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 | Chapter 17
Thursday, March 4, 2010 – Early evening
El Valle de Antón, Coclé Province, Panama
When I woke it was Maghreb time. Looking through the glass I could see the outlines of the hills against the purple sky. The covers were cool against my skin, and a corner lamp filled the room with soft yellow light. The orchids on the wall cast delicate, origami-like shadows. Their sweet, lemony scent made me think of being back home with Safaa as she baked lemon bread in our little apartment. I heard voices talking from another room. My mouth was dry and I was ravenously hungry, but I felt slightly stronger, and I wanted to pray.
I pulled the IV from my arm, causing blood to trickle from the insertion point. I tried to rise and actually succeeded in swinging my legs down from the bed, though the effort taxed me so much I let out a groan. A split second later the door opened and Safaa came rushing in. Only then did I notice the baby monitor sitting on the nightstand beside the bed. She’d been monitoring me from the other room.
I gave her a sidelong look, my expression hard. “Why are you still here? I told you I divorce you.”
She crossed her arms. “No.”
“Yes. I gave you a statement of divorce.”
“No. I won’t let you.”
“What do you mean? I want a divorce. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Yes I can.”
What the heck? Were we kindergarteners now? Were we going to repeat ourselves a hundred times and resort to saying, I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you?
“Habibi, listen.” Safaa came forward and put a hand on my leg. “I made a terrible mistake. I get it now. A marriage can’t survive without trust. I violated that trust when I took someone else’s word over yours. I’m sorry.” She straightened her back, like a soldier at attention. “I’m not leaving. I made that mistake already. I abandoned you when you needed me. I won’t do it again.”
I said nothing, but my mouth turned down and I looked away. Words were cheap. She claimed to trust me now, but I didn’t trust her anymore. I’d always thought the bond between us was unbreakable, that we were a match decreed in the world before this world, and that nothing could separate us. Safaa had proven me wrong. We weren’t special. We weren’t destined for each other. We were just a man and woman thrown together by circumstance. What we had was finished.
“Habibi,” she pleaded. “Say something.”
I said nothing. I didn’t like hurting her, but I was entitled to my feelings. Her apology and tears were too easy. You can’t hurt someone for months then show up one day and say, “Sorry, let’s start over.” Actions have consequences.
“Fine.” Safaa shoved my leg irritably and stood up. “You remember what you always say to Hajar when she knows she’s wrong but won’t admit it? There’s good stubborn and bad stubborn.” She glared at me, and when I made no reply she turned and stalked out of the room.
Shortly afterward Yusuf came in with a tray of food. There was chicken soup, rice, lentils, baked sweet potatoes and mushrooms, and yogurt. “Yasmeen prepared this. She says these are good post-surgery foods. She used to be a nurse. That’s how we met. I was hospitalized for appendicitis and she cared for me.”
“That’s cool, ma-sha-Allah. I get the feeling she doesn’t like me much though.” As I talked I ate, and it was heavenly, as if I had never tasted food before. The soup was hot and tangy, the potatoes buttery and salty, the yogurt cool and sour. SubhanAllah, how had I ever taken food for granted?
“She doesn’t trust you. She’s afraid you’ll drag me into something dangerous or illegal.”
“Which I already did.”
Yusuf smiled. “You’re my brother. You’re like family. Do you know the name of my company?”
I thought back to the Google search I’d run back in the Los Angeles airport, a lifetime ago. “Yuza Construction.”
“Do you know what it means?”
I shrugged. “Some kind of indigenous word?”
“Think about it. Yu. Za. What two names do you know that start with those letters?”
I stared, then laughed. “You’re kidding.”
“You saved my soul, Zaid. You changed my life. Everything I am I owe to you. From the very beginning I envisioned the two of us working together. Stay here in Panama. I’ll make you a partner in my company. You’ll be well cared for.”
“I don’t know anything about construction.”
“You could learn. Or I could make you head of security. Loss prevention, background checks. That’s up your alley. There’s plenty of work.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Está bien. So tell me, what can I do for you?”
“Well. I’ve lost all my documents, and I have no idea what happened to Anna’s passport. Her mother probably sold it.”
Yusuf nodded. “I have a contact at the American embassy. I’ll reach out.”
“I have another request. Kind of an odd one.” I told him about an old man sitting alone in an apartment on the worst street in Colon, playing an imaginary trumpet.
My old friend smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.” He paused, then said, “You know that your wife loves you, right?”
My face became a blank mask. “I’m done with Safaa.”
“Zaid.” Yusuf put a hand on the back of my neck and pulled my head to touch his forehead to mine. Then he kissed me on one cheek. I grimaced but took it like a child under assault by an over-affectionate uncle. What was with these Panamanians and their relentless physicality?
“Do you know,” Yusuf said, “how loyal she’s been to you? When she found out about your condition she was here the same day. Not the next day hermano, the same day. You were at Punta Pacifica Hospital then. We all stayed at my apartment in the city while you were recuperating, but not Safaa. She never left your hospital room. She slept in a chair at night, and sat at your bedside during the day. She recited to you from the Quran and talked about Hajar and how much she loves you. That’s a loyal woman.”
“Akhi, you don’t know,” I said hotly. “She accused me falsely, sided against me, kicked me out of my home, denied me access to my daughter, and treated me like something she scraped off her shoe. I tried for months to reason with her, and then…” I made a helpless gesture. “I ran dry. The well ran dry.”
“I get it hermano, I do. In the name of fairness she should get what’s coming to her. In the name of your righteous indignation. In the name of punishing her. But what if I were to say to you, in the name of love? And more importantly…” He paused momentously, as if he were about to deliver the last line of the Gettysburg Address. “In the name of Allah.”
I froze in the middle of chewing a mouthful of beans. What could I say to that?
“Do you remember,” Yusuf went on, “what you used to say to me in prison, whenever I would express my fear that my family would not understand my conversion to Islam, my wife would divorce me, my daughter would see me as a stranger? You used to say, do it for Allah, and trust Allah to do for you.” He winked as if he knew he’d just made the winning move in a chess match. “So. In the name of all those other tings, no. But in the name of Allah? I leave you with that.”
I put up a hand. “Hold on.”
Yusuf paused, raising his eyebrows.
“What I do with my family is my own affair.”
I sighed and changed the subject. “Did Niko leave a number where I can reach him? Or an email or something?”
Yusuf hesitated. “Maybe you should let him be. He’s been through a lot.”
“What do you mean? Is he angry with me?”
“No, nothing like that. You know what, it’s fine.” He drew a black smartphone from his pocket and handed it to me. “His number’s in the contact list.”
When I was done eating I scrolled through the contacts on the phone until I found Niko Tiburon. I dialed, and a moment later a child answered with “Aló!” I asked in Spanish to speak to Niko. A loud clattering ensued, as if the phone had been dropped on a table or the floor. I heard children’s’ voices shouting and at least one child laughing hysterically.
“Aló?” a voice said. It was Niko.
I grinned widely. “I need a driver. Just a simple job, a few hours only. Are you available?”
Niko laughed. “Mister Zayn, you are awake! Gracias a Dios! But I think you better find someone else this time, Zayn. My wife want to either kiss you or kill you, she don’t know which.”
“Kill me I can understand, but why kiss me?”
“Because of my son, Zayn! Because of Emanuel. He can walk! He had the operación, Zayn, he can walk! Gracias a Dios!”
I tipped back my head and sent a prayer of thanks to Allah. What a miracle. What a blessing. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “That’s amazing, Niko. I’m so happy for you and your family.”
“Is all thanks to you, Zayn.”
“No. Thanks to God. Listen Niko, as soon as I’m well I want to come visit you and meet your family.”
“Oh.” Niko’s voice dropped an octave. “No is possible, Zayn. I am very busy with work and my family. But you must know that I will never forget you. You are a hero from the novelas, just like I say before. You change my life.”
“So… I don’t understand.” I hardly knew what to say. “I won’t see you again?”
“I am afraid no, Zayn. But is okay. You have a job too, yes? You must take Anna back to Los Estados Unidos.”
“Yes. That’’s true. Well… okay, Niko. Congratulations again on your son.” We said our goodbyes and hung up. I sat there staring at the phone. Everything Niko said made sense, so why did I get the feeling that he was hiding something from me? That there was something important he wasn’t telling me?
Setting the phone down, I threw off the covers and carefully lowered my legs to the floor. My left calf was missing a chunk of muscle, as if a dog had taken a bite out of it. My toenails had not grown back, and the nail beds were yellow, red and purple in places. They looked disgusting.
There was a walker beside the bed. I leaned on it heavily as I stood and made my way to the bathroom. The walker had a built-in seat and I had to stop twice to rest. But I made it.
The bathroom was lovely, with teak cabinetry, a natural stone floor and shower, and a huge mirror lined with flat brown stones. It smelled of lavender. Looking at myself in the mirror, I was shocked at my appearance. A scar came out of my hairline and ran from my right temple, across my eyebrow to the bridge of my nose. I had no idea how I’d gotten it. I didn’t remember being wounded there, but much of what had happened on the island was hazy, and for that I was grateful.
I’d lost much of my muscle tone and was dangerously thin. My ribs showed beneath the skin. My beard had grown out. I looked like a man who’d been living in the forest for the last ten years.
The skin on my left shoulder was a mass of twisted flesh. A long, red scar ran up my left arm where the drug house thug had slashed me.
And my legs… the skin on the front and inside of my thighs was like a map of the chaotic streets of Panama, but a map drawn in scars. There were scars on top of scars, scores of them. Many were red, some pink, while the least severe had begun to fade to white. I shivered and closed my robe, not wanting to remember that terrible time in the torture chamber.
I performed wudu and limped back to bed, where I prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha lying on my back. I was grateful to be alive, but my thoughts were foggy and confused. With my belly full of food, and my ravaged body exhausted from the trip to the bathroom, I fell asleep.
* * *
Friday, March 5, 2010 – Afternoon
El Valle de Antón, Coclé Province, Panama
When I woke the next morning – or what I thought was morning – Safaa was there, reading a book. Seeing me awake, she came to my bedside. She reached out and massaged my leg. “How do you feel?”
I looked at her. Her eyes were so tired they looked bruised. Still, she was beautiful. The humidity down here made her skin glow.
She tipped her head. “Say something.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have the heart to repeat my earlier declarations of divorce. Maybe Yusuf’s words had taken root in my brain overnight. In the name of love. In the name of Allah. Do it for Allah, and Allah will do for you.
“Why is everything a matter of ghuluw with you?” Safaa demanded.
“What-” I cleared my throat. “What do you mean?” Safaa’s Arabic was better than mine.
“Ghuluw. Extremism. Fanaticism. When you loved me, every word out of your mouth was poetry. Now you won’t speak to me at all. You take a case, and it practically turns into a war. Where’s the middle ground?”
“Where was the middle ground with you,” I countered hotly, “when you abandoned me?”
To my shock, Safaa burst into sobs and dropped to her knees at the foot of the bed. She pressed her forehead to my blanketed feet and hugged my legs. “Please, Zaid,” she wailed. “I’m so sorry. I won’t do it again, I promise. I’m begging you. I don’t want a divorce. Hajar needs you. I ne – ee – ed y – you.” Her voice broke as huge sobs wracked her chest.
I was utterly aghast. This was not what I wanted. I had never wanted to see Safaa hurt or humiliated. She was a strong-willed and proud woman. Seeing her like this caused me actual physical pain, as if I had a lump of hot coal wedged in my chest. “Stand up,” I said, and it came out harsher than I intended. “Allah yardaa alayki ya Safaa, get up please.”
“Will you – “ Her voice hitched as she struggled to speak. “Will you take back your talaq? I wo – won’t get up until y – you do.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake. Women didn’t fight fair. I couldn’t bear to see her like this, no matter what she may have done.
“Fine,” I growled. “I take it back. Please, stand up. Please.”
She stood, wiping tears from her swollen eyes. “Do you mean it?”
“Yes,” I said grudgingly.
“So you forgive me?”
I glared at her. “Don’t push.”
“Okay. Do you need anything?”
“Have you and Hajar had breakfast yet?”
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. But we haven’t had lunch yet.”
“Maybe we could eat together. If you want.” If we were going to be a family again, we might as well start now.
Safaa smiled. “That would be wonderful.”
While she went to bring the food, I struggled to the bathroom again, made wudu’, and prayed Dhuhr and ‘Asr. This time I prayed sitting up in bed. I recited Surat Ad-Duhaa:
He found you lost and guided [you], And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient. So as for the orphan, do not oppress. And as for the petitioner, do not repel. But as for the favor of your Lord, report.
I had a realization. When last I had recited this, I’d been under torture in a place of nightmares. Yet Allah had saved me. He’d brought me through. Just as the surah said, Allah had done his part, and now I had to do mine. “The petitioner, do not repel…” I had a petitioner before me, a woman who only moments ago had literally been begging for forgiveness. Allah had shown me mercy, and now it was my turn. Hadn’t my entire life been a struggle for sincerity? What was I doing pushing Safaa away? What was I thinking? Her mistake didn’t matter. What mattered was the choice I now made. I had to find a way to bring myself to forgive her.
When Safaa returned with the food tray, Hajar ran in with her. She hopped up on the bed and proceeded to tell me excitedly about the pony she’d been riding, whose name was Roja. She told me how it would sometimes toss its mane, how she’d learned to brush and wash it, and had even learned to make a special pony treat out of oats, molasses and raisins.
I had taught Hajar a mealtime prayer: O Allah, bless what you have provided for us, and make us among the people of Jannah. Hajar must have taught it to her mom, because Safaa recited it and we began to eat, all of us sitting in my bed. Safaa kept reaching out to stroke my arm. It felt like the old days, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was supposed to be mad at her.
When we were done, Hajar went out to play with her friends, especially Anna, to whom she’d grown close.
“Where have you been sleeping?” I asked.
“Next door. Me and Hajar are sharing a room and a bed.”
“What about Oris and Anna?”
“They’re in Nora’s room. Yusuf’s older daughter. She treats them like younger sisters. Yusuf is trying to locate any family Oris might have. From what I gather, her mother was a prostitute and was killed. She never knew her father.”
“Safaa, I have to ask you something.”
“You know I love you. I always have. But these last several months have been so hard. At times I didn’t have food to eat. More than that, I’ve never felt so alone, not even when I was in prison. You abandoned me, and you didn’t let me see my daughter. My daughter, Safaa. How can I trust you? How do I know you won’t do it again? There are a lot of people who don’t like me. What happens the next time one of them makes up a story about me? How do I know you won’t toss me aside like a piece of litter?”
Safaa looked down and picked at the blanket. For several minutes she did not speak. Finally she took a deep breath and raised her eyes to mine. “When…” Her chin trembled and a tear ran down her cheek. “When we didn’t know if you would live or die, I realized…” Another breath… “I realized that I didn’t know how to exist in a world in which Zaid Karim did not exist. A world without you, Zaid, would be like the sun without heat, or like an empty cave that hasn’t seen the tread of a man in a thousand years.”
I looked at her without expression. “Is my poetry rubbing off on you? You sound like me now, but not as good.”
Safaa laughed and pinched my hand. “Oh, shut up.” She reached out and stroked my beard. “You know what Hajar said when she first saw you with this beard, when you were in the hospital?”
“She stared at you, then she said, ‘Is Baba a Prophet now?’”
I chuckled and shook my head. “I hope you set her straight.”
“Of course. But Zaid, I have to tell you, I’m seeing you in a new light.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… I always knew you were strong. You survived prison. Your entire life has been a struggle. But the way people down here talk about you. Niko said you saved him from drowning. Yusuf says he ‘owes his soul’ to you. His words. And when I saw your body, what those monsters did to you…” She reached out to touch my leg, and though my legs were covered with the blanket I knew she was touching my scars. “When you were unconscious Anna would come in here every day. She’d tell you fairy tales like the three pigs and Goldilocks. She looks at you like you’re an angel that came down to rescue her.”
“No.” I put up a hand to stop her. “Please don’t. I’m not that. I’m not.” I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I couldn’t bear to hear another word.
“Okay then. A ronin lion.”
I snorted. “That doesn’t even make sense. I was hired to do a job and I did it, barely. As for my many failures.” I lifted my palms. “I have to live with them.”
“You asked,” Safaa insisted, “and I’m answering. I always loved you, but I’m not sure I ever truly knew you. You were a cute boy who I liked and who needed me, especially when you were in prison, and your need for me fed my ego. But I admit, maybe in the last couple of years I started to wonder if my faith in you was misplaced. Maybe it wasn’t enough anymore to be needed, so I let myself be swayed by those negative voices. I’m not proud of that. It will never happen again, habibi. It’s like I’m seeing you for the first time. You don’t actually need me at all. It’s all of us who need you. You said I was a mountain in your mind? You, my love, are Mt. Everest.”
I waved this off. I couldn’t stand such praise, because I didn’t believe it.
“But do you trust me that it won’t happen again?” Safaa persisted.
I was quiet a moment as looked into my own heart. Did I? Did I trust her? “Yes,” I said, to myself and to her.
My wife leaned forward and hugged me. I almost pulled away, then my arms went around her and I embraced her with all my strength, which admittedly wasn’t much in my condition. We sat like that for perhaps five minutes, holding each other. Only then, feeling her solidity and the heat of her cheek against mine, and smelling her lightly floral perfume, did I feel in my bones that I had survived the horrors of Ouagadiri Island. Only then did I know that I was alive, this wasn’t a dream, I had a future, and that – no matter where I might be geographically – I was home. Safaa had said that she saw me in a new light now? Fine. We would walk into that new light together.
* * *
I borrowed Yusuf’s phone again and made a few calls. The first was to the Anwars. The call went to voicemail, and I left a message detailing all that had happened, and telling them I would have Anna back to them as soon as I was well enough to travel.
The second call was to my parents. It didn’t go well. My mother accused me of stealing from the Anwars and running off. I tried to tell her about Anna, but she didn’t believe me. When she launched into her spiel of how Allah was punishing her with a son like me, I said goodbye and hung up.
The third and final call was to Jalal. He was overjoyed. He’d been terribly worried. He told me that my office and car were fine. He’d been watering my plants and paying my bills with the checkbook in my desk drawer, forging my signature to do so. I didn’t mind. I thanked him and asked him to pay himself another $200.
“There’s something you should know,” Jalal said. “There’s a controversy going on over you. People are saying that your whole private investigator thing was a con, and you used it to rip off the Anwars. I had a fight with a brother over that. I mean a real fight, they called the cops to the masjid.”
Wonderful, I thought bitterly. Just what I need. “Stay out of it,” I told him. “Let people say what they like.” I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Has Imam Saleh said anything?” I couldn’t bear the thought of Imam Saleh, who I respected so highly, thinking I was a thief. The very thought was like another gunshot wound.
“He gave a whole khutbah about it! He said that backbiting and slander are a serious sin. He was angry, I’m telling you. He didn’t mention you by name, but he said that to drag an honorable person through the mud without evidence is despicable, and to do so in his absence is cowardly. Dr. Anwar walked out in the middle of the khutbah. The whole community is split. Mostly the elders are siding with the Anwars, while the younger brothers are defending you.”
I groaned and covered my eyes. “Okay. Jazak Allah khayr, brother. Aside from all that, how are you doing personally?”
“Oh, you know.” His voice dropped. “Still thinking about Cindy. It’s hard, man.”
“Stay strong. Any woman who would break up with you over your religion isn’t worthy of you. Keep your chin up, keep the faith. Allah will give you someone better.”
“I guess so…”
* * *
I spent the next three days recuperating. I focused on rebuilding the strength in my left leg. I would probably always have a limp, but I stretched the muscle several times a day, and walked as much as I was physically able. The first two days I walked on the estate, moving slowly and using first the walker, then a pair of canes. Safaa accompanied me with a wheelchair, and when I became tired she wheeled me back to the house. The girls often rode beside us on horseback. Yusuf had a stable with a dozen horses, some of which were worth quite a lot of money. Finally, like a shadow, one of the bodyguards – there were three, it turned out – paralleled us.
Safaa and Hajar moved into my room, with Safaa in my bed and Hajar in a smaller bed that Yusuf and Yasmeen brought in. Each night my wife fell asleep with her body pressed against mine, the chorus of frogs outside singing a lullaby.
By the third day I was strong enough to take a walk through town, using a cane rather than the walker. Incredibly, El Valle – as the locals called the town – rested within the crater of an extinct volcano. The fertile soil gave rise to towering trees: mango, papaya, acacia, cocoa and others. Flowers grew everywhere, including orchids, which grew wild on tree trunks. The main road was paved, but the side streets were made of grass. The volcano’s caldera was forested, and water poured out of the valley through two waterfalls.
On the third evening we all rode two golf carts down to the local pizzeria, except for Nora who rode her tall horse. A bodyguard followed in an ATV.
The crispy-crusted pizzas, made with fresh ingredients from the local open-air market, were delicious. We sat in the patio area, watching people go by on the main street. There were families out for an evening stroll, children on bicycles, the occasional bus, and a few drunks weaving their way to or from the local bar. The waitress fussed over baby Zaid, and people from the street called and waved to Yusuf, calling him “Don Jose.” They certainly did not seem to fear him.
I could be happy here, I thought, so far from the North American 21st century, where things were designed to break – planned obsolescence, they called it. I was so tired of a world where everything started with a focus group and ended as plastic packaging dumped into the sea. Everything was manipulated, from cereal boxes designed to attract the eyes of children, to internet memes crafted to go viral. Nothing was real in that world. Human beings were walking wallets, and every idea, product, and bit of information was simply a means to empty those wallets.
Here, a man could breathe. I could stay here with Safaa and Hajar, and be happy. Here, the air was filled with the scents of jasmine and oleander; the food was fresh from the farm or the sea; and people smiled and greeted you like an old friend, even if they’d never met you.
The next day, amazingly, a courier arrived with new passports for myself and Anna. That was some kind of pull Yusuf had – like an 800 pound gorilla. The same day, Yusuf informed me that his staff had located a member of Oris’s family: a paternal grandmother, who lived in the coastal city of Pedasí, located on Panama’s Azuero peninsula. The woman was on her way to collect Oris.
It was time to go home. Safaa went online and booked tickets on a 6 pm direct flight to Los Angeles, connecting to Fresno and arriving at midnight. I had no money, but Safaa’s bank account was flush with the cash I’d sent her, and she had her credit and debit cards.
First, though, I had to see a dear friend. A recently acquired friend, true, and a crazy one, but dear for all that. I borrowed Yusuf’s phone and called Niko again.
The phone was answered by a woman, who I presumed was Niko’s wife Teresa. When I told her who I was, she replied tersely that Niko was not available, and hung up on me. Huh. If he’d told her half of what we’d been up to, then I didn’t blame her. I was the guy who’d gotten her husband shot.
We spent the morning packing. More accurately, Safaa packed her bags, since I had nothing but a few sets of used jeans and short-sleeved dress shirts that Safaa had purchased at a store in El Valle, which wasn’t exactly the fashion center of the Western hemisphere. We loaded our things into Yusuf’s four-door, four wheel drive truck. I wasn’t much help, as I still needed a cane to walk. Safaa, Hajar, Anna and I would leave together, with Yusuf driving and a bodyguard riding shotgun. We said our goodbyes to Yasmeen and Nora, and Safaa fussed over baby Zaid one last time.
I imagined that Oris would have a hard time letting Anna go. She was so protective of the child, always riding near her when they took the horses out, always sitting beside her when they ate. But as I was about to climb into Yusuf’s truck, Oris, who’d been standing next to Nora, ran forward and threw her arms not around Anna, but around me. In my weakened state, that was enough to unbalance me. I stumbled and lost my grip on the wooden cane. I would have fallen if Safaa had not been there to catch me.
“¡Por favor,” Oris cried, “No me deje! Llévame contigo.” Don’t leave me. Take me with you.
I put a hand on the truck to stabilize myself and patted Oris on the back. “It’s okay,’ I told her in Spanish. I almost said, you’ll see Anna again one day, but that would most likely be a lie. I had no idea if Anna would ever return to Panama. I didn’t know what to say that would be true, so I merely said, “You’re okay.” Which, of course, was also not true. She was not okay, and might never be okay.
“No!” Oris insisted, embracing me even tighter. “No los conozco. Quiero ir contigo.” I don’t know them. I want to go with you.
I thought I understood then. The poor girl didn’t know who to trust. I didn’t know the details of the circumstances that led to her mother’s death and Oris being consigned to slavery, but it was obvious that, just as with Anna, everyone had either failed this girl or betrayed her. We were all strangers to her: me, Safaa, Yusuf and Yasmeen, we had all been kind to her but were still essentially strangers. For all she knew, we all might turn out to be monsters. We all might betray her, just as everyone had done before.
Except for me. I’d saved her. She’d seen with her own eyes how I had put my life on the line to free her, how I’d suffered, and how in the end I’d been willing to die to protect her. I was the only one she knew in her bones she could trust.
I didn’t know what to say or do. I stood helplessly with this child still holding on to me as if she’d gone overboard in heavy seas and I were a lifebuoy. I didn’t have the heart to pry her arms off me by force.
At the same time, I could not take her with me. It was impossible. She was not an American citizen, I had no identity documents for her, and I was not her family member.
Nora came over and, speaking gently to Oris, slowly peeled her arms off me. With my heart in my throat, I turned to climb into the truck. Oris screamed and threw herself to the ground. On hands and knees she sank her fingers into the gravel of the driveway and wept. On Ouagadiri Island she had not cried. She’d protected Anna and paid a terrible price to do so, and yet she’d stood as straight and unyielding as a spear planted in the ground. Now, though, she wept as if her world were ending.
My heart broke. I kneeled in the gravel beside Oris, pulled her to me and embraced her. “No me voy,” I told her in my imperfect Spanish. I’m not leaving. “No me iré hasta que digas, okay?” I’m not leaving until you tell me.
We all went back into the house. Yasmeen prepared a snack for the children, and I took a nap. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Oris’s grandmother arrived with a young man in his twenties. They pulled up in a small, dented pickup truck that coughed like it was dying of tuberculosis. The grandmother, a tiny brown woman with deep wrinkles, wore an ankle-length, full-bodied white dress with ruffles embroidered with bright red floral designs. On her head rested a black and white straw hat with a wide brim. By comparison, the man looked ordinary in jeans, t-shirt and sandals.
Yusuf and Yasmeen welcomed them and ushered them into the main living room of the house. The young man gawked at the spacious room, which was several times the size of Safaa’s entire apartment back in Fresno. But the old woman paid no notice to the surroundings, focusing her entire attention on Oris, who had positioned herself beside me.
The old woman beamed at Oris. “Sweetie,” she said in Spanish, “do you remember me? I am your grandmother.”
Oris made no reply. Her slender hand snaked up and gripped my own, squeezing tightly. The grandmother went on to describe Oris’s father. I didn’t understand all of it – the woman’s tendency to drop her final consonants and even entire syllables made her difficult to understand – but I gathered that Oris’s father had emigrated to the United States when Oris was young, and had, according to the grandmother, died of an illness. The young man beside her was Oris’s cousin. When the grandmother stepped forward with her arms outstretched, the child hid behind me.
It turned out to be a long afternoon. By late afternoon, after the daily downpour had come and gone, Oris agreed to take a walk through the garden with her grandmother, just the two of them. I watched through the window as they strolled amid the flowers and mango trees, the grandmother occasionally stroking Oris’s long black hair. They walked for a long time.
When they returned, Oris came to me. “Está bien,” she said. “La recuerdo. Ella fue amable.” It’s okay. I remember her now. She was nice.
“Are you sure?” I asked her in Spanish.
“Yes. But -” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Promise me.”
“If anything bad happens, you will come for me.” Her lower lip trembled. “Promise.”
I nodded solemnly and drew her into a hug. “I promise. I swear it.”
We all stood in the driveway and waved as Oris, her grandmother and her cousin pulled away in the little truck, the engine coughing and sputtering as it went.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” Safaa asked me.
“I think brother Yusuf will check on her from time to time, and let us know. Right akhi?”
“Uhh, sure,” Yusuf replied. “Yes. I will do that, Insha’Allah.”
* * *
It was dark when we set out for Panama city and the airport. We crossed over the Puente de Las Americas – Bridge of the Americas – and I looked down at the dark width of the Panama Canal. A huge container ship was entering from the Pacific side, its lights shining as brightly as a small city, its sides only a hand’s width from the walls of the canal. These ships, I knew, carried tens of millions of dollars worth of consumer goods. Yusuf had told me that a single ship might have to pay a $200,000 canal transit fee.
I wondered what my hero, Salman Al-Farisi, would make of this modern world with its obsession with purchasing power, fashion, electronics and disposable goods. Salman, who came from a wealthy and influential Persian family and might have become an important figure in the Sassanid empire of the time, but had given all that up in order to seek the truth.
I thought now about the latter part of Salman’s life, picking up the mental narrative where I’d last left off:
During the rule of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, Salman was appointed as the governor of Madayen Kisra near Baghdad. It was a city of 30,000 people. Salman received an annual salary of 5,000 dirhams, but he distributed all of it to the poor, refusing to take any for himself. Instead he supported himself by weaving palm fronds into baskets. He would buy a palm from for one dirham, work on it, then sell it for three. Out of those three he gave one in charity, one to support his family, and kept one as working capital.
His dress was a simple gown, barely covering his knees, and it was the only one he owned. His house was small, only enough to protect him from the weather. When he stood, his head touched the roof.
One day on the road, Salman met a man arriving from Syria, carrying a load of figs and dates. The Syrian saw the old man in front of him, who appeared to be a common laborer, and beckoned to him. “Relieve me of this load,” he said. Salman did, and they walked together. They met a group of people. Salman greeted them and they stood up, saying, “And unto the governor be peace!” Some of them rushed forward to take the load from Salman’s shoulders. The Syrian was astonished. Who was the governor? When he realized the truth he apologized profusely and tried to reclaim his goods. But Salman refused and insisted on carrying them to the man’s destination.
When Salman was on his deathbed, his humble soul preparing to meet its Lord, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas came to see him. Salman and Sa’d had been friends for decades, and had fought together during the conquest of Iraq.
Seeing Sa’d, Salman wept. Sa’d said, “What makes you weep, O Abu Abdullah? The Prophet of Allah died pleased with you!”
Salman replied, “By Allah, I am not weeping in fear of death, nor for love of the world. But the Prophet of Allah put me on an oath. He said, ‘Let any of you own in this world (only) like the provision of a traveler.’ Yet here I have owned many things around me!”
Sa’d, telling this story later, said: “I looked around and saw nothing but a water pot and a vessel to eat in! Then I said to him, ‘O Abu Abdullah, give us a parting word of advice to follow.’ He said, ‘O Sa’d, remember Allah for your cares, if you have any. Remember Allah in your judgment, if you judge. And remember Allah when you distribute the share.’”
When there came the morning on which Salman died, he said to his wife, “Bring me the trust I left in safekeeping.” She did, and it was a bottle of musk – one of Salman’s only possessions. He had gained it on the day of liberating Jalwalaa’ and kept it to be his perfume when he died. He called for a pot of water, sprinkled the musk into it and stirred it with his hand. He told his wife, “Sprinkle it on me, for there will now come to me creatures from the creatures of Allah. They do not eat food, and what they like is perfume.” Meaning the angels.
Then Salman Al-Farisi, the great truth-seeker of history, died. He was 88 years old. The year was 35 after hijrah, during the caliphate of ‘Uthman. May Allah be pleased with them all.
* * *
I didn’t think I could ever live like Salman, but maybe one day I could achieve the same degree of unconcern for the things of the world. Maybe one day I could live only for Allah.
We had passed over the bridge and were speeding through an area of Panama city with a large forested hill on the left and a rundown barrio on the right. “Take me to Niko’s house,” I said.
“But hermano,” Yusuf protested, “You have a flight to catch. And didn’t Niko say he was busy?”
“We have plenty of time before the flight. And something’s not right.”
A heavy silence followed, but Yusuf, who knew me well, did not attempt to argue. “Very well,” he said finally.
Once across the bridge we turned into a neighborhood that possessed a quietly menacing feel, much like Colon, though the buildings were in somewhat better shape.
“This is barrio El Chorrillo,” Yusuf explained. “A poor neighborhood. The USA bombed this neighborhood in 1989, when they captured Noriega.”
We parked in front of a ten story concrete behemoth with tiny windows and peeling paint. The bodyguard remained outside with our two vehicles, presumably so we would not return to find them stripped down to bare frames. The elevator was out of order, so we took the stairs, all five of us – Safaa, Hajar, Anna, Yusuf and myself.
Yusuf had gifted me a wickedly sharp pocket knife with a bone handle. It was small, with only a two and a half inch blade, and I didn’t recognize the brand. But the handle was sleek and fit my hand well, and the blade had a smooth action, with just the right amount of resistance. I was frankly sick of violence, and hoped never to have to use a weapon again. But the knife was a security blanket. Just having it on me calmed my nerves, and I found myself palming the clip as I laboriously climbed the stairs, using my cane for support.
Niko’s apartment was on the seventh floor, and I was badly winded by the time we got there. In fact Safaa had to help me up the last two floors. The apartment door was made of steel. When I knocked it clanged dully. I noticed Safaa shoot a look at Yusuf, who averted his eyes. What was that about?
From inside I heard the excited squeals of children, then Niko’s voice telling someone to go answer the door. The door was opened by a girl of perhaps ten years. She had the cocoa skin of one of Panama’s indigenous tribes, and wore a colorful red and blue dress. Her long, dark hair hung in a single braid. She blinked at us, apparently startled to see a tall man in an expensive suit (Yusuf), a dangerously thin man with a scarred face, dressed like a peasant and leaning on a cane (me), a woman in hijab and two girls, all grouped in front of the door.
With the door open I could hear laughter, and the sound of a ball bouncing.
A moment later a tiny but beautiful woman came to the door, her black hair done in the same style of braid. She too wore a colorful dress. In spite of her diminutive size her posture was proud, almost regal. This must be Teresa, Niko’s wife – the princess. Her eyes locked onto Yusuf, then she dropped her gaze to the floor. “What can I do for you Don José?” she said in Spanish.
“Greetings señora,” he replied. “My friend Zaid Karim” – he gestured to me – “would like to speak with Niko.”
Teresa’s gaze traveled to my face. I saw her take in my fragile appearance and the scar on my face. Hostility seemed to war with compassion in her eyes. Apparently compassion won out, because she opened the door wide and said, “Come in and be welcome.”
The apartment was small but perfectly clean and tidy. The walls were hung with mandalas made of natural objects such as dried leaves, ornamental berries and pebbles, and adhered somehow to square canvases in such dense patterns that they presented a solid wall of colorful, concentric design. I wondered if these were Teresa’s work.
In the center of the living room Niko bounced a basketball while a teenaged boy tried to take it away. Niko spun, keeping the ball to himself. A little girl, younger than the one who’d answered the door, cheered and said something I didn’t understand. It was a happy scene, a sweet family moment in which a father and son played around and goofed off. Perfectly normal, except for two things. The boy was presumably Emanuel, who until a month ago had been unable to walk.
The other unusual thing was Niko. I stared, my mind frozen like a car after some vandal has poured sugar into the tank. Niko was in a wheelchair.
Of course, I thought, laughing at my own silliness. It must be Emanuel’s old wheelchair. Niko was just goofing around.
Then Niko spun in the wheelchair, still keeping the ball away from Emanuel, and saw me. He stopped dribbling and the ball rolled away. His smile disappeared and for a moment I saw sadness and regret painted on his face as clearly as the purple density of a winter sky at dusk. Then, like a cloud sailing past the moon, the expression was gone. Niko grinned widely and rolled toward me, pushing the wheels with his hands.
“Flaco!” he exclaimed. “I know you say not to call you Flaco, but amigo, I have earned the right to call you anything I like.”
I laughed at that, and pointed to the boy. “Is that your son Emanuel?”
“Yes. Gracias a Dios! Thanks to God and thanks to you señor Zayn.” Niko nodded to the others in my group. “Hola señora Safaa. Don José.” When he said, “Don José,” his voice dropped, as if he were reluctant to pronounce the name at normal volume. He turned and called back into the living room. “Emanuel! Come meet señor Zayn.”
Niko held out a hand for a handshake. I took his hand. “Are you going to get out of the chair?” I asked.
Safaa touched my shoulder. “Zaid…”
Emanuel strode up and stood beside his father. He studied me, his head tipped slightly to one side, his expression serious.
“Mucho gusto,” I said. Pleased to meet you. I extended my hand but the boy did not take it.
“Emanuel!” Niko chided. “Ser cortés.” Be polite.
I looked at Emanuel, then at Niko. “You’re just playing in that chair, right?”
Niko smiled kindly. “Zayn. Come, let us go in the kitchen and talk privately.” He looked to Yusuf and Safaa. “Will you excuse us for a moment, señor y señora?”
My stomach sank as if it were made of lead. My entire body suddenly felt like a burden and I had to lock my knees and lean on the cane to keep from falling. “No, no no,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m not anywhere until you get up.”
“Do you know Gabriel García Márquez?” Niko asked. “The famous Colombian author. He said-”
“More poetry?” I broke in furiously. “Poetry?” I turned and stalked away, my legs still shaky. I walked down the dimly lit corridor outside the apartment and didn’t stop until I reached the narrow, graffiti-strewn stairway, where I sat heavily. I had no words. All I had was a fountain of shame welling up from deep inside me like oil from a well. I couldn’t even formulate a clear thought.
Safaa followed and sat down beside me, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Yusuf wanted to tell you,” she said. “But I said no. You were so fragile. I wanted you to get well before we told you, that’s all.”
“Told me what?” Though I already knew.
“One of the bullets damaged Niko’s spine. He’s paralyzed from the waist down.”
I heard a sound behind me and looked to see Niko rolling toward me in his wheelchair. My teeth clenched so tightly my jaw ached. My right hand tightened on the cane until my fingers turned white, while the left balled into a fist. This was my fault. I’d done this. I’d taken a man who was healthy and strong, a man who had a family to care for, a man who’d done nothing but help me, and I’d put him in a wheelchair.
“I too did not want you to know, amigo,” Niko said. He smiled at me. “Do not blame Don José or your wife. And by the way-” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I cannot believe that Don José Arosemana Cruz is in my apartamento. Everyone will be scared of me now. All my friends and neighbors, they will be terrify of me.” He grinned. “Is wonderful, no?”
“Niko.” My hand clenched even tighter, and my fingernails – which needed clipping – bit into my palm, drawing blood. “I’m so, so sorry. I’ll do whatever I can. I’ll raise money for you to see the best doctors. I’m sorry, Niko.”
Niko set the brake on his wheelchair, then reached out and took my hand. “This is why I did not want you to know. I knew you would blame yourself. But you don’t understand, Zayn. I am happy. For the first time in four years I am happy!”
“How can you be happy?” I said bitterly.
“Because Emanuel can walk! This mean everything to me, Zayn. For years I prayed to God for exactly this, to give Emanuel his legs and take mine in exchange. And God answered my pray. I ask for this, amigo. I ask for it. It does not matter what happen to me, if my children are happy and healthy and safe. You are a father, you must understand. I am happy.”
I pulled my hand from Niko’s and crossed my arms, staring at the wall.
“Ay, you gringos,” Niko said. “You cannot bear to be touched, why is that?”
I whirled, rose to my knees and threw my arms tightly around him. Before I knew it I was weeping into his shoulder. Niko patted me on the back, saying, “Is okay, Zayn. El sol brilla para todos, you remember? The sun shines for all. I am happy.”
* * *
I left Niko with a promise that I would return to Panama and check on him when I could. When we exited the building it was raining hard, coming down in a nearly solid tropical downpour. On the way to the airport, sitting in the front passenger seat of the truck, I spoke to Yusuf, who was driving. “You offered me a job? You said you could find something for me?”
“Find something for Niko instead. He’s intelligent and educated. Give him a legitimate job so he can provide for his family.”
Yusuf nodded slowly. “Sí. No hay problema. I can do it.”
“Thank you.” I watched the wipers hurrying back and forth, struggling to keep the windshield clear. I let the motion hypnotize me, and lapsed into silence. Allah would judge me for all I had done. I did not know which way the scales would lean, whether to good or evil. But I had done what I could, what I was capable of doing, and I would pay the price – and so would Niko.
My parting with Yusuf was muted, just a hug and a promise to stay in touch.
* * *
The flight to Los Angeles went without a hitch. The children were asleep when we arrived. Safaa was stronger than me right now, so she carried Anna to the gate for our connecting flight to Fresno, while I carried Hajar. It was after midnight when we arrived in Fresno. We collected our bags and caught a taxi to Safaa’s apartment.
Neither of us could carry Anna up the stairs, so we woke her. She looked around sleepily.
“This is our house,” I told her, pointing up to the apartment. “Me, Safaa and Hajar. You’ll stay with us tonight, and we’ll take you to your grandma and grandpa in the morning.”
Anna gazed back at me solemnly, saying nothing. Her brown eyes were as impenetrable as an adobe wall. But she took my hand and I led her up the steps. She slept with Hajar in her little bed, the two of them curled around each other like commas, Hajar snoring lightly.
The closet still held much of my old clothing, which surprised me, frankly. I’d imagined that Safaa had thrown it all out. I dressed in a pair of old pajamas, prayed, then shared a bed with Safaa for the first time in many months. There was no thought of lovemaking: we were exhausted, and I felt ugly and deformed with all my scars and missing toenails. Besides, I wasn’t sure I was emotionally ready for that. I needed to get used to just being around Safaa again. I focused instead on allowing myself to love her again, allowing myself to be warmed by her presence. When I was with her it was as if we were the only two inhabitants of an airy garden, even if the city outside was cold and full of anxious souls. I listened to her breathing as she fell asleep, one of her arms thrown over my chest as if I’d never left, as if having me there was as natural as the orange trees that grew freely in this valley.
I had a hard time sleeping. Images flashed through my mind like scenes from a horror flick: Tarek’s legs sticking out of a refrigerator, Angie weeping in a litter-strewn lot, El Pelado’s blood splashed across the floor, and a man in a cowboy hat leaning over me, torturing me until I nearly wished I was dead.
At some point I realized it was Fajr time, so I roused myself, made wudu, then woke Safaa. She came awake easily, and we prayed together as we had always done.
The prayer stilled the tremors in my heart, and when I returned to bed I was finally able to sleep. Such is the mercy of Allah, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and without whom we would all be lost in the foul sea of our own sins. Maybe in time the terrible memories would fade, as they are wont to do. That too was a mercy from the Most Merciful.
* * *
Sunday, March 7, 2010
I woke to the smell of waffles and coffee. I grabbed my cane and limped into the kitchen to find everyone seated at the table, eating breakfast. The sun streamed through the window blinds, making bright yellow stripes on the kitchen table. Safaa wore a robe and fuzzy slippers, while the girls were in pajamas.
A place was set for me, and the waffles sat on the plate, pats of butter melting into them. Steam rose from a mug of coffee. I kissed Safaa, hugged Hajar, rubbed Anna’s shoulders affectionately, then sat and began to eat. I don’t like to talk much in the mornings and my family knew this about me, so they chatted with each other and let me eat. I knew that I should feel like the luckiest man in the world to be back with my family. I was in fact happy, but it was muted, and I wasn’t sure why. Somehow this didn’t feel like my home anymore. I’d come to think of it as “Safaa’s apartment.” Give it time, I thought. Be grateful and be patient, and give it time.
Anna wouldn’t leave me alone. She brought me sugar for my coffee, offered to toast a few more waffles for me, and even fetched my old slippers – I can’t imagine where she found them – and set them at my feet.
“Anna,” Safaa finally snapped, “sit down and eat your breakfast. Uncle Zaid can take care of himself.”
The waffles had come out of the freezer – Safaa couldn’t have anything fresh remaining in the fridge after weeks in Panama – but with butter and real maple syrup they were delicious. Hajar was trying to talk to Anna about My Little Pony, explaining how Twilight Sparkle was chosen by Princess Celestia to study magic. Anna pretended to be interested but kept glancing at me surreptitiously. I sipped my coffee and acted like I didn’t notice. As soon as I was done eating, Anna popped up and began clearing my dishes, then the rest of the dishes as well. The next thing I knew the water in the sink was running and Anna was rinsing the dishes and stacking them in the dishwasher. I looked at Safaa and raised my eyebrows questioningly. She shrugged.
“I told the school I’d be back tomorrow,” Safaa said. “I want to go with you when you take Anna to the Anwars’ house.”
“You don’t have to do that. I know you’ve missed a lot of work.”
“I want to to.” She made a beckoning gesture to Anna. “Anna honey, come here please.”
“But I’m still doing the dishes!” There was a frantic quality to her voice.
The girl reluctantly shut off the water and came to Safaa. My wife took the child’s hand and stroked her hair. “I appreciate all your help,” Safaa said. “What I need you to do now is take a shower and get dressed. This is a big day for you.”
Anna’s face took on a hopeless cast. Her lower lip trembled. “Please don’t send me away,” she said in a quavering voice. “I’ll be a good helper for you. I’ll clean the whole house every day. I’ll learn to cook. I’ll do anything you want.”
“Oh, sweetie.” Safaa pulled Anna into an embrace. “We’re not sending you away. You’re going to be with your family.”
“No!” Anna pulled out of Safaa’s arms. “You don’t care about me! You just want to get rid of me like everyone else!” She burst into tears, then spun and dashed into Hajar’s bedroom.
Hajar wailed, “I don’t want to get rid of Anna!” Then she began to cry as well.
I stood and addressed Safaa. “You talk to Hajar. I’ll take care of Anna.”
I went into Hajar’s room and followed the sound of crying to the closet. I opened the closet to find Anna sitting cross-legged on the floor in the darkness, her body folded nearly in two, her arms covering her head. I sat before her and recited a string of ten digits, beginning with 559.
“Can you memorize those numbers?”
Anna did not look up. I recited the numbers again slowly. The crying lessened.
“What – what’s that?”
“It’s my phone number. I want you to memorize it.” I recited it again, and this time Anna uncovered her head and recited the numbers back, haltingly, her voice still hitching with the occasional sob. Of course I didn’t have a phone, as mine had been lost in Panama, but I’d replace it soon enough, Insha’Allah.
I repeated the numbers, and so did she. “Now you listen to me, Anna Anwar,” I said seriously. “If you ever get yourself into danger, I’ll have to come and get you, no matter what. I almost died the first time. You think I want to go through that again?”
“N – no.”
“You’re darn right. So I am not going to send you any place where you will not be safe. You’ll be with your grandparents right here in Fresno, the same city I live in. We’ll see each other often. You can come visit Hajar anytime you like. And anytime you’re scared or worried about anything, you call me. What’s my number again?”
“Why can’t I stay with my daddy?”
I took a deep breath. I’d been dreading this moment. But I could not lie to this child. “Your daddy died,” I told her. “He took some bad drugs and it killed him. He died peacefully. I’m very sorry, honey. Your daddy’s in heaven now. He’s in a good place.”
She covered her head again and resumed crying, her entire body shaking. I reached out and pulled her to me and she embraced me fiercely, desperately. We sat there like that for maybe ten minutes, Anna crying and crying.
Safaa and Hajar joined us. Safaa stroked my shoulders, while Hajar patted Anna’s back.
“I told her about Tarek,” I explained.
Hajar went away and came back a moment later with Brown Bear, her favorite doll. She thrust it between me and Anna. “This is for you, Anna. Brown Bear is a good listener. He’s my bestest friend and now he’s your bestest friend too.” I was deeply touched by that. Brown Bear had been Hajar’s constant companion since she was a baby.
Anna seized the doll with one hand and clutched it tightly to her chest. Gradually her sobs diminished.
“What’s my number?” I asked again.
She recited the number. She had it down.
“Come on sweetie,” Safaa said. She gently pried Anna loose from my embrace and helped her to her feet. “Let’s get you showered and dressed. Hajar, will you help us?”
I sat in the closet alone, just breathing. SubhanAllah. That had not been easy. But it would be alright, I thought. It would be alright.
* * *
We dropped off Hajar at school, and a half hour later we were at the Anwars’ pretentious and oversized house in Woodward Lakes. The house and yard were all sharp angles and uncompromising lines – much like Farah Anwar herself. I reached out and – exactly 32 days after Dr. Ehab Anwar had hired me to find his granddaughter – rang the doorbell.
Dr. Ehab Anwar opened the door. For a moment he stood as if mesmerized, staring at the three of us – me, Safaa and Anna – as if we were apparitions from a forgotten past.
I was shocked at the change in his appearance. He was an old man, the eldest in my parents’ circle of friends, but he’d never before looked the part. Now he did. His hair, which had previously retained a good amount of brown, was now entirely gray. Deep circles beneath his eyes made them look like holes in his face. He’d always been clean shaven, but now he had a week’s untrimmed growth that went from his cheeks to his Adam’s apple. Most noticeable of all, his posture – which had always been as straight as a street lamp – was now bent forward, as if he carried a heavy weight on his back. Where he’d always been smartly dressed before, he now wore gray sweats and flip flops.
When Ehab’s eyes fell on Anna his mouth fell open, and some of the years seemed to drop from his frame. He stood a little straighter and raised his eyes to mine with a look of astonishment.
“As-salamu alaykum,” I greeted him, extending my hand.
Ignoring me, Ehab shuffled forward to Anna, dropped to his knees and threw his arms around her. Anna stiffened and looked like she might try to break free and bolt, but Safaa steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. When Ehab released the embrace there were tears in his eyes.
“Habibti,” he said to Anna, “do you remember me? I’m your grandfather.”
Anna nodded silently.
“Are you okay? Is your mama well?”
Anna said nothing.
“I mean…” He looked up at me. “We thought you… Farah said… But… Where did you find her?”
“In Panama, like I told you before I left, remember?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. It’s just been so long.”
“I’m sorry about that. I was badly wounded. I did leave you a voicemail message.”
“Did you? I didn’t hear it. Please, come.” He stood, his bearing now almost as straight as the old days. “You must come in.”
“The last time I entered your house,” I said politely, “it didn’t go so well.” I touched my eyebrow where the scar still showed from when Farah had struck me with the sphinx.
“Oh, that.” Ehab’s face turned red. “Ana asif giddan ya Zaid. Really, I’m sorry. It was… it was the shock of learning about Tarek. But you must come in. Farah has not been doing well. She has been in bed…” Without waiting to see if we would follow, Dr. Ehab turned and shambled into the house.
Safaa looked to me and I nodded. We followed Dr. Ehab through the foyer, past the burgundy-colored living room, and down a marble-floored corridor to a large bedroom. The curtains were drawn, leaving the beautifully furnished room dim. The musty air smelled faintly of urine.
Farah Anwar lay in a large bed centered against the far wall. A heavy comforter was pulled up to her shoulders, with her arms atop it. Her skin was drawn and tight against her cheekbones. Her eyes locked on us as we entered and widened in shock.
Dr. Ehab clasped one of his wife’s pale hands, and with the other hand he beckoned to Anna. When the child remained resolutely by my side, Ehab addressed his wife. “Look darling. He did it.” His voice faltered, and I almost thought he would cry. “Zaid Al-Husayni did it. He brought Anna back to us.”
Farah’s eyes lasered me a look of utter contempt. “How much?” she said, her upper lip curling. “How much money do you want this time, harami?” Harami meant thief in Arabic. She was sticking to her accusations like a barnacle to a sinking ship.
Safaa took a step forward. “How dare you! Do you have any idea what he went through to find your granddaughter? Look!” She pointed to the scar on my forehead, then indicated the ugly scar that ran the length of my left forearm. “Do you want to see his legs? Do you want to see the bullet wounds? Do you think he did that for your measly ten thousand dollars? He did it for you! He did it for Tarek and Anna, because in spite of all your fitna he still cares. You are a vile, contemptible creature, Farah Anwar. I let your lies influence me in the past but now I see you for what you are. If you were my age, and if you hadn’t just lost your son, I would kick you up and down this room.”
I reached out and took Safaa’s arm, drawing her back. Her entire body trembled with rage. “Enough sweetie,” I said. I appreciated her defense of my honor, but I was busy trying to understand Farah Anwar’s strange reactions and bizarre statements. Wasn’t this what she wanted? Wasn’t this what she hired me to do? I studied her, thinking. “Farah,” I said finally. “What do you want to happen here?”
Farah’s face had turned red, whether with anger or shame I did not know. “Take her away.” Her voice was full of venom. “I don’t want her.”
Anna’s hand reached out for mine and I took it. She squeezed so tightly that I could feel her heartbeat pulsing in her fingers.
“Farah!” Dr. Ehab exclaimed. “She is our granddaughter. She is Tarek’s child. She needs us.”
“We cannot care for her,” Farah snarled. “We are too old.”
I could understand how Farah might be overwhelmed by Tarek’s death. But it seemed to me that the loss of her son would increase her attachment to her granddaughter, not decrease it. After all, Anna was Tarek’s flesh and blood. As long as Anna was alive, Tarek was alive too, in a way. Unless… Something clicked into place in my brain, something that had been staring me in the face all along. Understanding dawned and I nodded slowly.
“From the very beginning,” I told Farah, “I’ve been trying to understand your behavior. You never wanted me to take this case. It was your husband’s idea. The way you came to my office, insulting me, throwing the money onto my desk. You wanted me to turn it down. You knew.”
Farah looked away, and I called her back. “Farah. You knew. You knew that Anna wasn’t your granddaughter.”
Farah stared back at me with red eyes, saying nothing.
“I’ve been to Alejandra’s apartment,” I continued. “I saw the photo of Angie with her old boyfriend, what was his name? Miko. Before she met Tarek, when she still lived in Los Angeles. She looked plump in the photo. Breasty, you know? I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But she was pregnant, wasn’t she? With Miko’s child? What happened? Did you see a similar photo somewhere? Maybe the same one? And you put two and two together. Or maybe Angie let something slip? Maybe you had a DNA test done without telling anyone? I wouldn’t put it past you. Whatever, you figured it out, right?”
I clapped my forehead as a new realization hit me. “Oh, la hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah. You paid Angie. It was you who gave her the forty five thousand. You paid her to go away. You wanted to get Angie and Anna out of Tarek’s life.”
Farah stared daggers at me. Her husband, who had been listening to my speech with growing consternation, turned to his wife. “Is this true, Farah? This cannot be true.”
Farah Anwar pressed her lips together. Her hands clutched at the bed covers.
“You must speak!” Dr. Ehab’s words rang with anger. “Is it true?”
Farah focused on her husband, excluding the rest of us. “I could not let that slut and her bastard child drag Tarek down.” Her tone was pleading. “He deserved better. He could have been someone important, he could have done great things, if not for that woman. I had to get rid of her. You must understand!”
Ehab staggered and sat heavily on the bed beside his wife. I still held Safaa’s hand with my left, and Anna’s with my right. I felt Safaa tense, and knew she was about to deliver another scathing outburst. I gave her hand a quick squeeze to stop her.
“Farah,” I said softly, “did you ever wonder why Tarek overdosed? I mean of course it was inevitable if he didn’t stop using drugs, but why now? Did you ever think that maybe it was because his wife and child – the child he loved like his own – disappeared? You stripped away his support system, his family, the only thing he had in the world that was worth something.”
I knew I shouldn’t have said that. It was true, but it wasn’t kind. But I couldn’t help it. This woman was responsible for Angie’s downfall, for Niko being in a wheelchair, and for her son’s death. Good God. What did it take to make a person see?
“Get out!” Farah screamed. “All of you get out, get out! Get out!”
* * *
Ehab Anwar walked us to the door. He was a broken man, his shoulders slumped, his eyes lifeless.
“So?” I said to him at the door. “What about Anna?”
“I… She is not my responsibility anymore. I’m sorry. Truly I am. But I cannot.” He turned away and shuffled back to the bedroom.
I watched him go, then we let ourselves out and got in our car.
“I told you they didn’t want me,” Anna said dully. Her voice was weary, discouraged.
“So what do we do?” Safaa asked. I could feel Anna’s eyes on me from the backseat, awaiting an answer as well.
“Drop me off at the phone store,” I replied. “And take Anna to our house for now. Can you take one more day off work?”
“Sure. I haven’t even told them I’m back yet.”
* * *
At the phone store I used Safaa’s debit card to buy a new phone. They activated it with my same phone number. I plugged it in there at the store to charge, and while I waited I thought about all that had transpired. I was still stunned at the breadth of the fitna, suffering and bloodshed that had resulted from one woman’s lies. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. What a tangled web we weave, as Shaykh Zubair said – Shakespeare if you insist – when we do practice to deceive. Farah Anwar had woven a web like a giant spider on crack.
When the phone was charged I synced it with my online account and downloaded all my contacts. Then I called Jalal. He answered right away, and promised to pick me up in thirty minutes. While I waited I made calls to the bank and the Department of Motor Vehicles, to start the process of replacing my cards and ID.
Then I called Alejandra Rodriguez. She was, after all, Anna’s aunt. She had a right to know what was happening, and maybe she’d change her mind and take the child. She did not answer, so I tried the Sequoia Surgical Center. They informed me that Dr. Rodriguez had gone overseas with Doctors Without Borders and would be away for at least a year. I asked for her email address and they gave it to me.
Jalal arrived. The spare tire – the fat roll that was all that remained of his previously corpulent form – was entirely gone now. He must still be running laps and jumping hurdles. He stared at my ravaged appearance and the cane that supported me, then embraced me. “Dude,” he said, “what the hell happened to you down there?”
“I’ll tell you later. Take me to my office?” Jalal was actually driving my car – my sweet little green 1969 Dodge Dart GTS. I’d missed it. It looked well taken care of, and I was glad that Jalal had been able to benefit from using it in my absence, rather than that little half-wrecked Toyota Camry he usually drove.
While he drove I called Dalya Anwar. To my surprise she took my call. I explained the entire situation honestly, including the fact that Anna was not actually Tarek’s daughter, and asked if she’d be willing to care for Anna. She congratulated me on finding Anna but turned my request down flat, saying that she had enough on her table with her divorce and her dental practice. I asked her for Mina’s number – Tarek’s other sister, the one in New York – but Dalya told me not to bother. Mina and Tarek had never been close and there was no way Mina would agree to take on a child that wasn’t even truly her niece.
We arrived at my office and Jalal unlocked the place, then handed over the keys. He’d taken good care of it. Everything was neat, tidy and dust-free, and my plants were thriving. I’d always had trouble keeping them alive, but the peace lily was lush with new leaves, and the hanging plant – I didn’t know what it was called – had grown so much that the vines hung halfway to the ground.
“What did you do to my plants? Do you have some kind plant-growing superpower?”
“Yes,” Jalal replied dryly. “It’s called water. And sunshine. And fertilizer twice a month.” He pointed to a bottle of liquid fertilizer on my desk.
I took my laptop out of a desk drawer and started it up. I had hundreds of new emails, most of them spam, though two were actually from clients, asking if I was available for work. I’d respond to them later. I needed a few more days of recovery time before taking on any new cases. I emailed Alejandra Rodriguez, explaining the situation, then sat back and closed the computer. That was that. I had no expectation that she would return for Anna’s sake. She’d made her priorities pretty clear.
Jalal and I talked, and I filled him on what had happened. When I was done he gave a long whistle. “Dude, I’m sooooo glad that I didn’t go with you.”
I laughed. “Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
* * *
After I dropped Jalal off I withdraw some cash at an ATM, then stopped at a burrito joint on Shields Avenue. I bought a huge fish burrito for myself, Baja-style veggie enchiladas for Safaa, and nachos for Anna and Hajar. Nachos were always a safe bet where kids were concerned. Lastly I stopped at Hajar’s pre-school. It wasn’t yet time for her to be released, but I would pick her up early.
It was nap time at Hajar’s preschool. The main room was dark, the children sleeping on individual mats. I threaded my way through the sleeping forms to Hajar, who was lying on her back, pointing a finger at the ceiling and whispering something. When she saw me she jumped up and I picked her up. As we weaved our way back out, one of the children was snoring with a wheezing sound. Hajar said, “What’s that sound?”
“Boo, boo, boo.” She said this with a soft voice, and it was a perfect representation of the child’s snoring sound. I told her it was a little boy snoring. She was genuinely surprised and said, “I thought it was a kitty.”
Once we were outside, Hajar said, “Baba, did you know? A medium rock hit the world and the dinosaurs died.”
“I know, honey. I’m the one who told you that, remember?”
“Oh. Did Anna go to her Nena and Jiddu?”
“No, she’s still with us.”
“Yay! I made a special dua’ for her.”
When we arrived home Safaa and Anna were putting away groceries. “I have food!” I announced. Immediately Anna began running around, setting out plates and glasses. Once again she was trying to prove her usefulness so that we wouldn’t get rid of her. Poor kid. I couldn’t imagine being in her position. For all my complaints about my parents and my resentment toward my father, at least I’d grown up in a stable and safe home with two parents. I should be grateful for that. Alhamdulillah.
“Anna, stop for a minute,” I said kindly. “Sit down.”
“But I want to help!”
“Anna.” I reached out a hand and she came to me slowly, like a deer ready to bolt at the slightest motion. I took her hand. “You don’t have to prove anything, okay? You don’t have to worry anymore. This is your home now.” I knew I should have consulted with Safaa before saying this, but I was confident she would back me. My wife seemed to be on my side once again. That was a good feeling. “You’re staying with us,” I went on. “Maybe in the future your aunt Alejandra will want to care for you. Or maybe your mother will get better and take you back. Allah knows. But until then we’re your family. We’re not going to send you away. You’re home now.”
Anna threw herself at me, hugged me tightly and cried as if I had just rescued her from Ouagadiri Island all over again. Hajar cheered loudly. I glanced at Safaa and she smiled and gave a quick nod. Alhamdulillah.
We said our mealtime dua’ and ate Mexican food, and it was good.
We had just finished our meal when a courier arrived at the door. He was a young man, fit and tanned, wearing a brown uniform. He worked for one of those same-day express delivery services.
“Delivery for mister Al-Husayni,” he announced, proffering an envelope. I took it and signed, eyeing the return address.
“It’s from Dr. Ehab,” I told Safaa. Had he changed his mind? Did he want Anna? Frankly, I would not surrender her even if he did. The Anwars were not her grandparents. They had no right to the child. And I’d just told her that this was her home. I opened the envelope and stared.
“What is it?” Safaa snatched it out of my hand, her face registering the same fears that had gone through my head.
I sat on the sage green sofa. With all the antiques and pricey pieces she had in here – all of them inherited from her mom – this sofa was only comfortable place to sit.
“Oh my God!” Safaa exclaimed. “Fifty thousand dollars? Zaid, it’s a check for fifty thousand dollars! Is this a joke?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied quietly. “When Ehab hired me he promised me fifty grand if I found Anna. But I don’t want it. I don’t want anything from them. Send it back.”
Safaa hopped onto my lap facing me, her legs straddling my waist. Her nose touched mine as she seized my jaw in one hand. Her dark eyes were only inches from mine. I wanted to live in those eyes, as deep and brown as the Tigris and Euphrates in spring, rich with silty runoff. As brown as the deserts of her Iraqi homeland, or the trunks of California’s great sequoias.
“Now see here, mister Zaid Karim Al-Husayni.” Safaa gripped my face tightly. “You did the job you were hired to do and you suffered for it. Do I need to remind you of what you went through? You deserve this money. You deserve a million dollars, ten million. We’re not returning one red cent. You might need further surgery on your leg. You definitely need to see a dentist to replace that broken tooth. Besides, I want to buy a house. We need more room. Our family just went from three to four. Do you understand? Nod your head yes.” She manipulated my head up and down.
I laughed, and she kissed me in the middle of it. Her mouth tasted of black beans and guacamole. Then she slid off my lap and snuggled up next to me. I relaxed into the sofa, my belly full of rice, beans, fish and sour cream. I put my arm around my wife. It was late afternoon and warm for March, and the sliding glass door to the patio was open to admit a pleasant breeze. I could hear the chuck-chuck-chuck of a squirrel outside, and the answering screech of a blue jay.
“Let’s take a vacation,” Safaa said. “Some R & R. Someplace quiet, like the Big Sur.”
“Mm, maybe. I want to enjoy being home for a while. Let Anna adjust. When I’m fully recovered I want to make a trip to Panama. I can’t leave Angie down there. You should have seen her, Safaa, she was so wretched. And maybe – since we’re keeping this money – maybe there’s something I can do for Niko. I don’t know. A specialist.”
“Excuse me, husband.” Safaa tapped a finger on my forehead. “If you think I’m letting you go back down there, you’re crazy. You barely-”
I put a finger on her lips, silencing her, and she bit it. “Hey!” I complained.
I would definitely return to Panama, but we could argue the issue when the time came. “Oh yeah,” I added, “I want to check on Saleem, let him know I’m still alive. The last time I talked to him I made him swear to look out for you and Hajar if anything happened to me. He must be-“
“You did what? What do you think I am, an old coat you can pass on to someone else?”
“Take it easy. I just meant he should look in on you, make sure you were alright. I need to see Imam Saleh as well. I want to thank him for defending m-” I sat bolt upright, slapping my forehead as I remembered something.
“What is it?”
“Imam Saleh. Before I left to Panama he asked me for help. He wanted me to investigate this new brother, this supposed convert who’s been trying to radicalize the younger brothers. I told him I’d get to it in a few days. I forgot all about it, subhanAllah.” I slid Safaa off my lap and stood.
“What, you’re going right now?”
I straightened my shoulders and thrust my chest forward. “I am Zaid Karim, private investigator,” I declared boldly. “Wherever evil is found, there shall I be, fighting to -”
“Oh, hush,” Safaa interrupted. “Go do you whatever you have to do, you beautiful, brave man.”
* * *
Author’s Note: Thank you for your readership and your comments! There was a lot of darkness in this novel, and for that I apologize. Like all my novels, Zaid Karim P.I. was partly autobiographical. So writing this book was cathartic for me, and allowed me to express aspects of my life in fictional form. It should be said again that the specific characters in this book are fictional.
I’m about to release a novel titled The Repeaters, Insha’Allah. It’s not Islamic fiction. The protagonists are a handful of immortals and a twelve year old Jewish boy. If you’re interested in science fiction and fantasy, you might enjoy it.
My next novel will be an expanded version of The Deal, featuring Jamilah Al-Husayni – Zaid’s bike messenger cousin. There will be little to no violence, and a lot of humor. So it should be something the whole family can enjoy. It will not be serialized here on MM but will be released directly for sale, only because I have to weave a new narrative with an existing one, and that does not lend itself to serialization. It will likely be completed sometime in spring 2018, Insha’Allah. As for this novel, Zaid Karim P.I., you can expect to find it in paperback and e-book form by December 2017.
To Kill a Muslim – Part 1
Yahya noticed the obscene gesture that the man across the street gave him, but he ignored it, and chose not to tell his wife Samira. He knew how deep racism ran in these small towns. He would just have to be patient.
Nursing a warm beer, Chad sat on the ramshackle front porch with the rotting steps and peeling paint. His hand clenched tightly the beer can as he watched the filthy camel hugging family move in across the street. Liquid sloshed over his fist.
It was unbelievable. This was Alhambra, a white town in America. Trump’s America. Making America great again, putting the freaks and coloreds back in their places. Sure, there were wetbacks in Alhambra – you couldn’t escape them in California – but there were hardly any blacks, and there were certainly no terrorist camel huggers.
Until now. There they were across the street and two houses down, unloading a trailer hooked to a silver Honda Accord. It was a whole family of ragheads – a woman with her stupid oppressed scarf on her head, a little boy and girl, and the father. Chad studied the man with contempt. The guy was tall, maybe 6’1 or 6’2, and black. Well, maybe he was African or some such, ‘cause he wore one of those long, colorful African shirts. His skin was mud colored, and his hair was short under that stupid beanie. He was skinny though. Chad was pretty sure he could kick the guy’s ass. The man noticed Chad looking and waved. Chad flipped him the bird. The man frowned and went on moving his crap.
Chad spent a lot of time sitting on the porch nowadays, ever since he’d been fired from his loss prevention job at Walmart. That still made his jaw clench and his vision go red every time he thought about it. Some black dude – a gangbanger no doubt – had tried to shoplift box of tampons, of all things, and Chad stopped him. A scuffle ensued. Chad recovered the tampons, but the banger got away. And Walmart fired him. Said he’d violated the terms of service of his employment, which required no physical engagement of any kind. You were supposed to ask the thief to return the goods, but if they refused you were not supposed to stop them, follow them, or “engage” in any way, due to the liability to other customers if the encounter turned violent.
So the shade goes off scot-free, and Chad gets fired. A law abiding, hard working, white American gets fired for doing the right thing. It made him want to smash something. Actually it made him want to smash someone, ideally his Filipino woman boss at Walmart, but any foreigner would do.
So here he was, twenty two and unemployed, nothing but a high school diploma to his name, sitting on his mom’s porch. All his old high school friends had jobs and girlfriends. Some even had wives. A couple had gone to college.
It wasn’t right. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He’d been a track star in high school – hundred meters and hurdles – and was supposed to have gone to college on a scholarship, but he’d blown out his knee, and they’d all abandoned him. It was like, if you weren’t of use to people, they didn’t give a crap about you. You were disposable. Blood sucking leeches. They’d given his spot on the track team to a black kid, a sophomore. Kid probably couldn’t even read. Was that piece of crap out there now, living the life that should have been Chad’s? How could this happen in Trump’s America? That was the problem, that it hadn’t been Trump’s America back then. It had been Barack Hussein’s America, the Commie Muslim traitor, damn his terrorist soul.
He seethed with the unfairness of it. He was no genius, he knew that. But he’d been a good runner, talented. He’d had the opportunity to make something of himself, to be the first in his family to go to college. He could have been more than his parents. A teacher maybe, or even a lawyer. His mother survived on welfare and what she could beg, borrow or steal from her string of boyfriends.
As for his dad, sure, Chad admired him in some ways – the man had been a shot caller in the Aryan Nation prison gang, able to point a finger and have another man killed. He’d been looked up to and respected. And he’d taught Chad what it meant to be a proud white man, standing up for your race and not taking any crap from coloreds. But let’s face it, Dad had spent 90% of his adult life in prison, and in the end had died the way he lived, with a knife in his gut. That wasn’t what Chad wanted for himself.
Plus, if Chad was being honest, he’d evolved beyond this father’s way of thinking. His father always used to say that the coloreds – no matter the shade – were filthy and inferior and should all be eliminated, even if that meant a race war across the face of America. It was a certainty, according to him, that the race war was coming. RaHoWa, he used to call it – Racial Holy War. The coloreds were secretly plotting to wipe out white America. It was an assault on the white, Christian values that had built everything worldwide in the modern world.
But when Chad had worked at Walmart he’d been forced to work with people of all colors and even folks from other countries like Filipinos and Chinks. He´d asked a few of them about RaHoWa, trying to find out about their plans to destroy the white race, but they seemed genuinely clueless. Chad slowly realized that RaHoWa was a myth, and that the coloreds were ordinary people like himself. They liked the same sports teams he did, played the same video games, watched the same shows. Yeah, they ate some weird crap and some of them smelled different, and their music was garbage. And they weren’t as smart of course. That was a fact. White people were the smartest, they had invented everything. That was why they ran the world. But the point was that the coloreds weren’t evil.
He had come to the conclusion that what was needed was not a race war, but separation. Let the coloreds live in their own neighborhoods and go to their own schools. Let them marry their own women and breed their own brats. And Chad and the white people would do the same. Live and let live. Not the Filipino bitch who fired him of course, he still wanted to bust her head open. But the others, yeah.
But the Muzzies – the Islamics – that was a different story. They were terrorist, cult following traitors. Not normal people. Muzzies were evil and sick in the head. Everybody said so. Plus, they lied as part of their sicko religion. It was called takaya or some crap. What kind of twisted bullcrap was that? They beheaded people, for Christ’s sake. If you were Christian in their country they would cut off your head with a hunting knife. They were devil worshipers. They should all either be kicked out of the country or killed. Period. And then Mecca should be nuked, and that would be the end of it.
But instead of taking care of business, the government was letting them go around like normal people. Even Trump had wimped out. The evidence was right in front of Chad’s eyes. Ragheads in his neighborhood, on his street. It was insane. How could terrorists go around openly showing off their rags? Where was Homeland Security? That was a good idea, actually. See something, say something, right? He took his phone out of his pocket and called 911.
2. Moving Day
Yahya Mtondo noticed the young man across the street staring. He waved, and when the fellow gave him an obscene gesture in return he frowned. In the old days – that is to say, in his angry and lost years of his youth – he would have marched straight over there and punched the man in the face, and damn the consequences. But he wasn’t that man anymore. So here merely shook his head and turned back to the job of moving.
His wife Samira must have noticed his expression. “What’s wrong habibi?”
He forced a smile. “Nothing’s at all, mchumba wangu.” Usually he called her mpenzi wangu – my love. But when he wanted to tease her he called her mchumba wangu, my homemaker. It was actually a term of endearment in his native Kenya, or at least it was what his dad always used to call his mom, may Allah have mercy on them. But he knew it annoyed Samira. In any case, he wasn’t going to tell her about the young man across the street. Samira tended to worry – she even had anxiety attacks sometimes – and he didn’t want to give her anything more to stress over.
“Just tired from the fast,” he added. “But I love it. I feel so light and free. I’m a bird doing loop de loops. Oooh!” He spread his arms. “My feathers are as cool as ice.”
Samira rolled her eyes. “You’re such a nut.”
He had not been crazy about the idea of moving to this poor, mostly white enclave in Central California, about twenty miles northeast of Fresno. He knew from experience how deep racism often ran in such towns. And he had two strikes against him in these people’s eyes, since he was both African and Muslim. Not that he was ashamed. He was proud of his Kenyan heritage, and was grateful that Allah had guided him to Islam.
They were here because his wife had just completed her medical residency in Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d moved from, and Alhambra Community Hospital had unexpectedly offered her a fellowship in her specialty of oncology. The salary was not spectacular, but it was better than she’d earned as a resident. Between that and his income as a rideshare driver, plus the low property values here in Alhambra, they’d been able to buy a house for the first time, alhamdulillah – thanks to God for all His blessings.
The best part of all was that there was no ribaa involved. No interest. They’d gone through a group called Central Valley Islamic Finance, which helped qualified Muslims to buy cars and homes without interest. Yahya was deeply relieved about that. He ́d made plenty of mistakes in life, but so far he’d managed to avoid the sin of ribaa, sometimes making great sacrifices in the process.
It felt like an achievement. He could see himself on Yawm Al-Qiyamah – the Day of Resurrection – standing before some great angel who held in his hand a parchment listing Yahya´s sins, each with a small checked box: anger, resentment, cursing, jealousy, ingratitude, and more. But then Yahya ́s eyes would settle on the one little unchecked box – Ribaa. He would point to it excitedly, saying, ̈Look, look!̈ And he ́d hope that it might perhaps, offer him a chance for safety on that Day.
It was pretty sad, he knew, when avoiding a major sin was your last chance for salvation. Welcome to the 21st century. Or maybe that was a cop-out. He sighed.
̈Come on babe, tell me. What is it?̈ His sweaty-faced wife touched his cheek. She was always so alert to any sign of inner turbulence on his part.
He smiled. ¨Nothing.¨
She slid her arm through his. ̈Look at our house. Our house. SubhanAllah.¨
He set down the box he had tucked under one arm and studied the house. 701 Minarets Avenue. They had taken the street name as a sign. Their own little homestead, their own piece of earth – of course it all belonged to Allah, but it was theirs to care for. He would import a few elephants and a lion and call it Little House on the Serengeti. He chuckled at his own joke.
The house was small for a family of four – only 1,100 square feet. But it was cute – a little Craftsman bungalow built in 1901, painted teal with white trim, and featuring a small covered veranda to relax on when the weather go too hot, as it often did here in Central California. The yard was planted with wildflowers and native shrubs, while an immense magnolia tree grew in the front yard, casting shade over most of the house, its thick, waxy leaves glowing deep emerald in the morning sun. Some sort of songbird trilled from deep in the tree, praising God in its own language. Yahya loved it.
As an added bonus, Samira’s family lived in Los Angeles, only a four hour drive from here.
Allah the Most High had opened a door for them, and they’d walked through, taking the path that the Most Wise chose for them. Yahya knew in his heart that there would be good in this path, or Allah would not have set them upon it. That was trust, tawakkul. Doing your best, then putting your life in Allah’s hands and trusting Him to bring you through whatever obstacles you faced. Tawakkul was not, as some thought, naivete. Yahya had not lived an easy life. He ́d experienced terrible tragedies, and had walked through trench and terror, metaphorically speaking, just to stay alive. No, tawakkul was a choice and a mindset. It was faith.
As for the young man across the street, Yahya would make an effort to reach out to the neighbors, get to know them. Weren’t Muslims commanded to be kind to their neighbors? Only through kindness could an enemy become a friend.
He kissed his wife on the temple and bent down wearily to pick up the box.This was Ramadan, and Yahya’s energy level was at rock bottom. He hadn’t taken any food or water in many hours. Fortunately, all the family’s possessions fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and the moving was nearly done. That was one advantage of being poor, he thought wryly. It made moving easier.
Ten minutes later, hefting a 6-foot bookshelf and turning, he almost tripped over Sulayman, his four-year-old son, who had picked up a table fan by the cord. Yahya resisted the temptation to chide the boy. The irritability he felt was a byproduct of his hunger and weariness from the fast. Part of the challenge of Ramadan was to overcome that irritability and replace it with compassion. Instead of anger, to give love. Instead of resentment, to exercise generosity. Instead of self-absorption, to expand your sphere of concern to include your family, neighbors, the community, the Muslim ummah, and finally the world. That was Ramadan, and that was Islam.
Sulayman and his three-year-old sister Amirah were only trying to help in their little way. But yeah, they were getting underfoot. He was about to suggest they go play inside the house when he heard sirens approaching. It sounded like there were a lot of them, and they were close. Curious, he set the bookshelf down in the driveway. The sirens kept getting louder, and a moment later a black-and-white Alhambra police cruiser careened around the corner, then another right behind it, tires squealing. Yahya didn’t know what was going on – a burglary in the neighborhood, or a domestic dispute maybe? – but he wanted his family out of harm’s way.
“Samira,” he said urgently. “Take the kids into the house, please. Right away.” His wife had also paused to see the source of the commotion. She stood near the front door of the house, her hands gripping tightly on the box of dinnerware she was carrying. Like him, she was tall – about 5’10” to his 6’1” – and though she was Palestinian, her skin was a beautiful shade of brown that fell somewhere between copper and mahogany. Her purple hijab concealed long black hair that she typically wore loose beneath her scarf.
While Yahya was quiet and contemplative, Samira could be loud. She had a laugh that rang out, and a smile that stretched a mile wide. People were drawn to her brash and bubbly personality. Only those who knew her best understood the insecurities and worries that she hid beneath that bright and happy laugh.
As the wailing sirens mounted Samira dropped the box. Whatever was inside shattered when it hit the ground. She scooped up the kids, lifting them bodily off the ground, and disappeared inside the house.
What on earth? What had gotten into her? Yahya was about to go after her when the police cars skidded to a halt in the street in front of his own home. Doors were thrown open, and officers kneeled behind them, pointing their guns at his house. Yahya looked around in confusion. Was a fugitive hiding in his yard?
“Put your hands on your head,” someone bellowed through a loudspeaker, “and get down on your knees!”
Again Yahya looked around. Surely they did not mean him?
“You with the hat and the beard! Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees! This is your last warning!”
SubhanAllah, they did mean him! He considered protesting or at least asking for clarification. Then he looked at the barrels of the firearms pointing at him, one of which was bright yellow for some reason – some kind of phaser pistol? he thought crazily – and realized this was not the time for anything less than obedience. Moving slowly so as not to alarm the cops, he put his hands on his head and went down to his knees. Two offers charged forward, their weapons trained on Yahya’s chest. One pulled his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, then shoved him forward. He fell, turning his face to the side at the last second and striking his cheek on the driveway. The impact made him grunt in pain. He thought he heard the muffled cries of his wife or children from inside the house. They were probably watching through the window.
This was not something he would have ever wanted them to see. He struggled to rise up, to say to the officers, “Come on now, what’s this all about?” He was not personally afraid. It was never his way to be afraid of people or the things people did. He was good with God and trusted in the path. He just didn’t want his children to see their father being treated this way.
The cops tased him. He didn’t understand at that moment what was happening. Every muscle in his body seized in a terrible cramp. His limbs thrashed uncontrollably and his torso flopped like a dying fish on the floor of a boat. His vision went red as agonizing pain blasted his consciousness. He still heard his family screaming, and in the distance he heard laughter as well – triumphant, mocking laughter. The agony seemed to go on forever, then vanished without a trace, leaving no remainder of pain.
He regained control of himself and turned his head to look at the officers. The one who’d tased him stood rigid, his arms in a classic firing pose, his muscles quivering. He was young and slender, pasty white with red hair and a prematurely receding hairline. What Yahya noticed most of all, however, was that the man was petrified. His eyes were wide with fear. SubhanAllah, what was he so afraid of? He was staring as if Yahya were some mythical monster laying in the driveway, like an abominable snowman. Except he wasn’t an abominable snowman. He was an abominable Muslim, apparently.
“Hey,” Yahya said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s alright. I’m not-”
“Shut up, faggot!” one of the officers bellowed, and once again the electricity coursed through him. He spasmed and fell hard, striking his mouth this time. Then he felt hard objects hitting him, striking his legs and back. A hammering blow clapped the side of his head, and darkness descended upon his mind.
* * *
Next: Part 2 – The Black Jesus
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
Gravedigger: A Short Story
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.
A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. She couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.
She never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring sound like an avalanche filled her ears, and knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.
Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? Was it for this that he gave up his work as a radiologist to work as a janitor in Los Angeles, somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons?
And how had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt completely in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another – losing loved ones, loneliness, grief – but in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, life was powerless to harm her. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.
She wouldn’t have blamed Baba for being disappointed in her, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit. Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden that he tended lovingly.
Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d ever taken in the ring.
Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But the coach pulled her up and mopped her face as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead to stanch the flow of blood. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.
She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray. Non-Muslims came as well, approaching her to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity or his guidance. While she’d been focused on training, Baba had intertwined with many lives, touching many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to truly know him. She hadn’t been involved. Her grief was a thunderstorm in her head and would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon every day and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged.
Now that her career was finally over, she fell into a pit of despair. She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, and paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, preempting the threat of their rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, cheering. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab after all, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle of herself. So she’d deliberately avoided them, not meeting their eyes when she left the ring after the fights.
Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.
One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her own thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs there? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with desiccated morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.
She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.
She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. It was time to die.
Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice said, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut a little further. Blood began to pour now, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.
A memory came to her in a flash. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one,” Mama said.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” exclaimed tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother. Before Ghada could stop him he snatched up the new bulb from where it leaned against the wall – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, came padding in to investigate the commotion. Mama sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had only curtains in the doorways. As they all worked to clean the broken glass, Halawa kept crying to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for the kitty’s own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them all an accusing look.
Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”
“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.
“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the broken glass all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”
Remembering this now, remembering her dear, patient mother, and imagining what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment, Ghada cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her entire body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.
She left the house for the first time in two weeks and went to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery that belonged to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him or pray over him, but no words came.
On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number in her phone and called it the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. The job paid $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might allow her to pay the bills, and more importantly she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.
For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. Even as a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.
This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to “hard labor.” Not that the environment was forbidding – it was actually extraordinarily beautiful. But this was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gas-powered machinery of any kind, and only two maintenance workers for this entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals – Ghada learned all this in time – were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers were allowed to proliferate freely. Songbirds, squirrels and deer could be seen roaming the grounds, and butterflies were everywhere. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a traditional cemetery.
On a typical day Ghada had to dig two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles still aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.
The plus side to the job was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes just talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go of the past? She didn’t know. She only knew that being near her father comforted her.
Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun every day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her own transformation amazed her at times. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah – all praise to God.
* * *
She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.
The back east acre was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here, but there was a narrow stretch of clear grass. Ghada always spent the first half of her break practicing martial arts here. It was something she’d come back to this year. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as emotionally serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.
Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was a dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some way, and also kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.
The warm sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this. The only thing lacking in her life was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.
As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of invasive broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet her when she first started, as he’d seen her fight when she was in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged this off. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she was honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.
They ate in silence for a while. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.
“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said. He nodded to her father’s plaque.
Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, sometimes weeping, sometimes telling Baba haltingly about her life, as if she expected him to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never condemned her in life, after all. He’d done nothing but love her. My shining star, he used to call her.
“I’ve said it all.”
“So you two are good?”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“You’ve changed since you started here.”
“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging a single grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”
“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”
She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching them and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”
Her phone rang. That was odd. No one ever called her. She dug it out of her pocket and looked at it, then frowned. It was her coach. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past. “You sure you have the right number?” she greeted him, then listened as he spoke. “I’ll get back to you,” she said when he was done. “I know. Give me a half hour.”
“What was that about?” Dave asked. “You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.
She said nothing.
“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”
“Sorry. You know the WFC? The World Fighting Championship?”
“Of course. You know I’m a fan. There’s an event tonight. June and I are going.”
“Oh. Well, the woman who was supposed to fight against Viviani Silva had an injury. They want me to fight her.”
It was Dave’s turn to gape. “Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva? That’s a title fight!”
“No one else wants it on such short notice. Or if they do, they’re too far away.”
“Man! Wait ‘til I tell June. She’ll freak out.”
Ghada put up a hand. “I haven’t said I’ll do it. Listen, do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”
“Sure.” He scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife.
She ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “But Baba,” she said aloud. “That’s not my life anymore.”
Does the dream still live inside you? came his reply. If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.
* * *
“I owe you big time for taking this.” Her coach hustled her into the arena. “No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. Even if you lose you make fifty grand. You look fit at least. Better than the last time I saw you.”
Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for her coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the $50,000 purse. What did she need $50K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.
Five minutes later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around and press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.
Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. Her jet black hair was braided in cornrows, close to the scalp. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed. She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out of shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 133 pounds. That was near the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, but there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.
She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to win. She was going to become the next women’s bantamweight champion of the world.
What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had been able to feel the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.
Someone called out her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.
The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.
Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”
* * *