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 | Chapter 16
El Demonio came ahead grinning nonchalantly and whirling his stick through the air. He walked straight toward me, completely confident in his abilities and unafraid of any opposition I might mount. After all, I was seriously wounded and barely able to walk. What threat could I be?
As I watched him come, I was convinced that he was little more than a novice with three or four years of training at the most. For one thing, an experienced Kali practitioner would never attack in a straight line. We always move at angles, keeping the enemy guessing and seeking to destroy the enemy’s limbs while staying out of range ourselves.
El Demonio might think his few years of training made him an expert. That was common in martial arts. People believed that a first degree black belt (which could generally be attained in three to five years) made a person into a clone of Bruce Lee.
I was on a different level from the cartel boss and I knew it. This was not arrogance or boasting, but a realistic assessment. I’d been wielding a stick since the age of seven. Anyone who trains seriously in martial arts knows that those who began as children and never stopped training possess a poise, grace and insight no one else can match. A child’s developing brain is plastic, like a map still being drawn. As the child soaks up knowledge, the brain routes its pathways to maximize the use of this knowledge. The brain says, “Oh, this Kali stuff is important? Then I will adapt myself and devote maximum resources to understanding Kali, and I will develop the body’s abilities congruently.” This is why the vast majority of Olympic athletes, symphony musicians and chess masters are those who began as children.
Kali long-range fighting, known as largo mano, relied heavily on footwork. I could not fight at that range, since I could barely walk. I would have to bait El Demonio, get him to drop his guard, and draw him into corto or close range, where I could get my hands on him and use my stick as a force multiplier in a grappling contest. Beginning Kali fighters rarely understood this type of weapons grappling, known as dumog. Maybe I could neutralize El Demonio’s physical advantages.
Of course even if I won I’d be killed. I’d cross that high-wire when I came to it.
The scarlet-haired cartel boss waded in with a descending strike to my head, trying to split my skull from the get-go. I raised my stick into an umbrella, a type of angled block, and deflected the blow easily. I pretended, however, that I’d barely managed to save myself. I cried out in alarm and crouched as if frightened. El Demonio laughed in glee and paused to look around at his men, who laughed along with him. He then turned to me and aimed a blow at my ribs.
I made the choice to take the hit. I knew it would hurt, but I needed him to think he had me beat. In retrospect, it was a bad decision on my part. The stick hammered my already fractured rib. I felt something give way inside me, and my right side detonated into an eruption of pain. I dropped to one knee and coughed up blood, which poured down my chin. I could guess what had happened. My rib had snapped all the way through and punctured my lung.
El Demonio swung a backhanded blow at me from the right, and because my right eye was swollen shut I didn’t see it coming. Pain burst like a firework in my right ear and I fell to the ground lying on my side atop my own stick, my head filled with a loud whine like a swarm of bees. I sensed El Demonio looming over me – maybe his body blocked the sun, or maybe I heard his self-satisfied chuckle – and rolled onto my right to look up with my left eye.
The evil little cartel boss raised his stick high, preparing to bring it crashing down on my head. He was standing almost on top of me, his feet only inches from my face.
There are certain things martial arts novices have in common. One is that if you have a stick in your hand, they expect you to only strike with the stick. If you have a knife, they expect only the knife. They forget that you still have hands, feet, elbows, knees and every other weapon the body can bring to bear. A novice stick fighter typically does not expect a wrestling match.
I made my move. I dropped my stick, rolled into El Demonio’s legs and hugged them with my right arm. He lost his balance and fell to the ground with a cry of surprise. As he fell I punched him in the groin as hard as I could. He gave a shout of pain and rolled onto his side, clutching himself. I retrieved my stick and crawled up behind him. I intended to apply a choke, but I could not use my left arm or leg. So I slipped the stick around his neck in reverse, with my palm facing me, then threw my right leg over the stick and hooked it with the back of my knee. I now had El Demonio’s head trapped inside the triangle formed by my right leg and arm, and the stick. I sat back and pulled with every shred of strength I had, arching my back, using my core muscles.
El Demonio thrashed his arms and legs wildly and made gagging noises. This was not a blood choke. The stick was directly across the front of his throat, cutting off his breath and slowly crushing his windpipe. Choke holds like this had been banned in police departments across America because they often resulted in the death of prisoners. Such chokes were also banned from mixed martial arts, even when applied only with an arm.
The cartel boss kicked his legs and scrabbled with his hands at the earth, tearing flowers out of the ground. I held the choke. The stick dug into the back of my knee, and my hand began to go numb. I was in more pain that I’d ever experienced in my life. Every breath was agony. I was dizzy, and couldn’t tell up from down. I coughed up more blood. I could taste it going down my throat as well, hot and metallic. There was a roaring sound in my ears, and beyond that I heard El Demonio’s men shouting, ordering me to release their boss. No doubt they’d shoot me any second. But I held the choke. El Demonio stopped fighting, and only twitched like a person in a bad dream. Still I held the choke. He stopped moving altogether. He was dead.
I dropped the stick and fell back, gasping for air. I felt like I was underwater. I noticed almost with curiosity that my fingernails had turned blue. I pushed myself up onto my knees. That was the best I was going to get. There was no way I could stand.
El Demonio’s dozen men stood around me in a wide circle. Some were pointing their rifles at me, some not. Their expressions registered a range of emotions. Some looked shocked. Beefeater looked satisfied, and I could have sworn he had a trace of a smile on his face. Cowboy was stone faced, unreadable.
I met their gazes, letting my eyes move from one to the next. “He’s dead,” I announced. It hurt to talk. “I saw how he treated you. He shot two of you last night with his own hand. You’re free of him now. Leave this place. Do whatever you want with your lives. Let me and my friends go. We have our own boat. Just let us go.” Though truthfully I couldn’t imagine how I’d get to the boat, or how I’d get Niko there, even if he was still alive.
“Yes,” Beefeater said. “You may go. We will-”
Cowboy shot him. The mustachioed torturer in the black leather cowboy hat simply pointed his rifle and shot Beefeater dead center in his chest, then put another two rounds in him as he lay on the ground round-mouthed and wide-eyed.
Some of the guards flinched. One crossed himself. One laughed. A younger guard – a short, mahogany-skinned man with a narrow face and a trimmed beard – looked like he wanted to throw up.
“I’m in charge now,” Cowboy announced in Spanish. “Does anyone have a problem with that?”
All except for the young guard said, “No sir.” The young guard simply stared at Beefeater’s lifeless body. I wondered if they had been friends.
Cowboy shot the young guard. At this a few of the guards actually cried out in surprise. Cowboy named two of the older guards, then gestured to Niko and the girls. “Put them in the middle with him,” he said, pointing to me, “and kill them all.”
“That wasn’t the deal,” I said in a voice that sounded like sandpaper on stone. It hurt to talk. Everything hurt.
Cowboy eyed me with all the feeling of a mako shark. “Your deal was with that piece of basura.” He gestured with his chin toward El Demonio’s body. “No El Demente, no hay trato.” No Demented One, no deal. “As much as I detest that pedófilo, it would damage my reputation irreparably if I let the killer of El Demonio go free.”
“I would not-” I began.
“Callete!” he bellowed, shutting me up.
One of the older guards grabbed Niko’s feet and dragged him across the ground, leaving a trail of blood across the zinnias, amaryllises and other flowers of the garden. So much blood. Niko’s skin was pale. When was the last time he’d moved or opened his eyes? The guard deposited my friend beside me in the flower bed. Another seized the two girls by their arms, ignoring their cries, and pulled them to stand beside me. Then he retreated to the perimeter of the flower bed.
Cowboy pointed one by one to five guards, including the two older ones.
“Preparados!” he shouted. Ready.
The five appointed executioners raised their rifles and pointed them at me, Niko, Oris and Anna. One guard, a muscular and slightly pudgy man in his thirties with pale skin and a cleft chin, looked uncertain and reluctant, but lifted his rifle anyway, and kept his mouth shut.
“Get down,” I urged Oris and Anna. “Lie down beside me.” I took their hands and pulled them gently to lie on the ground, face down.
I hunched over Niko and the girls, covering them with my body and arms. “Close your eyes, girls,” I told them, filling my voice with as much reassurance as I could. “It will be okay. Close your eyes. I love you both.” And it was true, I did love them. I loved Anna Anwar, the daughter of my good friend, a child who’d been abandoned by everyone. And even though I didn’t know Oris, I loved her for her bravery, and her attempt to protect Anna.
I coughed up another mouthful of blood. The edges of my vision were gray, and even though the weather was tropical I shivered with cold, my teeth chattering. I still felt the pain that suffused my entire body, but it seemed to be retreating, as if the pain had become a thing separate from me, a living creature that nuzzled up against me. I held it and trembled, not with fear but with cold. I’m dying, I realized. The thought did not frighten me, but made me sad. Sad for Hajar, to whom I would be only a memory of a man she knew when she was small. Sad for Anna and Oris. Sad for Niko and his family.
I held my breath, expecting at any second to hear the command, Fuego! – Fire!
Instead a roaring, thrumming sound filled my ears. Was this death? Was it another thunderstorm? I raised my head, and with one good eye I saw the source of the noise as it came into view. Two large, camouflage-green helicopters soared up from behind the cliff on the southern side of the island, only a few hundred meters away.
All the guards similarly craned their heads, some shading their eyes to see the helicopters more clearly.
“Fuego!” Cowboy screamed, and I didn’t know if he meant that the men should fire at me and my companions or at the helicopters. I put my head down and braced myself for the impact of bullets tearing through me. The air erupted with the sound of gunfire… and I was still alive. I looked up to see the guards firing on the helicopters, or at least trying to. The two helicopters moved as fast as falcons, flying in formation, making a huge circle around our position. I saw that both copters had twin machine guns mounted on either side of the cockpit, massive circular cannons with multiple barrels. Beside them were what looked like missile batteries. There were actually two cockpits in each copter, one on top of the other, with the upper one presumably housing the gunner.
The helicopters opened fire, and the world turned into a thunderstorm of sound and light. Those machine guns spun too fast for the eye to see, pouring death onto the island. The sound was an uninterrupted, ear-splitting whine. All around me men screamed and fell. I dropped my head again and covered the girls and Niko as well as I could.
When the firing stopped, I looked up to see that all the guards around me were dead, their bodies torn to pieces by the powerful guns of the helicopters. Cowboy had actually been cut in half at the waist. One of the helicopters continued to hover to the west of the house, while the other touched down outside the perimeter fence twenty meters southwest. A lone figure dismounted and strode toward me. He was a tall man wearing a green jumpsuit, black army boots and a black helmet with a face shield and an attached microphone. He also wore a nylon shoulder holster containing a large handgun. He approached until he stood above me. Then he removed the helmet, and I saw his face.
It was a thin face, with hollow cheeks and a long, crooked nose. He wore a neatly trimmed goatee, and his perfectly styled hair, once black, was now mostly gray. His name was Yusuf Arosemena Cruz, and as he stared down at me his eyes were full of rage.
The rage, I was sure, was not directed at me, but at the men who had abused me so terribly.
He kneeled beside me and spoke in English. “Do you have people in any of these houses?” He made a gesture that encompassed the huge house and the outbuildings.
My chest rose heavily and fell. My breaths were growing ragged, each one more and more of an effort. I couldn’t find air to speak, so I only shook my head no.
Yusuf lifted the helmet and spoke into the microphone. “Destruyelo todo. Light it up.” He looked at the hovering helicopter, raised a hand, and made a gesture, swinging his fist in a circle, then popping his fingers open.
Twin streaks of fire lanced from the hovering helicopter toward the main house. A split second later the building exploded in a massive fireball that shook the earth beneath me. I shut my eyes against the tremendous yellow and red brightness. A blast of hot air and sheer force bowled me over onto my back. Looking at the sky, I saw clouds beginning to gather. Or was that my vision turning gray? Another explosion came, then another. Judging from the direction of the sound, the chopper had blown up the torture house and the prison villa as well. Black smoke rose into the sky, blotting out the clouds. Or was that my vision turning black?
I moved my lips. No sound emerged, but the shahadah was on my tongue, gracing my final moments. Another explosion. I saw no sky anymore, only darkness. I didn’t know if my eyes were open or closed. Another, more distant explosion. Closed. They must be closed. I’m done. It’s all you now, Ya Allah. It’s all you. The thought brought with it relief and grief, two opposites that should never go together but somehow did.
Yes, my eyes were definitely closed.
* * *
I stood alone in a dark building, wearing only my underpants. I belonged in this lifeless, gloomy place. I had no business in the world of the living anymore. Patches of purple and motes of crimson swirled before my eyes. Something about the space – the way the sound of my breathing echoed, perhaps – told me the building was huge and empty. In the distance a doorway opened, and I squinted my eyes against the rectangle of light. The figure of a woman stood silhouetted, her hair billowing. She began to walk toward me, her footfalls the only sounds in the cimmerian space. She stopped in front of me, and only then did I see that she was Safaa. I turned my back, not wanting to be seen, not wanting my failure, shame, and near-nakedness to be exposed. She placed her hands on my back, her fingers firm and warm on my shoulder blades. I exhaled a sigh of relief and tipped my head back, overwhelmed with feelings I could not describe…
I walked into an expensive restaurant and saw Safaa sitting alone at a table. She looked elegant and beautiful in a vanilla white hijab and a long-sleeved white gown that glittered with tiny diamonds. I sat at another table and watched her surreptitiously. She kept glancing at the door as if she were waiting for someone. She had a small dish of caraway seeds and was arranging them on the table to spell something. A white limo pulled up outside and she stood. A tear more brilliant than any of the diamonds she wore ran down her dusky cheek. When she was gone I went to the table to see what she had written, but the seeds had been disturbed, and I couldn’t read the words…
A spider-borne disease wiped out everyone in the world but me, Safaa and Hajar. I wanted to fly to another planet, but Safaa refused to come with me…
My crazy friend Niko came up with a scheme to sell stolen vacuum-packed salmon to the Kuna Indians. The cops were after him and he wanted me to take the salmon and finish the job…
I was a special investigator for the police, looking into a murder at a rich man’s mansion. A witness handed me a gun in a plastic bag and said, “This is the murder weapon. The murderer’s name is Zaid Karim”…
I stood amid the ruins of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. All the glass tanks had been shattered and the fish lay flopping on the ground. Their eyes rolled toward me as they said, “Save us, Zaid.” But I could not because I had no water to put them in…
I lay on my back in a hospital bed, unable to move. The lights overhead hurt my eyes. Tubes ran into me, and monitors were attached to my chest. I was bandaged practically from head to foot. I heard a sound and rolled my eyes. In the bed next to mine, Niko lay on his back. His eyes were closed and his chest rose and fell slowly…
Except I didn’t think that last one was a dream…
I opened my eyes and again found myself in the hospital bed. Maybe I made a sound, because a voice said, “Zaid? Zaid, habibi.” It sounded like Safaa, but of course that was impossible. Or was it? I was so confused. I heard a chair scraping and the sound of footsteps. Before the footsteps reached me, my eyelids became suddenly as heavy as lead curtains, and I tumbled into a silent and subterranean sleep.
* * *
I awoke to the sound of bird song, and the feeling of warm sunshine on my face. For a long time I lay with my eyes closed, listening to the trills and calls. Was I in my apartment at Ashlan Meadows, where I lived with my wife and child? Was it Saturday morning? Was Safaa making breakfast?
I opened my eyes and immediately knew I was not in my apartment. The ceiling was way too high, and built of huge wooden beams. I lay in a king-sized behemoth of a bed with fluffy pillows and a quilted comforter. The room was spacious and high-ceilinged, with huge wooden timbers supporting the ceiling. Islamic art, of all things, hung on the walls – beautiful paintings of domed masjids and ancient cities. Set amid the paintings, a row of delicate yellow orchids grew in a carved wooden planter mounted on the wall. A border of green and blue tiles with Islamic geometric designs ran along the walls at the base.
The room smelled of lemon and jasmine. I turned my head to the left and saw a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that opened onto the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in my life. The glass door was open, and a cool breeze blew in through the screen door behind it. This was definitely not Panama city, though the air was still humid and damp.
A bodyguard stood just outside the door, facing away from me. He wore civilian clothes – jeans, boots and a buttoned shirt – and I didn’t see a gun, but his posture and bearing were unmistakable.
In the foreground, a huge, grassy expanse sloped down to a large blue lake. The green sweep was interspersed with tall mango trees ripe with fruit. In the background clouds of mist poured down from the tops of forested hills. It was like a scene from Paradise, or like one of those nature posters they sell for ten dollars at the record store.
A horse went by at a gallop. A girl of perhaps fifteen years sat atop it, laughing and calling out to someone. She wore a riding outfit with black boots and a form-fitting red hat with a small bill. A moment later two other girls came into view, riding at a trot. They were Oris and Anna. But who were Oris and Anna? How did I know those names? Another child came into view, this one a much younger girl riding a pony that was led by a short, middle-aged man with almond-brown skin and wearing a cowboy hat. This last child was Hajar, my daughter.
Seeing this I laughed out loud, because this was obviously a dream and a weird one at that. If Safaa were here as well it would be perfect, as if my subconscious where throwing my every hope into one sweet narrative, whether it made sense or not.
This thought had no sooner touched my mind than I heard Safaa’s voice.
“Zaid?” she said. “You’re awake? Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah!”
I turned my head to the right and there she was, rising from a rustic sofa hewn from whole tree limbs and covered in blue and green cushions. Her eyes were tired and her spring-patterned green and yellow hijab was askew, as if she’d been sleeping in it. She rushed to my bedside and took my hand in hers. She bent down and pressed her forehead to mine, saying, “Habibi, I’m so happy you’re awake. When I thought I’d lost you I…” Her voice broke into a sob. “It nearly crushed my heart.”
I laughed again, though my throat was dry and my voice rusty.
Safaa’s face colored. “Why are you laughing?”
“Because,” I said, “this is such a crazy dream. How did I come up with this?”
Safaa’s mouth fell open, then she laughed and punched me in the chest. “You jerk! This isn’t a dream.”
“Ouch!” That punch really hurt. It set off dull aches throughout my upper body. Was a person supposed to feel pain in dreams? I couldn’t remember. And who were those girls, Oris and Anna? I should know, it was on the tip of my tongue… something about… Tarek. My friend Tarek Anwar.
It all came rushing back. Tarek, Tarek was dead. And I’d been hired to find his daughter. And… Panama. Niko. El Pelado. Ouagadiri. El Demonio.
I was dead. I was dead, and this was Jannah, Paradise, with Safaa telling me she loved me, and Hajar, Anna and Oris all riding horses together. It could be nothing else. But then why was there an IV in my arm, and why did my body hurt? A sense of panic rushed through me like a flash flood. Something was wrong. Something was wrong with the world. Was this all an illusion? Was I trapped in some bizarre, hyper-real nightmare?
I tried to sit up and immediately grimaced and fell back. It wasn’t that I was in pain, though now that I became more aware of my body there were indeed vague, ghostly pains in my left leg, left shoulder and right side. But what shocked me was how weak I was. I was like a newborn kitten. I lay in bed, breathing hard from the exertion of trying to sit up. I was so confused, and although this house, the mountains outside, and the fact that my family were here were all lovely, my confusion over what was real and what was imaginary disturbed me so much that my breathing became rapid and shallow. “I need to wake up from this,” I moaned. “I need to wake up.”
“Habibi.” Safaa came close again, taking my face in her hands and kissing me. Her lips were warm, and tasted of pineapple. I’d wanted this for so long. I’d yearned to feel her touch again, to be safe and comforted in her arms, and yet I was strangely unmoved by it. Her kisses did not stir my heart, and her presence, rather than comforting me, set my nerves on edge, like the pins and needles one gets when their limbs fall asleep. Yet more evidence, I thought, that this Safaa was not real. If she were my Safaa, I would be more excited.
She stroked my cheek. “You’re not asleep.” She kissed me again. “Does this feel like a dream? You were injured very badly, but you’re alive.”
She felt real, tasted real, looked real.
“But the real Safaa doesn’t love me anymore,” I said softly, to myself as much as to to her. “And if this is real then what is this place? Why am I not dead?”
“I can answer that,” a man’s voice said.
I looked to the doorway to my right and saw none other than Yusuf Cruz. He looked just as I remembered from prison – tall, gaunt and bearded, with introspective brown eyes – except instead of the army greens we’d worn in prison, he was dressed in tan slacks, a Hawaiian shirt, and sandals.
Seeing his face, a memory rose in my mind like a hot geyser. Yusuf standing over me wearing a jumpsuit and pilot’s helmet. El Demonio’s house exploding, and a tremendous fireball mushrooming into the sky…
“We are in the town of El Valle de Anton, in the mountains of Coclé province, in Panama. The tourist agencies call it Crater Valley. And this is my home.” He gestured to the sliding glass door and the expansive lawn, trees and lake outside. “You are here because this is where Allah decreed you should be. That is what you taught me, yes? That Allah is the Planner and Master of all things?”
Unbelievable. This dream, this hallucination, kept throwing apparitions at me. It would not release me, and it angered me. I looked to Safaa, challenging her. “How could you be here? And Hajar? It doesn’t make sense.”
She held my hand between hers and caressed my palm with her fingertips. It tickled. “You don’t understand, Zaid. It’s been three weeks since brother Yusuf rescued you. You were terribly wounded. You nearly died. You were in surgery for four hours, then the ICU for a week, and recovery for another week. Yusuf tracked down your parents and they called me. We came straightaway. You’ve been in and out of consciousness, but this is the first time you’ve been lucid.”
I stared. So… this was real? I survived? And what about… “Niko,” I said sharply. “Where is Niko?”
“He is alive,” Yusuf said from the doorway. “He was here, but he has returned to Panama for now.”
Niko was alive… I let that sink in. Alhamdulillah. He’d been so badly wounded, I was afraid that he – wait a minute. I looked at Yusuf. “You said, ‘he’s alive.’ Not, ‘he’s good, or he’s fine, or he’s well.’”
Yusuf looked down. “Yes. He was shot twice, you know. He will have a long recovery. You can see for yourself when you are well enough.”
Twice? I hadn’t known that. There was something else Yusuf and Safaa were not telling me, I was sure of that. Another thought came to me. “You blew up the compound.”
Yusuf set his jaw. “Yes. And good riddance.”
“There were civilians in that house. Service employees, and an elderly couple.”
My tall friend went very still. “I did not know that.” He made a small, apologetic gesture with his hands. “Casualties of war. If I had known… Well. I did not know.”
“Maybe you didn’t care, huh? Maybe the opportunity to kill a rival drug dealer was too good to pass up. Mission accomplished.”
Yusuf frowned. “I am not a drug dealer. I was true to my word, hermano. All my businesses interests are legitimate.”
I snorted. “Is that why people turn pale when I mention your name? I appreciate you helping me, but as soon as I can walk I’ll be on my way.” Suddenly I was fed up with all this talk. “I want to see the girls,” I told Safaa. My tone was harsh. After all the months of hostility and icy contempt from her, I didn’t understand her reasons for being here, or for showing me all this affection. I didn’t trust her, I realized. That was a first. I’d always trusted her implicitly, ever since we were kids. But when I’d called her before going to Ouagadiri and she wouldn’t talk to me, that had been the final straw. My feelings for her had gone as cold as a prison cell in November. And as for Yusuf, I didn’t believe a word out of his mouth. With the reputation he had, and this clearly luxurious estate he lived on, how could he be straight?
“Anna, Oris and Hajar,” I repeated. “I want to see them.” I rubbed my throat. It was so dry that it hurt to speak.
“Okay.” Safaa spoke in a placating tone, as if I were an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s, insisting that I wanted to talk to Charlie Chaplin. “I’ll go call them. And I’ll get you something to drink.” She left the room.
Yusuf dragged a heavy log-hewn armchair across the room and sat beside me. “You did a great thing, hermano, saving those girls. I always knew you were destined for greatness.”
I gave him a flat look. “I’m disappointed in you. I believed you were done with crime. I thought you were sincere.”
Yusuf smiled. “I’m telling you the truth, hermano. I am done with crime. I own a real estate development firm. We have major projects all over Panama.”
“Then why is everyone afraid of you?”
He sighed. “You can thank my ex-wife for that. Berliza, I told you about her? She was the one who was into Santeria. Anyway, when I went to prison she took over and ran the cartel in my name. As a woman, she would not have been taken seriously. So she told everyone she was acting on my orders. She was more ruthless than I ever was. She killed people by the scores. She ordered the assassination of the deputy minister of justice. She killed a lieutenant who betrayed her by shooting him with a grenade launcher. She did all this in my name.” He gave a disgusted shake of his head. “I didn’t know about it until I got out. Then I divorced her. I have a new wife now, her name is Yasmeen.” He smiled. “She makes me very happy.”
“And now? Is Berliza still running your gang?”
“It’s not my gang. And yes, Berliza is still in charge. We have a…” He threw his hands up. “An unspoken agreement. She lets me live, and I allow people to think I am still in charge. I am helpless in this matter, hermano. If I spoke against her publicly she would destroy me faster than you can say hasta luego. Perhaps she would go after my family. Power has gone to her head. She has become a gila monster.”
“So you’re out of the crime business, but you just happened to have two assault helicopters available?”
“No,” he said patiently. “I heard from brother Qayyum that you were asking about me. He’s a good friend. I traced your steps. When I learned about El Pelado’s death, I guessed where you were going. I bribed a Colombian general to let me borrow those choppers for a few hours. It was pure coincidence that I arrived when I did. You can thank Allah for that, not me.”
“And the bodyguard?”
“I’m not a drug dealer. But many people think I am. That creates enemies.”
Three girls came running into the room, followed by the teenaged girl I’d seen riding at a gallop outside, and a petite Muslim woman in her thirties, carrying a baby boy with alert black eyes. The woman had fine Spanish features, and wore an expensive looking riding outfit.
Hajar dashed straight to me, leaped onto the bed and threw herself onto my chest, wrapping her arms around my neck. She wore sneakers, leggings, and a touristy Panama t-shirt. Her hair was extra curly, maybe because of the the humidity here in Panama.
“Mommy was afraid you would died,” Hajar informed me. “I could tell. But I knew you wouldn’t died, because you promised. But you have too many boo-boos, Baba! You have to not play rough with the Panama people.”
“Okay.” The weight of Hajar’s body on my chest hurt, but I gave no outward sign of that as she snuggled into my chest.
Anna Anwar came close to the bed – I noticed that Oris made a motion as if to pull her back, then let her hand fall – and held my hand where it rested on Hajar’s back. “Thank you Uncle Zaid,” she said seriously. “Thank you for saving me.” Her skin was a beautiful cocoa shade, her eyes the color of fall leaves just turning from green to brown. She seemed, if not happy, at least not terribly traumatized. Perhaps, living with Angie, she’d become used to hardship and chaos.
Oris was another matter. She stood with the teenaged girl against the wall, beneath a painting of the green dome of Masjid An-Nabawi. Oris looked a million times better than the last time I’d seen her. She was well dressed in a long green skirt and an expensive looking blouse that was too big for her. She’d gained a few pounds, which was a good thing, as she’d been skin and bones when I saw her in that nightmarish villa. But her eyes darted this way and that, and the dark circles beneath them spoke of haunted days and sleepless nights. I could only guess what El Demonio had done to her. She would have a long and hard road back, I was sure.
Safaa returned with a glass of water. She held it to my lips as I drank greedily, then pulled it away, saying, “Slow down. Let’s leave room for some food.”
At the mention of food, my stomach rumbled loudly, like a sleeping komodo dragon that had just awakened. I was, I realized, hungry enough to eat the entire annual food export of Panama.
Hajar reached up and grasped my ear lobe, caressing it between two fingers like she often did. “Baba,” she said, “you’re so old and warm.”
“Oh,” I told her. “I have some bad news. I lost Little Deer. I’m sorry, sweetie. It was stolen from the car I was riding in.”
Hajar lifted her head and regarded me solemnly. “That’s okay, Baba. Maybe the person who stoled it needs somebody to love. And Little Deer will make him happy.”
I smiled. “Yes. Maybe.”
“Have you met everyone?” Safaa asked. I shook my head, looking to Yusuf.
“I’m sorry for my rudeness,” he said, stepping forward. “I didn’t want to intrude. This is my wife, Yasmeen.” The petite woman stepped forward and Yusuf draped an arm around her shoulders. The difference in their heights was remarkable.
Yasmeen gave me a tight smile that did not quite touch her eyes. “Please be welcome in our home,” she said in accented English. “Is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” I said. “Encantado. I am grateful for your hospitality.”
Yusuf gestured to the teenaged girl who stood with Oris. “Nora, my daughter. She’s been teaching the girls to ride.”
I greeted her and thanked her for her attention to the girls. She must be Yusuf’s daughter by his first marriage, as fifteen years ago he had just entered federal prison. He would have missed most of her childhood. I wondered how he’d managed to repair that damage, or indeed if he had.
“And my son,” Yusuf concluded, rubbing the baby’s head. “I named him after my personal hero.”
“Ma-sha-Allah.” I thought back to the many conversations we’d had in prison. “Uhh, that would be ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, right?”
“Yes, he is my hero, but I mean my other hero. Zaid.”
He laughed. “That is my son’s name. Zaid.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say. I was his hero? I didn’t feel like a hero. What good had I done Tarek Anwar, or Angie Rodriguez, or the civilians who’d been killed on Ouagadiri, or even the young guard who’d been shot by Cowboy for his reluctance to execute me, Niko and the girls? Speaking of Niko, what good had I done him? What were Yusuf and my wife hiding about his condition? I’d dragged him into this whole mess, and he’d been shot and nearly died. Hero? I felt a wave of bitterness wash over me, and my eyes welled up with the intensity of my self-loathing. I was no hero.
Yusuf smiled, no doubt mistaking the reason for the tears in my eyes, thinking that I was moved by his naming the boy after me.
I suddenly felt tremendously weary and weak. My embrace of Hajar loosened, and the ceiling spun above me.
“Zaid?” I heard Safaa say, but it seemed to echo from the end of a tunnel. Hands lifted Hajar off my chest. I heard voices and the shuffling of feet. I thought I might pass out, but the ceiling gradually wound down and came to a stop. When I recovered my senses, I found the room empty except for me and Safaa, who stood beside me, holding my hand.
I disengaged my hand from hers. “I want you to leave.”
“What do you mean?”
“Take Hajar and go back to California. When I’m well enough to travel I will bring Anna to her grandparents. I’ve paid Hajar’s child support and more, so I expect full shared custody of Hajar going forward. I’d like to see her every weekend, and I’ll pick her up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well. Maybe I’ll take her to the park or something, then bring her home. We can discuss a divorce settlement later.”
Safaa stared at me open-mouthed. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re delirious.” She put a hand on my forehead, checking for a fever.
“I know exactly what I’m saying. I almost died here, and if I had I would have died alone, not only physically but emotionally as well, because the woman who should have loved me abandoned me instead. I’ve tried with you. Allah is my witness, I have tried. But I have nothing left. I’m done trying.”
“But.. I…” She straightened and nodded. “I see what you mean. And I’m sorry you had to go through that. But I haven’t made myself clear. I want us to get back together. I love you, Zaid Karim Al-Husayni. I want us to be a family again.”
The words washed over me like a cold wind. They should have left me gibbering in ecstasy, but instead they made me want to retreat into myself. They made me angry. “Tell me something. Do you still think I had an affair with Karima?”
“No. Not anymore.”
“Really? That’s interesting. What changed your mind?”
“Uhh…” Safaa stammered and looked as if she’d rather pick up a rattlesnake and make out with it than answer the question. I met her eyes with a blank stare and waited.
“Farah Anwar,” she said finally. “She’s telling everyone that you had something to do with Tarek Anwar’s death, and that you stole ten thousand dollars from her and ran away.”
Infuriating, but not surprising. Was there no end to that woman’s mischief? “And?”
“And, well, I know you loved Tarek and tried to help him. You would never do anything to harm him. And I came here, and I see that you not only found Anna like you were hired to do, but you pushed harder and farther than anyone could have asked.”
“Ahh.” I snorted and shook my head. I’d thought I was done being disappointed by Safaa, but a fresh wave of it rinsed my heart in vinegar and left me grimacing. “Now I get it. You came down here to see if I really stole the money like Farah claims.”
“No! I mean, maybe. Only a tiny bit. But now I see that Farah lied.”
“So you finally figured out that she’s a chronic liar, and you deduced that she lied to you about me. Congratulations. You win the door prize, which you can collect on the way out. You do not, however, win me.”
Safaa gave me a pained, confused look. “Why are you talking like this? You’ve never spoken to me like this, ever.”
I dropped the sarcasm. “I told you, I’m done. Don’t you understand, Safaa? It’s easy to believe in someone when you’re confronted with evidence that they’re truthful. But marriage is supposed to be more than that. It’s supposed to be believing in someone because you love them. Because they’re your twin soul and your heart, and you trust them. Because they’re the shoulder you lean on, the person you want to stay with until you walk together in the tall grass of Jannah. You and I had that once but you threw it away on the word of a bitter old woman. I didn’t destroy our marriage. You did. What you feel now is perhaps regret or guilt. The realization that you made a mistake. It’s not love. I don’t know when you stopped loving me or why. Maybe you saw me struggling as a taxi driver and a P.I. and concluded that your hopes for me were misplaced, that I’d always be poor and struggling. I don’t know and I don’t care anymore.”
Safaa began to cry. “Do you… do you not love me anymore?”
I felt like a heel and a cad. I couldn’t stand to see Safaa unhappy. I never could. But everything I’d said to her was true.
“I do,” I told her truthfully, my tone more gentle now. “You are a mountain in my mind. For so long all I’ve wanted was to lie in your green meadows, listen to your streams, feel the trembling of your granite when you avalanche. I still want that. I want to lose myself in your spring, summer and fall. I just don’t want to be frozen alive by your winter. I don’t want to spend my life searching for the hidden pass that leads to your heart, then end up like the Donner Party, cannibalizing myself. I-” Words failed me. I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life. I felt that my bones would turn to powder at any moment, and my heart melt like wax.
“I can’t anymore,” I whispered. My lower lip trembled and tears trickled from my eyes, though I wasn’t even sure why. I was just so overwhelmed. “I have nothing left. Take Hajar and go. I divorce you.”
If Safaa made a reply, I did not hear it. My eyelids came down like stage curtains at the end of a show, and I fell asleep.
* * *
Next: Chapter 18 – A New Light
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.
He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah. This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty. Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college. He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam.
Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist. Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible? She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.
An Unwelcome Surprise
Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.
Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam
We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an. It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.
Identifying the Unlikely Suspect
This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”
Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution
There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.
How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?
Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:
- Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
- Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
- Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
- Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
- Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.
Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12
Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:
- homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
- Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
- Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
- Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview
Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond
For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.
Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.
What We Hope to Avoid
While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family. *names changed
Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:
- Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
- Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
- Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.
We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:
رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ
‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]
رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]
يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ
“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”
Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.
An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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Spiritual abusers are con-artists, and if they were easy to spot then they would be far less successful. That is why you must exercise vigilance and your own judgment above that of public opinion. Never let the person’s position make you trust them more than you would without it.
Spiritual abusers work covertly, present themselves well, and use their service as a cover beneath which to operate. The way to avoid them is to recognize their tactics and avoid being caught by them.
Spiritual abuse often begins with hard-to-spot precursors, with manipulators exploiting grey areas and blurring boundaries to confuse targets. For example, when setting someone up for illicit relations or secret marriage, teachers may begin with inappropriate jokes that lower boundaries.
They may touch others in ways that confuse the person touched as to permissibility, for example, men touching women on their hijabs rather than direct skin. They may inappropriately touch someone in ways that leave him/her wondering whether or not it was intentional.
There may be frivolous texting while the premise of engagement is ‘work only’. Boundaries may be blurred by adding flirtatious content, sending articles praising polygamy, or mentioning dreams about getting married. The recipient may struggle to pinpoint what’s wrong with any of this, but the bottom line is that they don’t have to.
While these tactics may be hard to prove, you don’t need to prove that you don’t want to be communicated with in this way and that you will not tolerate it. You can withdraw from the situation on the basis of your own boundaries.
One of the key challenges in standing up to spiritual abuse is the lack of confidence in calling out bad behavior or the need for validation for wrongs. We may be afraid to a question a teacher who is more knowledgeable than us when he is doing clear haram. However, halal and haram are defined by Allah and no human has the right to amend them. If a religious leader claims exemption to the rules for themselves or their students, that’s a big, bright, red flag.
Beware of Bullying
When you witness or experience bullying, understand that a Muslim’s dignity is sacred and don’t accept justifications of ‘tarbiyah’ (spiritual edification/character reformation) or breaking someone’s nafs (ego). If you didn’t sign up for spiritual edification, don’t accept any volunteer spiritual guides.
If you did sign up, pay attention as to whether these harsh rebukes are having a positive or negative effect. If they are having a negative emotional, mental, or physical effect on you, then this is clearly not tarbiyah, which is meant to build you up.
When abuse in the name of tarbiyah happens, it is the shaykh himself or the shaykha herself who needs character reformation. When such behavior goes unchecked, students become outlets of unchecked anger and are left with trauma and PTSD. This type of bullying is very common in women’s groups.
Trust Built and Trust Destroyed
There are different levels of trust, and as it relates to religious leaders, one does not need to investigate individuals or build trust for a perfunctory relationship. You do not need a high degree of trust if you are just attending someone’s general lectures and not establishing any personal relationship.
If you want to study something with an Islamic teacher, do so as you would with a school-teacher, understanding that their position does not make that person either exceptionally safe nor exceptionally harmful. Treat religious figures as religious consultants who are there to answer questions based on their knowledge. Give every teacher a clean slate, don’t have baseless suspicions, but if behavior becomes manipulative, exploitative, cultish, or otherwise abusive, don’t justify it either.
Personal accountability is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and we have to take responsibility for our own faith and actions. There is no need to be suspicious without reason, but nor is there a justification for blind trust in someone you don’t know, just because they lead prayers or have a degree of religious education.
It is natural to ask ourselves whether people can be trusted after experiencing or learning about spiritual abuse. The answer is yes – you can trust yourself. You can also trust others in ways that are appropriate for the relationship. If you know someone well and they have proven over a long period of time to be trustworthy, keep secrets, and do not use you or take advantage of you, then it makes sense to trust that person more than a stranger or someone who has outward uprightness that you do not know well. That level of trust is earned through long-time demonstration of its characteristics.
Seeing someone on stage for years or relying on testimony of people impressed by someone should not convince you to lower your guard. Even if you do believe someone is pious, you still never drop your better judgment, because even saints are fallible.
Don’t Fall for Reputation
Never take other respected leaders praising or working alongside an individual as proof of his or her trustworthiness. It is possible that the teachers you trust are unaware of any wrongdoing. It’s not a reasonable expectation, nor is it a responsibility for them to boycott or disassociate themselves from another religious figure even if they are aware of them being abusive.
Furthermore, skilled manipulators often gain favor from respected teachers both overseas and domestically to gain credibility.
If one shaykh praises another shaykh, but you witness abusive behavior, don’t doubt yourself based on this praise. The praise may have been true at one time or may have been true in the experience of the one giving the praise, but no one knows another person’s current spiritual state as spiritual states can change.
Even if the abusive individual was previously recognized to be a great wali (saint), understand that there are saints who have lost their sainthood as they do not have isma (divine protection from sin or leaving Islam) like the prophets (upon them be peace) do. What was true yesterday, may not be true today.
Often praises of integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are heaped on men who support influential female figures. However, men who are praised as ‘allies,’ and thanked for ‘using their privilege’ to support female scholarship and the participation of women in religious organizations and events are no more trustworthy than those who don’t.
Abusers are often very image-conscious and may be acting to improve their own image and brand strength. Influential male and female religious figures also help one another with mutual praising and social-proofing. That is how the misdoings of men who are supportive of women are ignored, as long as they support the right politicized causes such as inclusive spaces and diverse panels.
Don’t be tricked into trust through a person’s credentials. An ijazah (license) to be a shaykh of a tariqa is purportedly the highest credential. It’s a credential that allegedly has a chain that goes all the way back to the Prophet , but that does not impart any of the Prophet’s character or trustworthiness in and of itself. A shaykh has to continuously live up to the ijaza and position. The position does not justify behavior outside of the sharia or any form of abuse. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophet only to the degree to which they embody his character.
When a teacher who hasn’t spent adequate time with righteous shayukh abuses, they are said to lack suhba (companionship of the pious), and that is why they are abusive.
The truth is many of the worst abusers in traditional circles are highly certified, have spent adequate time with shayukh, are valid representatives of them, and are able to abuse because the previously mentioned credentials lead to blind trust.
Don’t let certifications about spiritual abuse, ethical leadership, or the like mean anything to you. Skilled narcissists will be the first to get such certifications and take courses because they know this will make people trust them more. You will see courses on ‘healthy leadership’ and ‘spiritual abuse prevention’ being taught and designed by them. There is a false premise behind such certifications that if religious leaders knew how abuse occurs and the damage it causes victims they wouldn’t do it. The fact is they know how abuse works, know how damaging it is, and don’t care. In a way, it’s good to have lessons on spiritual abuse from purveyors of abuse, just as learning theft prevention from a thief might be the most beneficial.
Don’t judge by rhetoric
Don’t look at the rhetoric of groups or individuals to see how seriously they take abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs in all groups. It is common for members of one group to call out abuse that they see in another group while ignoring abuse occurring within their own group.
Sufis who will talk about the importance of sharia, label others as ‘goofy-Sufis,’ and insist that real Sufis follow sharia, will very often abuse in private and use the same justifications as the other Sufi groups they publicly deride.
Many imams and religious leaders will talk publicly about the importance of justice, having zero-tolerance for abuse, and the importance of building safe spaces, while they themselves are participating in the abuse.
Furthermore, female religious leaders will often cover up secret marriages, and other abuses for such men and help them to ostracize and destroy the credibility of their victims as long as their political views align. Muslim mental health providers often incorporate religious figures when they do programs, and in some cases they involve known abusers if it helps their cause.
In some cases, the organization does not know of any abuse. Abusive individuals use partnerships with Muslim mental health organizations to enhance their image as a “safe person.” This is especially dangerous due to the vulnerability of those struggling with mental illness and spiritual issues, who may then be exploited by the abuser. It is a community responsibility to ensure the safety of these vulnerable individuals and to ensure that they do have access to resources that can actually help them.
Don’t judge by fame
One false assumption is that the local-unknown teacher is sincere while the famous preacher is insincere and just wants to amass followers. This contrast is baseless although rhetorically catchy.
The fact is, many unknown teachers desire fame and work towards it more than those who are famous. Other times the unknown and famous teacher may have the same love of leadership, but one is more skilled than the other. They both may also be incredibly sincere.
Ultimately, we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart but must look at their actions, and if their actions are abusive, they are a danger to the community. Both famous and non-famous teachers are equally capable of spiritual abuse.
Look for a procedure
Before being involved in an organization, look for a code of conduct. There is no accountability without one in non-criminal matters. Never depend on people, look at the procedures and ensure that the procedure calls for transparency, such as the one we at In Shaykh’s Clothing published and made free for the public to use.
Procedure also applies to an organizations’ financials. Do not donate money to organizations based on personalities, instead demand financial transparency and accountability for the money spent. There is great incentive for spiritual abusers to win the trust of crowds when it means they can raise money without any financial accountability.
But what about Husne-Zann? Thinking well of others?
Allah tells us يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ
“O You who believe, leave much suspicion, indeed some suspicions are sinful” (Quran 49:12).
From this verse, we see that some – not all negative opinions are sinful. The prohibition is partitive, meaning some bad opinions are permissible.
If someone punches you, it is not hunse-zann to assume that person just happened to stretch with a closed fist and did not see your face was in the way. This kind of delusion will lead to you getting punched more. To be wary of their fist isn’t a sinful level of suspicion.
Part of why spiritual abuse is difficult to detect is that its purveyors have a reputation for outright uprightness. They are thought well of in the community, and in many cases they are its pillars and have decades of positive service to their defense. Assuming that someone cannot be abusive simply because they have been a teacher or leader for a long time is not husne-zann. When facts are brought to light- like a fist to the face – it is delusional to assume they didn’t mean it that way.
If someone does something that warrants suspicion, then put your guard up and don’t make excuses for those actions. Start with a general guard and be procedural about things which require a procedure. For example, if you are going to loan someone money, don’t just take their word that they will pay you back but insist on a written record. If they say they are offended, just say “it’s my standard procedure to avoid any confusion later on.” A reasonable person won’t have an issue with that. If someone mentions on the phone they will pay you $100 for your work, write an email to confirm what was said on the phone so there’s a record for it.
Lastly, and most importantly, never leave your child alone with a teacher where you or others cannot see them. Many cases of child sexual assault can be prevented if we never allow children to study alone with adults. There should never be an exception to this, and parents much uphold this as a matter of policy. Precaution is not an accusation, and this is a professional and standard no one should reject.
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