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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 17 – A Mountain in My Mind

El Demonio came ahead grinning nonchalantly and whirling his stick through the air, completely unafraid of any opposition I might mount.

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator
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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.

Apunten!Aim.

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.

Military helicopter.

“Two large, camouflage-green helicopters soared up from behind the cliff…”

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 dreamed.

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.

El Valle de Anton, Panama

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?”

El Valle de Anton, Panama

El Valle de Anton, Panama

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.”

“Yes?”

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.

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

53 Comments

53 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Amatullah

    September 28, 2017 at 3:31 AM

    Allahu Akbar!
    No words.
    Too emotional right now to comment…maybe

  2. Avatar

    SZH

    September 28, 2017 at 3:39 AM

    A roller coaster of emotions. An emotionally sickening spiral of ups and downs throughout has made me dizzy. Now I just want the “Return” to be more positive than this one (and longer, of course :-P ). Although what Zaid is doing, seems like a right thing to do. And he has been getting “subtle” hints in last few days. Even then, I would like him to have a better judgement.
    Brother Wael, your story-telling is immensely captivating, and it has been on a ascending track. What was slightly less polished, is now shining bright. The “first-person” story telling format has done more good to what I thought.
    May Allah give this more to you. May Allah bless you and your family in all aspects of life. JazakAllah Khair.

  3. Avatar

    Abu Hirsi

    September 28, 2017 at 3:44 AM

    Assalamu Aleikum brother Wael
    Brilliant. Masha Allah Tabaraka Allah.
    ” 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”
    The mountain, meadow, spring analogy truly poetic. My brother Alhamdulilah Allah has given you a talent. Continue to use the medium for Dawa and get our brothers and sisters back into our ancestral habits of reading and seeking knowledge. Thank you for sharing with us your book for free when we should really buy it to support your efforts.
    May the Almighty Allah bless, protect and guide you always. Allah Yahfadhak.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 28, 2017 at 4:07 AM

      Abu Hirsi, you’re welcome. And by the way, I’ve already made some changes in response to your earlier comment about race. I’ll try to be more attentive to that Insha’Allah. Jazak Allah khayr.

      • Avatar

        Abu Hirsi

        September 28, 2017 at 5:07 AM

        Brother Wael
        Jazak Allah Khairan for your superb writing and for your patience.
        I am looking forward to read more of your books. I am particularly looking forward to how you will weave a Sura or Ayah or a Sahabi story into your writing. You have truly begun a new genre of writing. I cannot think of any writer old or new who can deploy all the tools that mesmerize your readers, Some cannot even breathe! Masha Allah Tabaraka Allah. Keep up the great job.

  4. Avatar

    Akhil Jamal

    September 28, 2017 at 11:12 AM

    Man … I will say this ….. Your stories made me wake up every day and live till the next day…. And you my dear friend will get 30% credits … Which is huge and I ll tell this too, gives some much needed meaning to this struggling life …. May God bless you mahn … And make some more of these … And make our lives better till that last beat in your heart bro … Thank you !

  5. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 28, 2017 at 1:50 PM

    Amazing!! Love it; but what’s next!?!?!??! AHHHAH!! The series is coming to end, Amazing!

    Jazk for the experience with you suspenseful stories; you know how to keep your reader till the end, like not taking my eyes off my laptop till I’m done!

    Very well done!

  6. Avatar

    Layyinah

    September 28, 2017 at 2:47 PM

    As salaam alaikum Brother Wael, I am sure that there’s not much to the comments on your skills. I am also disappointed that the story is nearing it’s end. This is definitely one of your gifts, readers truly connect with characters and don’t want to reach the end. You’re also a master at cliff- hangers. Glad that everyone made it out alive EXCEPT their marriage. I’m still holding out for the happy ending. Finally, as previously mentioned, thank you for allowing us the pleasure of reading your books for free. I look to the final chapter and your next story, in shaa Allah.

  7. Avatar

    Layyinah

    September 28, 2017 at 3:00 PM

    correction:

    As salaam alaikum Brother Wael, I am sure that there’s not much to add to the comments on your skills. I am also disappointed that the story is nearing it’s end and this chapter was so short! ?. This is definitely one of your gifts, readers truly connect with characters and don’t want to reach the end. You’re also a master at cliff- hangers. Glad that everyone made it out alive EXCEPT their marriage. I’m still holding out for the happy ending. Finally, as previously mentioned, thank you for allowing us the pleasure of reading your books for free. I look to the final chapter and your next story, in shaa Allah.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      September 28, 2017 at 9:26 PM

      Same, I was really shocked that everyone survived except their marriage. I still have hope that Zaid comes out of his coldness he has entered. It probably hit Safaa’s heart like an arrow when he said “I divorce you!!”

  8. Avatar

    Umm Ismael

    September 28, 2017 at 3:19 PM

    Tears in my eyes…. Amazing alhamdulillah! No words although i had wished that the details about the compound had not been so graphic. I felt nauseous and couldnt get them out of my mind for some days since I have a daughter- subhanAllah! hasbi yallah.

  9. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 28, 2017 at 9:20 PM

    Oh my god!! I read over the amazing parts again! Br, No you’ve got to be kidding me please let them get back together I don’t want a divorce. Brother you know that is is permissible in Islam but a very discouraged act, I’m just saying this because I too overwhelmed. Shaytan (Dead El Demino) will be really happy if they don’t get together. Also, it can hurt Hajar; to live with one parent and not the other.

    Please bring it to a good ending, I know you already will, but please end the last chapter by them spending a happy life together, and on a Saturday morning. A scene where they spend time together as a family.
    Also, one more thing Br. Wael; Did you delete a chapter “Crater Valley” or did you change the name? I was wondering where did that chapter go?

    Jazk, Br. Wael for understanding.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 29, 2017 at 12:20 AM

      Thanks for your comments Maryam. You are correct, the name of the chapter was changed.

  10. Avatar

    Bint A

    September 29, 2017 at 12:50 AM

    Hmm… I’m wondering about this constant theme of the hero being knocked out until the point of death and then dancing with death in a prolonged period of unconscious recovery and continuously dreaming until they wake up in a haven of bliss. I’m wondering what the story is behind this theme if you don’t mind sharing :)

    It happened with Hassan and it was a novel ending. Then it repeated with Zaid….
    This time it didn’t have the same impact though. I guess I was looking for something least expected…. and I have also been hypothesizing what happens in your story at crucial cliffhangers (as a brainstorming exercise) and I also came up with the solution of some outside force (army, police etc.) intervening at the exact moment of need. I thought that would be too cliche so dismissed the idea. But then…that was exactly what happened. Yusuf Cuz coming to save the day didn’t really feel welcome for some reason. I felt that he was an outsider and didn’t really fit in with the story….maybe since we didn’t know too much about his character so didn’t develop an affinity to him. The plot twist of Mr.Green on the other hand, was totally different and very welcome since we were familiar with his character and the shock when the two identities converged was brilliant.

    My suggestion is… (not sure if you can still do this) is to try an alternate ending to the story if possible. Or go back and try to add more tidbits of Yusuf Cruz throughout the story (other than a mystery character one hears about offhand). like actual glimpses into his life or stories where he comes up.

    One thing you can utilize perhaps is what you mentioned at the end about Yusuf tracing Zaid’s footsteps. you could perhaps weave in accounts where there is a ‘presence’ throughout Zaid’s altercations at different moments and Zaid is unable to explain what or who caused it. a disturbance perhaps, or some clues left behind that don’t quite add up, a presence of a ‘guardian angel’ that the reader couldn’t possibly equate with Yusuf Cruz because we are made to think he’s a criminal. Some more mystery, but the idea is that Y.C,’s final appearance is not an anomaly but something that has been building up throughout

    Just some suggestions :)
    Sorry for performing a literary analysis on your story…but it just needs a bit more to have that brilliant impact at the end -like a person smacking his lips after a finishing a particularly gratifying end to a latte :D

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 29, 2017 at 1:09 AM

      Bint A, your points are totally valid and you’ve given me something to think about.

    • Avatar

      S. Hassan

      September 29, 2017 at 4:35 AM

      I agree with BINT A 100%.
      Amazing story!!!

  11. Avatar

    Abu Hirsi

    September 29, 2017 at 5:07 AM

    Assalamu Aleikum Warahmatulahi Wabarakatuhu
    Dear brother Wael:
    I cannot thank you enough for sharing with us your nail biting/hanging on the edge of the abyss/high excitement writing. I am writing to request you to continue to be you and not dilute or change any of your creativity. If you listen to any of us your writing will cease to be Wael’s. Take all the suggestions with a grain of salt and write the way you write. Human Beings will never be satisfied regardless. As per Hadiths our praises and criticisms should be have no effect on you.
    Some readers would want the stories to end the way they want or fantasize. Some cannot handle certain scenes which vividly bring the story to life. This is not their story or writing. This is Wael’s. Write the way you do best and let us deal with our own hangups/limitations/fantasies. Let us grapple and react to the story each in our own way. Jazak Allah Kheyran. Jumuah Mubaarak

  12. Avatar

    Sarah

    September 29, 2017 at 11:14 PM

    Assalamu alaykum

    I am loving the story so far mashaa Allah. I am kind of sad about him and Safaa, but I do feel like she was excessively cold to him throughout on very little basis, so I guess she deserves it.

  13. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    October 3, 2017 at 2:37 AM

    As-salamu alaykum everyone. The final chapter of Zaid Karim P.I. is not ready this week. I’m working on it, but it will be at least one more week and possibly two. Sorry for the delay.

  14. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 3, 2017 at 2:41 PM

    It’s okay take your time! I just hope it ends with them coming back together and all of that amazing stuff! The ending will be good I can’t wait!

  15. Avatar

    Al

    October 4, 2017 at 11:48 AM

    First time commenting, long time reader.

    Though I’m annoyed at zaid’s sudden coldness towards his wife (even though she had it coming, treating him like that for so long), I feel like it fits his character which has elements of ghuluw/extreme-ness to it. He was extreme in his love towards her and he was sudden and extreme when he decided he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

    Loved his connection to Allah. Really related to his struggle in refining himself. Altogether his thoughts and internal dialogue made him very relatable, more so than Hassan I think.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 4, 2017 at 1:56 PM

      Jazak Allah khayr, Al. I will use your observation, if you don’t mind.

      • Avatar

        Maryam Moeen

        October 5, 2017 at 1:41 PM

        No!! Brother I would want them to come together as a happy family again as Avid Reader did i have aso stated hadiths about it. Also, it will hurt the kid living with one parent and not the other and there are a lot disruptions when there is a divorce.

  16. Avatar

    Avid Reader

    October 5, 2017 at 6:58 AM

    Regarding Zaid’s concept of marital relationship, it seems like it borders on the romantic and not enough pragmatic. Specially, if he claims to always keep Allah in mind, he should remember that Allah says:
    “And live with them honorably. If you dislike them, it may be that you dislike a thing and Allah brings through it a great deal of good.” [Nisa’a:19]

    Also, the Prophet said: “The best of you is the one who is best to his wife, and I am the best of you to my wives.” [Sunan ibn Majah Hasan]

    Moreover, it is natural on the part of the wife to feel disillusioned if the husband has problems supporting her financially. So, Zaid should carry no grudge against Safaa on that account as Allah says:
    “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means.” [Nisa’a:34]

    BTW, for all this support for Safaa and being upset with Zaid, for the record, let it be known that I’m not a female:-)

  17. Avatar

    Naseera

    October 6, 2017 at 1:22 PM

    This was an incredibly well-written story which I really enjoyed. I enjoy reading Jo Nesbitt and I believe this was even better. I hope the reason for his presidential pardon is not forgotten in the final chapter. Thank you for a great read.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 6, 2017 at 1:27 PM

      Thanks so much Naseera. The story of the presidential pardon will be told in another Zaid Karim book, Insha’Allah, if I choose to continue the series.

  18. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 7, 2017 at 8:40 PM

    No!! Brother I would want them to come together as a happy family again as Avid Reader did i have aso stated hadiths about it. Also, it will hurt the kid living with one parent and not the other and there are a lot disruptions when there is a divorce.

  19. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 10, 2017 at 10:02 PM

    Aoa,Br. Wael when will the last and most amazing chapter come out?? Can’t wait for it. Is it will be awesome. I might sound like a foo l because; I’ve repeated it a dozen of times, please end it with the whole family coming back.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 10, 2017 at 10:58 PM

      Maryam, I’m about 2/3 done with the chapter. I just completed a sci-fi novel I was working on, so I can turn more attention back to Zaid Karim, Insha’Allah. One more week, I would say.

  20. Avatar

    Abu Hirsi

    October 11, 2017 at 5:13 AM

    Assalamu Aleikum Akhuuna Wael AbdelGawad
    Jazak Allahu Kheyran for everything that you do for the community as far as the free books that you share with us, fulfilling other resultant roles as the resident morale booster and Chief shrink and most important for your masha Allah abilities to listen and respond appropriately to all each of us. You are exhibiting the Quranic Ayah: “Wa Quluu Linasi Husnaa”. Allah Yahfadhak.

  21. Avatar

    Ahmed Rashed

    October 11, 2017 at 4:56 PM

    I really, really liked this episode. . . especially the end. Some may not like Zaid’s words to Safa, but “actions have consequences.” The helicopter rescue was a shock, that is the only negative feedback. However, if you do like one of the other people suggested and drop hints of Yusuf in other previous episodes, it works out well. I plan on buying your book on Amazon, brother. May Allah bless you and your writing, habib.

  22. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 11, 2017 at 9:00 PM

    Aoa, Br.Wael; Jazk for letting me know the date your last, final and amazing chapter will be published. Just one request even before reading the last chapter please end it with the family coming together in unity.
    Oh yes, I read about you sci- fi novel on your page. I think I already told you this; a few years back my IS teacher used to read to us as a whole class, about Layth and Khadija. This year I gave in the series of yours books to read in class, if that’s fine. I hadn’t ask so I wanted to ask just to make sure.

  23. Avatar

    SZH

    October 12, 2017 at 2:56 AM

    People commenting here, asking to “save” Zaid’s marriage. I also want that, and hope for a some-what-happy-ending.
    With that hope, I would like to remind what Abu Hirsi (in some comments above) said. “…. This is Wael’s. Write the way you do best and let us deal with our own hangups/limitations/fantasies. Let us grapple and react to the story each in our own way….”.
    Take your time. Be yourself. Write the best of which you can. I know that all these stories somewhat reflects your life and observations. We, most of us, want the story to take the less bitter path. Thank you.
    And also, take all your time to write the loooongest last episode. I have got my “Pieces of Dream” to Pakistan. I will be finishing that.

    • Avatar

      SZH

      October 13, 2017 at 5:20 PM

      Alhamdulillah, read the book “Pieces of Dream”. None of my words can justify the book’s quality. The details and additions to the Layth’s story is a loving aspect of the book. Anyway, I cannot fight off the sensation of “impending doom” to Layth’s. :-D
      Khair, a great book. I will like to read the other parts as soon as possibe.
      That being said, I have completed the book, now, where is the last part of Zaid’s saga?

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        October 13, 2017 at 5:47 PM

        Jazak Allah khayr brother, I appreciate your feedback on Pieces of a Dream. Please do me a favor and leave a review on Amazon.com. The last chapter of Zaid Karim is 3/4 done.

        • Avatar

          SZH

          October 17, 2017 at 5:35 AM

          Wa iyyaka. I will try to write a nice review there. Cannot review it like it deserves, but will try to do so.
          Zaid’s story needs your time. I am imagining you writing and erasing words, sentences and paragraphs. I hope that it will turn out exactly as you outlined the whole story.

      • Avatar

        Maryam Moeen

        October 14, 2017 at 6:01 PM

        Gaw lee; you don’t have to be sarcastic.
        You’re in Pakistan?? Man how I wish to visit Pakistan, been there when I was a kid; but I don’t remember a lot. How can anyone forget the beloved Junaid Jamshed he will always be in our hearts. I was the first though to pay tribute to him. I have posted videos on my YouTube channel, username below.
        Br. Wael I saw your channel and Salma MashaAllah the magic table trick and the chant. Soo cute MashaAllah.

        • Avatar

          SZH

          October 17, 2017 at 5:42 AM

          Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I apologize.
          Yes, I live in Pakistan. We have been riding a roller coaster, for 70 years. :-D

  24. Avatar

    Kulz

    October 14, 2017 at 4:38 AM

    This part of the story was amazing. First the helicopters and then Hajars arrival and then Zaids description of how marriage should be. Tears! So many tears! Absolutely heart wrenching!!

  25. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 18, 2017 at 12:10 AM

    Br.Wael when will the next chapter come out??

  26. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 19, 2017 at 10:09 PM

    Okay IA!

  27. Avatar

    SZH

    October 23, 2017 at 5:48 AM

    Today is 23rd of October… And I have finished Dan Brown’s book in the wait of Zaid’s last part.
    If the chapter is complete, hurry up. If something is remaining, then, no rush.

  28. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 24, 2017 at 4:01 PM

    Me too!! I’ve been waiting, I check every day. It’s okay it’s worth the wait.
    But SZH you never answered my question about the beloved Junaid Jamshed. I love him. I was the first one to pay tribute to him. Check out my channel I have a few videos of him, and please subscribe. I saw you channel Br. Wael you daughter is soi cute Ma!! The magic table trick also the chant for her.Aww the chant is soo cute MA!!

    • Avatar

      SZH

      October 25, 2017 at 2:07 AM

      Oh, sorry I didn’t.
      JJ is an icon of positive change. The way he left his career at the highest peak, it make him a symbol of sacrifice and beloved in eyes of people. I frequently hear his nasheeds and get inspiration. Also, I have checked your YT channel. MaShaAllah you have quite a collection of his.

      • Avatar

        Maryam Moeen

        October 25, 2017 at 3:38 PM

        Oh I know right!! I love him!! May you plaese subscribe. I will be posting more IA it’s just I have been busy these days, I had PSAT today. I love him, he is an amazingly, incredibly idol for all off us to follow, IA!!

  29. Avatar

    Luqman

    October 25, 2017 at 1:33 PM

    Maa shaa Allaah, I’m just always wondering what it takes to be you, amazing story, inspirational.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 25, 2017 at 1:42 PM

      Jazak Allah khayr, brother. It just takes practice and a major investment of time, that’s all! And I still have much room for improvement.

      So, everyone, the final chapter of Zaid Karim is complete. We’ll publish it next Tuesday the 31st of October Insha’Allah, if MM has no objection.

      • Avatar

        SZH

        October 26, 2017 at 2:14 AM

        Spoilers please…. :-P

        • Avatar

          Maryam Moeen

          October 26, 2017 at 8:20 PM

          No spoilers please oh come on just 4 more days, almost there tag along. We’ll get there together as MM readers. IA!

  30. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 25, 2017 at 3:44 PM

    Oh my god!! Finally I’ve been waiting forever!! I checked continuously every Tuesday. Thank God I know the amazeness will be there for next week.

  31. Avatar

    Sahra

    October 30, 2017 at 4:51 AM

    One more day inshallah
    I haven’t been saying much but I was checking ever time and now we are coming to an end. Brother Wael please let us know when your new sf book is published as already read Pieces of a dream, JazakaAllahu khayr again and btw my favourite parts are the ayahs the Hadiths and the story of Salman al Farazi ofcourse

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#Culture

The Creation Of The Stereotypical Arab

Omar Sayadi

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Back To The Future

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

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

Foreign Policy

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

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

The Ultimate Demon

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

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

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

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Palestinian terrorists in “True Lies” – 1994

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

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

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

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“Rules of Engagement” (Paramount Pictures) – 2000

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

Debunking Cultural Practices

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

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

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

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

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#Culture

Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

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Books

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

Omar Usman

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grit
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

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

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

I don’t really care about grit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

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

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

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

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

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