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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.

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

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

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

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

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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?”

“Yes!”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Zaid-”

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 Amazon.com.

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Avatar

    SZH

    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

    Vendula

    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

    Ahmed

    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

    Layyinah

    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

        Layyinah

        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

    FM

    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

    Amatullah

    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

    Amatullah

    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

    Amatullah

    September 19, 2017 at 3:32 AM

    Time for part 26, maybe?
    jazakhAllah khayr!

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      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.

          • Avatar

            Osman

            February 3, 2020 at 12:50 AM

            Salam Wael. The link for part 14 is broken. Is there any way that you could look into seeing what can be done? Really enjoying this series.

          • Avatar

            Wael Abdelgawad

            February 3, 2020 at 1:58 AM

            Wa alaykum as-salam. Not sure what the problem is with the link, but you can find part 14 here:

            https://muslimmatters.org/2017/09/05/zaid-karim-private-investigator-part-14/

            You can also purchase an ebook version of this novel on Amazon. It’s slightly updated and expanded. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

  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

    Abdullah

    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.
    -Jazk

  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

    Kulz

    October 14, 2017 at 3:34 AM

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

  17. Avatar

    Anas

    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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Podcast: David’s Dollar | Tariq Touré and Khaled Nurhssien

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We often preach about our children learning the importance of money, group economics, and developing healthy spending habits. How awesome would it be to have a fully illustrated picture book that explores how a dollar travels from hand-to-hand?

Join Khaled Nurhssien and award winning poet and author Tariq Touré as they discuss Tariq’s new children’s book David’s Dollar. In this Interview they touch on art, Islam’s approach to community and Tariq’s creative process.

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Day of the Dogs, Part 9: All We Have To Do

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

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Corredor Sur, Panama

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8

“Policia Nacional!” – Omar

Broken Window

Tocumen International Airport
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Tocumen International Airport

Back in Panama, pulling his wheeled suitcase along behind him, Omar walked out to the long-term parking lot at Tocumen airport. It was a hair past noon, and the sun poured forth its fire as if the earth were a morsel of meat it wanted to cook for lunch. Knowing the weather in Panama, Omar had changed his clothes in advance in the airport bathroom, putting away the linen suit and slipping on a pair of knee-length basketball shorts and a t-shirt. He was glad he had. After the chilly skies of Bogota, being back in Panama was like stepping into a sauna.

When he came to his car, he found the driver’s side window shattered. He shook his head in disgust. Why would anyone break into his car? It was a five year old silver Toyota sedan with no frills. It didn’t even have a CD player, just a basic AM/FM radio. He could have afforded better, but he drove this old beater for exactly this reason: it didn’t look worth breaking into.

Searching the car, he found nothing missing. There hadn’t been anything worth stealing anyway. Just the manual in the glove box, a little LED flashlight, a pack of cinnamon chewing gum, and some napkins. Oh, wait – they’d taken the Quran CDs. Arabic recitation with Spanish translation. Maybe the thieves would listen and be guided.

When he inserted the key and turned it, he got nothing. Not even a click. Opening the hood, he discovered the reason: the thieves had stolen his car battery. So that was what they’d been after. Now he was angry. Where was airport security?

Car with shattered window

Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he considered who to call. He needed someone to bring him a battery. His wife didn’t drive. Fuad didn’t drive either, because he never knew when he might have an epileptic attack.

Fuad’s crazy wife Ivana did drive, but Omar didn’t want to deal with her. If Fuad somehow convinced her to come out here, she would either want to be paid, or would expect Omar to take her and Fuad to the most expensive restaurant in Panama. Ten times! Omar laughed at the thought.

He could call Nadia Muhammad, his old friend from IIAP. She was married and sometimes came to visit with her husband and two kids. She was a goofball, always telling jokes and making his son Nur laugh. But even though they were just buddies, and his wife thought nothing of it, he didn’t want to push the boundaries of trust by spending half a day driving all around Panama city with her.

It Burns!

Deciding that there was nothing left to steal, and that it wouldn’t hurt to leave the car alone for a while, he trudged back to the taxi stand in front of the terminal. Ignoring the touts who snatched at his sleeves, desperate to put him in a limo or town car, he found a 60ish, balding taxi driver with forearms like German sausages. The man sat disconsolately in his cab, filling out a crossword puzzle. The two of them negotiated a price of $40 for the whole business, and took off.

As they headed into the city with the windows open and hot air whipping through the car, Omar reclined his head against the seat and closed his eyes.

Apparently not noticing or caring that Omar was trying to rest, the driver called out, raising his voice to be heard. “Oye, jefe. You some kinda tuna fat foreigner?”

“I’m Panamanian.” Omar opened his eyes and studied the road, and was dismayed to see that the driver had taken the slow midtown route. Avenida Domingo Diaz was an interminable road lined with auto shops, plant nurseries and love motels – known as pushbuttons in Panama, because all you had to do was drive in and push a button. You never had to see any clerk or staff face to face. “Hey, why did you go this way? I would have paid the tolls on the Sur.”

“Well I din’ know that, no?” The man’s sped-up slang Spanish marked him as having been raised in Colon. Omar could barely understand him. “Just because you a tuna fat Colombian. You might be a biter. You ahuevao foreigners is welcome if you bring some flus. Otherwise we don’ need you.”

Ignoring the fact that the man had just called him stupid – he’d understood that much – Omar, repeated, “I’m Panamanian.”

“Then where the president live?”

“Palacio de Las Garzas. I’ve been there.”

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

There were a lot of Chinese in Panama, true, but they didn’t take jobs. Just the opposite. They opened stores, restaurants, internet cafes and electronic shops, and employed Panamanians. Omar explained this.

“Then the mascabola Venezuelans! Ñangara Comunistas!” The driver hawked and spit on the floor of his own car. “They spray the word taxi onna side of a car and steal my fares, don’ even have licenses.” He pounded the dash with a meaty fist. “It burns!”

“I see how that’s bad for business, but they’re our neighbors. We have-” Omar stopped talking as the driver abruptly swerved across two lanes of traffic and pulled up beside a love motel called Lady Finger.

“Get out!” the driver demanded. “Ain’t drivin’ no mascabola Communist-lover. And I ain’t votin’ for you!”

Omar pursed his lips. It would be hard to find another taxi out here. He considered offering the driver more money, but the guy was a nasty piece of work. As much as the man wanted Omar out of his cab, Omar wanted to be done with him too.

He collected his luggage and paid the driver a quarter of the normal fare, which under the circumstances he felt was generous. The driver cursed at him and peeled out with a squeal of burning rubber.

Allah blessed him. Omar had only begun to contemplate his options when another taxi pulled up to the Lady Finger. A 60ish man in a business suit and a young woman in a skin-tight dress headed into the pushbutton. Omar called out to the driver and half-ran, pulling his bag behind him. A minute later he was on his way – again – with a driver who kept the windows rolled up, the AC on and a Cuban jazz CD playing softly. Alhamdulillah.

Do the Right Thing

Three hours later, with a new battery in his car, Omar navigated his way out of the airport parking lot. He noticed several other cars with shattered windows. Useless airport security officers walked around making notes, and two cars were being lifted onto tow trucks.

Corredor Sur, Panama

Corredor Sur, Panama

He headed home along the Corredor Sur, the express toll highway that led along the Pacific waterfront. The area bordering the highway had once been an expanse of impenetrable mangrove swamps, but now it was Costa del Este, the most expensive seaside neighborhood in all of Panama. Two-hundred meter skyscrapers glittered in the tropical sunshine, their glass sides reflecting sky and sea, while construction cranes marked the sites of future towers.

These million dollar apartments were occupied by business people, wealthy expatriates and even crime cartel bosses, mostly hailing from neighboring (and less stable) countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. And, of course, by Fuad, who – pushed by his Cuban beauty queen – had purchased an apartment he really could not afford.

The mangroves that had been drained and filled to make Costa del Este possible had been one of the richest wetland habitats in Panama, home to dozens of endemic species. Such was the way of his country. No one valued nature, nor even old things of human make. It was all about what was new and sleek.

At least people like Naris Muhammad were out there fighting to protect what was left. Naris, the serious-minded member of the Muhammad triplets, was one of the most prominent environmental activists in Panama.

He exited the freeway into the leafy district of San Francisco. It was an upper middle class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of gated homes, all bordering Parque Omar, the largest urban park in Panama.

Passing by Parque Omar, he eyed the spot where, last year, he’d intervened to stop a man from beating a woman. He’d been out for a morning jog and had seen a tall, thin man with hollow eyes punching a young woman in the face.

For a good portion of his childhood he had been the one beaten while the person who should have protected him stood by helplessly. He’d always promised himself that he would not be that impotent bystander, allowing someone to be abused before his eyes.

So when he saw the man punching the woman, he instantly ran forward, wrapped the man’s neck from behind and pulled him off the woman. The woman, instead of thanking him, screamed, “Leave my boyfriend alone!” She picked up a broken tree branch and struck Omar on the head, and the pair of them dashed off. Omar went home with his scalp bleeding, expecting a tongue lashing from his wife. But she cleaned the wound, kissed him and made him one of his favorite foods: an apam balik pancake filled with banana slices, sesame and sugar.

He returned his eyes to the road. He couldn’t be responsible for the choices people made. But he could do the right thing.

As he approached a large, sky-blue home fronted by a high brick wall and a steel gate, he hit a remote control and the gate slid open. The house had a circular front driveway that curved around a bubbling Islamic style fountain shaped like an eight-pointed star, covered in green tiles. The crisp water sparkled as it poured out of an upper bowl and into the larger basin below.

Nur liked to play in this pool, while Omar’s wife enjoyed sitting beside it after sunset, listening to the Quran on a little cassette player. Omar had offered to buy her a portable CD player, but she said she couldn’t tell one side of a CD from the other.

Tall trees flanked the front yard, with a pair of mango trees anchoring east and west. Around them grew passionfruit trees, guava and berry bushes. Nur often came out here with his mother and ate the berries straight from the bushes, until his cheeks and chin were red from the juices.

Something For Everyone

When he opened the door, Nur came running. Omar dropped to one knee to catch the boy. He was a handsome tyke, with sturdy limbs, a strong nose and square face. His eyes were dark and his black hair was straight, like his mother’s. Omar’s love for him was a deep river that would never run dry.

He found his wife in the kitchen standing at the stove, garnishing a red snapper for the oven. The split AC in the corner hummed, its cool air circulating the scents of lemon and parsley. The space was large and comfortable, with a cooking island in the center, and teak cabinetry all around. A matching rustic teak table occupied one side, beside a low, molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall and was covered with cushions. The family spent a lot of time here.

His heart surged at seeing his wife again. Her face was dewed with perspiration from the heat of the stove. Even so, she looked beautiful, with a slender, strong form, and her long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He went to her and she turned to embrace him, saying, “Careful of the stove.”

Putting his arms around her, he could feel the muscles in her shoulders and arms. The two of them ran five kilometers every morning in Parque Omar, and two evenings a week he taught her karate in an upstairs bedroom they’d turned into a training studio.

Labrador retriever He felt something cold touch his hand and looked down to see the dog, Berlina, nuzzling him with her wet nose. She was a young labrador retriever, well trained as a guide dog. She was a gentle creature, intelligent and good with Nur as well.

He reached down to scratch Berlina’s head. Her tail thumped happily against the kitchen cabinet. Nur grabbed his other hand. “What did you bring me, Papá?”

Standing in the middle of the family mob, Omar laughed. “I have something for everyone, okay?”

They sat at the kitchen table and Omar parceled out the gifts: for his wife, a pair of silver earrings shaped like crescent moons and fashioned in the uniquely Colombian “momposina” style, with finely woven silver threads. For Nur, a set of coloring pencils with a small leather carrying case.

“What about Berlina?” Nur wanted to know.

In answer, Omar stood, grabbed the plastic jar of beef jerky sticks from the top of the refrigerator, and tossed one to the dog. Berlina caught it in mid-air, settled down and went to work, her wagging tail brushing the floor.

Drawings

Later that evening Omar sat at the kitchen table with his son, watching the boy draw. He could hear the shower running upstairs.

Papers were scattered across the table, covered with drawings of ocean waves, leaping dolphins, a squid brandishing a scepter, and a mermaid wearing a crown. Nur had always been fascinated by the ocean and all its creatures.

Nur held up a picture of a tsunami arching over a small town. He’d even drawn tiny cars on the roads and stick figures of people. “Do you like it, Papá?”

Omar raised his eyebrows. “It’s drawn very well.” He leaned close to his son’s ear. “But let’s not tell Mama that story. We don’t want her to be sad for the people.” Nur’s mother could not see the drawings, so normally Nur would describe them to her in detail, telling the drawing’s story.

Nodding, Nur tucked the sketch beneath a pile of others as his mother came down the steps, tying a towel around her hair. Omar was always amazed at how confidently she moved. A stranger would never guess she was blind, at least not here inside the house, where everything was laid out precisely in its place. Though her vision was not 100% gone. She could sometimes make out broad outlines and colors.

“Sad for what people?” she asked.

“Nothing, just drawings.”

Omar’s wife sat on his lap, resting an arm around his shoulders. She ran a hand through his hair, playing with the curls, taking care to stay away from his mangled ear, as he was sensitive about that. He kissed her on the cheek, happy to be home with the loveliest woman he knew. He was blessed, alhamdulillah.

A Scarcity of Friends

“I missed you,” his wife said. “But I’m glad you found your friend Hani. You don’t have many friends.”

It was true. He had Mahmood, Fuad, and Nadia. That was about it. Nadia’s sister Naris could have been a friend if she weren’t so engrossed in her work as an environmental activist. As for Nabila, she’d moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on her Youtube stardom, and ended up becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Was this scarcity of friends the reason he’d been so excited to see Hani again? And why he had overlooked the brother’s disconcerting negativity?

“What’s his wife’s name, by the way?”

“He never told me. She works as a house cleaner.”

“Do you think it’s wise to invest with him? He sounds unstable.”

Omar pulled her hand out of his hair. It was too close to his ear, and was making him nervous. “Does he?”

“The way you describe him.”

“Hmm.”

She ran a hand over his face – her way of reading his expression. “You’ve already decided to give him the money, haven’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Then why make him write a business plan?”

“For his own benefit. To help him succeed.”

“I think you just wanted a reason to see him again.”

As a reply, Omar pulled his wife close and kissed the side of her head. Her black hair smelled of the papaya shampoo she favored. She knew him too well, and never failed to let him know it.

He watched his son working on a new drawing of a squadron of flying fish. Each fish wore a beret and had a cigar in its mouth. As the boy drew, he chewed on his upper lip.

Nur was an intense child, but was he happy? Omar thought back to his own early childhood, training in martial arts with his father, watching football games, attending the masjid for Jumah prayer; and going on hikes with his mother, or visiting that amazing ice cream shop on Avenida Central that sold a giant scoop of mango sorbet for a quarter. They had been poor, but Omar had been happy because he was loved by his parents, and what more did a child need?

That’s all we have to do, he thought. Love him. He reached out and stroked the back of Nur’s neck. The boy did not even look up. “All we have to do,” Omar said out loud.

“Do what?” his wife asked.

“All we have to do is love each other.”

His wife settled into him, resting her back against his chest. “Yes. That’s all we have to do.”

Put Your Hand Down

Karate class “I KNOW YOU WANT TO EARN A BLACK BELT ONE DAY,” Omar said as he strode up and down in front of the line of kids. One girl – an especially enthusiastic eleven year old green belt named Tabina who was always asking when she’d get her next promotion – raised her hand frantically. Some of the kids nodded their heads.

“Put your hand down, Tabina. It wasn’t a question. Fix your stances.” His own son Nur was leaning too far forward in his horse stance, and Omar showed him by giving him a slight push, which nearly toppled him. Technically Nur was not old enough for this class; it was for kids aged six to twelve, but being the instructor’s son had privileges. Not that Omar went easy on the boy. Just the opposite. He demanded much from him.

Omar loved these kids at the Centro Islamico, which everyone called the Centro. He volunteered twice a week, teaching this class and another for teens.

“There are three things you must do,” he went on, “if you want a black belt. One, come to class. Two, practice at home. Three, don’t quit. If you do these things, week after week, month after month, year after year, I guarantee you will get your black belt eventually, inshaAllah.”

He cast a glance at the clock on the wall. It had been a month since his return from Bogotá. Hani and his wife were supposed to arrive today. In three hours, actually.

“Line up,” he ordered the class. “Respect Allah, your parents and yourselves.” With a command of, “Sensei ni rei!” he bowed the class out. “Domo arigato gozaimusu,” all the kids intoned in Japanese.

His own wife was teaching a Quran memorization class in one of the upstairs rooms. He called Nur over and kneeled to give the boy a hug. “Run upstairs and tell Mamá we have to go.”

Refugees

As the three of them exited into the audacious Panama sun, unmitigated by any trace of cloud, they saw a scene unfolding in the empty lot across the street. A group of refugees – Venezeuelans no doubt – were camped in a large weed-ridden field, which was muddy and spotted with litter.

One family hunkered in the shade of a patched-up tent, while a thin woman with frizzy hair in a ponytail sat beneath two pieces of corrugated metal that had been leaned against each other and covered first in cardboard, and then with a tarpaulin. Her two small children kicked a deflated soccer ball in front of the shelter. A toothless old man with a cane sat on a plastic milk crate, out in the open, with only a gray baseball cap to shield his face from the sun. There were about a dozen people altogether, mostly women and children. They were a doleful, dejected group. It broke Omar’s heart to see such scenes, but Venezuelan refugees were everywhere in Panama these days.

Now, however, a group of young Panamanian men and women – in their late teens or early twenties, perhaps – had pulled up to the lot in two tricked-out Japanese cars. They began shouting at the refugees, telling them to go home, and calling them leeches and scum. The well dressed youths, consisting of five boys and two girls, exited their cars and began throwing stones at the refugees.

Omar had witnessed scenes like this before. With over one hundred thousand Venezuelans in Panama, resentment was rising among those who chose to scapegoat the refugees for all of Panama’s problems – like the taxi driver.

The little boys who’d been kicking the soccer ball ran to their mother in the lean-to. The old man with the cane yelled at the youths, who shouted insults in return.

“Papá,” Nur said in alarm, “why are they doing that?”

“What?” Omar’s wife wanted to know. “What’s going on?”

Omar gave his wife’s shoulder a squeeze. “Kids misbehaving. Go back inside the Centro with Nur.” She did not have Berlina with her, as dogs were not welcome in the Centro, not even guide dogs. It was a bad policy, but one that Omar had not succeeded in changing. But she had her cane, and of course she had Nur.

He strode across the street, mindful that if these youths chose to fight he’d be badly outnumbered. An idea came to him. Taking out his wallet, he opened it and held it above his head. “Stop!” he commanded loudly. “Policia Nacional! You’re all under arrest.” He did not have a badge of course, but the kids were several meters away and probably would not notice.

Indeed, the youths scattered, dashing back to their cars, jumping in and peeling out, tires squealing.

Omar strode across the muddy field to the refugees, who all looked frightened. “Easy,” he told them, making a calming motion with his hand. “Are you okay?”

A woman in her forties, her brown face weatherbeaten and lined, stepped forward. “It’s nothing new,” she replied bitterly. “But thank you anyway.”

Omar looked the group over. He wanted to do something, say something, but what? In the end all he said was, “Do you have enough food?”

“No,” the woman replied bluntly.

Omar’s wallet was still in his hand. He took out $60, which was all the cash he had on hand, and held it out to the woman.

Her eyes flicked to the money, then to Omar’s face. Her mouth was a grim line. “We did not ask for anything.”

“I know. But you’re my neighbors. Maybe Panama will be in trouble one day, then I’ll come to your country and need your help.”

The woman’s mouth quirked upwards into a smile. “I don’t think so. You are rich, and you don’t know it.” But she took the money.

When Omar went back across the street, his wife and child were still there, to his consternation. “I told you to go inside,” he said.

“Excuse me?” She was annoyed. “Number one” – counting on her fingers – “Nur wanted to see. Number two, you don’t tell me to go inside like I’m a child.”

Omar wasn’t the type to give orders, and he knew it was her blindness that brought out the protectiveness in him. But sometimes his wife had to trust him to lead. He tried to explain this, and saw her growing angry. It might have turned into an argument, but Nur spoke up.

“Papá,” the boy said solemnly. “You lied.”

Omar twisted his mouth to one side in embarrassment. “Yeah,” he started to say, “I know, but-”

“It was cool!” Nur broke in. “Did you see how those bad kids ran away?” He held up one hand, pretending to be Omar holding up his wallet, then marched in a circle. “You went, ‘Policia!’ and they went, ‘Oh no!’”

“Okay, okay.” They walked to where their car was parked a half a block down the street. As they drove home, his wife patted his knee. “You did good, mashaAllah. I’m proud of you.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 10:  The Girl With the Goldie Gum

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

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

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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Day of the Dogs, Part 8: Rich and Poor

A security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly. Omar frowned. Why would the security staff be suspicious of him?

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Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

“Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.” – Omar

A Small Price to Pay

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
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Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

After high school, Omar attended Florida State University’s Panama campus, on the northern edge of the city near the Miraflores Locks. From the library’s second floor you could watch the ships rising and falling in the canal. It reminded him of his childhood, when his mother used to take him to the locks, then to Avenida Central for a snowcone.

What would he say now if his mother wanted to do that? Not that she would. No longer a battered widow, she was now the CEO of a successful company, and had little free time. Omar lived on campus, and rarely saw her.

He encountered old friends, made new ones, and founded the karate club. After graduating with a B.S. in international affairs, he went to work for his mother’s company, which had forty five employees by that time. He started in shipping, and rotated to other entry level positions, as his mother wanted him to learn the day-to-day operations.

Word came that Nemesio had been imprisoned for murder. He’d lost his temper and killed a prostitute who tried to steal his wallet. Omar thought he should feel satisfied at this news, but he only felt sad for the man, which surprised him.

He fell in love and married an extraordinary woman. Fuad was a witness at his wedding. No one who knew Fuad from high school would have recognized him that day. Gone were the inch-thick glasses, replaced by contacts. His formerly shaggy hair was expensively cut, and his beard neatly trimmed, and he wore a beautiful blue suit that made him look like a Bollywood celebrity. He’d attended medical school in Cuba, then returned to Panama and joined a major medical group specializing in brain disorders.

Unfortunately, from Omar’s perspective, Fuad brought something back with him from Cuba: a beauty queen. He’d met and married the former Miss Cuba, of all things. Ivana was certainly beautiful, with flawless mahogany skin and flowing raven tresses that spilled over her shoulders; but she had the personality of a vampire bat. Greedy and materialistic, Omar watched helplessly as the woman pushed Fuad to spend money he did not have on luxuries he could not afford.

The other witness was Mahmood, a Palestinian brother Omar had met at Florida State, and who now taught history and English literature at IIAP, Omar’s old school. The Muhammad triplets were there as well, and even Mahboob came, as he and Omar had long since patched things up. Though Mahboob still joked that the only way they’d truly be even was if Omar went headfirst into a trashcan. To which Omar would reply, “Save that for the politicians,” or, “My name is Omar not Oscar,” and once, concocting an admittedly awful English-Spanish pun, “That would be an interesting sucio-logical experiment.”

Omar was eventually promoted to executive vice president of Puro Panameño. He bought a house, and his wife gave birth to a son. At some point, the nightmares that had plagued him after the dog attack stopped coming. He realized this only later, and could not pinpoint exactly when they had stopped, though he thought maybe the turning point had been his marriage.

He taught karate to kids at the Muslim community center, and ran three times a week at Parque Omar – something the doctors had told him he would never do again.

Fuad was always calling to complain about his psychotic wife. Okay, not psychotic, but Ivana wore a pound of gold to the grocery store, insulted Fuad in public, and had a vicious temper. Omar had once seen her lift an ice cream making machine over her head and throw it against a wall hard enough to crack the plaster. Aside from that, she spent Fuad’s money like it was her life’s purpose, and neither worked nor cared for the house. Spent all her time at the Coronado beach club, or out with her friends at night, doing nobody knew what. Though she had not converted to Islam, she’d promised to give up drinking when she married Fuad. But she would stumble home at 3 am so drunk she had to be carried to bed.

Fuad wanted Omar to talk to her, guide her, help her change. Omar tried one time to talk to Ivana about at least moderating the drinking, and she threw a table lamp at him. Omar suggested to Fuad that he and Ivana were simply not compatible.

But Fuad would have none of it. The woman had flawless dark skin, curves like a ripe peach, and a face that might have been molded by angels. Fuad could not give her up.

Not Omar’s problem, he decided.

Overall, life was good, and he was grateful. If his body was sometimes stiff in the morning, if the old wounds still ached when he ran or practiced karate – especially his left leg – so be it. It was a small price to pay for the life he lived. Alhamdulillah.

TEN YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

Bogotá, Colombia WHY WAS THE SECURITY GUARD STARING AT HIM? Omar was in Bogotá, Colombia, for a business conference where experts presented seminars on subjects ranging from marketing in China, to label design, to ensuring ethical treatment of laborers.

Now it was the morning of the second day of the conference, and as he approached the rotating doors at the building entrance, a security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly.

Omar frowned. He knew security was always a concern in Colombia, so it was not surprising that this event was staffed by a score of burly red-jacketed security guards. But why would they be suspicious of him? In his tan-colored bespoke Panama suit, light blue shirt and navy tie, he was just another businessman. Maybe the man wanted to search the leather laptop case he had slung over one shoulder?

The guard half-reached toward him with one meaty hand, pointed to the copper bracelet Omar still wore on his right wrist, and blurted, “Omar? Omar Bayano?”

Tipping his head, Omar studied the man. There was something familiar about that elongated face and nose. SubhanAllah! It was Hani. He would have walked right past him. Gone was the acne and the long, greasy hair. Hani was the same height he’d been in high school, but his complexion was a clear, burnished olive, and his hair was shorn to a crewcut and receding at the temples. His shoulders were huge, and he looked like he could lift a horse.

Omar knew that he too looked different. In tenth grade he’d been the shortest boy in his class; but now, at the age of twenty-eight, he was a relatively tall 182 cm. His formerly full head of curly hair was now just long enough to cover the tops of his ears, hiding his disfigurement. The scars on his face were faded, though you could still see the white lines if you stood close. Even his limp had disappeared.

Grinning widely, Omar stepped forward and embraced his old friend. He felt unaccountably excited, as if he’d just found someone he’d spent years searching for, even though the reality was that he’d thought of Hani only now and then in passing.

Hani gave a surprised laugh at Omar’s warm greeting, then beamed like he’d just won the Copa América. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet that night.

Rich and Poor

Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia Omar was staying at the Click Clack, an ultra-modern hotel in Bogotá’s trendy Chico district. When Hani arrived, Omar was already seated in the hotel restaurant, a funky place that served dishes based on famous paintings. The food was actually crafted on the plate to resemble the painting.

Omar steered clear of the Jackson Pollock pollock – would it be chum on a plate? – and instead ordered the Fernando Botero cod, on the theory that even an unconventional place like this would not disrespect a revered Colombian artist like Fernando Botero.

Hani looked at the towering lobby fountain and plants literally growing on the wall, like a vertical garden. “You’ve come up in the world. I don’t know if I can afford to eat here.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the company expense account.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“My mom’s company. Puro Panameño, remember? It’s grown.”

“Man. That’s great.” Hani kept shifting in his seat, picking up the menu and putting it down. It occurred to Omar that maybe Hani was uncomfortable having someone else pay for him.

“Hey, you know what?” Omar offered. “We don’t have to eat here. We could go for a pizza or something.”

Hani frowned. “Why? You don’t think I’m good enough for this place?”

Omar was taken aback. “I didn’t mean that at all. I want you to be comfortable.”

“Then don’t patronize me.”

Omar didn’t know what to say. The silence grew, until Hani blurted out, “Why are you being so nice? You’re acting like I’m your best friend.”

“Well… you were, once. You still are my friend.”

“I was mean to you. We used to call you Patacon because your father was a security guard.”

Omar heard the unspoken continuation of the sentence: And now I’m a security guard. How ironic life could be. Did Allah teach lessons on a decade-long scale? Why not? A decade, a century, a millennium, an age, these were nothing to The One with no beginning or end. But Omar had never held a grudge against Hani. He’d never felt the boy – now the man – had anything to atone for.

“That,” Omar said firmly, “was Tameem, not you.”

“I participated. Then I barely talked to you before we moved away, because I couldn’t face you.”

Clearly, Hani had never gotten over the way he’d behaved in high school. And now there was an obvious wealth gap between them. In Latin America that was a big deal. Rich and poor lived in different worlds. The power imbalance between the classes colored every interaction. People were supposed to “know their places.” Omar had to alter that balance, and he had to do it with something true, because you could never achieve an honest rapport with a lie.

Honesty Between Strangers

Omar ran a hand through his hair and chose his words. “I admit, I was hurt by the way you went along with the bullying. That was a terrible time for me. I felt like no one was on my side, no one was helping me. My father was gone, Nemesio used to beat me every day-”

“Who?”

“My so-called tio.”

“He beat you?”

“All the bruises, remember?”

“I thought that was from karate.”

Omar shook his head. “Mostly Nemesio. It went on for years. There were times when I contemplated suicide.” Omar had never said these things out loud to anyone, not even his wife. Why was he sharing them with a man he hadn’t seen in twelve years? Maybe because it was safe, in a way. Hani knew him but did not know him at the same time. A familiar stranger.

“Oh my God. I didn’t know, man. I’m so sorry.” Hani leaned forward impulsively and gripped Omar’s forearm, giving it a squeeze, then settled back into his seat.

Omar was moved by this. “You know, Hani, my most vivid memory of you is during the dog attack, when I saw you standing there with the knife. That little thing would barely cut a mango. You took a huge risk. The dogs could have turned on you.”

Hani shrugged, but Omar could see the words pleased him. “I did what I had to.”

“You could have done nothing.”

Hani shook his head. “You were my friend.”

Omar snapped his fingers and pointed. “Exactly. I could buy you a thousand dinners and it would be nothing. I’m breathing because of you.”

“You’re breathing because of Allah.”

“You were Allah’s instrument. But it must have been terrifying for you.”

“I peed my pants, actually.”

“For real?”

Hani nodded, and suddenly the two of them were laughing, and the tension was gone.

Nobody Uses Ice

They ate and talked. Omar told Hani about his family. His wife worked with him at Puro Panameño. She was his dream wife, and he was crazy about her. Their son Nur was four years old and a quiet child, but very smart ma-sha-Allah.

As for Hani, he’d gotten married nine years ago. Omar did the mental math. Hani had married at nineteen! He tried to ask about this, but Hani skirted the subject. Omar wondered if maybe Hani had an affair with a girl and was forced to marry her.

Hani’s father had early onset dementia, and his mother suffered from depression. His wife worked as a house cleaner. Life was a struggle. They wanted kids, but it hadn’t happened yet.

"Still Life With Fruits" by Fernando Botero

“Still Life With Fruits” by Fernando Botero

As it turned out, Omar was right about the Botero cod. The fish was served with a pear glaze, pea soup, a baguette and a watermelon slice. All items from Botero paintings, but grouped appealingly.

By ten o’clock the table had been cleared and Omar was tired. Hani kept brushing the tablecloth with his fingers. His high forehead was beaded with sweat. Omar flagged a waiter and asked for ice water for Hani.

The waiter stared at him blankly. “Ice?”

Omar made the shape of a square with his fingers. “Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.”

Hani laughed and waved the water away. “Nobody uses ice in Bogotá, man. We’re at 2,700 meters. We’re cold enough already.”

The thought of living without ice boggled Omar’s mind. In Panama ice was like the blood in your veins. You couldn’t live without it. “It’s just,” he said, “you’re sweating.”

“Oh.” Hani mopped his brow with a napkin. “I want to ask you something.” He went on to say that his security guard salary barely paid a living wage. He was struggling to support his wife and parents, and always on the edge of being broke. He had an idea to start a security business of his own.

“I know I can succeed.” He’d balled the napkin in one hand and kept squeezing it as if trying to wring water from it. “I’ve been a guard for five years. I know everything about the business. But it takes financing. I was wondering if you could loan me the money. I hate to ask, but I don’t know where else to turn.”

Omar nodded slowly. For a split second he thought that maybe Hani had joined him for dinner only to make this request. But he brushed that thought aside. He should give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

He told Hani to write a business proposal. Projected income and expenses, how he intended to acquire clients in a highly competitive market, that kind of thing.

Hani frowned. “Why are you making me do all that, man?”

“It’s for your benefit. You need this kind of analysis if you want to succeed.”

“Fine. So should I email you all that?”

Hani didn’t sound happy, but Omar plowed ahead: “Why don’t you bring it in person? I would love to have you and your wife visit us in Panama. Let me know what date works for you and I’ll reserve the tickets.”

Gheerah

Later that night he sat on a towel laid on the floor of the hotel room, having just prayed Ishaa’, and thought about the encounter with Hani. It occurred to him that Hani had told him almost nothing about his wife, not even her name. That seemed odd, especially since Omar had told Hani everything about his own family. But some Muslim men – especially the Arabs – were secretive like that when it came to their wives. For a long time Omar had not understood this cultural trait, but he’d mentioned it once to Mahmood, his Palestinian friend.

Mahmood was knowledgeable in the deen and said that this type of protective behavior was called gheerah, and that it required a man to ensure that the women of his household wore hijab, did not mingle inappropriately with men, and were shielded from lustful gazes. Not to do this, Mahmood explained, was considered shameful in Arab culture.

Islamic mashrabiya balcony “You see it in architecture,” Mahmood explained, steepling his fingers like a professor giving a lecture. “Islamic mashrabiya balconies allowed women to watch the street without being seen. Islamic Spain adopted the mashrabiyyah, so you see it in Latin America too.”

Gheerah was not about distrusting women, Mahmood said, nor about punishing them. Rather it was about shielding them from those who harbored ill intentions.

In which case it seemed to Omar that it should be a two way street, with husbands and wives both protecting each other. Anyway that was probably the reason for Hani’s silence on the subject of his wife. Hani’s ancestry was Arab and he would have been brought up that way.

Omar stood, stretched, then set about packing his bags. He’d be returning home early in the morning, inshaAllah. He’d spoken to his wife and son on Skype earlier that day, before the dinner with Hani. He was glad the conference was over, not only because he was eager to see his family, but also because if it had not been over, he might run into Hani again. Yes, he’d invited the man to come visit him in Panama, but for some reason he felt uneasy at the idea of seeing him again. Why should that be?

The World School

The world was covered in an unending school building. For a few days he would travel through crumbling, abandoned classrooms and auditoriums, sleeping on the floor when he couldn’t walk anymore. He never knew if it was day or night, since windows and doors opened only onto more hallways and rooms. Once he came to a staircase and climbed it through twenty floors, until he came to a floor in which the ceiling had crumbled, and the sun shone through. The sun! He sat on the dust covered floor and bathed in the warm rays, astounded at how good it felt. Dust had accumulated on the floor until it became soil, and shrubs grew. It was a different world up here.

He tried traveling on the upper floors for a while after that, but some rooms were occupied by masses of birds or bats, and the structure was so heavily rotted and mildewed at that level that he feared he might fall through a hole in the floor. So he returned to the ground level.

Sometimes, as he journeyed through the unending, purgatorial building, he came to sections that were better maintained. Occasionally, class was in session. But when he looked into these rooms, the children were like automatons, staring blankly at a chalkboard on which words and numbers appeared by themselves. When Omar spoke, no one turned to look at him. He was not even sure they were human.

In some places, a stream or river ran through the school, and bridges crossed over it. Omar saw creatures in the water: chimeras with the fins of fish but the tentacles of octopi. Creatures that looked like small, pale children with the tails of dolphins; and immense crocodiles that drifted with the current, turning their unblinking eyes to watch Omar as they passed.

One night (if indeed it was night – in this area most of the lights did not work, and everything was shadows and gloom) he heard a familiar voice. He couldn’t put a name to it, but his heart sped up in excitement. Another human being! Someone he knew. The voice came from a dark classroom.

Dark, abandoned class room

Omar rushed into the room, and found Mr. Suwaylem, his old principal from IIAP, lecturing to a dark and empty room.

He glanced at Omar. “You’re late. As I was saying, the Byzantine empire was a… was a sprawling, tremendously influential nation that could be said… Could be said what? I think, to have been… have been… founded in 330 CE, when Constantine the First…”

As Suwaylem stuttered on, Omar took a seat. He saw now that the man’s normally immaculate suit was dirty and torn, and hung loose on his frame, while his usually well coiffed hair was tangled.

“Who can tell me,” Suwaylem said, looking around as if to a room full of pupils, “something… what was it…” He wrung his hands helplessly, then looked to Omar. “You.”

Before Omar could point out that he didn’t know the question, a terrible moan came from the back of the room. It was a drawn out, tremulous sound, somewhere between a groan of pain and a death rattle, and it made the hair on Omar’s arms instantly stand on end. He spun in his seat and looked behind him.

In the deep shadows at the back of the room, two figures stood. Omar stared, trying to make them out. Finally their forms resolved, and he saw to his horror that they were Tameem and Basem, exactly as they had been in high school, except for one thing: they were dead. Or they should have been. Tameem’s throat was opened from ear to ear. His skin was alabaster pale, and blood stained his clothing down to his bare feet.

As for Hani, his head was half crushed, flattened on one side and broken open, so that his brains were visible.

It had been Tameem who moaned, because he opened his mouth and did it again. The sound sent a shudder all through Omar’s body. The boy was trying to speak, Omar realized. Trying to answer the principal’s non-question, maybe. But he could form no words, because his throat gaped open like a papaya with a wedge cut from it.

Tameem and Basem’s eyes fixed on Omar, and they both stepped forward, their expressions sorrowful and pleading. Omar tried to leap to his feet but the school desk seemed to have shrunk and his legs were stuck. He yelled in terror and panic. The two dead youths took another step forward.

* * *

He woke up shouting. He lay in a strange bed, his legs tangled in the sheets. Looking around in confusion, he realized where he was: the Click Clack Hotel. He was still in Bogotá. The glowing digital clock on the nightstand said 4:16 am. His alarm would go off in an hour. Three and a quarter hours until his flight.

He thought about the dream. He hadn’t had a nightmare in many years. Seeing Hani again must have brought back memories of the bad old days at IIAP, before the Day of the Dogs. Now he almost wished he could cancel the invitation he’d extended. But that wouldn’t be right.

He rose from bed. Time to shower and pray Fajr. Time to go home.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 9:  All We Have to Do

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

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

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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