellies.

On the other side of the ridge the geography of the island changed dramatically. The majority of the island was covered in light forest. The side we were on was the high side. On our right, the terrain rose to the peak we’d seen earlier. Ahead of us and to the left, the land dropped in a clean sweep to the sea.

Ouagadiri Island

Ouagadiri Island

Three quarters of the way up the slope to our right, a large area had been cleared of trees. In the center rose a magnificent house, four stories tall and gleaming white, with an overhanging blue roof that sloped up to a peak. Still in a prone position, I lifted my binoculars and studied it. Each level was surrounded by a continuous veranda with a terraced wooden railing, and tall support pillars. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the house contained 20 bedrooms and covered 15,000 feet. The entire surface of the roof was covered in solar panels.

A variety of vehicles were parked in the driveway. I saw the unmistakable contours of a Rolls Royce and a Lamborghini, as well as a large pickup truck and a couple of three-wheeled ATVs.

Slightly below the house, set amid terraced gardens with footpaths and fruit trees, was a swimming pool and two tennis courts. Above and behind it, I could barely make out a large black helicopter parked on a round helipad. There were also a few smaller outlying buildings done in the same style – maybe servants’ quarters, storage or some other rich-person thing that my not-wealthy, living-in-a-tiny-office mind could not conceive.

The entire compound was surrounded by a circular road and a tall, well-lit perimeter fence, with a guardhouse and a gate. Beyond the perimeter, the land around the house was cleared of vegetation to maybe a hundred meters in every direction. As I watched, a white pickup truck made a slow circuit on the perimeter road, traveling no more than five miles per hour.

I looked away from the house and waited while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The air was alive with forest sounds. Birds called, insects whirred and sang, and frogs chirped, burped and ribbeted in an overarching chorus. Now and then a monkey hooted. I could see virtually the entire island from my vantage on the ridge. I spotted the glint of moonlight on water, and followed the line of a stream that ran east to west, down from the peak to the sea. The road from the house roughly followed the line of the stream. The narrow blacktop road, completely unlit, passed directly along the base of the ridge, just below where Niko and I lay.

At the far western tip of the island a few electric lights burned dimly. I focused on that point and made out the outline of a small marina. Three boats were docked there: a white cigarette boat, a small yacht, and a much larger yacht – an impressive craft that might have been thirty five meters long. It must have cost millions.

I realized there was a flaw in our plan. Even if I managed to find Anna and escape with her, El Demonio’s men could pursue us. “Change of plans,” I whispered to Niko. “Can you disable the yachts and the boat?”

“What is jots?”

“The ships.” I pointed.

“Si, es fácil. Is easy.”

“Great. Do it, then return to this spot.” I would take care of the helicopter myself. I didn’t know helicopters from hamsters, but how hard could it be to find the engine compartment and tear out some wires?

He shrugged. “Okay.”

I checked my watch. It was 12:21 am. “Give me until 1:30,” I told Niko. “If I’m not back by then, you leave, do you understand? You return to our boat and go. There is no sense in both of us getting caught. If we both die here, no one will know where Anna is.”

Niko pursed his lips tightly, but nodded.

“Promise me.”

“You can count on me, señor Zayn.” He reached into his scuba pack and pulled out the huge silver-plated .45 caliber Colt pistol. “Take this.”

I scowled. “You weren’t supposed to bring that.”

“I should fight El Demonio with the poetry of Carlos Francisco Changmarín? Or your little clippers of fingernails that you call knives?”

“If we have to fight we’re dead already. No. Keep it, or throw it in the ocean.” I pulled Niko into a hug. “Muchas gracias mi amigo. Dios te bendiga.” I slipped on the night vision goggles, and the world sprang into focus, everything tinted green but still as clear as day. I turned and began quickly making my way through the trees toward the house. The road would have been faster, and it was tempting, but I’d be too exposed out there on the blacktop. Anyone watching would see me coming.

I carried nothing but the two small knives clipped to my pockets, my scuba knife, and the cash and documents I kept in my secret pockets. Nothing that would slow me down or – if I was caught – reveal that I was not alone.

Wednesday, February 9, 2010 – 12:21 midnight
Ougadiri Island, Panama

On any other day, under any other circumstances, I might have found a night-time run through a rainforest while wearing infrared goggles to be fascinating. Fruit bats darted among the trees, feasting on ripe mangos and bananas. A large, hopping rodent of some kind scattered through the undergrowth as I approached. An armadillo waddled out of my way, as did an opossum. A sloth hanging in a tree turned its head indolently to watch me pass.

Right now, my only concern was getting to the house as quickly and quietly as possible. I also considered that the forest might be booby-trapped. As I ran I watched for telltale signs such as tripwires or snares. That was probably just my imagination running away with me. After all, wouldn’t booby traps be set off by wildlife? It would be a hassle to have to investigate every time a capybara set off a landmine and created a rain of capybara burger.

Fifteen minutes later I hit the edge of the clearing around the house. I kneeled in the trees and studied the house as my breathing gradually slowed. It was worse than I’d expected. The guard house was staffed by two men. On each level of the house proper, armed men carrying assault weapons patrolled the veranda. I didn’t see how I could get over, under or through the fence without being seen.

Staying in the trees, I circled to my left, picking my way northeast and uphill. I moved around the tennis courts and swimming pool until I reached the portion of forest that faced the helipad at the back of the house. The guards on the verandas still patrolled – the verandas went all the way around the house – and I saw now that there were two men on each veranda.

I began belly-crawling across the open space toward the fence, sliding one limb forward at a time. The night vision goggles kept bumping into clumps of grass, and I wished I’d taken them off first. The patrol car cruised past on the perimeter road and I saw that it was manned by a single driver smoking a cigarette.

I knew that Niko would leave in an hour , but if I hurried and got sloppy I’d be dead. I was one hundred percent sure those guards would shoot first and ask questions later.

Something crawled up my pants leg and bit me on the calf. The pain was immediate and intense. Some small sound I made caught the attention of one of the guards, a tall, broad-shouldered man on the second level who wore black slacks, a black dress-shirt and a black cowboy hat – the stereotypical uniform of the bad guy, as if his clothing choice was determined by watching too many Mexican westerns. He stopped pacing and peered in my direction. I froze, not daring to breathe. The man leaned over the veranda railing, staring in my direction. With the night vision goggles I could see him clear as crystal. He was looking right at me. I reminded myself that he could not see me as well as I saw him. Still, my heart thudded so hard I was afraid he’d hear it. Any second I expected him to raise his rifle and send a volley of bullets crashing into me.

About ten meters upslope from where I lay, a white-tailed deer exited the forest and picked its way daintily across the clearing, pausing to graze on something tasty that grew there. It ate, then darted back to the safety of the trees to chew its cud.

The guard, apparently deciding it was the deer he’d heard, resumed his patrol. I took a long, quiet breath and let it out, and resumed my crawl. When I finally reached the fence, my heart sank. The fence was humming in that barely audible, hair-raising way that indicated a strong electric current. The helicopter stood just on the other side. I suddenly had the thought that even if Niko left without me, if I could find Anna we could escape in the helicopter.

It was an idiotic thought, of course. I didn’t know how to pilot a helicopter, and anyway there was no getting over or through this fence. The helicopter might as well be a thousand miles away.

What about digging? To burrow beneath this fence would take hours, and there was no way I could do it covertly. As soon as the patrol car came around I’d be seen in a second. Plus, I had no idea how deep the fence went.

What if I snuck up on the guard house, attacked the guards – disabling or killing them – and took their weapons? Then I could assault the house.

Except that I was sure there were more guards inside, not to mention the security vehicle and the guards on the verandas, which meant I was hopelessly outnumbered. Even if I’d taken Niko’s pistol it would be hopeless. I wasn’t Rambo.

I lay there, my mental wheels spinning. There had to be a way in. There was always a way, right? But no. That was Hollywood hero thinking, not real life. Pursing my lips in frustration, forcing myself to relax, I slithered my way back to the treeline, then traced my route back to the front of the house.

Again I dropped to my belly. I pushed the night vision goggles on top of my head. I would not need them this close to the front of the house, where the house’s exterior lights illuminated the area. I crawled toward the guardhouse, ignoring the steadily worsening pain in my right side. The guardhouse had windows in front and on the side, facing the road. I approached from the other side, moving very, very slowly. I had no plan. I just thought if I got close enough, maybe I could find a way in.

It took me twenty minutes to cross that space. I checked my watch: 1:15 am. I had only fifteen minutes left until Niko departed. So that was a write off. Niko would leave without me. I would have to find some other way off the island.

I lay there within five feet of the guardhouse, separated only by the fence. I could hear the two guards talking, but couldn’t make out the words. Now what? I thought furiously. Maybe I could throw a stone outside the gate. When the guards opened the gate to investigate, I could rush them and… and what? Kill them? Disable them somehow? They were armed with assault rifles. As for me, I was grimy, insect bitten, exhausted, and my various wounds ached so much I could hardly think. What chance did I have?

For just a moment a wave of self-pity broke over me, threatening to drown me. Why did everything have to be so difficult? Why had nothing ever come easy in my life? Why did I have to fight, fight, fight for every step forward, for even the simple things that fell into the laps of others like birthday gifts? Why was my life such a failure? Why had I lost everything that ever mattered, from my freedom to my family to the respect of my community?

Then, just as suddenly as the self-pity had done, a bonfire of savage determination rose in me. No, I thought fiercely. I have not lost everything that mattered. I have my faith in Allah, and that is the supernova of all blessings. It is the lighted path in the depth of night, the bright sword that cuts down falsehood, and the only weapon I will ever need. So what if money and degrees come easy to some others? Maybe those people are weak, and Allah knows that, and has mercy on them so as not to break them. Maybe they are tested in other ways that I cannot not see.

But me, I’m a fighter, and Allah knows that too. I don’t surrender. I don’t quit. For those who have no courage to man the wall against tyranny and evil, step aside and let the ones who can do it, do it. I am one of those with the courage to stand up. I am capable of bearing the burden. So who am I to complain when the burden should in fact fall on my back?

I thought these thoughts, and a sense of calm flowed through me like water from the sacred well of Zamzam. I was not responsible for the result here tonight. I was only responsible for the effort. It fell to me to be utterly sincere with Allah and with myself. Whatever Allah wanted to happen would happen.

As for the guards, yes, I would kill them if necessary. I couldn’t afford to think of these men as innocents. They were holding Anna in that house. I had no mercy in my heart for kidnappers and abusers of children. I would do what I must. I felt around until I found a small, round stone. I closed my fingers over it. I would chuck the stone to create a distraction, and as soon as the gate opened I would charge the armies of doom themselves if need be.

I pulled back my arm to throw.

* * *

Next: Chapter 16: Finding Anna

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on

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



  1. Avatar


    September 12, 2017 at 9:13 AM

    Wow. Intense. I wish that Zaid would enter and exit without another wound. He have already been injured than most of us ever will be. His continuous expedition is a clear indication of his unstoppable character.
    There are 1 or 2 spelling mistakes in the story, nothing big.
    The detailing of each and every scene has become an identity of your story-telling. It makes a projection on screen of mind, making this narration an action film.
    By the way, I don’t think Zaid would die (please don’t kill him), because, you know, it will not be nice to read “Then I died…” :-P

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 12, 2017 at 10:11 AM

      Jazak Allah khayr brother SZH. Sorry about the typos, I literally finished this chapter at midnight last night and posted it while I was half asleep.

  2. Avatar


    September 12, 2017 at 12:32 PM

    “I have not lost everything that mattered. I have my faith in Allah, and that is the supernova of all blessings. It is the lighted path in the depth of night, the bright sword that cuts down falsehood, and the only weapon I will ever need.”….LOVE this. I must admit that I was getting skeptical myself, thinking what is Zaid possibly thinking going to that island with no plan and in his condition. But then you remind us that we just show up and Allah takes care of the rest. Can’t wait for next week inshaAllah!

  3. Avatar


    September 12, 2017 at 1:16 PM

    ” I’d been afraid that the scuba pack would weigh me down, but it was the opposite. The rubber was buoyant and helped me stay afloat.”
    I like the eye to details in your story. Keep up the good work brother. May Allah swt put barakah in your time, knowledge and make your stories a source of halal reading and guidance for all your readers. Ameen

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 12, 2017 at 1:23 PM

      Thanks brother Ahmed. I research everything. Ameen to your dua’, I appreciate it.

  4. Avatar

    Abdullah Ahmad

    September 12, 2017 at 9:12 PM

    Mash’Allah Brother Wael,amazing as usual. Did you have to leave at such a critical time though. You could have made this an extended chapter.

  5. Avatar


    September 13, 2017 at 11:45 AM

    woke up to pray Fajr. It helped that Panama time was three hours ahead of California time, so my body thought it was getting extra sleep. My head still ached from the hit with the baseball bat. But in all the strangeness of this trip, my salat, my prayer, was a familiar refuge. It was a quiet moment of peace, a still haven in which I turned to my Lord and begged forgiveness for my mistakes. I asked for guidance, and simply experienced the feeling of being present before Allah. All else fell away, and for those few minutes I was at peace.

    Love this, this is MY dream…to find peace, comfort and connection in salat. Also the part of trusting that Allah is in control and nothing happens to us without His permission.

    Okay, I didn’t want want him to give up on Zaid on his marriage. I know his wife is making it hard but Zaid is a fighter, he can’t give , it’s not him.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 13, 2017 at 4:03 PM

      Layyinah, may you achieve your dream Insha’Allah.

      • Avatar


        September 21, 2017 at 3:44 PM

        Can I just say that I can’t believe all the typos in my post! Can I blame it on not being at my computer with a keyboard? How embarrassing! ?

        I hope you figured out my point…I was sad to read that Zaid can’t give up on his marriage. He has to keep trying, he’s not a quitter! ?

  6. Avatar


    September 14, 2017 at 3:29 AM

    “So who am I to complain when the burden should in fact fall on my back?”

    Faith, humility, perseverance is what Allah swt asks, and Zaid Kareem is armed with these. This is how he bounces back each time he is pulled to the depth of despair.
    Nice reminder Thank you!

  7. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 14, 2017 at 9:58 PM

    It’s truly amazing as always. I also noticed, the typos–the spelling mistake.
    Can’t wait till next Tuesday; Only four days. I hope he doesn’t die. I really want him to be reunited with his family please it would definitely be upsetting to read that he had has. A father and a husband has to go through all this just because of some stupid mother her sold her for money because she was greedy. And a father for getting high and dying, well he could have asked his parents for some money or return to their house.

    Just my opinion, I was so upset at these fools why would you marry and have a kid if you two are corrupt. Couldn’t you think before how would you take care of her?But I get it; to keep the story and excitement going that was necessary.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 15, 2017 at 12:11 AM

      Thank you for your comments sister Maryam. Next time you notice typos, please tell me what they are so I can correct them.

  8. Avatar


    September 19, 2017 at 12:13 AM

    I returned from a vacation and got to read 3 entire chapters at a stretch! W-O-W. It was intense and your writing is as epic as ever.
    My next fear? End of this series. May Allah help you make it longer.
    May Allah also help all the kids like Anna around the world, Aameen.

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      September 19, 2017 at 9:30 AM

      Me too I came from a vacation and was able to read 3 chapters at a stretch. And I don’t want it to end either, I hope it ends with him not dying and he is re-united with his beautiful family. Also, getting Anna to a safe place.

      Loved your series please make the endings as long as possible. It will be awesome for your readers.

  9. Avatar


    September 19, 2017 at 12:16 AM

    Below are two typos I observed:
    “If” was a half-baked plan, and I knew it.

    The pain in my ribs was terrible, and I feared I “bright” break the fractured rib altogether.

  10. Avatar


    September 19, 2017 at 3:32 AM

    Time for part 26, maybe?
    jazakhAllah khayr!

    • Avatar


      September 19, 2017 at 3:34 AM

      16 I mean! My bad.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        September 19, 2017 at 3:50 AM

        Chapter 16 is ready, but there seems to be a problem with adding images. We could publish it without images, but it’s a lot of text to read unbroken. By the way, the MM program keeps auto-correcting words in my comment, I don’t know why.

        • Avatar

          Maryam Moeen

          September 19, 2017 at 9:42 AM

          I know I can’t wait!! Um wait, what are you guys doing to be up that late. I was reading once and night past 12:00 and I wanted to comment but I thought it would be rude to comment that late so I waited till the morning.

          • Avatar

            Wael Abdelgawad

            September 19, 2017 at 12:39 PM

            Mostly when I’m up this late I’m trying to finish the latest chapter in time! Still experiencing some technical difficulties with the next chapter, by the way. Sorry for the delay.

  11. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 19, 2017 at 2:40 PM

    Brother that is what happening to me for he past few days when I try to post my comment. I save my post in Microsoft word then post it like today. Maybe you can try that; save your pictures and after 5 minutes try putting some pictures in and reload the page or send it through and see if it works.
    If it does then what a little a few minutes a post the others. Just a suggestion, to help with the process, Sorry if I sound bossy, just trying to help.

  12. Avatar


    September 19, 2017 at 3:50 PM

    Salaaaaam – when will the next chapter come out??

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 20, 2017 at 3:16 PM

      It has been posted.

      • Avatar

        Abdullah Ahmad

        September 20, 2017 at 6:15 PM

        Assalamu Alaikum Brother Wael,
        I cannot seem to find the link for the next chapter. Would you mind posting a link in the comments section.
        Jazakallah khair,

  13. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 20, 2017 at 9:09 AM

    So when will it come out, the next chapter??

  14. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 20, 2017 at 9:13 PM

    I can’t find the chapter either!! It says chapter 16 is still unbolded. Please let us know where we may reach this section. I Just can’t wait, and every single time I go on the index; it’s still unbolded, so I don’t click it. I’ll try by clicking it IA it should work or I will let you know.

  15. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 20, 2017 at 9:15 PM

    Yes, It won’t let me go to the page, like there is nothing to click so I can reach the page.

  16. Avatar


    October 14, 2017 at 3:34 AM

    I love the map ? Especially the copyrighted sign. Perfecto.

  17. Avatar


    November 27, 2018 at 11:54 PM

    ” I’m reading this in 11/2018. OMG I could not have handled the anticipation if I was reading this and had to wait for the next chapter.

    “You know,” Niko remarked, “that there are sharks in these waters, yes? They will smell the blood from our injuries.”

    I gave him a flat stare. “Did you have to tell me that? Do you think it helps to tell me that?”

    He shrugged. “You never know with NorteAmericanos. They like to have all the facts.” He made quotation marks with his fingers. “Just the facts, ma’am.” ”

    This is gold. Just from the hilarity and the realness of that alone this deserves a Pulitzer.

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The Creation Of The Stereotypical Arab

Omar Sayadi



stereotype Arabs
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Back To The Future

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

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

Foreign Policy

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

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

The Ultimate Demon

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

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

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

Palestinian terrorists in “True Lies” – 1994

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

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

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

“Rules of Engagement” (Paramount Pictures) – 2000

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

Debunking Cultural Practices

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

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

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

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

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Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families




border wall in tijuana
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

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

Omar Usman



Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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

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

I don’t really care about grit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

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

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

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

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

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