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 | Chapter 15
Wednesday, February 9, 2010 – 1:15 am
Ougadiri Island, Panama
The front door of the house – a huge wooden door that must have weighed a half a ton – swung open. A woman emerged, shouting and waving a half-full bottle of liquor. She was beautiful, petite and slender, and wore a white designer pantsuit, black heels and a white fur stole. Apparently no one told her that fur is now politically incorrect.
I lowered my arm slowly, awaiting developments.
A man emerged from the house. He wore slippers, underwear and a fur bathrobe that was open in front to expose his hairy chest and legs. A large automatic pistol was tucked into his underwear. That seemed like a stupid idea. He was short but wiry, with hair dyed the color of a beet salad. He spoke to the woman in a pleading tone, his hands out in supplication. He turned slightly, and I saw his profile. His right ear was missing. He was El Demonio.
The woman threw the bottle at him and – as he barely dodged it – screamed a long string of curses, some of which I understood. Among them was one word that struck my ears like the ringing of a gong: pedófilo. Pedophile.
My heart sank. I’d half hoped that El Pelado had been wrong, and that El Demonio’s interest in Anna lay in some other direction. But it seemed the pimp had told the truth, and that El Demonio’s wife or girlfriend or whatever she was knew it too.
The woman in the fur stole stormed over to the Rolls Royce and started it up. El Demonio shouted something but the woman roared straight for the gate, not slowing down at all. El Demonio hollered to the guards to open the gate. It began to slide open.
Too late. With a tremendous clanging, crashing noise, the woman barrelled headlong into the gate, which tore free from its hinges and flew into the air, coming down halfway to the treeline. The fence itself was partially pulled down, with at least once fence post torn from the ground. Sparks flew, illuminating the night sky like fireworks, and the hum of electricity through the fence abruptly cut off.
The woman didn’t even slow down. She sped off down the road at a high rate of speed. The Rolls was barely dented, though one headlight was smashed.
El Demonio walked in a circle, raging and waving his arms. The guards exited the guardhouse to inspect the damaged fence and gate. The patrol vehicle pulled up, while two other guards came running out of the house.
One of the guards laughed upon seeing the destroyed gate. El Demonio rounded on the man, drew the pistol from his underpants and shot the man point blank in the forehead. The guard’s body crashed to the ground, and the cartel boss fired twice more into the man’s prone form.
He turned to the other men and yelled. Two of them hurried to the ATVs and sped down the road after the woman. The remaining guards conferred with El Demonio.
This was my chance. The fence near where I lay was partly torn from the ground. A gap of about a foot and a half at the bottom allowed enough room for me to crawl through. I began to move.
As I crawled beneath the fence, my belt caught on a ragged bit of metal that projected from the torn fence. I reached back slowly and tried to free it. I was not more than ten meters from where El Demonio stood with his man. My legs were hidden by the guardhouse, but my upper body was in plain sight. All they had to do was look up and they would see me.
I jerked at the belt, trying to free it. El Demonio gestured wildly toward the west, and he and his man turned in my direction. I flattened myself against the ground, pressing one ear to the warm earth, trying to look like a clump of weeds or a stone, or anything except what I was. I thougth flat thoughts: I’m a tortilla. I’m a pancake. Only then did I realize that my face was about two inches from a line of leaf-cutter ants. They marched past, each ant carrying a bit of leaf many times larger than itself. I’d heard they could denude an entire mango tree in a few days. I wondered what they’d do to my face if I got in their way.
A brilliant yellow light burst across the island sky, followed an instant later by a tremendous booming sound that rolled across the forest from somewhere down west. Birds rose up by the thousands, while monkeys screeched in alarm. I moved my head the tiniest bit and peered behind me. A massive fire was burning far down at the western tip of the island, where the marina was located. Bits of flaming wrecking soared high in the air, arcing out over the forest and ocean, as if a flock of phoenixes had just taken flight. The yacht, I realized. The yacht had exploded.
El Demonio went apoplectic. His face turned as red as his hair and he began shrieking at the guards around him. He struck one and shoved another. I caught the words, esa loca mujer – “that crazy woman.” El Demonio seemed to think the woman was responsible for blowing up the boat.
I was pretty sure it was not the woman. I was pretty sure it was Niko. I resisted the urge to laugh. That crazy maniac! I’d told him to disable the boats, not blow them to kingdom come.
One of the guards said something – it sounded like a question – and to my shock, El Demonio pulled the pistol from his pants and shot the man in the chest. The man fell and began crying in pain. The cartel boss disappeared into the house, then emerged with a set of keys. He started up the Lamborghini, which was bright red, and shot down the road toward the marina, brakes squealing as he rounded the bends. The guard in the patrol car followed. The two others still standing in the driveway conferred intensely, then lifted their wounded comrade – ignoring the dead one – and carried him to the last vehicle parked in the driveway, a smaller pickup truck that was coated in mud. They loaded the wounded man into the bed, drove right past me through the gate, and headed down the road. I had no idea where they were going.
I studied the house. There was literally not a single guard in sight. SubhanAllah! I reached back and pulled my belt loose from the snag. I crawled quickly through the hole, avoiding the ants, then rose lightly to my feet and ran toward the house, drawing my scuba knife. I slipped through the front door and dashed into the huge house.
In spite of the late hour, the house was brightly lit and smelled of baking bread. The interior was predictably huge, with a lobby big enough to hold three average houses. The lobby ceiling soared to the full height of the house. A circular staircase ran against the wall and rose all the way to the third floor, while second and third floor verandas circled the lobby, just as on the outside. Rooms and corridors ran off in four directions. Samba music played softly from somewhere upstairs.
The decor was an epic clash of hunting lodge versus French renaissance, as if a Russian trapper and a French noblewoman had declared war and chosen furniture and paint as their weapons. The massive mounted heads of jaguars, leopards and cape buffalos hung side by side with impressionist paintings of lakes and trees. Some of those paintings were probably worth millions. Antique French furniture shared space with bear skin rugs with the bear heads still attached.
I chose a corridor to my right at random and ran down it, then stopped in shocked horror, my feet nearly tripping over each other. On the walls on both sides were mounted human heads. They were not sculptures or wax models. They were real heads, preserved at the moment of death. They were the heads of older men and younger, hairy and bald, eyes closed or open and staring in perpetual dread. Some were scarred or bloodstained. These were the heads of El Demonio’s enemies, no doubt. There were at least thirty.
God willing, I would not join them. What had I expected, tea and crumpets and a docent-led tour? I recovered my aplomb and ran on. I dashed through scores of lavishly appointed bedrooms, bathrooms that made Chausiku Sulawesi’s look like a broom closet, and three large kitchens. There was an indoor pool, a bowling alley and a cinema. In one of the kitchens I heard talking. I glanced in to see two female cooks in white aprons apparently baking breads and pastries for the next day while another man washed dishes. I bypassed them without being seen. Aside from that, the entire floor was deserted. I returned to the lobby and mounted the stairs to the second floor. It was more of the same. Twice I saw guards on the outdoor verandas, but their attention was focused outward, on whatever was happening down by the marina, and they did not see me.
Donning the infrared goggles, I moved cautiously through a second floor bedroom that was the source of the softly playing samba music and that smelled of menthol lotion and pipe smoke. I froze when I realized that the two large lumps in the bed were an elderly couple with sleeping masks over their eyes. Maybe they were drugged, because the noises of the night didn’t seem to have disturbed them at all. I prowled on quietly and moved up to the third floor, growing increasingly frustrated. I’d found no evidence that Anna was here at all.
I’d just begun my search of the third floor when a second explosion boomed outside, followed immediately by a third, smaller blast. The house’s windows rattled in their frames and someone down on the ground floor cried out. The other two boats, was my guess. Whether it was Niko’s doing or simply the fire spreading, I did not know. If it was Niko, then his work was done, and bravo. He’d disabled the boats as I asked.
Of course nothing about this mission had gone as planned. I’d imagined I would sneak in, find Anna, sneak out, and leave with Niko. But it’s said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. What my plan was now, I did not know.
In a third floor bedroom a maid screamed when she saw me, ducking and covering her head. I imagined I looked quite scary with the goggles on and a knife in my hand. “Silencio,” I commanded her, then I moved on. I knew she might alert someone, but I would deal with that if it happened.
I passed through a huge glass-ceilinged atrium housing an indoor arboretum, where tropical trees and ferns filled the space with green warmth. The air was thickly damp, and a small waterfall cascaded down one wall into an artificial pool. The floor was earth, with trails meandering through the room. It was nearly an indoor forest.
I was tired, and my ribs ached. I doubted very much that Anna was hiding behind a banana tree. I turned to leave and found myself face to face with a six foot five behemoth with dark brown skin, a neck the size of a tree trunk and one of those pseudo-beards that is just a thin strip of hair along the jawline. He already had his rifle raised, and before I could react he slammed me in the face with the butt, knocking me to the ground. Luckily the night vision goggles caught the brunt of the blow. They shattered and became instantly useless. I snatched them off just in time to see the guard lean over me and attempt to bring the rifle butt down on my head.
That was a mistake. I couldn’t count the times Malik Sulawesi had said to me, “Never lean. Anytime you lean you’re off balance and vulnerable. Move your feet, kneel or squat, but don’t lean.”
As the rifle butt sped toward my face, I shrimped to the side, grabbed the guard’s arms and pulled. He tumbled headlong over me, landing on his back beside me, the rifle slipping from his hands. I was on him like a viper, shooting my right arm between his arm and neck, reaching around to grasp my left biceps, and locking on a head-and-arm choke that was tighter than a vise. This choke compressed the carotid arteries, completely cut off the blood flow to his brain. The guy might outweigh me by a hundred pounds, if I could hold the choke he would be unconscious in six seconds, eight at the most. Fortunately it was my right arm applying the choke, not my injured left arm, or I’d never have pulled it off.
It was like holding a buffalo. He made grunting sounds, thrashed and tried to rise, but I dragged him back down, using his head for leverage. Two seconds. He tried to roll toward me but I based out, shooting my legs back, bracing the balls of my feet in the earth. Four seconds. He tried to roll away and this time succeeded. I was carried right over his body to land on my side with his weight atop me. I could hardly breathe myself, but I maintained the choke. Six seconds. Then the guy did something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Moving ponderously, gnashing his teeth, he rose to his feet with me literally hanging from his neck. I dangled, feet in the air. I saw him reaching for a knife that hung in a sheath on a utility belt. The choke required both arms to maintain. If I let go, I’d lose whatever advantage I had against this brute. Eight seconds. He drew the knife, which turned out to be a huge hunting knife with one straight edge and one serrated. I was about to give up on the choke in order to defend myself against the knife – and probably get myself gutted like a fish – when the guard’s arms went limp. He swayed, then crashed to the ground. I fell with him, but managed to land atop him so that his body took the brunt of my fall. I gasped with relief.
The guard would recover consciousness in perhaps thirty seconds. In a flash I released the choke, removed the guard’s utility belt and searched it. It contained a communications radio, extra magazines for the rifle, mini binoculars, a tactical flashlight with crenellated edges for striking, and an expandable baton. I’d been hoping to find zip ties, but there were none of the control tools associated with police duty belts, like stun guns, pepper spray or handcuffs. I supposed El Demonio’s security force was less interested in nonviolent control, and more interested in gleeful slaughter.
I looked around wildly. Some of the younger trees were tied to wooden stakes with short lengths of rubber tubing. I pried the knife out of the guard’s meaty hand, ran to the trees and cut two lengths of rubber tubing. Dashing back to the guard I used the tubing to bind his wrists and ankles. Then I removed the man’s boots, balled his socks and stuffed them in his mouth. Lastly I put on the utility belt and sheathed the knife. I was now carrying four knives, which would have been perfect if I were half human and half octopus.
The guard was literally snoring, taking a nap on the proverbial rowboat drifting gently down the stream. Applying the standard recovery technique for someone who’s been choked out, I picked up his feet and shook them, sending blood to his head. He opened his eyes, looking around dazedly.
I squatted atop his broad chest. I drew my scuba knife and pressed the point against the side of his neck, gripping his chin with my other hand to hold his head in place. The knife bit into the skin, drawing a trickle of blood.
“That’s a very sharp knife you feel pressing against your neck,” I said in English. “You make one wrong move and I will cut your carotid artery like a fruit roll-up, do you understand? Blink once if you understand.”
He blinked once, his eyes wide with a combination of fear and rage.
“Good. So you speak English?”
Again he blinked once.
“Alright. I’m going to take the gag of your mouth. You will say nothing except to answer my questions. If you call for help it will be the last thing you ever say.” I turned my words into a snarl. “I consider you and your master to be filth. If you doubt my resolve, try me.”
I removed the socks and the downed guard breathed deeply. “You are a dead man-” he began to say.
I stuffed the socks back in and dropped an elbow onto his left eye with all my body weight behind it. I felt one of the orbital bones shatter. The big guy grunted in pain. I pushed his head up, exposing his neck, and began to draw a shallow cut along the jawline. It wouldn’t kill him, but might send a message.
“Mmmafffff!” His words were muffled but the tone of panic was clear. I removed the socks.“Okay,” he said. “I will cooperate.” His left eye was swollen shut. Tit for tat. He smashed me, I smashed him.
I brought my face close to his ear and continued to press the knife into his neck. “I have only one question,” I growled through gritted teeth. “And I swear to God, you will answer truthfully the first time or I will kill you. I have no patience left. None. You have once chance.”
I meant every word, and the guard must have heard the verity in my words because he held his head very still as he whispered, “Fine. Ask your question.”
“Where is the girl? The little girl, Anna? The one El Demonio bought from El Pelado.”
“I don’t know that name.”
I gripped his hair, pulled his head up and began to dig the knife into his neck. The trickle of blood became a small stream. I hadn’t cut his artery yet, just the skin.
“Wait!” His voice was frantic. “I swear I don’t know the names of the girls, but they are kept in the outbuilding. The gray one on the south side of the house.”
The girls. My God. There was more than one. Without another word I withdrew my knife and began to stuff the socks back into the guard’s mouth.
“Ayuda!” he bellowed, calling for help.
I drove the blade into his larynx, cutting off the shout. Blood poured from his throat. I stuffed the socks into his mouth. He thrashed uselessly, his eyes wide with terror. I had not cut any major vessels. He’d never speak again, but had a chance of survival, if he received medical care in time. Whether that happened or not was not my concern.
I picked up the guard’s rifle and recognized it right away. It was a Galil, an Israeli-made assault rifle. I’d carried one for a while when I was a bank robber. Horse used to take me, Deuce and Red out to the Mojave desert to train with a variety of weapons. I’d fired shotguns, bolt-action rifles, automatic handguns, revolvers, and all manner of assault rifles. I never knew where Horse procured all those weapons. We practiced firing at paper targets, bottles and cans, and we even had an automatic skeet shooter that allowed us to train against moving targets. I wouldn’t have won any national shooting contests, but I was pretty good.
I took a shine to the Galil right away, and yes, I was aware of the irony of a jihadi (as I imagined myself) carrying an Israeli gun. It was a low maintenance weapon patterned on the Kalashnikov, but with the accuracy of an M-16. It was fed with a curved steel magazine with a 35 round capacity. My only complaint was that the AR, the standard rifle version, was a bit large for urban use, especially for a skinny teenager like I was then. Horse told me there was a popular SAR carbine variation with a shorter barrel, and an even more compact MAR variation for cops and airborne troops, but he hadn’t managed to procure those.
Now here it was, a Galil MAR. The shoulder stock had been detached, leaving it with a pistol grip, a tiny barrel, and a curved magazine that looked ridiculously long by comparison. The entire thing was made of burnished black steel and could easily be concealed under an overcoat. Not that I had one.
I still did not intend to use the weapon, but between the maid who’d seen me and the guard I’d left bleeding, I expected the alarm to go up at any moment, at which point the advantage of stealth would be lost. I might be glad for the Galil if that happened. I slung at around my neck with the attached strap.
I descended the staircase, moving as quietly as I could, my scuba knife at the ready. I could only see out of one eye, so I had to turn my head constantly from side to side. As I approached the front door I saw that it was closed. I opened it incrementally, an inch at a time. A lean guard with a blond crewcut stood outside, his back to me. Like the other, he was dressed all in black and carried a rifle. I took a quiet step forward, then another. I was only one step away when the man sensed something and turned, rifle pointing at me.
I was on him like a komodo dragon – I’ve always had komodo dragons on the brain, I don’t know why, maybe because it’s a real thing that sounds unreal. I slammed the scuba knife into the side of his neck as I pushed away the barrel of his rifle. Blood sprayed into my face and neck and the guard fell like a toppled tree. He uttered only a surprised grunt, and didn’t get off a shot, though his rifle clattered on the pavement. Grateful that he was not a large man, I dragged his body around the corner of the house to the south side, behind a stand of papaya trees intermixed with berry bushes. I opened his belt pouch and took the three rifle magazines he kept there, stuffing them into my pockets. One thing I’d learned in the field was that you could never have too many bullets. I knelt, catching my breath. No shout went up, and no guard came running, thank God.
Twenty meters upslope to my left stood a gray structure that looked like a garden shed. Beyond it, further upslope, was a second structure that could have been a guest house. I no longer had the night vision goggles, and it was dark on this side of the house, but there appeared to be nothing between me and the outbuildings but open grass. Darkness was my friend, so I figured I had a good chance of crossing that space unseen. I took a deep breath, said Bismillah, and ran for it.
I made it. The shed was constructed of stucco over cement, and had a heavy steel door that was secured with a sliding bolt. The bolt was closed, effectively locking the door, but there was no padlock securing it. There were no windows and no exterior AC units. I slid the bolt open as slowly and quietly as possible, gripped the metal handle of the door and pulled. The door opened with a creak of rusty hinges. I stood as still as a stone sculpture and listened. Nothing. The shed was completely dark inside, and a foul odor emanated from it. It stank of blood, vomit, bodily fluids and death. The smell made my skin crawl and my feet want to run. I fervently hoped and prayed that Anna was not in this building.
I entered the shed and pulled the door shut behind me, eliciting the same rusty whine. Only when it was all the way closed did I allow myself to take the tactical flashlight from “my” utility belt. With my knife still in the other hand, I clicked on the flashlight and shined it around the room.
I was in a chamber of horrors. The walls and floor were splattered with blood and gore. A drain in the floor was clogged with shards of bone, flesh and hair. Shackles were bolted to the floor and wall. A variety of tools hung from the walls. All were stained with blood. This was a torture box. The pain, terror and despair of the men who had been brutalized here, who had been killed here and dismembered, was a physical presence. I could smell it, taste it and feel it on my skin. It made me gag. I bent over and retched, but managed to hold it in. Then I turned off the flashlight, opened the door and fled that terrible place.
I shut the door behind me hurriedly, forgetting to be cautious. I don’t remember if I slid the bolt closed. I didn’t even check for guards. I simply ran from that abominable hole, stumbling up the slope toward the other building I’d seen, taking deep breaths, trying to slow my racing heart.
This was it. This was the final building on the property, as far as I could tell. If Anna wasn’t here then – then what? I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to consider what it might mean.
Ya Allah, I thought as I jogged up the hill. I wanted to say so much. I wanted to throw my prayer to the heavens with a voice that would light up the sky and shake the earth. I wanted to smash this island with a fist that would tear it apart and throw this entire compound into the sea. I wanted to be away from here, back with my wife and child in a place of safety and love. But most of all I wanted to find Anna Anwar and take her away from this evil place. All these thoughts and more roiled in my chest and stuck in my throat. I was too tired to formulate words, too heartsick and angry, so all I managed was Ya Allah, Ya Allah, Ya Allah.
Like the shed, this building was only one story high, but it was the size of a villa, with at least four or five rooms. Also, it had a large front window, though it was barred and curtained. Like the shed, this building’s door was a massive slab of metal, but again it was secured only from the outside with a deadbolt. No lock. That meant that this villa, like the torture chamber, was meant to keep people in, not out. It was a prison. The fact that it was unlocked spoke to El Demonio’s supreme command and confidence on this island.
Standing before the front window, I reached through the bars and touched the glass. It wasn’t glass at all but some sort of thick shatterproof plastic. The villa was pitch black inside and I couldn’t see a thing.
Moving as silently as I could, I made a complete circuit of the building. There were two other windows, both small and high on the wall. There were no other doors.
Returning to the front door, I slid open the deadbolt. This door was apparently better maintained than the other, because it opened without a sound. I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.
I shined the flashlight around, partly covering it with one hand to reduce the beam intensity. The light illuminated a large room that was like some adult’s fever dream of a child’s funhouse. There was a small inflatable bounce house, a ping pong table, a soda dispenser and soft-serve ice cream machine, a giant gumball machine, bean bags strewn about the room, and paintings of clowns all over the walls. Streamers hung from the ceiling, and here and there helium balloons bounced against the ceiling, their strings dangling down. Dolls were piled onto a child-sized pink leather armchair in one corner of the room. When the flashlight beam hit them, their eyes glittered and glowed like little possessed demon creatures. Dolls were scattered about on the floor as well. Several had been dismembered, their ams or heads pulled off. Some of the clown paintings had been disfigured as well, drawn over with crayon or marker. And, I noticed now, there was a large puddle of dried residue beneath the soft-serve machine, as if someone had deliberately poured ice cream onto the floor and left it there.
As bizarre as the room was, my heart soared, because I knew this was the place. If Anna was indeed a captive on this island, I was fairly sure she’d be inside this twisted funhouse villa.
To the right was what would have been a large kitchen, except that all the appliances had been stripped out. There was nothing in it but a sink. When my light hit it, dozens of cockroaches and silverfish scurried into the shadows.
I moved through the room to a hallway. A door opened off the left of the hallway into a large bathroom with a huge claw-footed tub and a mirror with light bulbs all around the sides. Again, cockroaches scattered.
A little further on my right I found another bedroom. When I shined the light into it, I was shocked into motionlessness. Wherever the light hit, dolls stared back at me. They sat on shelves on the walls, dangled by strings from the ceiling, and were piled on a bed against one wall. There were hundreds of them. Then I noticed something else and my blood turned to ice in my veins. The bed had restraints attached to the four posts. Leather cuffs were attached to chains and they were small, the size one would need to restrain a child. At the foot of the bed stood a tripod of the kind to which someone might attach a camera.
My hand tightened on the flashlight and my jaw clenched. I wanted to destroy this place and leave it an island of ghosts. I took a breath and forced myself to relax. I couldn’t afford to let anger take over. I was not here to seek revenge or go on some vendetta. I was here for one thing only, and that was to find Anna.
There was one last room at the end of the hall and I moved toward it. Even before I reached it I heard scuffling noises from inside and the sound of a frightened whimper. My heart flipped over in my chest. I felt excitement, trepidation and fear, not fear for myself but over what I might find. I wanted to call out and say, “Anna, it’s alright, you’re safe now,” but I dared not. I didn’t know who was in that room. There might be a guard in there for all I knew, ready to blast me when I walked through the door.
There wasn’t. I shined the light cautiously into the room. There were two sets of wooden bunk beds, a pile of defaced clown paintings on the floor in one corner, and a tiny, barred window high up on one wall. Finally my light came to rest on two pairs of terrified eyes. The two girls were backed into one corner of the room. A girl of perhaps twelve years stood in front. She was thin and barefoot, with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. Her features were fine, and her bright green eyes flashed defiance. She wore a long cotton paisley nightgown, and might have been pretty if not for the bruises on her face and the look of desperation in her eyes.
Behind her a smaller girl huddled on the floor, covering her face with her hands. She wore a pair of ill-fitting shorts and a white t-shirt with food stains on the front. She had Anna Anwar’s build, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
I sheathed the scuba knife. There was nothing in my hands now but the flashlight. “Anna,” I said gently. “Is that you?”
The huddled girl began to wail. The girl in front, in contrast, stood as straight as a stop sign, her shoulders back. “Tómame,” she said. “Seré bueno para ti. Me va a gustar.” Take me. I’ll be good for you. You’ll like me. She held out a hand, palm down, in a self-contradictory gesture that seemed to combine an invitation and a ward.
“No estoy aquí para eso,” I said. “I’m not here for that. I”m a friend. Un amigo. Anna,” I repeated softly. “I’m here to help you, to take you home. My name is Zaid. I’m a friend of your father, do you remember me?”
The wailing from the huddled child lessened. “My – my -” she stammered. “My father?”
“Yes.” I smiled, knowing she couldn’t see it but hoping she could hear it. Of course, I realized. What an idiot I am. They can’t see me. I’m just a dark figure behind a bright light. I shined the light on my own face, and both girls gasped. Oh, crap. I’d forgotten that I was covered in the guard’s blood. I must look like some kind of vampire.
“I know I look terrible,” I said, wiping my face with one sleeve. “But I really am a friend of your father Tarek. I’m his old friend Zaid. He used to call me Stick. You and I have met before. You gave me flowers once at a party.”
“You – you looked lonely.”
I smiled and tears came to my eyes. I was amazed that she remembered that. “Yes,” I said.
“I’m here to take you home.”
“My mommy doesn’t want me.” I heard a shuffling sound and shined the light on the girls. The huddled child had gathered herself to stand beside the older girl. She was indeed Anna Anwar. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, but aside from that she seemed unmarked. Though of course that did not mean she was… unharmed. I moved the light to the center of the floor between us.
“Your mommy loves you, but she can’t take care of you right now. I’m taking you back to California. To Fresno.”
“To my Daddy?”
The hope in her voice nearly broke my heart. This child had been betrayed in the worst possible way, and I didn’t want to add to that by lying to her. But if I told her the truth, she might break down into despair, which wasn’t what we needed right now. I needed her alert and paying attention. The guards would soon discover the injured guard and the dead one, if they hadn’t already. When that happened, they would lock this whole place down and begin a search.
I chose a half truth. “Your Daddy can’t take care of you either. I’m sorry sweetie. But you still have your grandparents. They love you and want you. So please, come with me now.”
“My Nana doesn’t want me.”
What an odd thing to say. “She does. Your grandparents hired me to find you.”
“No. My Nana doesn’t love me.”
I ran a hand through my hair and tried to control my exasperation. “Maybe that’s true, maybe not. We’ll work it out when we’re out of here. I promise you, I swear by Allah, I will find a safe place for you. Come on now, Anna. We have to go.”
“Oris too.” Anna reached up and took her friend’s hand. “You have to take her.”
“Yes,” I said emphatically. “Of course. Now come.”
Anna rose, and a quick exchange took place between the girls in Spanish too quick for me to follow. I hadn’t realized that Anna spoke Spanish.
“Okay,” Anna said. “We’re ready.”
I nodded. “Do you have shoes? We’ll have to run.”
Oris fetched a pair of slippers from beneath the bunk bed, and Anna slipped on her Adidas sneakers, the same ones she’d been wearing in the school photo.
“When we get outside,” I told them, “no matter what happens you stay behind me, stay quiet and keep on following me, do you understand?”
Anna translated for Oris, and we slipped out of the house in total darkness. I ran downhill toward the gate with the two girls close behind, sticking to the deepest patches of darkness as much as possible. I would have preferred to avoid the gate, as it was likely the guards had either returned or someone else had been stationed there. But there was no choice. It was the only way past the perimeter fence. The gap I’d crawled under was on the other side of the guardhouse and inaccessible from here.
I led the two girls past the torture shed and up along the side of the main house, skirting the spot where I’d dumped the blonde guard’s body. I peered around the corner of the house. It was worse than I’d feared. There was no sign of the patrol car, and the Rolls and Lamborghini were still gone. Firelight still shone from the western end of the island. And the wrecked gate still gaped open. The problem was that there were now four armed guards stationed at the gate, two on each side.
I unslung the rifle and held it in my arms, flicking the safety off. In spite of being a different model than the one I’d carried, the configuration was familiar and comfortable. I closed my eyes. “O Allah,” I breathed. “I’m not asking anything for myself. Do what you will with me. Strike me down if you choose. Take from me all worldly things, leave me without coin or love or breath if that is the price of success here. I can take it. I’m your servant to the end. But save these girls O Allah. That is all I ask.”
I opened my eyes and looked at the girls. “Listen carefully,” I whispered. “There are four men at the gate. The only way out is for me to kill them. You stay in hiding until I say, ‘Go.’ When I say, ‘go,’ you come out and follow me. We’ll run through the gate then into the forest. The gunshots will be loud, but you keep on running, keep following me. Don’t stop. Understand?”
Anna translated for Oris, and both girls nodded their heads. Their eyes were wide, and Anna’s lower lip trembled as if she might cry. I simply had to trust that they would do as I told them.
I flipped open the magazine pouch and folded the cover behind the belt, so it would stay open. Then I said Bismillah and gripped one magazine between with my teeth. I didn’t know how well trained these men were. They might be highly trained mercenaries, or run-of-the-mill gangsters with no real tactical training. As for me, I knew how to shoot, I was a skilled martial artist with the ability to adjust to new tactical information on the fly, and I had the biggest advantage of all – the advantage of surprise.
I stepped out from behind the corner of the house.
Only then did I see that there were two additional guards at the house’s front door. They were immediately to my right, so I rounded on them and opened fire. From my perspective they were lined up one in front of the other. My first volley mowed them both down like grass. Without a pause I pivoted left, dropped to one knee and let loose on the two guards on the right side of the gate, in front of the guardhouse. I wanted to get them before they retreated into the guardhouse, and I did. One fell screaming, while the other flew backward and crashed into the guardhouse window, shattering it. Hey lay bent backward over the sill.
The two on the left had no cover. They dropped to their bellies and fumbled with their rifles. I rolled left, came to my feet, ejected the magazine and slammed in the one from my mouth, and cut loose on full auto, emptying the entire 35-round clip into the earth where they lay. The bullets chewed them to pieces.
A tremendous impact struck my left shoulder and sent me spinning to the ground. It was the guard who’d gone down screaming. He wasn’t dead, and he’d put a bullet in me. My shoulder was numb, but I didn’t feel the pain yet. I thrust in a new magazine, rolled to my right, stood, and advanced on the man. He shot at me but he was panicked and in pain, and the bullets went wide. I raised my weapon, aimed, and riddled the guy, killing him where he lay.
A volley rang out and I stumbled as my leg gave out. I rolled to my back and saw two guards on the second floor veranda, both firing at me. Bullets ripped up the earth all around me. I tried to return fire and got nothing but an empty click. I popped out the mag, inserted a new one, and calmly returned fire, sweeping a line of lead across the veranda. One guard’s head rocked back as a bullet took him square in the forehead. The other dropped to his belly. I dropped the clip, put in a new one, and emptied it into the spot where he lay, firing right through the ornately carved wood. Chunks of wood flew in every direction and an entire section of the veranda railing broke loose and fell to the ground with a crash. I saw then that the guard lay in a heap against the wall of the house, dead.
I reached for another clip and found that I was out. I rose to one knee and tried my leg. A bullet had gone through the outside of my calf, taking a piece of my muscle with it. Blood poured down into my shoe. But I found that I could stand, as long as I kept most of my weight on the other leg.
“Anna, Oris,” I called out. “Go! Follow me now.” The two girls, to their credit, darted out from behind the house. I ran for the gate, hobbling badly, nearly dragging my left leg behind me, with the girls right on my heels. We passed through the gate, which was a scene of devastation, with pools and spatters of blood everywhere. I made a beeline across the clearing, heading for the forest to the southwest.
Gunfire sounded, and I heard the whine of a bullet as it whistled past my ear. Oris screamed, but she and Anna kept running. I looked back and saw a guard on the third floor veranda firing at us. At the same time headlights came up brilliant and white on the road almost directly ahead of us. There were at least two vehicles racing our way. And then my leg gave out on me again.
I pointed to the treeline. “Go!” I shouted. “Get to the forest and keep going. Hide, don’t let anyone find you.”
The girls stared at me, wide-eyed with terror. “Go!” I screamed, pointing. “Corre, corre!”
I climbed to my feet once again. I saw now that there were in fact four vehicles: the Lamborghini, the patrol truck and the two ATVs. The Lambo stopped on the road, idling, but the pickup and the ATVs bounced into the clearing, coming right at me.
I had to lead them away from the girls. That was all that mattered. I drew the hunting knife and began hobbling back toward the gate. The pickup came roaring right toward me. The two ATVs, however, headed for the treeline, following the path the girls had taken. I stopped, drew my right arm back, and threw the hunting knife at the nearest ATV, aiming for the spot where it would be in about a second and a half. The knife sailed through the air, tumbled end over end, and missed. A shot rang out, and I saw a flash of light from the treeline. One of the ATV drivers screamed and tumbled from his vehicle, which flipped onto its side, wheels spinning and engine whining. Another shot came, and the other ATV did a wheelie, the front end shooting up in the air. The driver hit the ground and the vehicle landed atop him with a sickening thud.
Niko, I thought. It had to be Niko firing from within the forest. No no no, Niko, you were supposed to be long gone. What are you doing?
The pickup stopped directly in front of me and three men clambered out carrying rifles. One trained his weapon on my chest and approached me while the other two opened fire on the treeline.
I drew my scuba knife and took a fighting stance.
“No lo mates,” El Demonio called out. “No lo mates.” Don’t kill him. The guard stepped forward and swung his rifle stock at my face. I ducked the blow, inserted my knife along the inside of his leg, and sliced his femoral artery wide open. Then I shoved him away. He fell, staring in horror at his leg, which was literally fountaining blood several feet in the air. He tried to stanch the flow with his hands, without effect. He’d be dead in seconds, I knew.
The two other guards rushed over to me. One, a hugely muscular man with skin as dark as lava rock, looked like he did nothing all day but eat beef and lift weights. He pointed a bulky black and yellow handgun at me and pulled the trigger. Except that it wasn’t a handgun at all.
A pair of needles attached to wires flew at me. Not fair, I thought as I tried to dodge and failed. It’s just not fair. The needles struck me in the back. Every muscle in my body went rigid, while my back felt like an entire pub full of Irishmen was using it as a dartboard. I fell, completely frozen, unable to control any of my muscles, though I could see the big guard through my peripheral vision as he approached, put away his Taser, lifted his rifle and brought the stock down a sledgehammer on my skull.
* * *
Cold water splashed my face and I half-gasped, half-screamed. I looked around wildly. Where was I? What was happening? An instant later pain hit me like a planet. There was hardly a part of me that did not hurt. My head ached as if it might split open, my right ribs felt tender and breakable; my left shoulder screamed with agony, and my left calf felt like some hungry fanged creature was eating it for dinner. Every muscle in my body felt sore and twitchy. And I couldn’t move my hands or my legs.
I’d been stripped to my shorts and chained to the floor in a bare cement room with gore-spattered walls. A single bright bulb blazed directly overhead. There were tools hung on the walls, some I recognized and others that looked like medical implements.
It all came rushing back then. El Demonio. Ouagadiri Island. The torture chamber. I was in the torture chamber. El Demonio himself stepped into my field of vision. He’d put on a red track suit that nearly matched his ridiculous beet-colored hair. A pair of men flanked him. One was the muscle-swollen black man, the beefeater. He was so big he looked like he could probably not scratch his own back. The other was a short Latino man with a handlebar mustache, wearing a black leather cowboy hat.
To my surprise, my gunshot-wounded shoulder and leg had been bandaged. The bandages were soaked with blood, but the bleeding appeared to have stopped. I guessed that these guys didn’t want me dying of blood loss before they could interrogate me.
El Demonio lifted one of those big black and yellow Taser guns and tapped it against his chin, grinning. He spoke in Spanish, first insulting my parentage and then rattling off a series of questions: Who sent you? Who do you work for? Who is with you? Where are your compatriots? Where are the girls?
These last two questions made me smile. El Demonio didn’t have Niko or the girls. He hadn’t found them. Maybe Niko had the girls, and was at this very moment heading back to the mainland with them on the fishing boat.
The hairstyle-challenged cartel leader must not have liked my smile, because he pointed the taser at my belly and fired. My body convulsed and arched, jerking against the chains that held me. My teeth clamped together so hard I thought they’d break.
“Quien te envio?” he demanded. Who sent you?
My chest heaved as I gulped air. “Santa Claus sent me,” I replied in English. “He said to tell you you’ve been a bad boy, and you’re not getting any presents for Christmas.”
El Demonio laughed and spoke in English. “Oh, so you are NorteAmericano? You know, you kill eleven of my men. Eleven! Who blow up the boats? Who is with you? Where are the girls? Are you DEA?” he demanded. “CIA?”
“Neither,” I said. “I’m CRC.”
He frowned. “What is CRC?”
“Can’t Remember Crap.”
“Hmm.” El Demonio made a hand gesture to Beefeater – the muscular guard – who handed him another type of Taser, the kind that must be touched directly to the skin. El Demonio pressed a button and a blue arc of electricity snapped up between the poles. It buzzed and crackled as he kneeled down beside me and brought it close to my face. I thought he would ask another question, but instead he simply touched the device to my mouth.
Again my entire body clenched and arched. My jaws snapped shut and I bit the inside of my cheek hard. My mouth filled with hot, coppery blood. My lips burned like slices of meat on a barbecue.
“Llámame cuando dé respuestas,” El Demonio said to his men. Call me when he gives answers. He exited the room.
The Panamanian cowboy took a few choice implements off the hooks on the walls, then pulled up a folding chair beside of me. He began to torture me as Beefeater watched. He started with the skin of my inner thighs, and moved on to my toenails. There was neither joy nor malicious intent in his actions. I think that was the worst part of it all – the coldness of it, the matter-of-fact monstrousness of their cruelty. As he tortured me, he repeated the same questions in Spanish. Who did I work for? Who was with me? Where were the girls?
I gave no answers. That’s not to say that I took it like a man. I screamed, groaned, and shouted until my voice failed. I bled, and I hurt. But I did not beg, and I gave no answers. Give me credit for that, if nothing else.
At least twice I lost consciousness. The first time they revived me with another bucket of water in the face. At some point Cowboy went on a break and Beefeater took over. Apparently not being one for finesse, he began by simply beating me on the face, chest and arms with a rubber hose. One of my bottom incisors broke loose and I spat it out. At some point he said to me in English, “You alone here. No one know, no one care. Why you no speak? You speak, all dis finish. You speak, we give you food, water, let you rest. No one comin’ to help you, man.”
At Beefeater’s claim that I had been abandoned, Surat Ad-Duha flowed into my mind like a cool mountain spring. I began to recite it out loud in Arabic, slowly. My words came out slurred, partly because my mouth had been damaged, and partly because I’d lost so much blood.
I knew this surah had been revealed after a period during which the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa-sallam, had come to a halt. The Prophet was anxious and confused, fearing he had done something wrong. The disbelievers scorned him, saying, “Muhammad’s Lord has bidden him farewell.”
Until Allah responded with these sweet words:
By the morning brightness, and the night when it covers with darkness, Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor has He detested [you]. And the Hereafter is better for you than the first. And your Lord is going to give you, and you will be satisfied. Did He not find you an orphan and give refuge? And He found you lost and guided [you], And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient. So as for the orphan, do not oppress. And as for the petitioner, do not repel. But as for the favor of your Lord, report.
I was not alone. No matter what these human beasts said, I knew better. I belonged to Allah. I was alive at this moment not by the agency of these pathetic, soulless men, but by Allah’s mercy, and I would die not by these men’s hands, but by Allah’s decree only.
I recited the surah aloud through a broken mouth and burned lips, and when I opened my eyes I found Beefeater staring at me wide-eyed and trembling. The door opened with that same rusty-hinged squeal and Cowboy walked in. “Qué?” he said. “Que pasó?”
“He sayin’ magic words,” Beefeater replied. “Power words. No more for me, no more.” He spun on his heel and left the room.
Not that his departure helped me. Cowboy just picked up where he’d left off.
The second time I fell unconscious, Cowboy revived me by digging a thumb into my eye. He spoke into a radio, and a few minutes later El Demonio entered the room carrying, of all things, a pair of rattan Kali sticks. He grinned and began to swing them in a classic sinawali or weaving pattern.
Two guards entered behind him, men I had not seen before. When they entered, sunlight shone through the open door. I was stunned. It was morning already. They’d been torturing me all night long. I’d had no idea.
They carried between them the limp form of a man. His head lolled, and his yellow shirt and jeans were completely stained with blood. It looked like he’d been shot somewhere in the abdomen. It was Niko.
El Demonio grinned at me. “Yes, we find your friend. And guess what, idiota?”
I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to hear the words. The cartel leader, seeing the dread in my eyes, kneeled beside me and sneered. “We have the girls as well.”
My will and determination deflated as if someone had just punctured me with a pitchfork. Through all the torture to which I’d been subjected, I had not wept, but now tears came to my eyes. The pain of my countless wounds hit me like the heat of the sun, and I felt despair for the first time. I wanted to curl around myself and die. All for nothing. It had all been for nothing.
El Demonio’s men dragged Niko to the shackles on the wall and hung him up so that he dangled by his wrists. His hands turned white, indicating that the blood flow had been cut off. If he remained like that for long, he’d lose his hands.
The cartel leader swung the sticks through a series of patterns, showing off. He went through the Ikis pattern, Dog’s Tail, Umbrella and Espada y Daga. Even through my despair, the analytical part of my mind, the part that had been studying stick and knife combat for most of my life, noticed that El Demonio’s movements were fluid and natural, but his stick angles were off, and his footwork was entirely lacking. I pegged him as a mid-level student, though clearly he thought more of himself.
Returning to a six-count sinawali pattern, El Demonio pivoted without warning and struck Niko six rapid blows, three on the left and three on the right: temple, cheek, jaw, skull, ear, shoulder. The sticks made dull thwacking sounds against Niko’s flesh and opened a cut on his forehead. At that, Niko opened his eyes. His lids were heavy, and I wasn’t sure he saw me, but then he said, his words slurred, “I am sorry señor. I told you I will stay with you until the point of death.” His eyes closed.
El Demonio lifted his sticks to beat Niko again.
No, I thought. No, no no. Each repetition of the word banished a bit of the despair that had enveloped me and replaced it with white hot determination. This was intolerable. This would not stand. I remembered the guard who had laughed at El Demonio’s wife, and how the cartel leader had reacted by shooting the man. And then, when I’d smiled earlier, he’d Tasered me in the face. He couldn’t stand to be laughed at.
So I took a chance. I began to laugh. It was artificial, of course, just a forced imitation of a laugh, but almost as soon as I began some switch flipped in my brain and I began to laugh for real. This entire situation was so unlikely, so absurd. How had I ended up here, being tortured in a cement shack on a Caribbean island, when just a week ago I was comfortably ensconced in my California office? Of course I hadn’t known at the time that my office was comfortable, but everything was indeed relative, it seemed.
My throat was hoarse from screaming, so my laugh came out sounding the cough of a sick cow, but it was genuine, and El Demonio saw that. He turned away from Niko and his face flushed as red as his ridiculous hair. “Deja!” he screamed, ordering me to stop. “Deja eso!”
“It’s just,” I rasped, “you have this fully stocked torture chamber, and you’re playing with sticks like a little kid. Sticks, really? Give me a break. Give me one of those and I bet I could beat you silly with it. Come on, you and me, one on one.”
That was it, that was my play. If he didn’t go for it, then we were all doomed. I watched as El Demonio’s face returned to its normal color. An evil light came into his eyes.
“Really?” he said. “You think is easy? Okay, I give you a chance.” He barked out an order in Spanish to the guards. They proceeded to unshackle me and Niko. Two guards hauled Niko out the door into the sunshine.
They came back and bent to lift me up.
“No,” I growled. “Deja me. Don’t touch me.” As slowly as a wounded turtle I rolled onto my stomach, then pushed up onto my hands and knees. Like an animal, I crawled across that filth-stained floor until I reached the wall of the shed, where I used the wall to push myself to my feet. For a moment everything spun. I leaned against the wall, closing my eyes, and waited for it to stop. When it did, I walked out of that place of horror into the sunshine of a new day.
The guards tossed Niko’s unconscious form into the bed of a pickup truck. They drove the short distance downhill to the circular driveway in front of the house. I followed on foot, moving very slowly and limping badly, mostly just dragging my left leg behind me. El Demonio, Cowboy and Beefeater flanked me. When we reached the driveway I saw the other patrol car parked there. Anna and Oris were indeed there, sitting in the cab. Anna’s face was swollen from crying. Oris looked frightened but rock solid. What a child she was, what a human being.
There was something else: the body of El Demonio’s wife lay in the bed of the truck, twisted unnaturally. Her formerly white pantsuit and white fur stole were stained crimson with blood.
El Demonio planted himself right in the middle of the circular flower bed around which the driveway ran. Maybe with his wife dead there was no one to object to him stepping on the petunias. He kept one stick for himself and threw the other down, gesturing for me to pick it up. I stepped into the flower bed, feeling the stalks break beneath my feet, bent to pick up the stick, and fell. Using the stick as a cane, I regained my feet.
Standing there dressed only in my underpants, I tipped my head back and let the morning sun shine on my face. I was covered in blood from head to toe. I’d urinated on myself during the night. My body was wrecked. I knew it and El Demonio knew it. I had no toenails left, and my feet were bloody, swollen masses. The skin on the front and inside of my thighs was shredded and torn, bleeding from dozens of places. My left leg barely functioned. Because of the gunshot wound to my left shoulder, my left arm was useless. My right eye was swollen shut. Every other part of my body was covered in welts and bruises, and I was dizzy from blood loss. I had maybe ten seconds of fight in me, if that. If it went beyond that I was done. All El Demonio had to do was dance in, strike me and dance out. If he waged a battle of attrition like that, I’d be helpless.
El Demonio shouted to his men. One of them rolled Niko out of the bed of the pickup. Niko’s body fell and hit the ground with a dull thud. I knew my friend was either dead or dying, but there was nothing I could do. Cowboy dragged the two girls out of the other vehicle and forced them to their knees beside Niko, on the edge of the flower bed. Looking at me, seeing my ruined condition, Anna began to cry.
I wanted to say something to her, offer her some reassurance, but anything I might say would ring hollow. Trust in Allah, I thought, and He will feed you as He feeds the birds.
“Perhaps,” my subconscious replied, “but will He save you? I’m not a bird, and I live in the real-”
SHUT UP! I hollered at my subconscious. Yes! He will! He will save, provide, nourish, reward, and redeem. One way or another, HE. WILL.
The cartel leader twirled his stick. “Are you ready?”
“Hold on. I have terms.”
He cocked his head. “What means, terms?”
“Conditions. Condiciones. Every contest must have terms, something at stake, something to be won or lost.”
He nodded slowly, still grinning. “I like. Say the terms.”
“If I win, you let me, my friend and the girls go.”
He eyed me thoughtfully, still smiling. “And if I win?”
“I’ll tell you who sent me. Then you can kill me and let the others go.”
El Demonio snorted. “No, amigo. No one send you, I see that now. You and this one-” he gestured contemptuously toward Niko’s still form – “are amateurs. Maybe you are the father of one of the girls? Your identity is meaningless. Here is the terms. If you win, one of you will live. The rest of you die. This is the only term I offer. Choose now. Who will live?”
I racked my mind for a counter-proposal, anything I could say, anything to bait him with. But there was nothing. He was right. He held all the cards. This was only a bit of fun to him, an entertaining way to kill me, and perhaps a way to show off to his people and save face after last night’s losses.
“Anna,” I said. “The little girl. She lives.” There was no other possible choice. I had come here to save Anna no matter the cost. I’d offered myself to Allah, bargaining my life away for hers. I asked for this. My only regret was Niko.
El Demonio nodded knowingly. “So it is the little girl you love, eh? Then listen this. When I defeat you, I will kill all except her. Your little Anna I will take back to the villa and do as I please. She will live, but as my slave.” He grinned. “This is according to the terms, yes? Now no more talk. Vamo’ hacerlo!” He twirled his stick in a figure 8 pattern and came straight at me, arrogant, not trying to feel me out at all. He probably thought he’d need only a few seconds to put me down. He might be right.
The feeling of either a knife or a stick in my hand was so familiar, so comforting. I had been training obsessively in Kali for almost twenty five years. The stick was as much a part of me as my own hand. Heck, for a long time, people had called me Stick. Holding a stick in my hand was like coming home.
Could an inanimate object impart emotions to a human being? Confidence flowed into me from the smooth rattan in my hand. I smiled from ear to ear, and felt the burnt skin of my lips split and begin to bleed. Mine was a smile of joy, acceptance and power. It was the smile of a man with nothing left to lose, a man trusting his fate to the Most Merciful God, a man willing to pay whatever price was asked of him. It was the smile of a man ready to die.
The poet struggles, Niko would say, and without struggle, what will he do? Without struggle and resistance there is no victory. Perhaps in that moment I was a poet. My writing tool was a rattan stick, my page the bed of flowers in which I stood barefoot and bloody, and the subject was life and death. I had given all I had. Whatever little remained I would leave here, in this flowerbed, and it would have to do.
In my hoarse, raspy voice, I breathed “Allahu Akbar,” and raised my stick to meet the oncoming attack.
* * *
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.
Retire Aladdin To The Ends Of The Earth
By Jinan Shbat
I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Ohio, where I never felt different than the kids in my neighborhood. Sure, my siblings and I had odd-sounding names, and we spoke a second language. But to our neighbors and classmates, we were white, like them. However, that perception changed when I was 11-years-old, when a Disney cartoon movie named “Aladdin,” was released based off of a character created by a French orientalist at the height of Orientalism. At first, my siblings and I were excited because we thought Disney had made a movie that represented us. However, shortly after the movie came out, the questions began.
Are you from Agrabah?
Do you have a magic carpet? Are you going to be married off to someone your parents choose? Do you have outfits like Jasmine?” My head was swarming with all these questions, and I admit, I was intimidated. A little scared, too. I didn’t know how to answer them, and so I just shook my head and walked away.
My parents thought they were doing us a favor by buying the movie and have us watch it anytime other kids came over to play. This just created a larger divide between us, and soon my siblings and I were the “other.” It made me hyper-aware of my brown skin, my visiting foreign grandparents, and my weird-sounding name that no one could ever pronounce correctly. As I grew up, the movie and its racist, Orientalist tropes followed and haunted me. Anytime anyone found out I was Arab, they would ask, “oh, like Aladdin?” I didn’t know how to answer that. Was Aladdin Arab? South Asian, Persian? These were all different ethnicities, yet the movie seemed to be an amalgamation of them all, set in a fiction land I could not identify.
Why is Disney’s Aladdin Harmful?
It may not seem like a big deal to be misidentified in this way, but it is. And these stereotypes that have been present in Hollywood for decades are a huge disservice to our communities- all our communities- because when you misidentify a person’s culture, you are saying that all people of color are interchangeable— which is dehumanizing.
With the new release of the live action version, “Aladdin” is reinforcing the trauma and obstacles we have had to fight for the last 30+ years. The addition of a diversity consulting firm made Disney look good; it showed good faith on their part to receive feedback on the script to try and improve it.
However, issues remain with the original story itself, and no amount of consulting will change that.
Although the Aladdin remake was marked by controversy over Disney “brown-facing” its white cast, and despite original Aladdin’s racist history, last weekend Disney’s live-action version soared to $207.1 million globally. Money experts tell us that the remake success comes from the “power of nostalgia”- that is, the film’s ability to connect with feel-good memories.
The original production is the second highest grossing film project in Disney history. Last weekend, millions flocked to the remake in record numbers, despite critics’ negative and mixed reviews.
The accompanying Aladdin Jr. play is also a major concern, sales of which will skyrocket because of the film. Disney only recently removed the word ‘barbaric’ in its description of Arabs in the opening song. Many more problems abound, but Disney promises through its licensing company, Music Theatre International, to keep the concepts explored in the original production intact.
A Whole New World Needs Less Anti-Muslim Bigotry
From my perspective, as an organizer that fights a huge Islamophobia network in my daily work, it would be a disservice to my work and our community to sit by and allow racist, Islamophobic, orientalist tropes to make their way into our theaters, homes, and schools. What exactly is not a big deal in this movie? The depiction of Arabs and South Asians as one demographic, the storyline of forced marriage, power struggles, a black man playing a genie literally bound by chains to a lamp?
Hollywood’s history of Islamophobia needs to be rectified. There is a plethora of writers, actors and creative minds with alternative positive portrayals of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. Our consumer appetite must shift to embrace authentic stories and images about people like me.
Aladdin is beyond repair; in its original form, it is problematic. No number of meetings with executives will fix the problems that are still prevalent. It should be retired, indefinitely, and put on the shelf with all the other racist caricatures from Hollywood history.
It’s our duty to speak out- and if you don’t believe we should, then you can choose to stay silent. I cannot.
Jinan Shbat is an organizer in Washington DC.
Making Eid Exciting for Kids
Ramadan and Eid are the most important holidays of our religion, but are we as parents putting enough effort into them? For those of us who live in non-Muslim countries, Ramadan and Eid can look dull in comparison to Christmas, Halloween, Easter, etc. There is little to no recognition of Muslim holidays outside of our homes and masjids.
Unlike Muslim countries, where markets, streets, television and the general population all foster a sense of connection to the month of blessing, Ramadan and Eid pass by mostly unnoticed in the circle of our kid’s friends.
The reality is that our religious festivals are competing with the attention of other more glittery celebrations of the West. We want to make Islamic festivals a real part of our children’s lives. We want to create memories, want our kids to love our festivals and our deen, so how do we inspire our kids to love Ramadan and Eid?
While I don’t believe we need to compete with our Christian neighbors, I firmly believe we have a responsibility to make all of our religious obligations meaningful and as well as fun, exciting and educational for our kids.
As we get close to Eid, here’s how can you make it memorable for your children:
Welcome Eid in your Home by Decorating
Between the fabulous DIY Eid decorating projects out there on the internet and the wide range of home décor offered by Muslim owned businesses, you have a good number of options to decorate your home during Eid.
Gone are the days of tacky Eid décor. With the selection and quality Eid décor that are available, you are sure to find something that goes with your existing home décor. Whether your style is traditional or modern, glam or chic, you’ll find some Eid decoration in a variety of color and theme to match your taste.
You’ll be surprised how lights and a garland can add the Eid spirit to your home. Involve the kids in decorating your home for Eid to get them in the mood and inspire them to love Eid. It’s always a pleasure to see the sparkle in their eyes as you turn decorating the house a family activity.
Take your children to Eid Salah
Eid salah is a fundamental part of Eid festivities. Make sure you take your kids with you for the Eid prayer. If Eid falls on a weekday, get an excused absence for your child. Most schools have a religious celebration exemptions policy and you should be able to get the kids out for the Eid salah if not the entire day.
On route to the Eid prayer, make it a family tradition to say the Eid Takbeer –
‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. La Ilaaha Illallahu Wallahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa Lillahil Hamd’
Surprise your kids with gifts
“Exchange gifts, as that will lead to increasing your love to one another.” Prophet Muhammad ﷺ [Al-Bukhari]
Only is it a Sunnah to give gifts, children are ecstatic when they receive presents. It’s a win-win situation. I like to give Islam inspired gifts during Eid. Books are great to present, especially when you pair them with the experience of reading them together or spending some quality time doing an activity together.
For smaller kids, check out these prayer rugs and these feeding sets. For older kids, puzzles are dua cards are my go-to gifts along with some toys and stationery that they may want. If you want to keep the tradition of giving money out on Eid morning, package your bills in these beautiful envelopes before giving them out.
Plan a party for their friends
While it’s traditional for families to visit one another, a little extra effort can mean that kids get to enjoy something geared towards them. Children love kid friendly parties, let them enjoy themselves by planning something different with them. With many Muslim families opting out of birthday parties, why not throw a party for your kids on the eve of Eid (a.k.a chand raat) or Eid Day? Plan a chance for them to make Eid crafts, and decorate Eid cookies.
Making Eid exciting for children isn’t just about lights and fun, it also about building a lasting Muslim identity. In a time when Islamophobia and discrimination are the norms, we can use our holidays as opportunities to engage and invite our communities and schools in active dialogue about Muslim holidays in a positive, relevant light. This, in turn, serves to teach our own children, not only spiritual acts but also how to be progressive and active members of our society.
The Fast and the ¡Fiesta!: How Latino Muslims Celebrate Ramadan
When the month of Ramadan is approaching, the Ortiz-Matos family begins to prepare the only way they know how, Puerto Rican style. Julio Ortiz and his wife, Shinoa Matos, reside in Brooklyn, New York. They are both Puerto Rican converts to Islam and their native tongue is Spanish. They have been Muslim for two decades each and married for close to 14 years. The couple has three children, ages 9, 7, and 5. Although Shinoa is also half Greek, she identifies herself as part of the ever-growing Latino Muslim population, a community that is bringing its very own sazon, or Latin flavor, to spice up Islamic holiday traditions.
Preparations for Ramadan for this Muslim familia, or family, consists of planning together with their children to get them excited about the fasting season. They discuss how they will plan out the month in order to reap its many rewards, and the husband and wife decide on a schedule so they can alternate between attending the taraweeh prayers and babysitting. With the help of their children, Julio and Shinoa make a list of foods and ingredients they will need for their suhur, or pre-dawn meals, and iftar, their dinner after breaking the fast. These feasts will feature a variety of Puerto Rican dishes such as pollo guisado (stewed chicken), sorullos (corn dumplings stuffed with cheese), pasteles (meat-filled dumplings made out of root vegetables, green bananas, and plantains), tortilla española (Spanish omelets), empandas (meat-filled turnovers), and finger foods such as guava, cheese, and Spanish olives, coupled with the iconic Ramadan dates.
Right before Ramadan, the Ortiz-Matos home is decorated with typical fiesta décor, shining lights, pom poms, and banners in Spanish. One of their most unique Ramadan and Eid traditions is dressing up in Puerto Rican cultural attire. Shinoa explains, “My husband can usually be found wearing a guyabera (Caribbean dress) shirt in different colors along with a matching kufi. My sons will also wear tropical shirts with their own kufis. This year I am planning on dressing all my children in typical jibaro (Puerto Rican country) clothing, complete with my daughter in a bomba skirt and my sons with machetes and sombreros de paja (straw hats)!” To prepare for Eid, they redecorate the house with Feliz Eid (Happy Eid) signs and fill decorative bowls with traditional Puerto Rican sweets made with coconut, passion fruit, and pineapple.
As converts, Julio and Shinoa know the isolation that new Muslims can feel during the holidays, so they also make a habit out of spending the month with fellow Latinos and converts. Not only does Shinoa want to make sure that no one is spending Ramadan and Eid alone, she also wants her children to feel a sense of belonging. She said, “This helps to reinforce the (concept of a) Latino Muslim community in the eyes of our children because even though all Muslims are brethren, it is important for them to be able to see representation in others they associate with.”
Even though they live in Brooklyn, Julio and Shinoa often attend the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC, in New Jersey. This mosque across the Hudson River caters to the predominately Hispanic population of Union City and its surrounding areas. Due to its location, NHIEC is the home of one of the largest Latino Muslim communities in the nation and has been catering to their growing needs by providing simultaneous Spanish interpreting of Friday sermons, an annual Hispanic Muslim Day for the past two decades, and continuous educational programs specially geared towards Spanish-speakers and new Muslims of Hispanic heritage. During Ramadan, NHIEC offers iftar events catered by local Latino restaurants, like the Peruvian eatery, Fruit Punch, or the Arab/Hispanic fusion buffet called Fiesta. They also host potlucks, in which Latino Muslim converts and veterans alike breakfast by sharing their country’s typical dishes. The mosque is decorated with streamers, balloons, and flags from all 21 majority Spanish-speaking countries.
Halal on the Hudson
Union City may be known as “Havana on the Hudson” because of its large Cuban population, however, South Americans like Ecuadorians and Peruvians are also plentiful. Nylka Vargas is a mixture of both; residing near NHIEC, this Latina conversa (convert) is a social worker by day and an active member of NHIEC’s dawah committee by night. She and her Syrian husband plan out their Ramadan by renewing their intentions, assessing their spiritual needs, crossing out to do items, cleaning, and clearing their schedules for the month. While subtle decorating is also part of the prep, Nylka prefers to set aside a quiet space at home for prayer and reflection.
It is in the mosque where she works passionately alongside other Latino Muslims to make the month of Ramadan memorable for fellow Latinos. Due to most Latin American Muslims converting to Islam, their relatives are usually non-Muslims who do not celebrate Ramadan or Eid. Nevertheless, NHIEC provides an inclusive atmosphere, where converts are invited to bring their families to break fast and enjoy the festivities. They host yearly dawah and converts Ramadan programs, an annual grand Iftar for converts with Latin dishes, converts get-together iftars, and a program called “Share Your Iftar with a Convert” to actively encourage the community to break their fast with new Muslims. They also teach Ramadan prep classes, arts & crafts for children, and organize a converts Eid extravaganza.
Nylka says, “We take much pride in bedazzling and giving our Eid Party a custom touch with all kinds of Eid decorating pieces and an entertainment combo. It is always about what the community wants.” One of Nylka’s fellow dawah committee members is Flor Maza. Flor is a Salvadorian convert and mother of three married to an Egyptian Muslim. Ramadan is an exciting and busy time for Flor, who is a full-time pastelera (baker); she caters to the NHIEC community, literally, decorating and preparing all kinds of postres (desserts), both Spanish and Arabic. She has learned how to prepare typical Egyptian dishes and sweets and alternates between these and Latin-inspired foods for iftar.
“I have not lost my culture, but I am learning from other cultures,” she joyfully explained, “All cultures are beautiful.” Flor believes that Ramadan is a time to learn tolerance, patience, compassion, and gratefulness, and to collaborate in doing good. She demonstrates this by sharing her delicious meals and confections with the community during the many NHIEC events. When asked if anything distinguishes her as a Latina Muslim, she said, “Anyone can recognize a Latino Muslim because we, Latinas, are helpful, we preserve our culture and are proud of our language.”
NHIEC is one of a few Islamic centers in the U.S. where guests can experience the festivities of Ramadan and Eid in Spanish. When the time for Eid prayer comes, the Muslim community in Union City and surrounding areas, pray outside either in a park or in a local school’s soccer field. Non-Muslim neighbors hear the Takbirat al Eid, witness the Eid prayer, and listen to the sermon that follows on the loudspeakers, while admiring huge green banners with golden letters that read, “Happy Eid, Eid Mubarak (in Arabic script), and Feliz Eid.”
A Mexican, Haitan, and Puerto Rican Ramadan
Eva Martineau-Ocasio was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and Haitian father and she was brought up speaking Spanish at home. She is married to Ismail Ocasio, a Puerto Rican who was raised Muslim in New York by convert parents. They have three girls, ages 6, 3, and 6 months and reside in Brooklyn. While they have always practiced their faith, the couple has become more diligent about making Ramadan extra special and memorable for their children.
The focal point of their Ramadan décor is a table spread with Islamic and Ramadan-themed books (some in Spanish, others in English), arts and crafts, tools, calendars, and projects they will use to celebrate Ramadan. As with the Ortiz-Matos family, great care is given to set the mood for the commencement of the Month of Mercy. As Eva explained, “We prepare ahead of time by reading books and telling stories to remind ourselves about Ramadan. We use lights, banners, and homemade decorations to make Ramadan special in our home. In recent years, my sister and I even opened a small online shop to sell some of our decor.” With her girls, the young mother, nurse and midwife student weaves prayer mats for their dolls and paints small glass linternas (lanterns) to display on their holiday table.
While other Muslim families have similar routines to welcome Ramadan, what sets the Martineau-Ocasios and other Latino Muslims apart is the way they have tailored their cultural traditions to adapt to Islamic practices. “Food and language play the largest roles in shaping the way we experience Ramadan outside of the important religious-based practices,” Eva said, “I strive to make Ramadan as special and exciting for my children as Christmas was for me growing up.” The family enjoys fast-breaking meals representative of their unique mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian culture. Some of their staples include tacos, fajitas, frijoles refritos (refried beans), Haitian style beef BBQ ribs, Haitian black rice, Puerto Rican arroz con maíz (yellow rice with corn), and even American Mac and Cheese.
They also celebrate with the general community and enjoy breaking fast with Arab and South Asian cuisine, as well. As a family, they attend Ramadan gatherings at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) and the MAS Brooklyn mosque in New York, where they are recognized as being Latino Muslims because of their language, Spanish, which they use with their children.
Ramon F. Ocasio, Ismail’s father and Eva’s father-in-law, shares a deeper perspective about celebrating Ramadan as a Puerto Rican Muslim of well over four decades. Ocasio was born in the Bronx and raised in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. He embraced Islam in 1973. For this father and grandfather, nothing identifies as uniquely Latino in his practice of Ramadan aside from the food. He says, “My family prepares iftars featuring Latin cuisine for some masjids, both suburban and in the inner city. Just food, no unique decor. Food is the common denominator. Aside from that, there is nothing I can point to that is uniquely Latino in our celebrations.” His personal favorites are pasteles, roasted leg of lamb (a halal substitute for pernil, a traditional pork dish), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and flan (a custard dessert with caramel sauce).
When his children were young, he admits that things were a little different, with Eid gatherings in the park that drew thousands of Muslims, trips to Toys’R’Us for presents, movies, games, and outings. “Seasons change, families grow, our method of celebrating will change with it,” Ocasio reminisces, “During a span of forty plus years, it can change quite a bit. As parents, we’ve tried our best to make Ramadan and Eids special for our children. For the most part, we have been successful.”
Ramadan for the Latino Muslims of Chicago
Another Latino Ramadan legacy is being constructed west of the Tri-State area, in the Windy City. Rebecca Abuqaoud is the founder and director of Muslimahs of Chicago and a community organizer at Muslim Community Center at Elston Avenue (MCC), and at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois (ICCI). She hails from Lima, Peru, and she and her husband, Hasan Abuqaoud, have three children. Rebecca has been involved in organizing Ramadan events for the Latino community and for Muslim women and children for many years.
One of these is the annual, “Welcoming the Arrival of Ramadan,” where female speakers are invited to present, and babysitting is provided to ensure mothers are able to attend. The dinner consists of a potluck, and attendees share their cultural dishes. Guests can choose from a variety of ethnic foods, including arroz con gandules, arroz chaufa (Peruvian rice), salads, pollo rostisado (rotisserie chicken), chicken biryani, and other Pakistani and Arab delicacies. This event began as an initiative for Spanish-speakers only, at the request of Latino Muslim women, however, it has grown to become a bilingual affair and draws anywhere from 60-80 attendees.
Rebecca is known in her community for dedicating her time to sharing her years of experience, Islamic knowledge, and wisdom with others. She said, “I really love being with my Latino sisters, I understand the help and support they need in their journey to Islam. I’ve been blessed to have knowledgeable Islamic teachers in my life and now it’s time to pass that knowledge to my new sisters in Islam; I thank Allah for such an opportunity.” Among other social events during Ramadan, Rebecca holds a Halaqa Book Club for ladies in Spanish at the ICCI, and for Eid, she assists with the Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC.
In the North of Chicago, Ramadan and Eid is a family affair, and this includes the children of Latino converts. During Ramadan, mothers are encouraged to decorate their homes and the masjid to make the season exciting for their children. In the mosque, Rebecca and other volunteers prepare fun activities for them related to Eid, such as a puppet show, decorating paper plates, creating Eid greeting cards for their families, and pretend “baking” cookies and cupcakes with play-dough. The children also enjoy listening to other kids recite the Qur’an and chatting over pizza, snacks, cake, and juice.
The Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC, sponsored also by Ojalá Foundation, is an effort that began to create a safe space for converts to celebrate Eid together. Everyone is invited to attend and can bring dishes to share. The walls are decorated for the occasion and candy-filled piñatas are set up for the children. Not only do the Latino Muslims enjoy these festivities, but also diverse members of the community who join them in the unifying celebration that is the culmination of the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness.
All the Latino Muslims who participated in this interview mentioned that the most significant aspect of Ramadan is the same across the board: to gain the maximum benefit from the intense self-reflection, fasting, constant prayer, spiritual cleansing, and dedication to the Qur’an. Cultural practices and celebrations are secondary to the religious aspect of Ramadan. However, the collective sentiment of those who converted to Islam is that they feel a sense of loss when they are celebrating Eid without their extended non-Muslim family. There is always, “something missing.”
Latino culture is hugely family-centered, and thus, holidays are often a time to reunite with relatives. Eva Martineau summed it up as this: “For converts, missing out on the family aspect of any celebration can leave us with a sense of sadness and longing.” Her suggestion, and that of other Latino Muslims is that, like NHIEC, ICCI, and MCC (in NY and Chicago), Islamic centers across the U.S. should host Ramadan and Eid events catering to not only Latino Muslims but converts in general. As individuals, fellow Muslims can also host those who may otherwise not have anyone to break the fast with, in their iftars and Eid celebrations. This will provide those newer Muslims with that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood they long for, and maybe in return, they can taste some of those yummy ethnic dishes.
Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Islamic Horizons Magazine May/June 2019 edition.
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