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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 18 – A New Light

I appreciated Safaa’s 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? Then something clicked into place and understanding dawned.

Zaid Karim, Private Investigator
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories. Wael’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.

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.”

“Okay.”

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

El Valle de Anton, Panama

El Valle de Anton, 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.”

“That’s rough.”

“Yeah.”

“Safaa, I have to ask you something.”

“Okay.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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…”

* * *

El Valle de Anton, Panama

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.

U.S. PassportThe 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.”

“Promise what?”

“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.”

* * *

Bridge of the Americas, Panama

Bridge of the Americas, Panama

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?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“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
Fresno, California

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.

“Anna.”

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.

“Oh. Okay.”

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?”

“What 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.”

I went.

* * *

THE END

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.

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

39 Comments

39 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm safiyyah

    October 31, 2017 at 1:07 AM

    MashaAllah excellent writing brother! May Allah bless you in your time and effort. Can’t wait to read more of your stuff!

  2. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    October 31, 2017 at 1:26 AM

    Whoo Finally I’m the first!! YES well technically!! Because if I read first i won’t be able to comment, I;ll read it tomorrow IA! ANd you Umm safiyyah how’d you read it that fast?? He just posted it??

  3. Avatar

    Layyinah

    October 31, 2017 at 5:16 AM

    As salaam alaikum, I’ve been waiting for this and checking the blog regularly. You did a wonderful job and, of course, I was thrilled to read that Zaid had a change of heart about Safaa. I’m a hopeless romantic. I love how you wrapped up everything and threw in the surprise about Anna. I also enjoyed reading Salman’s story again.

    A couple of typos: paragraph 2, line 3, “through “ should be ‘though’ and the second , I can’t find it now. ?

    If Allah wills it, I plan to fully support you by purchasing all of your publications! ? Of course, I prefer the Islamic context but I can appreciate the need to venture into different genres.

    I pray that you continue to write and are blessed with success and Allah being pleased with your efforts.

    Thank you again for sharing your life and talents with us. If you are ever in the need for someone to preview your writing prior to publication, I’d gladly participate. ?

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 31, 2017 at 4:31 PM

      Wa alaykum as-salam, thanks for the typo corrections, I’ll get to them today or tomorrow Insha’Allah. And thank you for your support.

  4. Avatar

    Fatimah

    October 31, 2017 at 10:22 AM

    Thank you.

    You inspire me.

  5. Avatar

    Vendula

    October 31, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    MashaAllah tabarakAllah – can’t decide if I love Hasan’s story or Zaid’s more! I was highly anticipating this final chapter…every MM email would get promptly opened to see if it was going to contain a link to your story. Now it’s a bittersweet feeling because the story is over, but I can’t wait to read The Repeaters. Will that be on Amazon? How can we get notified when your new work comes out?

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 31, 2017 at 4:32 PM

      Vendula, yes, The Repeaters will be released on Amazon Insha’Allah, probably in mid November.

  6. Avatar

    Ahmed Rashed

    October 31, 2017 at 3:49 PM

    Good job, brother!
    Another typo I caught: Hajar went away and came back a moment later with Brown Bear, her favorite doll. She thrust it between me and Hajar.

    I think you meant “between me and Anna.”

    Also, regarding Anna’s true parentage, you had mentioned in the scene with Alejandra that you removed that “spoiler” but I think there should remain some semblance of Zaid beginning to suspect so it doesn’t come as a total surprise in this chapter. That way, the readers who fancy themselves mystery-solvers have something to hang their hats on. Just my two cents.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 31, 2017 at 4:33 PM

      Ahmed, that’s an interesting idea, though all the clues are there for the reader just as they were for Zaid.

  7. Avatar

    Sumaiyah

    October 31, 2017 at 4:20 PM

    Made me nearly cry. Jazakallakhair. Just a typo: “More poetry?” broke in furiously” should be “I broke in furiously”?

  8. Avatar

    OJ

    October 31, 2017 at 4:23 PM

    Was there a resolution to the whole “your mother should have aborted you not the other one” plot line?

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 31, 2017 at 4:35 PM

      OJ, that has not been resolved. I intended for this to be the first in a series of Zaid Karim mysteries. So some issues will carry over from one book to the next. In fact I did not originally intend to resolve the marriage crisis in this book, but I did so only due to popular demand. Whether future books are written or not will depend on how this one sells when I publish it as an ebook and paperback.

      • Avatar

        OJ

        October 31, 2017 at 5:36 PM

        Perfect, jazak

        Thank you for resolving the marriage crisis, it was too much for me to handle!

        Huge fan, excited to see what comes next!

      • Avatar

        Maryam Moeen

        November 2, 2017 at 3:16 PM

        HAHAH!! How you hit that point “popular demand” I’ll make sure it publishes real quick!!
        A few corrections: 1) In the beginning, “When I woke”it I think there should be a comma or semicolon like a pause or you could put “When I woke up,…”
        2) “The prayer stilled the tremors….are won’t to do…” I think it sounds a bit off; I might be mistaken sorry.

  9. Avatar

    Sam

    October 31, 2017 at 7:32 PM

    mashallah another great read!

  10. Avatar

    Reader

    October 31, 2017 at 8:02 PM

    Mashallah great read indeed. I could not understand why Zaid loved Safa so much despite her continual rejections and complete unwillingness to listen to anything Zaid has said. I think this series has brought out the chemistry between them beautifully–Zaid’s strength lies in being radical when he is helping others, he never thinks about what’s practical and focuses only on giving the best of himself to keep his commitment. And Safa is practical and wants to protect those she loves. I am not into violent novels, but I like how your characters develop and flourish and the opportunity it gives me to analyse them. Jazakallah khair and good luck with your future venture.

  11. Avatar

    nur

    November 1, 2017 at 11:00 AM

    i have been religiously refreshing muslim matters everyday since the previous chapter was released because i just couldnt wait to read the last chapter. masya Allah it is so amazing i have no idea how i managed to be so patient but THANK YOU!! it has been such a amazing journey reading this <3

  12. Avatar

    Aishat

    November 1, 2017 at 12:43 PM

    Wow, maashaAllah bro Wael you write so beautifully. Hadley Chase was my fav writer because I love his thrilling novels so much, but ever since I read Hassan’s story, and then Zaid’s you’ve become my fav author. You weave the thrill & mystery with beautiful words of faith, may Allah increase you in goodness, and remove your pains.

    P.S. Do you promote your books on social media? like have some account dedicated to your writings so people can buy/ read them?

  13. Avatar

    Abu Hirsi

    November 2, 2017 at 1:36 AM

    Assalamu Aleikum Warahmatulahi Wabarakatuhu Akhuuna Wael
    Masha Allah Tabaraka Allah. You have nothing to apologize for. You have brought a lot of enjoyment, happiness and most importantly a flash of inspiration to reacquaint us with our religion. The subtle and brilliant way you weave Islamic material (The Holy Quran, Seerah and Companions of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAW)) is beautiful.
    You have listened to many pleas from our sisters to get Zaid and Safaa back together. I thank you for allowing us to partake of your efforts and enjoying the excitement. As a brother Wael AbdulJawad (AbdulGawad)
    will always be in my prayers. Take care. Be blessed. Use the skills Allah has given you to write Islamic books for the youth, adults and all others.
    Forgive me for any irritations, annoyances or hurt that I may have caused in responding to your amazing stories. Allah Yahfadhak. Allah Yakrimak. Fii Amana Allah.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 5, 2017 at 10:45 AM

      Thanks for your wonderful comment Abu Hirsi. May Allah reward you.

  14. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    November 2, 2017 at 2:31 PM

    Jazk, Brother Wael loved it!! Jazk for letting the whole family come back and the last part was sooo cute. But could you please write more on Zaid, like you did for Hassan another major title. Jazk again.

  15. Avatar

    Shamima

    November 6, 2017 at 10:33 AM

    I loooooved it! Haven’t read a novel like that in awhile.
    May Allah subhhahuwataa’la give you success of this world and the next, ameen.

  16. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    November 7, 2017 at 9:40 PM

    Jazk, Brother Wael loved it!! Jazk for letting the whole family come back and the last part was sooo cute. But could you please write more on Zaid, like you did for Hassan another major title. Jazk again.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 7, 2017 at 9:46 PM

      Thank you sister Maryam. I appreciated your enthusiasm and readership throughout. It’s definitely possible that I will write another Zaid Karim novel in the future, Insha’Allah. In fact when he goes to investigate the newcomer at the masjid who is radicalizing some brothers, I think he will find it to be a more complex and dangerous job than he imagined. But I can’t write it right now or anytime soon. I have to promote my upcoming sci-fi novel, and I’m working on the final draft of Zaid Karim to be released in paperback and ebook, Insha’Allah.

  17. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    November 12, 2017 at 8:17 PM

    Jazk for the reading, IA I will promote your book; the sci-fi novel. I’ve already told many people about Hassan’s story. Many people read it, they said it was amazing.
    Good job with the work.

  18. Avatar

    zohaib

    November 20, 2017 at 3:18 PM

    wow! just wow!
    I have been following this series for months and just finished it today and I am nothing short of amazed at how gripping it was.

  19. Avatar

    Khalida

    November 22, 2017 at 10:07 AM

    As-salaamu ‘alaikum Br. Wael:

    I almost can’t believe the story ended here! It was brilliant, maa shaa Allah, tabaarakAllah.

    It made me laugh as much as it made me cry. I kept wondering if you were writing some of these scenes during emotionally-charged moments. You mentioned above that some of this was cathartic for you, so it all makes sense now.

    As with all your other stories, I really enjoyed the words of wisdom and focused on living, sacrificing, and dying for Allah’s sake. The lesson to rely on Allah using the similitude with the birds became increasing powerful and penetrating with every reminder as the story progressed.

    I really liked how well you paid attention to Zaid’s gradually-progressing psychological state during and after his recovery, especially in regards to his relationship with Safaa.

    I hope you continue to write. May Allah make every word you write sadaqah jaariyah for you and infuse immense barakah in it. Ameen.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 25, 2017 at 10:32 PM

      Khalida, thanks for all your great comments. I appreciate it.

  20. Avatar

    Khalida

    November 22, 2017 at 10:15 AM

    Oh, and just something that bothered me: Zaid said he won’t lie to Anna, but he told her that her father is in heaven. Since Zaid keeps approaching many situations with concern for Allah and His Deen, it seemed very odd for him to say; only Allah knows where a person ends up. I’m not saying that he should say anything bad about Tarek, but at the end of the day, we really have no idea. It’s all up to Allah and His mercy.

  21. Avatar

    Fareed Javid

    December 14, 2017 at 11:34 AM

    لسلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
    Brother Wael,
    In my opinion u should become a Hollywood writer. Seriously you have the skills. And i really loved the Islamic touch that you have given to the story. If this story was too be made as a movie it would be so nice firstly as it is a very interesting plot. Secondly it shows a life of a Muslim. The way how we as a Muslim would do things in certain circumstances. Brother i would suggest if you can conduct workshops on how writing skills to our youths. And finally may Allah bless you and give you Barakah through your creative skills. Ameen !!!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      December 14, 2017 at 12:06 PM

      Fareed, wa alaykum as-salam. Thanks for this great comment. I don’t know if Hollywood would be interested in doing a film about a Muslim character. Maybe one of the Muslim countries could turn it into a mini-series. About a writing workshop, I would like to do that very much. I spoke at ICNA and ISNA this year, and I would like to suggest to them that they let me conduct a writing workshop next year Insha’Allah.

  22. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    December 19, 2017 at 2:04 PM

    MashaAllah, Such a nice comment Fareed an an amazing idea as well!

  23. Avatar

    preachityo

    February 4, 2018 at 8:06 PM

    SubhanAllah. Just read the whole novel in a day. It was that gripping. Absolutely LoVe that you weaved Salman Al Farsi’s story in the story as he has been one of my favourite and most inspiring role models too.
    All in the space of a few hours, my heart experienced waves of different emotions.. fear, happiness, deep sadness, must I go on?
    I sobbed like baby , smiled and laughed (think flat thoughts..pancake, tortilla) Hahahhahaha that got me real good.
    I appreciate the priceless lessons included in the novel such as of tawakkul alal Allah, forgivness, dermination and compassion, to name a few.
    Kudos to you.
    May Allah reward you with all the happiness you deserve and continue using you as a tool to inspire others and draw people closer to Him.
    Assalamualaykum.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      February 4, 2018 at 9:59 PM

      preachityo, I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. I’ve been working on it daily for the last few months, editing a final draft for publication as a paperback and e-book.

  24. Avatar

    jamaal

    June 28, 2018 at 8:24 AM

    Wael you know how you made pieces of a dream a book are you going to do that with the whole series

    p.s your stories are aweeeeeeeeeesomeeeeeeeeeeeee

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      June 29, 2018 at 12:33 PM

      Thank you jamaal, jazak Allah khayr. Originally I had planned to publish them all as books, but sales of Pieces of a Dream were so low that I lost motivation. But yes, eventually I will do so Insha’Allah.

  25. Avatar

    Spirituality

    September 11, 2019 at 9:29 PM

    As Salamu Alaikum,

    Another amazing novel!

    I’m glad that the next part of the Zaid’s story will be about him investigating the a brother who is radicalizing young Muslim brothers.

    Brother Wael, please write this novel. We really need a well written, non preachy Islamic fiction dealing with the topic of radicalization of our youth.

    Right now, we only have scholarly articles presenting arguments from Quran, Sunnah, Islamic history, logic, etc on why radicalization is not ‘Islamic.’ While these articles have their place, I’m not sure they are the best way to reach our youth. We need to appeal to their emotional side – and I believe a well written fictional novel can do that.

    Please include sisters in the novel as well: as ISIS has shown, sisters can be radicalized as well!

    Jazak Allahu Khayran for all your efforts.

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#Culture

Death In A Valley Town, Part 3 – A Fighter And A Thief

Filing a lawsuit – against anyone at all – didn’t feel right, but the lawyer was an expert in these matters, and Samira seemed adamant as well. “Fine. We’ll proceed with the suit against the city. But not the kid.”

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

Previous Chapters of Death in a Valley Town1. Moving Day2. The Black Jesus

Zombies

AxeZombies were overrunning the world. Yahya was trying to hold his own, but it was hard. Hitting them in the head, like in the movies, didn’t work. To kill them you had to hack at the base of their spines with an axe or ice pick. Hack attack. The pick trick. It was brutal, sickening work. To make matters worse, many of them retained their minds and personalities, so they would try to negotiate with you, or plead with you to stop, but if you stopped they would attack and devour you. Yahya did not know if he could exist in this new, merciless world.

But he had no choice. There were people he loved here, and he must protect them. That was what home was, wasn’t it? Being with the people you loved. Laughing and crying with them, fighting for them, dying for them. That was the only home that existed in this world, wasn’t it? And if they loved you back it was wonderful, but you couldn’t count on it, because orphans were unwanted. That was the essence of orphanhood: to be abandoned, to be alone.

No matter, no matter! He swung his axe, sweat flying from his face, zombie blood spraying. His sister Yusra possessed karate skills and had hardened her hand to the point that she could snap a zombie’s spine with a karate chop. She was cutting through the monsters like a harvester through wheat. His wife Samira was using her strict, motherly voice, commanding the zombies to “stop this horsing around.” That wasn’t working at all. A man’s voice came over the P.A., telling the zombies he would sue them for ten million dollars if they didn’t cease and desist…

* * *

His heart raced. But the smell in the air was not of blood, but of lemon disinfectant and laundered blankets. His twin sister Yusra was saying, “He’ll be fine, Samira. He’s been through much worse, trust me. He may not look it, but he’s as tough as they come.”

Was he still dreaming? What was his sister doing here?

His mouth and throat were as dry as moon dust, while his entire body ached as if he’d been tenderized with papaya juice and a mallet. He made an effort to open his eyes and immediately squinted, blinded by too-bright overhead lights. Blurred ceiling panels… everything white… This didn’t look like their little apartment in Fort Worth. Where was he? Oh, wait… that’s right, they’d moved to California. To… Alhambra. Alhambra! The memories rushed back in a flash flood. The cops, the beating, the jail. Did that really happen? Or was it a bad dream?

He tried to push up with his hands in order to sit up, and discovered that his left arm was encased in a black plastic splint and was cradled against his chest in a shoulder harness. Pain hit him like a matatu bus. His head hammered, his arm ached all the way to the bones, and the rest of him just generally hurt.

“Oh, ruh albi. Lie still.” Samira was there, sitting on the edge of the bed. She wore no makeup and, in his view, never needed it, since she was extraordinarily beautiful as is, as Allah made her. But her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been crying. Her long black hair was tucked away beneath a gauzy orange hijab. She loved wearing colorful clothing. She cupped his chin and kissed him with her full lips. Ouch, that hurt too! A sudden thought came to him and he blurted out, “The kids?” He was filled with an irrational fear. Had the kids been hurt? Had they been taken away?

“They’re fine.” Samira stroked his cheek. “I left them with Munirah. She’s been very kind.”

Munirah, he remembered, was a nurse who worked at ACH – Alhambra Community Hospital. Samira had met her on her first day at work, and they’d become instant friends.

“I had a crazy dream,” Yahya said slowly. His throat was so dry. “You were there, and Yusra too.” He rubbed his face, remembering. “You should have seen her. She fought like a machine.”

“Nice to know,” Yusra said. “That my talents are well regarded, even in your dreams.”

Yahya jerked in surprise and looked around the room for the first time. To his right a large window filled the wall from hip height to the ceiling. It had a wide sill on which one could sit and look outside. Someone had placed a profusion of flower vases there. His sister Yusra perched among them, looking sleek and sangfroid as always.

Yusra was his fraternal twin, and though shorter than him she still stood an imposing 5’10”. She was thin, her features chiseled and uncompromising, her hair straightened but short, Halle Berry style. She wore a navy women’s suit patterned with yellow flowers, and a yellow blouse that buttoned up to the neck. Knowing Yusra, that suit cost more than Yahya made in a month. No doubt it was made by Gucci or Armani, or some other designer whose name ended in a vowel. And no doubt it was either stolen, or paid for with the proceeds of something stolen. Though Yahya loved his sister, he was under no illusions as to what she was. She was a fighter and a thief, just as she’d been back when they were kids in foster care. Except that back then she fought and stole to protect and feed the two of them. Now, she just did it to do it. She was a lustrous, sinewy tiger with a taste for man-flesh, hunting for the savage joy of it. Thriller killer.

“What?” Yahya had so many questions crowding his mind, he didn’t know where to start. “What are you doing here? Where am I?”

“Be nice, honey.” Samira squeezed his hand. “You’re at ACH.”

“It’s wonderful to see you too,” Yusra said. “My little brother is arrested and nearly beaten to death. Of course I’m here. And I have news about Baba. I have a source-”

“Stop!” Yahya held up his right hand to silence her. The very last thing he wanted was to hear about her delusional, never-ending obsession with “finding” their dead father.

Yusra’s face went as hard as stone. He’d offended her. Whatever, he couldn’t worry about that. Arrested, she’d said… that’s right, he’d been arrested. This didn’t make sense. SubhanAllah, his throat was like the Mojave desert! “I need water, please.”

Samira poured him a cup of water from a pitcher that sat on a small table. He drank, then tried to get things straight. “Where am I? How did I get here? Why am I not in jail anymore?”

As he was speaking, the door opened and a tall, lean man entered. “I can answer that,” the man replied in a deep voice. He was clearly Arab, and GQ handsome. He wore a finely tailored charcoal suit and blue tie, and was clean shaven.

“As-salamu alaykum.̈” The man shook Yahya’s hand. “My name is Basim Al-Rubaiy. I’m an attorney with CAIR Sacramento. Initially you were charged with felony menacing, resisting arrest and burglary.”

“That’s nonsense,” Yahya commented.

“Of course. The night of your arrest – last night – the local news media aired a video showing the police beating you without justification. The police ROR’d you and transported you here. This morning I filed a motion to have the charges dropped, and posted bail. I’m currently drafting a lawsuit against the police department.”

“We’re going to sue them for ten million dollars,” Samira added.

“I don’t care about the money,” Yahya said reflexively.

Samira sighed. “I know you don’t, babe. You never do. But the money isn’t the point. The money is how we get their attention, make them take action against their officers.”

“She’s right Mr. Mtondo,” the CAIR lawyer added. “Lawsuits are the primary tool available to us to demand justice. Hit them in the pocketbook and they listen. Gives us leverage. We should also sue Chad Barber, the man who called the police on you for no reason.”

“Don’t worry about this Barber clown,” Yusra commented. “Point me in his direction and I’ll take him apart. He likes calling the cops? When I’m done his fingers will be pick-up sticks. Let’s see him call anyone then.”

“Yusra!” Samira exclaimed.

Yahya sighed heavily, already weary of his sister’s drama. Not that he didn’t take Yusra seriously. He knew she was quite capable of executing her threats. Violence triggered and excited her. But he needed facts. He looked to the lawyer. The man was confident, as if he’d been through this a thousand times before. Maybe he had. “Chad Barber. Is that the white boy across the street and two houses down? Twenty, twenty one years old?¨

“I don’t know, let me check.” The lawyer opened a briefcase that sat on a small table by the window. He looked through a file. “Chad Barber, 714 Minarets Avenue. I don’t have his age. And sister,” he added, addressing himself to Yusra, “I would caution you against illegal or precipitous action that could get you or your brother arrested, not to mention torpedo his legal case.”

Good, Yahya thought. Let someone else talk sense to her. 714 Minarets… Yup. That was the house. He was sure it was the young man who’d flipped him off. He pursed his lips. Filing a lawsuit – against anyone at all – didn’t feel right, but the lawyer was an expert in these matters, and Samira seemed adamant as well. “Fine. We’ll proceed with the suit against the city. But not the kid.”

Anger flashed on Samira’s face. “That man set this whole fiasco in motion. He endangered all of us, including our children. You could have been killed. And why? Because we’re Muslim. We can’t let him get away with it.”

“She has a point, Mr. Mtondo,” the lawyer added.

Yahya held up a hand to the lawyer, who was beginning to get on his nerves. The man seemed to take his point, and stopped talking. Yahya looked towards Samira. “I said no. The city I’ll go along with for now. But the kid, no.”

“But why not?”

Why not, indeed? Yahya’s eyes wandered around the room, taking in the line of flower vases and bouquets by the window. Who had brought those? Did they know that many people in Alhambra? “Do you know,” he said eventually, “about the Jewish woman, Zainab bint Al-Harith, who brought a poisoned lamb to the Prophet Muhammad as a gift?”

“He forgave her,” said Basim, the lawyer.

Yahya was impressed. “Yes. The woman tried to assassinate him, and he pardoned her.”

Samira gave an annoyed cluck of the tongue. “Are you the Prophet now?”

“Though he later ordered her executed,” Basim added.

“That’s because Bishr ibn Al-Baraa’ died. He was the first to eat of it. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) forgave the attempt on his own life, but he could not waive the punishment for the murder of someone else.”

Samira raised a finger. “Hold on. Don’t I remember reading that the Prophet suffered the effects of that poison for the rest of his life?”

“Yes.”

“Aha!” She pinched his earlobe and glared. “You see what happens when you let bad people get away? We’re filing a lawsuit, not putting his head in a guillotine.”

Speaking of heads, his own head was pounding. Trying to escape this conversation, he said, “I’ll consult with Imam Saleh.”

Samira looked at him with eyes narrowed. “Okay, But you’re too soft on people, Yoyo. And look how they repay you.” She waved a hand at his ravaged body.

As if proving her point, he attempted to sit up and swing his legs over the side, only to find the world spinning like a merry go round. Without warning he bent over and vomited over the side of the bed. How embarrassing. In front of the lawyer and everything. Samira fussed over him, wiping his mouth and telling him not to worry about the mess. “Lie back down, baby.”

But he did not lie down. He insisted on checking out of the hospital, to his wife’s outrage. He didn’t want to leave the kids with strangers, or at least someone they were not familiar with.

Samira had brought a fresh set of clothing, since the lawyer, Basim, had taken the clothes he’d been wearing as evidence. They were little more than bloody rags, it seemed. A nurse brought a wheelchair. The attorney, Basim, shook Yahya’s hand, promising to check on him tomorrow. “By the way,” the lawyer added, “your shoes were not among the clothes the police turned over to me. They didn’t take them away, did they? If so I will add that into the lawsuit.”

“No. I gave them away.” From the corner of his eye he saw Samira’s sharp gaze, and knew he’d get an earful later.

* * *

Yahya sat in a wheelchair as Samira pushed him through the courtyard in front of the hospital, on the way to the parking garage. A woman in a hijab sat there, reciting Quran and tossing birdseed to a flock of tiny birds that hopped and flitted all around her. What a strange scene. And the sister looked so much like – wait a minute!

It was his older sister, Hafsa. Yahya was stunned. It was impossible for her to be here. Hafsa did not travel on airplanes. In fact she rarely left her small suburban home in Chicago. And she most certainly did not visit hospitals. She was terrified of germs. But here she was. Birds were gathered all around her. Yahya was no expert, but there were several of the tiny ones he believed were called sparrows, along with a finch – he recognized it because of the red scattered across its head and chest – and a bluejay that was trying to bully the rest. They hopped and flitted, trying to be the first to catch the seeds.

A handful of hospital workers – nurses and technicians – sat in the courtyard as well, eating or chatting, and many watched Hafsa curiously. Yahya had to smile. If this were a scene from a Turkish movie, he would think it cliched – the saintly hijabi, gathering the animals like some Sister Doolittle, charming them with the word of God. But it wasn’t a movie. It was just Hafsa. When she saw him she stood and rushed to him, then bent over to embrace him and kiss his cheek. She looked good. She’d always been chubby, but she’d lost a little weight.

“How did you get here?” Yahya wondered aloud. “I thought you didn’t do airplanes. Or hospitals.”

“Overnight flight. And for my little brother I’ll always make an exception. Actually I’m doing better with the phobias. Still couldn’t convince myself to go up to your room, though.”

The sun was going down, and Yahya shivered in the evening autumn air. “Come on, let’s go home. I’m excited for you to meet the kids.”

Try the Bak Bak

Chad’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw the silver Honda Accord pull up and the sand-chigger get out. Sitting on the porch, guzzling his sixth beer of the day – pretty much his everyday routine, he goggled at the scene, setting his beer down beside him. There were more Muzzies now! They were multiplying like rats. The Muzzie had his wife and kids with him, and also another Muzzie broad in a headscarf, and a tall, dark chick in a suit who was pretty hot, actually. I mean, Chad thought, she’s not white, but hey, a hot mama is a hot mama.

But that wasn’t the point, he reminded himself, renewing his sense of righteous indignation. Un-freakin-believable! Sure, he’d had seen the video that showed the rag-head getting his ass kicked. He was pretty sure Alan, the fairy schoolteacher, was the one who filmed it. And yeah, the liberal groups – like the NAACP, aka National Association for the Advancement of Commie People – were making the usual noises about police brutality. But so what? They were always squawking. They needed to have their heads cut off like the clucking chickens they were. But that was beside the point. The point was that he, Chad Barber, had helped to catch a rag-head terrorist here in his own town, and the cops had let the dude go! What the hell? In Trump’s America?

He watched the rag-head limp into the house with the wife helping him. The two little kids flanked them, one holding the mom’s hand and one the dad’s. Chad ground his teeth. Okay. The police had let the rag-head go. That was the reality. It was up to him now, Chad Barber, to make the next move. He knew exactly what he would do. He would get his friends together, and they would beat the truth out of the rag-head. It would be easy. Dude was an Uber driver, right? They’d call for an Uber to some remote location, like out in the country. When the rag-head showed up they´d lay into him with baseball bats. Break his arms and legs. By the time they were done he’s tell them all about his terrorist plots. He’d name names, give up the whole network. Then the cops would have to send him to Guantanamo for real.

A smile broke out on his face. He felt suddenly energized, like he wanted to jump up and run a mile. For the first time since he’d lost the Walmart job he felt filled with a sense of purpose. Damn, it was a good feeling!

The whole family went into the house, except the hot mama. She turned and stared at him from across the street. Chad sat up straight and sucked in his beer gut, trying to look manly. To his surprise, the woman began to cross the street, walking directly toward him. Her walk was athletic and poised, like a dancer. Damn she was hot. For a second Chad thought he’d lucked out. Maybe she wanted a beer. Maybe he could get some action going! But her stride was too rapid, too purposeful. Chad grew nervous. Then he saw her grim expression, and noticed that her hands were balled into fists. It occurred to him that her athletic, powerful walk was not that of a dancer, but a fighter.

“You little punk,” the woman growled. “I’m going to beat you bloody.”

Chad yelped and leaped to his feet, spilling his beer. The woman started up the steps and Chad turned and ran, dashing through the front door and locking it. Should he call the cops? But when he peered through the curtain the crazy bitch was crossing back to the rag-head’s house. She went inside, not looking back. Christ! What a psycho. What was her problem anyway?

Chad seethed. This was war. He considered. Who could he call? As he was puzzling over it, his little sister walked out of the house wearing slippers and pink pajamas that hung loose on her petite frame. Her mousy brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Carrying a plate of chocolate chip cookies balanced on one hand, she descended the crumbling porch steps and started across the lawn.

Chad stepped outside. “Where you goin’ with that? Can I have one?” Not that he always needed to know what Amelia was doing, but she was his younger sister after all, even if she was nineteen years old and technically an adult.

“Stuff it, you beer-blooded clownmeister.”

He grinned. Where did she come up with this stuff? She crossed the street, her slippers slapping the ground with every step. With a sudden sense of alarm, he watched as she made a beeline for the rag-head family’s house. “Amelia,” he called out, but she ignored him. She rang the doorbell. What the holy hell was she doing? Didn’t she know what had transpired yesterday? “Amelia!” he bellowed. “Get your skinny ass back here! That’s the enemy over there!”

He watched, stunned, as the rag-head wife opened the door, still wearing her stupid oppressed orange scarf. What, did she think her hair was some kind of holy relic that ordinary people couldn’t look at? Or did she imagine she was so stunningly beautiful – some kind of Muzzie supermodel – that her beauty would blind mere mortals? Morons.

Then, as he watched, Amelia entered the rag-head house! What was that pigeon-brained mouse turd doing? And was it his imagination or were those her slippers in front of the door? Why had she taken them off?

Chad paced the weatherbeaten porch, squeezing his forehead with one hand and ignoring the pool of spilled beer from earlier. He was going to knock his sister’s bowling ball of a head off her shoulders. She was consorting with the enemy. She was a traitor. She was-

She came out of the house. She was smiling – smiling! – and still carrying the plate, which looked like it still had food on it. Hah! They’d sent her and her infidel cookies packing. As she cut across the lawn, he lit into her, cursing her for consorting with the enemy.

Baklawa“I had to do something,” Amelia said, “to make up for that stupid stunt you pulled. Mama’s afraid they’ll sue us. She said we should try to make friends. Besides, look what they gave me.” She took a golden colored square from the plate and held it out to him. “It’s called baklawa. With a w, not a v. It’s delicious.¨

He knocked the small treat out of her hand, sending it flying onto the lawn. “Get that bak-bak crap out of my face. It’s probably poisoned.”

Amelia glared and held the plate with the remaining treats out of his reach. “If I had a lighter I’d set your stupid mustache on fire and watch you slap yourself to death, you rockwitted plague virus.” She stomped into the house, slamming the door behind her, at which point Chad heard their mother shouting at him – at him! – not to slam the door.

He sighed and smoothed his mustache. What had he been thinking about? Oh yeah, who to call. Why not his best friends, the guys he’d gone to high school with? His fellow track team members. Bram and Ames. Bram was very smart, which could be a problem at times. He didn’t believe in the separation of races like Chad did. Said it was “illogical and only the product of poverty-fueled desperation.” Idiot. Like those ten-dollar words actually meant anything. Just a lot of hot air. But in the end he was a follower, not a leader. A sheeple. He’d do whatever Chad said. Plus he was a big guy, not tall but thick and solid like a rhino. Could come in handy. On top of all that he was a pot dealer and always had money. The two of them got together all the time to smoke weed and play Call of Duty. Sometimes they went out to Rebel Saloon in Old Town – with Bram buying of course – and drank themselves off the stools.

Ames, though – he was a moron, but he was a karate guy. He went to tournaments and won trophies, the whole deal. He’d be a good one to have along. Kick that psycho hot mama’s skinny behind. Chad hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, and Ames might not be as down for the white race as Chad was, but surely he would understand the threat? This was about protecting the American way of life.

There was Mad Morry. They weren’t close anymore, since Morry seemed to spend more time in prison than out. But Chad was pretty sure his thuggish friend was out at the moment. Morry hung around with some scary dudes, and Chad was pretty sure Morry was tight with the Aryan Brotherhood. He would have no problem beating the blood out of a rag-head. Except… Morry scared him. Chad was pretty sure he had killed people, even women. He’d heard that Morry had been involved in the disappearance of a spook family in Oakhurst.

Jim might be down. He was three years older than Chad and had been a friend ever since Chad was eleven, when they’d been neighbors. Well, sort of a friend. Chad used to go over to Jim’s house to listen to music and lust after his busty older sister Cheri. Jim was a dope dealer and would give Chad free liquor, weed and pills. To be honest, Chad had never really wanted those things back then, but he’d taken them so he wouldn’t look like a pansy in Jim’s eyes. Jim was also a bully and a sadist. Once he burned Chad’s arm with a hot glue gun. Another time he used a nail gun to drive a nail through the back of Chad’s hand. But Chad never snitched on him, and as they got older and Chad filled out, the bullying mostly stopped, though it continued in verbal form, with Jim often calling him names.

No, forget Mad Morry and Jim. Screw them. Best to stick with Bram and Ames. Chad would be able to control them, and he’d be in charge. The boss of his own posse.

He tried Bram first, but got his voicemail, so he called Ames.

“Chad my man!̈”̈ Ames’s deep voice, midwestern accent – his family had moved here from Wisconsin – and enthusiastic manner made Chad smile. It was like nothing had changed and no time had gone by. Why had he and Ames fallen out of touch? The guy was always up for something fun. Chad explained to Ames about the rag-head, and how he wanted to lure the man to a remote location and beat him up. And maybe beat up the hot sister too.

“Dude, you been hittin’ the sauce or what? Let it go, brother. Live and let live. I’m a business owner now. I have my own dojo. I can’t risk my business over-”

“You have your own dojo?” Chad was amazed. He didn’t know anyone his own age who owned a business.

“Yeah, it’s on Second Avenue in Old Town. You should come by sometime.”

“Why do you have to call it a dojo? Isn’t that a Jap word? Why don’t you just say gym?”

Ames sighed. “I know it’s kooky but we’re traditional. We belong to a federation based in Japan. We take pride in maintaining the traditions of-”

Chad cut off the practiced sales pitch, realizing this was getting off track, and not really caring about this issue anyway. “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. But you’re missing my point. The ragheads are in my freakin’ neighborhood. They gave my sister bak-bak. They might sue me. They-”

“Whoa, hold up. Your sister? They what? What’s bak-bak? You sayin’ they did something to little Amelia?”

Chad realized that Ames had misunderstood him. “No, they-” He stopped himself, remembering that Ames had always had a crush on Amelia, God knows why. He could use this. “I mean, yeah. They did. They messed with her, man. She’s really upset.”

“What? What did they do?”

“You know. The rag-head tried to, you know, mess with her. Amelia barely got away. Had to take off her slippers to run.” Well… she did take off her slippers, right?

“Hold up, man, hold up.” Ames’s voice was angry now. “He tried to rape her? That’s what you’re saying, right?”

Chad felt a sense of unease creep over him. This white lie was going a bit further than he’d intended. But he was committed now. He couldn’t back up without losing all credibility.

“Yup. The guy’s a predator.”

“Did you call the cops?”

“Of course. They even arrested him.” That was true enough. “But the cops couldn’t do a thing. They let him out the next day. We have to do something.”

“Count me in, buddy. That sonofabitch won’t be able to walk when I’m done with him. I’m going to kick his nuts until they come out of his ears.” Ames’s voice held rage and firmness of purpose. Exactly what Chad wanted to hear.

When he was done with the call, Chad walked into the house, smiling to himself. Bram would be down too, he was sure. Dude was a sheep. Chad could manipulate him into anything. They would put such a beatdown on that rag-head. Chad considered… It would be cool to really crush the guy’s arms and legs, destroy them so he’d never walk right again. Stomp on his fingers too. And if he could get that hot mama psycho bitch alone, he could teach her a lesson too. Not rape her, just mess with her a bit. Show her how to respect the white race.

He spotted the tray of bak-bak on the kitchen counter. He was pretty hungry, actually. He took one and tried a tiny, testing nibble. Oh – my – God. It was delicious. The layers of pastry were crunchy and sweet, held together by honey it seemed like, with a dusting of crushed pistachios on top. Holy swastika. He devoured the little square pastry and grabbed another. As he ate, he considered. He’d need to make some notes and plan this thing right. It was finally coming together.

* * *

Next: Part 4 – The Psychology of Forgiveness

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

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

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

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#Culture

Death in a Valley Town, Part 2 – The Black Jesus

Yahya took a few steps toward the phone and stopped. A muscular, brown-skinned man with numerous tattoos on his chest and arms sat huddled on the concrete bench, pressed into the corner. He wore no shirt or shoes, and his thick arms were wrapped around his torso as he shivered. His eyes were red slits.

Sword and sheath
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Previous Chapters of Death in a Valley Town1. Moving Day. Author’s note, 1-5-2020: It’s been a while since I posted Chapter 1. Please go back and re-read it, as I expanded it and added some important details. I also changed the title, which was formerly”To Kill a Muslim”.

The Slap

At first everything had gone beautifully. Seeing the raghead dropped like a buck in hunting season, that had been awesome! Chad cheered and laughed, shouting, “Pick it up, pick it up!” What his coach used to shout at him when he was jumping hurdles. He liked to shout it at random, exciting moments. It made him feel like an authority figure. He watched gleefully as the cops carted the miserable sand chigger away, probably to Guantanamo where he belonged.

Now it was going sideways. Angry neighbors surrounded him on the porch, arguing with him and each other. They’d seen the two officers questioning him and had figured out that it was he who called them. One of those stupid cops accused him of filing a false police report. He said detectives would be around later to question Chad further, and that “filing a false report of terrorism” was a federal crime! Unbelievable. He’d caught a terrorist on his own street and now he was the criminal?

“He was right to call them!” shouted Eggers, the short, chubby guy from four houses down who owned three pit bulls and wore a t-shirt that said, “You stomp on my flag, I stomp on your ass.” “We don’t want their kind on our street. We have to keep our kids safe.”

“You don’t have kids,” retorted the dark haired, wide-hipped lady who walked five miles every day. She was Armenian or some crap. Not as bad as camel huggers, but not really white either.

“Yes I do, just because they live with my ex, so what, my point stands.”

“It’s racist,” another woman interjected. That was the blond lesbian from the corner, the one whose grown daughter lived in a camper in front of the house. “Muslims have as much right to live here as anyone. We have freedom of religion in America.” She pointed an accusing finger at Chad. “You had no right to do that.”

“Shut up dy*e!” Jessica, the teenager from directly across the street, was red in the face, spit flying from her mouth. Chad knew she had a crush on him. Pimply-faced little nitwit was always trying to bum a beer off him. He’d seen her drinking with some stoners at Dry Creek Park once and had taken her into the bushes and made out with her, but she reeked of old sweat overlaid with strawberry perfume, and he had no desire to repeat the experience.

“Don’t talk to Chad that way,” Jessica went on. “At least he’s standing up for the white race.”

“I’m not racist,” Chad muttered. “I’m not against anyone. But coloreds should know their place and stick to their own kind. And Muzzies are different, they’re raghead terrorists. Not normal like us.”

“Oh my God,” Alan said. He was a married father who lived right next door to where the Muzzies were moving in. He taught school at Alhambra High. “This is sickening. Where are our youth getting these ideas?”

Chad snickered at Alan’s use of the word youth. What did the dork think this was, a PBS program? Fairy.

Alan addressed himself to Chad and Jessica. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Do you know those words? That’s from our Declaration of Independence. Do you know what self-evident means? It means anyone with a mind and a heart can see that all human beings are the same, we’re all equal. That was written almost two hundred fifty years ago.”

“We don’t care about your stupid declaration,” Jessica retorted.

“All your opinions don’t mean squat,” Chad said. “‘Cause the cops agree with me. That’s why they arrested the raghead’s ass. Proves I’m right.”

“You’re not right,” Alan the teacher insisted. “I saw everything. The police’s actions were abusive and illegal, and I’m going to make sure everyone knows it, including the cops, the city council and the TV news. And you, Chad Barber, will be charged with filing a false police report, and you’ll be billed for the cost of the city services you wasted, which I’m guessing will be around one hundred thousand dollars.”

That was when Chad’s mom appeared, hungover and red-eyed, hair plastered to one side of her face, shielding her eyes from the light. It took her a minute to understand what had transpired, at which point she turned to Chad and slapped him hard across the cheek. “You little moron,” she growled, her upper lip curling in disgust. “We don’t have money to pay any damn fines! If they bill us a single red cent I’ll take it out of your hide, I swear to God. I thought I was free of your dad’s racist garbage. But you’re an idiot just like he was.”

Chad thought he was beyond caring what his drunken slut of a mother thought, but her words pierced his heart. He hardly cared about the slap – that was nothing – but hearing her insult him in front of all these people make him shrink up inside like a wounded child. He threw his beer can on the grass and stomped into the house.

“And fix this damned-to-hell porch!” his mother screamed after him.

They were all against him, but he didn’t care. He’d show them he was right. If that raghead got out of jail, Chad would beat the truth out of him. Pick it up, pick it up. Then people would realize that Chad was a hero for standing up for his race. As for his mother, she would get hers when RaHoWa came, that was for sure. Especially since one of her boyfriends was black. Wait, Chad thought. I don’t believe in RaHoWa, do I? It was confusing sometimes, trying to remember what was true and what wasn’t. The Muzzies were evil though, that much was sure, and Chad intended to make a lesson out of this new neighborhood raghead, no matter what it took.

Mwanga

Sword and sheath

Yahya ran up a forest path. He was muscular, his calves and thighs as hard as iron, his bare feet calloused. He wore furs, and his beard was long and full. In each hand he carried a sword, one as long as his arm and the other half that length. The swords’ surfaces were engraved with writings that detailed all he had seen and learned in life. There was a lot of it, for he had traveled far and fought many evil men and vicious beasts.

He must get north. The tribes were not expecting him, but he carried a message that must get through. The path became rocky, with stone outcroppings on either side. Soon a sheer cliff face loomed, blocking his way. He’d known this would happen, for this formation ran for thousands of miles, dividing the southern lowlands from the northern highlands. But he’d heard rumors of a cave system that ran beneath the mountains and emerged on the northern side. He prowled the base of the cliff until he found a sinkhole. Dropping into it, he discovered a cave opening. He entered, and the darkness swallowed him like the throat of a dragon. How would he proceed in this sightless void?

His swords began to glow. This did not surprise him, for they were objects of power. By their light he ran, squeezing through fissures and occasionally strapping the swords to his back in order to climb. Relying on his internal sense of direction, which was extraordinary, he found a tunnel that ran north. It was so large that the light of the swords did not reach the roof. Soon he began to sense movement above. Things scurrying, creeping. He raised the swords and shouted, “Mwanga!” and the blades blazed with brightness like tiny suns.

Leathery creatures with bright fangs seethed across the roof of the cave, covering it. Their eyes were dead black, and their winged bodies long and serpentine. They crawled and slithered over and under each other, so that the entire ceiling appeared alive. When the light hit them they shrieked. For a moment they froze, only their obsidian eyes moving, tracking him. Their muscles bunched. They attacked.

Yahya spun, wielding both swords simultaneously. He ducked, rolled, and leaped as the weapons blazed. Battling without thought, operating purely on instinct and sanguinary experience, he cleaved monstrous heads from leathery bodies, severed scaly torsos, and littered the cave floor with wings and limbs. Even as he fought he never stopped moving north, driving his way through, the swords slicing, spinning, chopping. The creatures bit his shoulders, arms and legs, even his face. They slashed with claws and clubbed with tails. The air was coppery and hot with blood.

Finally, daunted by Yahya’s prowess and his terrible, frightening swords, the creatures retreated. Leaving bloody footsteps, Yahya ran on.

After what seemed like days of running and might indeed have been so, the tunnel narrowed and the roof came down to his head. Abruptly the tunnel ended in a stone door. It glittered with inlaid gems arrayed in mystical patterns, and was carved with the words ni wenye haki tu. Only the righteous. Yahya knocked and waited, then louder. Nothing. He pushed with his shoulder, but the door would not budge. He took a deep breath. His entire body pulsed and burned with the pain of myriad cuts, bite wounds and bruises. He gathered the last of his energy, took a deep breath, invoked the name of God silently and touched the door with the tip of his right index finger.

The door swung open. Bright sunlight flooded in, making Yahya squint. When his vision adjusted he saw a land of green grass and tall trees, and a great blue river that wound in the distance. Two women stood before him. They wore long multicolored robes and scarves on their heads, and their mahogany faces were serious.

“What do you bring?” one asked.

“A message.”

“And?”

What else did he have of value? Only his swords. He held them up, crossing the blades. But they were books, one large and one small, the covers glinting with inlaid gold lettering. On one cover shone the words, “You were on the edge of a pit of fire,” while the other said, “He saved you from it.”

The women stepped aside. “Welcome home,” one said.

“No,” Yahya replied. “I have no home. I’m an orphan. No center, cave, clan or tribe. No one, nothing, nowhere.”

* * *

Something jostled him and he opened his eyes. Were the creatures attacking again? No… that was a dream. But reality was just as strange. He was lying on the back seat of a car with his hands restrained behind his back. And – pain. It hit him like a train with no brakes, making his breath catch in his throat. His entire body ached, including his head. His lips were swollen and split.

Two men were talking in the front seat as the car jounced over a potholed road. A metal screen separated the back seat from the front, and Yahya realized he was in a police car. He tasted blood, and there was a wetness on the side of his head and neck that might be yet more blood. His left arm in particular was on fire. His kufi was gone and one of his pant legs was torn from the knee to the ankle, exposing a lacerated and bloody shin. Then he remembered… They’d Tased and beaten him. For no reason at all. No warning. He was about to speak up and protest when the words of the officers in the front seat pierced his mind’s fog.

“You know that was wrong, Jay,” said the cop in the passenger seat. “We messed up. The guy did nothing wrong. We need to take him to the hospital, not to booking.”

“Shut up,” the driver said. “You don’t say another word. We responded to a report of suspicious activity. We ordered this son of a bitch to lie down, but he resisted arrest. For all we knew he had a weapon or an explosive vest. We acted to protect the citizens of this town.”

“That’s B.S. and you know it,” the passenger said, but the certainty had gone out of his voice.

“Don’t tell me what I know, you boneheaded rookie. You say exactly what I told you to say, or it’s your job and mine and maybe worse, you understand?”

“Yeah,” the passenger cop muttered. “I understand, sarge.”

The conversation died. A fresh wave of agony hit Yahya like a cricket bat. Beating him like a bat. Rat-a-tat-tat. He gritted his teeth, then spoke. “Officers, I need medical attention. I think my arm is broken.”

The two cops looked back in surprise. The passenger was the young red haired cop who’d Tased him. The other – the sergeant – was a middle-aged cop with a beer belly and a thick head of salt and pepper hair. “Shut up,” the sergeant growled. “You don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. One more word and I’ll stop this car and kick your ass again.”

“Why?̈” Yahya did not fear the man’s threats. Let them do what they would. La ilaha il-Allah.

The sergeant turned and shot Yahya a quizzical look. “What do you mean why? Because I can, that’s why.”

“But why would you want to hurt me? Your job is to protect and to serve. I’m a citizen of this town like any other.”

“Can you believe this freaking guy?” the sergeant said to his fellow cop. Then, addressing Yahya again, “You’re no citizen, you’re a criminal.”

“What crime? What am I charged with?”

“Trespassing for starters. Menacing, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, assault on a police officer. You’re going down, douche.”

“Trespassing? That’s my house you arrested me at. I’m a rideshare driver. My wife is a doctor at Alhambra Community Hospital.” He saw the two men exchange looks. They hadn’t known any of that.

“I told you to shut up,” the sergeant repeated. Yahya realized nothing he said would make a difference. Maybe someone at the station would listen.

They did not.

The Black Jesus

Jail holding tank

He was led into the station limping and bloody, where he was fingerprinted and photographed, then deposited in a cube-shaped and locked booking room that contained a steel toilet, a molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall, and a payphone. The numbers of various bail bonds agents were written in ink on the wall beside the phone.

Thank goodness, Yahya thought. I can call Samira and let her know I’m alive. He wondered if it was time to break his fast. There was no clock on the wall. How much time had passed? He couldn’t think clearly. The pain in his arm was like a red sea whose waves broke over him again and again, pounding, carrying away his rational mind.

He took a few steps toward the phone and stopped. A massively muscular, brown-skinned man with numerous tattoos on his chest and arms sat huddled on the concrete bench, pressed into one corner of the square room. He wore no shirt or shoes, and his thick arms were wrapped around his torso as he shivered. His eyes were red slits. He was like a suffering mountain, so powerful and solid but mined and clear-cut, and reduced to a naked, frigid mass.

This was all so familiar, like a recurring nightmare. Scenes of his youth came back to him. Living as a foster child, doing his best to survive in facilities not unlike this one. He would make it through this, just as he had survived that. Hadn’t he been passed around from one uncaring family to another? Hadn’t he come through it all as strong inside as a baobab tree? Hadn’t Allah brought him to the deen, showing him a place where he would always be welcomed and loved, by God if none other? He would get through this. Be patient, he told himself. Be patient and trust Allah.

In spite of his own considerable pain, Yahya felt a wave of sympathy for the shirtless man. No matter how bad one’s situation, there was always someone who had it worse. He considered. He could not give the man his shirt, because then he’d be the one shivering. But he could give his shoes. He took them off and approached the man.

“You need these more than me,” Yahya offered, but the man did not respond. Yahya gently touched one rock-hard, tattooed arm. The shirtless man jerked in surprise, his eyes opening wide. He brought his hands up in fists and bared his teeth.

Yahya looked at the man’s light. It was a gift he had, something he discovered at the age of thirteen, when trying to tame a feral cat that lived in the buses near the foster home. He looked past the exterior and into the soul, at the same time relaxing his own chest and arms and exposing himself on a spiritual level. He saw the souls of others as thin, translucent sheets of color. Sometimes their faces displayed colors as well, often in swirls that changed and pulsed. Occasionally he saw auras of color surrounding the person’s entire body.

Whether he could truly see this or only imagined it, he did not know. No one knew about it except his twin sister Yusra. Even Hafsa didn’t know. Yusra was skeptical, and had been imploring him to see a doctor since they were young. He never told her that he had in fact gone to see a doctor when he was twenty and worked at the bottling plant. Six months after he got that job and completed the probationary period, his medical benefits kicked in. First he saw a GP, who referred him to a neurologist. The man diagnosed him with a condition called synesthesia, in which the senses became crossed, so that stimulation of one cognitive pathway carried over into another pathway. In some people, letters and numbers took on color. Others saw colored shapes or even fireworks when they heard ordinary environmental noises like car horns or vacuum cleaners. Still others saw music as three dimensional lines that moved through space.

There was no treatment, since synesthesia was not considered an illness, but simply a difference in perceptual experience.

Yahya rejected the entire diagnosis. This so-called explanation could not account for what happened when he looked at someone’s light. Often he gained deep insights into the person’s history and character – insights that were proven true as he learned more about the person. And there was something else. The mere act of looking at someone’s light seemed to trigger a response in that person. Angry people softened, becoming, if not friendly, at least relaxed. Violent people calmed down and seemed to forget what had provoked them. It was not something Yahya could do at will, however. It took time and focus, and sometimes left him feeling physically and emotionally drained.

He relaxed now, focusing on this man’s light, and opening himself. This man’s soul was a deep, rich brown, but with thin streaks of angry red and washed-out yellow. Black and red swirled over his face, indicating confusion and pain.

As Yahya studied the man’s light, he sent a mental message to it: “Be calm. Be at peace.” The living mountain uncurled his fists and lowered his hands. His jaw relaxed and he stared at Yahya dumbly.

“Take these shoes,” Yahya repeated. His limbs were suddenly weak. The shoes felt heavy in his hand.

“Que?”

The man did not speak English. Yahya drew upon his mediocre Spanish. “Zapatos. Para ti. Gratis. Free.”

He knew, from his own experience in such situations, that the man might suspect an ulterior motive. But Yahya had none. He wasn’t trying to buy the man’s protection against other inmates, nor store up a marker for a future favor. Nor was he calling upon God with a quid pro quo: God, accept this act of charity and free me from this trouble. He did not believe in such things. One did not make deals with God.

No, it was just… There was a hadith he’d learned, a narration of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that was always in his mind: “On every person’s joints or small bones, there is (the obligation of) sadaqah (charity) every day the sun rises. Doing justice between two people is sadaqah; assisting a man to mount his animal, or lifting up his belongings onto it is sadaqah; a good word is sadaqah; every step you take towards prayer is sadaqah; and removing harmful things from pathways is sadaqah.”

Yahya often thought that many Muslims did not realize the profundity of this statement. It wasn’t just an admonition to do some miniscule good deed every day. It described a radical way of approaching the world. The small bones of which the hadith spoke were the bones of the hand, or so Yahya had read. The hand was the instrument of creation. A man’s hands built, shaped, struck. They were symbols of power. It seemed to Yahya, therefore, that this hadith represented a declaration that kindness and charity were powerful forces of the universe, like gravity and combustion. Removing a harmful thing from the road, as the hadith suggested, could mean picking up a discarded beer bottle, sweeping up broken glass, or even scooping up animal excrement. This might be seen by some as degrading. It was the work of a janitor or a street sweeper, people who in some societies would be untouchables of the lowest caste. Lifting a man onto his mount was the work of a servant. Speaking a good word was something even a child could do. It required neither position nor power.

Yet in the sight of God such acts were not expressions of lowness but of personal and elemental righteousness. They drew one close to God, and that could only be a good thing. Yahya knew that these thoughts would probably make no sense to anyone else. But they drove nearly all his personal interactions.

He extended the shoes toward the man, nodding his head in a way that said, “Here, take them, please.”

The living mountain took the shoes with shaking hands. His gaze traveled up and down, taking in Yahya’s dark skin, black beard and bloodied head. His eyes opened wide. “El Jesus Negro!” he breathed. “Dios mio!” At which point he fell to his knees before Yahya and pressed his palms together in supplication. “Ayuda me! No cuestiono su plan, señor. Por favor, dile a nuestro padre que soy un siervo agradecido.”

What on earth? If Yahya understood correctly, the man had just called him “the black Jesus.” Clearly the poor fellow was delusional or drugged.

He turned toward the phone and was suddenly overcome by a wave of dizziness. He stumbled and put a hand on the wall. He put a hand to his forehead. His skin was cold and clammy. He had been badly beaten and was in terrible pain already. Looking at the man’s light had drained the last of his energy. His heart was beating so fast you could play a Kenyan benga song to it. Boom-cha-cha-boom cha-cha-boom. Like the Joseph Kamaru song. Wendo wa cebe cebe. The motion of the cube, but the cube was this room. His eyelids came down like a winter sunset, and he was only vaguely aware that he was falling.

He heard shouting in Spanish. His eyes were half open but he saw nothing, or if he did he could make no sense of it. He was aware only of the brightness of the overhead light, which conversely seemed to provide no warmth, actually sucking heat away, as if its function had been reversed. The concrete was freezing against his cheek. The cold deepened, becoming a sphere or tunnel that narrowed around him, tightening like the tunnel he’d been in earlier. Or had that been a dream? He couldn’t remember anymore.

* * *

Next: Part 3 – A Fighter and a Thief

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

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

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

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#Life

I Encountered A Predator On Instagram

A predator on Instagram posing as a hijab modeling consultant, going by the name of @samahnation, tried to prey on me- an underage, 16-year-old. We don’t know if the photos on Instagram page have been stolen from a victim. These predators operate under various names.

instagram predator
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It was a Wednesday night in April and as I was getting ready to go to bed, a direct message popped up in my Instagram inbox. A little background; my personal  account on Instagram is private and it is rare that I let anyone, whom I do not know, follow me. But seeing that this was a grown “woman” with a baby and I had at least seven mutual friends, I let her follow me. 

I will say, I was definitely in the wrong to respond to someone I didn’t personally know. Somehow I thought her 105K followers gave her credibility. 

I was gravely mistaken. 

I opened the direct message. 

She had sent me a message complimenting me. This wasn’t new to me because I often get messages with compliments about my appearance from friends — we are teenagers. However, the stark difference was that I didn’t know this person at all. (I came to learn that these types of messages can go under the category of grooming). After complimenting me, she asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company. 

Many young women are targeted by predators on Instagram. Here is my story. 'After complimenting me, 'she' asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company.'Click To Tweet

I replied, saying that if I had more details I’d consult with my parents and give her an answer the next morning; to which she responded demanding she must have an answer the same night as she had other offers to make. 

I then went to ask my mother. Mama was sick with the flu, quite woozy, but despite her state she said,

“this sounds like a scam to me…”.



I decided to play along with it and test her. 

I told @samahnation to tell me more and how I could verify her and her company. She then sent me numerous copied and pasted answers —hecka long— about how I could trust her; how the company would pay me and how they will still make money in the meantime. 

hijab modeling scam

Thankfully, I was apprehensive during the entire ordeal, but as you can see, this type of manipulation is so real and possible for young women and girls to fall prey. This experience was honestly quite scary and jarring for me. I was so easily distracted by what she was portraying herself as on her profile. She had a GoFundMe for a masjid in her bio and posts of photos depicting her love for her baby.
predator

I began to do some research. I stumbled upon an article about a ‘Hijab House’ model scam. Using the title of ‘consultant director’ for a well-known hijab company, Hijab House, predators were allegedly preying on young girls in Australia. Hijab House has denied any link to this scam. 

Hijab House model scam

 

The predator went as far as to blackmail and pressure their victims into sending nude photos, or doing crazy things like smelling shoes! Eerily enough, @samahnation’s Instagram bio stated that she was based in Melbourne, Australia.


The more I engaged with this predator, the more ludicrous their responses and questions got. And this happened within the span of 24 hours. 

She went as far as to ask me if I would answer questions for a survey, saying all that mattered was honesty and that the purpose of the survey was to make me uncomfortable to see if I “won’t fall under pressure.”

Clearly, this last statement about being a speech analysis specialist was a complete fabrication. Again, may I reiterate that even older people can fall prey. You don’t have to be young and impressionable, these manipulative perpetrators will do anything to get what they want.



As shown below, the situation reached an obscene level of ridiculousness. You can see clear attempts to gaslight me and pressure me into answering or changing my stance on my replies.


This was the last thing I said to the predator before I blocked and reported them in an attempt to get them caught. Observe how as soon as I called this person out they immediately became defensive and tried to manipulate me into thinking that what they were doing and asking me was completely normal- that I was the crazy one for asking for proof. 

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. They had asked me questions I found too lewd to even answer or take screenshots of.

This bizarre encounter was honestly astonishing. I do not even know if I was talking to a man or a woman.

Alhamdullilah, I am so glad because even if I was a little bit gullible, I was aware enough about predatory behavior that I didn’t fall victim to this perpetrator. I am especially grateful for my mother, who has educated me about predators like this from a very young age; whom even in her drowsy state was able to tell me it was a preposterous scam.

I could have been blackmailed.

Talk to your parents or a trusted adult

I am grateful for having an open channel of communication, that my relationship with my mother is based on trust and I could go to her when this occurred. This is a reminder and a learning opportunity for all of us how these scary things can happen to anyone. We must learn how to take caution and protect ourselves and our (underage) loved ones against such situations.

Sis, please talk to your parents. They love you and will be your first line of defense.

Grooming

Grooming is a very common tactic online predators use to gain the trust of their victim. According to InternetSafety101, young people put themselves at great risk by communicating online with individuals they do not know on a personal level. “Internet predators intentionally access sites that children commonly visit and can even search for potential victims by location or interest.

If a predator is already communicating with a child, he or she can piece together clues from what the child mentions while online, including parents’ names, where the child goes to school, and how far away the child lives from a certain landmark, store, or other location.
Online grooming is a process which can take place in a short time or over an extended period of time. Initial conversations online can appear innocent, but often involve some level of deception. As the predator (usually an adult) attempts to establish a relationship to gain a child’s trust, he may initially lie about his age or may never reveal his real age to the child, even after forming an established online relationship. Often, the groomer will know popular music artists, clothing trends, sports team information, or another activity or hobby the child may be interested in, and will try to relate it to the child.”

These tactics lead children and teens to believe that no one else can understand them or their situation like the groomer. After the child’s trust develops, the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosity about sex. Predators often use pornography and child pornography to lower a child’s inhibitions and use their adult status to influence and control a child’s behavior.

They also flatter and compliment the child excessively and manipulate a child’s trust by relating to emotions and insecurities and affirming the child’s feelings and choices.

Predators will:

* Prey on teen’s desire for romance, adventure, and sexual information.
* Develop trust and secrecy: manipulate child by listening to and sympathizing with child’s problems and insecurities.
* Affirm feelings and choices of child.
* Exploit natural sexual curiosities of child.
* Ease inhibitions by gradually introducing sex into conversations or exposing them to pornography.
* Flatter and compliment the child excessively, send gifts, and invest time, money, and energy to groom the child.
* Develop an online relationship that is romantic, controlling, and upon which the child becomes dependent.
* Drive a wedge between the child and his/her parents and friends.
* Make promises of an exciting, stress-free life, tailored to the youth’s desire.
* Make threats, and often will use child pornography featuring their victims to blackmail them into silence.”

Gaslighting 

Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting? 

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. “Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed. For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind,” writes Dr Stephanie Sarkis. 

Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting? Click To Tweet

Recognizing signs that you may be a victim of gaslighting:

Second guessing. Are you constantly second guessing yourself when talking to this person or questioning your own morals that you wouldn’t have thought twice about otherwise? For example, when this person popped up in my inbox I wouldn’t have thought twice about blocking or just deleting the message if it was a man but, since it seemed to be a woman I was duped into thinking that it was more acceptable or I could trust them more.

Feeling as if you are being too sensitive. Again I cannot emphasize this enough that you must trust your instincts, if you are feeling uncomfortable and your internal alarm bells are ringing- listen to them! Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting or manipulation. 

Feeling constantly confused. Another sign that you may be falling victim to gas lighting is when you are constantly confused and second guessing your thoughts and opinions.

Three takeaways:

1. Trust your instincts (I’m going to reiterate this, always trust your gut feeling, if you feel like you are uncomfortable whether it’s a situation you are in or if you don’t have a good feeling while talking to a certain person I advise you exit the chat or don’t answer in the first place.)
2. Never answer to someone whom you don’t know. I will say this was my first and biggest mistake that I have made: allowing this person’s messages into my inbox, and replying to their ridiculous claims and questions. Now that I think about it I don’t even know if this was a woman or not.
3. Set your boundaries! This is probably the most important tip to take away from this article. Setting up your boundaries from the beginning is so important. Whether it is a friend, partner or colleague, if you do not set your boundaries from the beginning of your interaction or relationship with that person; people will not respect your limits and choices later on. Especially if your boundaries have to do with religion, moral compasses, or even specific pet peeves you have. I cannot emphasize how much boundaries matter when it comes to any daily interaction you may have in your daily life.

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