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Why I Walked Out Of The Film, Bilal

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By Umm Muhammad

As a mother of a preteen, who gets easily hooked on cartoon characters and conventional superheroes, I not only wanted, I needed the movie, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, to work. I desperately wanted the hero in the film to replace his constant chattering about Superman, Dragon Ball Z, and Ninjago. I was looking forward to the lively discussions that this highly anticipated, animated masterpiece would spark. It would be magical. My son, who has been fixated on Captain Underpants and Lego characters in recent weeks, would finally have something more positive to obsess about.

Before you digress to judging my parenting, rather than understand my review, I want to offer some points for clarity:

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No, we don’t allow TV at home. Whatever my children watch is limited and monitored.

No, my son does not play videogames.

No, my son does not own a smartphone, or any phone for that matter. Neither does he have a tablet nor any type of computer. His computer use is for school assignments only, with parental controls in place.

No, he does not spend days and nights at strangers’ houses or unsupervised where he has access to these things. Mostly, he has learned about mainstream cartoon characters at Islamic school.

We consider ourselves a moderately religious Muslim family; we believe in the Oneness of Almighty God, we pray, we fast Ramadan and some extra, we give in charity, and insha’Allah we will go for Hajj when we can afford it. When I say moderate, I mean we try our best, but we don’t consider ourselves perfect and acknowledge that there is always room for improvement.

Now, with all this in mind, let’s get back to the movie, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero. It filled me with excitement to think about watching it with my family. As soon as I saw the trailer, some time ago, it sparked my interest. I was only slightly skeptical about what I felt may have been the deliberate whitewashing of Bilal ibn Rabah, with his character’s soft, flowing cornrows of hair, light complexion, and honey brown eyes, he didn’t seem to be what I had envisioned Bilal to be; but admittedly, I don’t know how dark or light-skinned he really was. I only assumed because of previous portrayals of Bilal in films I had seen and ahadith that I had read.

I knew that there would be fictional elements in the film. This movie was made for a larger audience and with a more generally acceptable theme of racial equality, a lesson we all need now during these controversial times. However, I did not expect it to be completely disconnected from Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as it would be impossible to highlight the historical value and status of Bilal ibn Rabah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) without speaking about the very person who helped raise him to that rank.

Before purchasing our tickets, we read other reviews which provided some insight and fair warnings about the absence of the Prophet in the movie, and the benefit of teaching our children about the real history prior to viewing the film. I also knew that the film was rated PG-13, and I honestly thought that it was just due to the battle scenes, which were nothing new to us, after having already learned about and seen countless portrayals of famous battles between the Muslims and their opponents. Regardless of all of this, we were still amped to watch the movie because, whether Bilal stayed true to historical facts or not, it was still about Bilal, an unconventional Muslim hero of color.

After hurrying to buy our popcorn, pretzels, candy and drinks, we rushed to grab our seats, expecting a full house, but luckily, there were only a handful of people in the theater room for the 2pm showing. The kids knew that they may see things in the movie that differed from what they saw in the cartoon, Muhammad: The Last Prophet (Badr International, 2002), the movie, The Message (Akkad, 1976), and others. They were just happy to be at the movie theater and ready to see the famous Bilal from a whole new perspective. After enduring some grueling previews of mostly British family films, with some odd comedy which seemed inappropriate for children, it finally began.

My excitement turned into anxiety with the first scene. Huge, dark, red-eyed horses glared through a black night galloping wildly and viciously towards some unknown target. Their riders, ominous figures, clad in heavy armor seemed to have ill-intentions. It was an opening that I had not expected. I became uneasy and glanced at my children. They seemed fine so far. Then suddenly we got a glimpse at a young Bilal, pretending to be a brave warrior on a wooden horse. He and his sister play happily and their mother steps in when they get into a squabble. “Masha’Allah, just like my kids,” I thought, and I shot another glance at them, smiling. But then the shadowy horses took over the screen again, and the bright day became gloomy. Bilal’s mother instinctively runs and hides her children and then, we are given the impression, through sounds of her shrieking and the children’s looks of horror, that she is violently killed. Bilal struggles and breaks free from his hiding place, only to be snatched by the irate soldiers.

After this disturbing scene, we find ourselves in Makkah, getting a glimpse of the Arabian city in pre-Islamic times. We come to understand that this is a new home to a slightly older Bilal and his sister, where they are now living as slaves. The depiction of Makkah is darker than in other films, with demonic looking characters, and one of the things I found most thought-provoking was that some of the characters use wooden tribal masks, which resemble those used in African religious ceremonies. These masks are often used to represent spirits and demons, and to my knowledge, they were not part of Arabian culture. One character, apparently some type of soothsayer, is shown using one of these costumes with an evil-looking wooden mask and matching sharp nails, surrounded by the people in the marketplace urging them to give their money to the idols. His mysterious nature and eerie voice made me feel uneasy, and both my husband and I were convinced it was a representation of none other than Satan, himself. That was a turn-off.

Nevertheless, we endured, watching as they zoomed in on the Kaabah and its surroundings. Not surprisingly, it was encircled by the familiar idols we have all learned were revered during that time, but one stood out. It was a peculiar sight, for it stood not around or near the Kaabah, but on top of it. It was the most offensive thing that I saw during this whole experience. A statue of a bearded man, of muscular build, with the horns of a ram twisted around the sides of his head, sitting menacingly on top of the Kaabah, overlooking the city. The statue is very similar to what is known as Baphomet, a deity that the Knights Templars, better known as the Crusaders, were accused of worshipping in the 14th Century. It was, to us, a blatant and very deliberate Satanic symbol on what is the holiest place on Earth, the House of Allah. It is an utterly disrespectful image that I would not expect to see from an enemy of Islam, much less in a film produced by Muslims. As distasteful as it was, I continued to watch, hoping for something better to come, so as to outweigh the bad.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came when we were introduced to the character of a young Safwan ibn Umayyah, the son of one of the staunchest opponents of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and cruel slave master to Bilal ibn Rabah. Although he is a youngster, his appearance is sinister, and his personality is sadistic. His skin is pale and grayish and his eyes, black and full of malice. I found this to be offensive to the legacy of Safwan raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), who becomes a Muslim after the conquest of Mecca, and later lives on to wholeheartedly support Islam. Depicting him in his earlier years as a repulsive sociopath as this film does is detrimental to his reputation and character as a defender of the faith and an insult to any Muslim who respects the companions and their contributions to Islam. This is why scholars have warned against depictions of the companions, but unfortunately, we stubbornly continue seeking this type of halal “edutainment.”

When the young, gothic-looking Safwan and some of his friends, one of which is also wearing one of the mysterious wooden tribal masks, begin attacking Bilal’s sister for no apparent reason, Bilal steps in to help. A fight ensues and news of this reaches Umayyah, the father, who decides to punish both his son and Bilal. His words are severe and abusive to both children, which I also found very distressing and unsuitable. However, it was the physical punishment that finally led me to lean over to my husband and ask him if we could leave. The character of Umayyah throws Bilal to the ground in a manner so vicious and unexpected, that I had to look away.

I had hoped that the violence in the beginning minutes of the film would be the worst of it until they showed the torture of Bilal, something we were more familiar with, but unfortunately, it was only the beginning of the disturbing imagery that we would be subjected to. I find that 3D computer animated characters are so humanlike that our response to them is different than if they were a more traditional cartoon. It was almost as if I was seeing a real adult male brutally beating a young child, without being able to react. I feel like someone who has suffered through physical or verbal abuse or any childhood trauma may be sensitive to some of the content in this film.

When I whispered to my husband, “Should we go?” He immediately said, “Yes,” as if he had been hoping I would ask for some time. I looked over at the kids, and they looked pained and confused. This is what I had feared; they saw too much already. It was time to go. I quickly grabbed our belongings and told them to step outside. They followed us out of the theater, and when they asked us why we were leaving, we explained that the movie was too violent and it was not a good depiction of the companions. They didn’t complain.

I immediately wanted to warn others on Islamic forums not to make the same mistake I had, but I was met with resistance from families that have sat through the whole film and enjoyed it. As with all things in life, people have their own opinions and reasoning. However, all I can say is walking out of the movie was my own personal, quiet protest. I felt a sense of pride when my family and I stood together, mid-film, and walked away while others sat bewildered. Despite spending our money on tickets and popcorn, despite taking time out of our Saturday and driving all the way to the theater, and despite what anyone says about how great it may be to them, we could not sit through a movie that, just within its first 15-20 minutes, insulted the legacy of the companions and our beloved holy site, thus disrespecting Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and Islam, itself.

And as the legacy of Bilal ibn Rabah’s life teaches us to never back down and to be proud of who we are, thus we celebrate our hero and stand to protect his honor.

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40 Comments

40 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Muhammad

    February 5, 2018 at 4:37 PM

    While I did not like the Bilal movie entirety either (I do overall think it’s a better movie for our kids to be watching then most movies out there now a days), I honestly can’t believe your gripe is with the violence of pre-Islamic Arabia. If anything, that was the most accurate part of the movie. We cannot sugar coat our history and claim that the same people who shoved a spear through the private area of Summayah (R), threw camel insides on the Prophet (SAW), and boycotted their own cousins to the point of starvation would not shove a child slave to the ground and beat him up. That is how it was for the companions of the Prophet (SAW), especially for the ones in the lower class standings. The times we’re times of war, with brother torturing and killing brother (Musab (R) was chained down in his own house by his own mother!). I think it only adds to our respect and admiration of the companions to see what they went through and how far they went for the sake of Allah (SWT), and that’s what we should be teaching our kids.

    And Allah (SWT) knows best

  2. Avatar

    Hina

    February 5, 2018 at 8:52 PM

    What bothered me the most was the essence of Tawheed was almost completely missing from the movie. If I recall correctly there were o Lya one or two scenes that talk about the oneness of Allah SWT. It’s obvious that this film was made to a secular audience.
    Sister, had you stayed and seen the entire movie you would have seen how they show the softness , mercy and change in Safwan bin Ummayah’s personality – it was one of the most touching and emotional scenes

  3. Avatar

    Ilikedthemovie

    February 5, 2018 at 9:36 PM

    Really? The movie was not intended for young children, hence the rating.

    The kaba was adorned with/surrounded by idols in pre-Islamic Arabia. Why would a depiction of something historical offend the author? Once Mecca was under Muslim rule, the kaba was shown as cleared of all such idols. As for, horns of rams vs. whatever idol the author would rather fancy–really? Let’s give some creative license. The shape and look of the idols aren’t central to the movie.

    She and her husband are not “moderate,” they sound rigid. I wish they’d loosen up for their kids’ sake.

    Only valid point: what’s up with the light brown skin of Bilal?

  4. Avatar

    مسعود یونس

    February 5, 2018 at 11:01 PM

    Why I Stayed and Actually Enjoyed the Movie with My Family

    I do not recall when was the last time my kids had watch an animated movie with this interest. All the stories we have been telling them, the narrative of Islamic history that they heard and watched in the Omer Series, played out in front of them yet again.

    My 10 year and 7 year old actually would like to share this movie with their friends as they found it inspiring. Yes, INSPIRING.

    The movie has a story that is very close to actual events, though sometimes dramatized extensively, still not come across as way too off from any actual narrative. For kids growing up in the west, this is one of the best video in their video library.

    The movie will connect will audience of all kinds. After all it is an animated movie and targeted towards broader population so the religious narrative is in the backdrop but still leaves a powerful impact as the story telling is all about the “impact” of the deen on Bilal and other muslims. It had that impact on my family.

    I chose to stay in the movie and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I recommend others also take their families out and enjoy this masterpiece and show SUPPORT. We need more of these narratives and cannot afford to stereotype these efforts with dramatic article headlines like. Our kids need better stories to see and hear that Captain Underpants.

    BILAL: A NEW BREED OF HERO is the fresh air that our kids need today. Don;t demonize it. Appreciate it and provide constructive feedback so more of our brothers and sisters can take similar initiatives and help educate and inspire the next generation of ummah through creative story telling of stories that are still told in a very traditional manner.

  5. Avatar

    Gina Thunder

    February 6, 2018 at 11:38 AM

    Wait, Sister. I don’t understand. Why would you say “until they showed the torture of Bilal, something we were more familiar with”? You knew he was tortured, but it was so humanlike you connected with the pain of Bilal and that was too much for you and your children were distressed. That’s the point isn’t it? Aren’t we to connect with one another, to have empathy? Through that connection we make the case for justice, peace, solidarity and inalienable freedoms. That was a teachable moment.

    Why would you want the movie to leave out the idols, the beatings and Safwan’s hard heart? You mentioned white-washing of Bilal’s skin color, but what seems to offend you more is the creators didn’t “Walt Disney-ify” it. I’m Christian and even I know that lieing about historical truths is not haram. Safwan was evil, but look what God did for him to soften his heart and turned his face to worship Allah. That’s a teachable moment. Look at how the people and city were uplifted after they bent their knees not to idols but to God. Teachable moments.

    I’m looking forward to taking my family to see this movie. We’ve been connecting with another family who is Muslim to find additional resources to learn about Bilal. Every movie where people of color are the heroes and victors like Bilal and Marvel’s Black Panther we are grabbing on to them with dear life. There is no where else our children can go to see such diversity, courage and strength. I’m about sick of Doc McStuffins, Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon and Bino & Fino (the only cartoons my children are allowed to watch).

    Peace be unto you my dear Sister. Please forgive me if I said anything that was offensive to you or any other reader.

    • Avatar

      Rehana

      April 4, 2018 at 3:07 AM

      Sister if you wanted to shield your children from the brutality sahabas (companions) had to endure to lay the foundation of Islam then you should have taken them to a Walt dine movie. Don’t even bother reading to them the sirah because guess what, its the same brutality, hardship and suffering. The Kabah had 300 idols in it in the time of the prophet, and he (S.A.W) and his companions cleansed it from them on the day of fath makkah (when they conquered Makkah). As to the reason why Bilal was depicted lighter is because the muslim world is so racist that they would not be able to empathize with the character if he was any darker. sad but true. If he was depicted as a “black” person they would have said something along the lines of “oh its ok, those people are used to such a hard life”. so they made him lighter and luckily the effect has stuck. Next time check the PG rating and the advice at the start of the film and FOLLOW it instead of craping all over hard work of brilliant people to get people to read your post. If we put as much effort in supporting each other as we do in putting each other down to make ourselves look good as you and those with you then maybe our children could look up to us, the parents, for inspiration not a quick fix movie. May ALLAH guide us and you.

  6. Avatar

    Shafkat

    February 6, 2018 at 8:52 PM

    The movie was great.

  7. Avatar

    Siraj

    February 6, 2018 at 11:19 PM

    Sister, couldn’t you have watched the movie first before taking your kids?

  8. Avatar

    Sarah

    February 7, 2018 at 12:23 PM

    I don’t get why people are so upset about this movie. So what if he was white washed? So what if there was no message of Tawhid. This movie wasn’t made just for Muslims. The fact that a movie about Bilal came out and is playing in theaters all across America is a big deal. It takes baby steps to get the message of Islam across in the media. A message that isn’t just about terrorism. We should support the people who made this movie and show our kids that yes, they belong and can have relatable characters in the media. I wish I had movies like this and hijab wearing advertisements and barbie dolls when I was growing up. Our kids are lucky that even with all the hate, there is still the celebration of diversity that we lacked growing up in America.

  9. Avatar

    Yusuf Smith

    February 7, 2018 at 12:39 PM

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I always thought it was haraam to depict or play-act the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or the Sahaba. It’s not part of any Muslim tradition (it’s a strong tradition in Christianity) and none of us is worthy to be seen as one of them. Worse, this uses computerised images, and drawing images of humans or animals is haraam, yet Muslims think they are serving the Ummah by doing these things.

    I’ve seen The Message on video many years ago, and that film also cast as the villain Abu Sufyaan (radhi Allahu ‘anhu) who also later became Muslim and was a Sahabi. And although it did not depict the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or the ‘inner’ Sahaba, it made the mistake of assuming that the people depicted, including Bilal (radhi Allahu ‘anhu), were also-rans which they certainly were not.

  10. Avatar

    Nadia

    February 8, 2018 at 6:01 AM

    Assalaamu’alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh.

    First of all I would like to congratulate you for setting up those rules for your children. Indeed, we live in a dangerous era that such restrictions are necessary to ensure the safety of our children, particularly their deen. Seriously I would rather have my kids lead a “miserable” life in this temporary world we live in, but they are steadfast upon the deen and uphold the Tawheed. I’m glad you and your family walked out from the film. The best source for us muslims to learn about our beloved Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam and his companions radhiyallaahu ‘anhum is by studying the authentic hadeeths and seerah. The film only focuses on the slavery. Nothing about Islam in it, let alone Tawheed as the foundation of Islam. The film was made by a secular for secular audience. Allaahu yubaarik feeki.

    Wassalaamu’alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh.

  11. Avatar

    Rizwan

    February 8, 2018 at 10:37 AM

    I wouldn’t lean on feature movies to learn about Islam, let alone try to teach kids about Islam as their young minds are very impressionable. From the trailer, it’s clear that it’s a movie for older teens and adults and only for entertainment purposes. Thanks

    • Avatar

      Usman

      February 9, 2018 at 7:08 PM

      Thoughtful comment. Agreed 100%

  12. Avatar

    Katie Capone

    February 9, 2018 at 11:40 AM

    The truth will always survive. And you don’t want that, do you? No human being that has ever been born is perfect. Perfection is god God GOD Allah whatever. Never shield your children from the truth. It weakens them. Let them see what the truth is and let them think on their own. Stop manipulating your children into believing some man-made testament about the glory of god. His glory is all around us. Use the truth to educate. Do not shield the young from the world they are our future.

  13. Avatar

    just think

    February 15, 2018 at 8:13 PM

    when major american theaters allowed this movie then you should be alarmed and know there is something wrong.

  14. Avatar

    Monique Hassan

    February 19, 2018 at 2:10 PM

    Assalamu alaikum.

    The violence that happened was real, he amongst others were tortured and killed.

    I don’t hide this reality from my kid, they need to know what the sahaba endured, what the Prophet (saws) endured.

    I respectfully disagree, if they understand how violently they were treated they will have greater respect for their ability to stand firm in their faith and the fact he yelled out “ONE GOD” while being tortured as an adult.

    I would let kids watch the Omar series that shows this torture more life like. That is the reality and that harsh reality needs to be honored and understood, not sugarcoated.

    Just my humble opinion.

  15. Avatar

    Monique Hassan

    February 19, 2018 at 2:14 PM

    astagfurallah.

    How dare anyone say that to a Mother in Islam?!

    “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe” You don’t know her situation and family, even I don’t agree with her post at all, but she is a believer, she is your sister!

  16. Avatar

    Arif

    February 20, 2018 at 11:49 AM

    Being brutally honest, this is the worst review one can read trying to get a sense of the pros and cons of this movie. I came here to see if there were some honest critique. After reading this, all I got was a personal insensitive reaction to a cartoon. And the fact that the reviewer did not even watch the entire film to come and comment on it. This is one of the worst reviews I have ever read.

  17. Avatar

    razzaq hamdani CEO

    March 25, 2018 at 12:12 AM

    Islam described great reward to free a slave , it was not possible in early islam to abandon slavery. but rewards and virtues are described if you free a slave.

  18. Avatar

    jo

    April 22, 2018 at 1:10 AM

    The film is just awesome. A piece of art on every level.
    p.s. If you walked out, then how come you give yourself the leave to write a “thoughtful” critique about it?!!

  19. Avatar

    What is wrong with you

    May 10, 2018 at 12:58 PM

    I’m sorry but how do you not let your children watch TV or play video games? Are they just boring husks of people!

  20. Avatar

    Bilal

    July 6, 2018 at 12:18 AM

    Salaam. I respectfully disagree with you. The movie was excellent and it’s hard to take the wickedness out of slavery and idolatry. And I feel like the movie did a good job in depicting those things. As for the statue, yes the arabs worshipped those, even the horned guy on top and even worse than that. It wasn’t until Imam Ali (Pbuh) climbed onto the roof of the Kabaa and destroyed them. As for safwan, he wasn’t the holiest guy on earth, and he did do some pretty bad things. Some may argue that the only reason he joined the Prophet (Pbuh) is because he had no other choice.

    • Avatar

      Zayna

      October 16, 2019 at 1:40 PM

      Assalaamu alaikum akhi, the correct terminology to refer to Ali ibn Abi Talib is Radhiallahu anhu, not Peace be upon him.

      Also please refrain from making such silly assumptions about Safwan radhiallahu anhu and his intentions at his conversion to Islam. Barakallhu feek :)

  21. Avatar

    Mahfuz

    July 9, 2018 at 10:59 AM

    This is based on true events, and before Islam Arabia was a violent place. I have watched the whole movie and I thought it was great. I really loved it. Surely it couldn’t bring every aspect of his life in 1 hr 40 minutes but nonetheless it was a great one. Way better than most animated movies I see which makes no sense at all…. Very well done

  22. Avatar

    Ammar

    July 11, 2018 at 5:22 PM

    Thank you for posting this sister.
    I think the movie was alright but as others have said you missed the rating PG-13; children should not watch it without parents which for us muslims mean children should not see this at all until they reach the age of teens atleast.
    Other than that I think you made great points.
    For those that are criticising her that she should not be reviewing because she did not watch the whole movie are missing the fact that she is not a professional critic.
    More importantly, it’s even in the title…”Why I walked out of the Film”
    It assumes that she walked out of it in middle.

  23. Avatar

    Mohammed

    July 12, 2018 at 7:08 PM

    It’s actually well done.
    The direction this film takes and it’s intent is definitely in the right place.
    While the film makes no explicit reference to Islam and Muhammad (pbuh), key word being explicit. It still contains enough of the core message of Islam and is still interesting and inspiring enough to non-Muslim audiences. Yes the Prophet (pbuh) part in the story was kinda not there or severely downplayed which is unfortunate but the non explicit mentioning of Islam will also aid non-Muslims is realising what Islam really is without first judging it on their preconceived notion of what Islam is. Thus will help people learn about the true Islam.

  24. Avatar

    Dewi

    July 13, 2018 at 1:28 AM

    I think its a good movie, if you watched it till the end. How people and mecca changed after moeslem wins, its so different with the begining of this movie. Its way better??

  25. Avatar

    Linda Smith

    July 17, 2018 at 10:41 AM

    What amazes me the most is the fact that people actually believe that “they” are all good. My belief is better for the world and we look for love and peace. Muslims matter is no different than christians matter. It is a religion. It is a belief. When you are born you are born as a human being. Anything added is what you as a human being has added. What the Creator of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE has created is male and female. When you force your belief and your culture on someone else, IT IS EVIL. It was evil of Bilal and his sisters to be taken unto slavery by the good ole muslims. Open your eyes. Perhaps this story was told from the eyes of an African. And by the way, learn your history about the “middle east”. You will be surprised to learn that your presence wasn’t always there. Evil flows down and that evil interrupted culture that was already there. If you think about it, both religions flowed down into other cultures.

  26. Avatar

    Maleka

    August 7, 2018 at 2:38 PM

    I feel so bad that you have posted this article on a website that is well known and so many people can actually read it. There is so much wrong in this article. Nowhere in the movie, they have mentioned that this is the Kaaba, or this is any specific prophet. They did not even use the names of any religion. It is free from any insults or hidden meanings towards Islam. Most of your article is based on what “you thought” of the movie. The movie shows how and what people went through those times. Makkah was once a place where idols were worshipped. Before Islam that is how slaves were treated, that is what they have shown in the movie. For me, whenever I listen to the stories of Islam, I always think how I wish I was able to see it in real life, how I wish I could see it as a movie and this movie has done justice to that wish of mine. I could literally feel the pain and hardships that people went through for our deen. And there is another message in the movie for a greater audience (message of equality and message about racism). If someone did something good out there (keeping it safe, not using any names or relating it in anyway to our deen directly), praise it so that people can get o see more of our stories instead of putting it down.

  27. Avatar

    Mehmet Kaan Ulker

    September 1, 2018 at 7:09 AM

    I find this article null & void.

  28. Avatar

    saqib

    October 27, 2018 at 12:01 PM

    I agree you um muhammad thanx for giving time to represent your feeling to others on this movie.
    I was on starting when I felt they want to drive our thoughts to somewhere other side from Islam’s core values.
    when a “wiseman” come to bilal in front of holy Kaba and told him that “this holy place were built to live all humans together with peace here”.
    Yes, we should live together with peace but all human cannot live in makkah but muslims, because Allah ordered( al tobah) the Prophet MUHAMMAD peace be upon Him
    to restrict nonmuslims in makkah.
    And that statue placed on the top of the holy kaba is very offensive.
    I recommend to not let your children to see this kind of things so that thier faith would not ridden by nonsense people.

  29. Avatar

    Yahya

    November 16, 2018 at 3:12 PM

    I would like to start by saying that I watched the entire movie. Was it worth the time and hype? I would have to say no. It has some interesting points to be taken as a fictitious story based loosely on the life of Bilal.
    To begin with, there is factual inaccuracies. Bilal was not born in africa, he was born in mecca to slaves that were brought over (his parents) after the attempt by invaders to destroy the kaaba, and was born a slave already.
    There is no mention of a sister as far as I have looked into the life of Bilal. However he was considered one of the best slaves, and given the keys to the idol alter. He was caught by ummayah practicing islam and was indeed dragged through the streets, and tied down with a heavy stone on him.
    It was the prophet, who when he heard about Bilal’s torture sent Abu Bakr to negotiate for his release which by some sources was 3 slaves in return for Bilal (A pagan family).
    It was islam that preached equality, tolerance, justice, and fairness which was completely missing from the film. So is the fact that Bilal was the first caller to prayer due to the prophets appreciation of Bilal’s position as a former slave in promoting equality among islam’s people and his voice.
    Sufyan was a trader by nature and not a bad man. Look up his history before and after his conversion. Mecca was never burned to the ground like the movie, the followers of islam had their property burned, and they were exiled to medina.
    Perhaps the biggest disrespect in the show was showing the prophets nephew, Ali’s face. He is revered in Islam and his face is never shown.
    To a muslim believer this movie is sacrilege, and I’m surprised muslims defend it. As a fictitious movie sure it was nice, as a story of Bilal it was an affront to my faith.

  30. Avatar

    Ibrahim Ahmed

    November 20, 2018 at 4:11 AM

    Very well written article and excellent points. I was hyped for this so much and having just watched it, I could say the last third I felt disconnected and started looking at my phone. Very shocked at the blatant satanic symbolism and portrayal of the baphomet. I was left wondering throughout the whole movie how historically accurate this actually was. If its a means to propagate the values of Islam to a secular audience, then don’t defeat the purpose by censoring it. So awkward. Very violent, so no way my little nephews would be able to watch without getting afraid.

  31. Avatar

    DolceVita

    January 4, 2019 at 1:51 PM

    I don’t know what to say. All the historic accounts in the movie were fairly accurate. Why did u not stay until the end of the movie, it showed Safwan’s conversion to Islam and Bilal giving the Adhan for the first time. You are ok with ur kids watching all that violence with superman, batman, and all those other super heroes but u pull your kids out of the theater when it shows people fighting for equality and freedom. I seriously do not understand ur logic. It’s because of people like u, the movie went out of theater early when I was trying hard to find time to watch it in theaters with my kids. I had to wait till I could watch it on Amazon prime. How can u judge a movie when u haven’t watched the entire thing. It’s like judging a person without listening to the whole truth. Was extremely disappointed with ur review.

  32. Avatar

    Abdallah

    January 18, 2019 at 2:00 PM

    It seems that the people who made this movie where trying hard to appeal to western audience so they sacrificed the historical accuracy

  33. Avatar

    Logic works

    May 24, 2019 at 2:23 PM

    I don’t understand the point of this article or your style of parenting
    1. The movie is PG – 13, meaning, don’t bring your KIDS
    2. It’s extremely hard to sugar coat slavery and idolatry, you were offended that the kaba was adorned with idols? Are you offended by every history book you come across? These are facts, the kaba WAS adorned with idols. Why are you offended by facts
    3. Why leave a review on a movie you didn’t even watch?
    4. you stated you were already aware of violence about Bilals story but then were offended and offput when you saw the violence, but you expected it?! You sound dense and hypocritical.

    Also, please get a grip and have some real fun with your family and loosen up on your kids before they grow up feeling suffocated by their own mom

  34. Avatar

    Hinton

    January 14, 2020 at 8:29 PM

    I just what to say that, I am glad this film was made. I had no clue about these individuals in history or their religious connection to Islam. I decided to play this movie for my two boys (8 and 4) and they REALLY liked it. Even my 8 year old was upset at how the characters were being treated and was asking me so many questions about slavery. We are not a religious family, but have a christian background. I hope to see more films (animated or with actors) about Islam history and even other religions. We really enjoyed it.

  35. Avatar

    Hafith Mustafa Saeed

    April 1, 2020 at 12:48 AM

    Allah u guys all sound very much more than moderate. Rather than not giving ur children any freedom, give them freedoms with explaining right and wrong. As a child in 21st century America, most of my friends who’s parents did this became rebellious and I even know some who are closeted ex-Muslims. And the part about the Bilal movie not relating to Islam at all, it was partially related to
    Islam but I believe the main reason they chose not to fully show it as an Islamic movie was because they want to slowly show the world Muslims aren’t terrorists rather than shoving in their faces because then people might say, “Oh they are just trying to make us believe they are good”. By showing it slowly, they are showing that we are peaceful people and maybe with the hidaayah and guidance of Allah, they will embrace Islam one day, you never know. Jazakallah Khair for listening. I was blessed to have a solid good Islamic foundation and have completed hifth with Shaikh Ismail Al-Qadi. With my little knowledge this is what I have reasoned. Please feel free to Forgive and correct me on any shortcomings I may have had. One again جزاك الله

  36. Avatar

    Hunzla Naveed

    May 24, 2020 at 12:45 PM

    This is the history of Islam and the violence shown in this movie is the appreciation of the miseries and suffering of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, we don’t just label our kids as muslims and prevent them from learning the essence and what it takes to be a true believer and keep them in the comfort of kids zone.

  37. Avatar

    Briana

    August 10, 2020 at 11:31 AM

    I am a Catholic, just in case that matters. I watched the Arabic version of Bilal with English subtitles and it had slightly more obvious references to the Prophet than the Western version did: like when Bilal climbs the Kabba and put his fingers in his ears to start the call to prayer—the Western version does a full-stop right there. But the Arabic version cuts to the call to prayer and beyond (sorry, I’m not sure if he is singing Quranic verses, but maybe he is?), so I prefer the Arabic version. I was a little disappointed that they did not make the Islamic aspect more prominent, especially when we have such movies as The Prince of Egypt. But as was already stated, this was a secular movie and probably wanted to be more accepted in a Western audience where people, sadly, are still uncomfortable with Islam because they choose to be ignorant.

    What this movie made me do was immediately contact three of my Egyptian friends and ask them to watch it and let me know what they think. Two of them had time to watch and they both liked it generally and appreciated that the filmmaker made it clear it’s an adaptation, not an exact copy. And they then told me the more accurate version. So for me, it inspired me to learn more, and also now I want to name someone Ghufaira because that’s the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard. Maybe my next cat, because I’m not having any kids.

    I don’t really see how the creepy pagan dude was Satan. More like a personification of corruption and decadence, but I guess that’s in the realm of Satan. I actually saw it more like how when Moses & Hod get angry that the newly freed Jews from Egypt are partying around an idol. It’s not godly, but it’s also not Satanic. Or how the Romans in Jerusalem and environs are not good to be able around because they are pagan.

    I thought Bilal and Ghufaira are actually darker than everyone else in the film, which makes sense because they were mixed race, right? The villains all were white, however. And Safwan does change in the end. It doesn’t show him converting, but it shows that he was not actually an evil monster. Or rather stopped being an evil monster.

    The animation was the most amazing to me. It is so innovative, like Into the Spiderverse. The attention to detail was stunning and the creepy dude was successfully creepy haha! He made me uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Did you at least get to the part where Bilal sings? I have watched this movie like 4 times and I replay that scene over and over for the song. Lastly, and apologies if this is sacrilegious, but they made Hamza look super fine. He was so cool. I was sad when he died.

    I think, given the state of the Western world, this movie is a huge success for the Arab and Muslim worlds. In the US we are so behind that we only just recently had a cartoon about Mexican culture (Coco).

    Well, that’s my two cents, not that anyone asked lol. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your interesting perspective.

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#Culture

Trump And The Holy Gobble: A Tongue In Cheek Short Story

When Donald Trump tries to impress a secretary and is exposed to aloo gobi and black pepper, what follows could mean the end of the world.

Aloo Gobi

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories. This story is satire, i.e. humor. You’ve been warned!

That’s Why They Love Me

The EEOB

The EEOB

With Secret Service agents guarding his flanks, Donald Trump exited the White House and headed across the street to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which housed the majority of the White House staff offices.

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“Mr. President,” the Special Agent In Charge protested. “I wish you would eat in your private dining room, or at least in the Navy Mess. It’s safer than the EEOB break room, of all places.”

Trump gave the man a condescending smirk. “You don’t understand what it takes to be a great president. I have to let my workers know that I care about them, bigly. I’m the best at that. No one has ever been better than me at being good to their workers. That’s why they love me.”

The SAIC rolled his eyes. He knew the real reason for the president’s desire to hang out in the EEOB break room. One of the new EEOB secretaries, a petite Russian immigrant blonde named Natasha Petrova, was a former “actress” known to her fans as Natasha Lipps. It wouldn’t be long, the SAIC expected, before Ms. Lipps – err, Petrova – would be made a presidential advisor, which would naturally require personal briefings with the president.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, strode beside him. Trump was fed up with the man, who kept trying to talk to him about the need to cover up his affair with Stormy Daniels.

“Can’t we just get the Russians to eliminate her?” Trump demanded.

The Nuclear Football

“Well, heh heh,” Cohen stammered. “That’s not really-”

Trump waved him off. Maybe it was time to fire the dopey dummy, if he couldn’t get things done. As they entered the EEOB, Trump turned to his aide-de-camp, a tall and muscular man wearing a medal-festooned military uniform and a beret. The man carried the nuclear football, and was always at the president’s side.

“Give me the football.”

The nuclear football

The nuclear football

The aide hesitated. The football, a Halliburton Zero aircraft-aluminum briefcase with a protruding antennae, the whole thing further housed within a thick leather satchel, contained a device that the president could use to launch nuclear missiles from any location. It was quite heavy. Besides, the aide knew that Trump only wanted to show it off to Natasha Lipps – err, Ms. Petrova.

Trump snapped his fingers. “Give it, loser.”

The aide handed it over, watching with satisfaction as the president listed to one side, nearly falling over.

In the break room, Trump, out of breath from the exertion of carrying the football, beamed with satisfaction. He’d timed it perfectly. Lipps was making herself a coffee. He admired her figure, resisting the impulse to grab part of her anatomy.

A few other employees sat at the cafeteria-style tables, eating sandwiches and chatting. A brown-skinned young man stood beside a humming microwave oven. They were losers, all of them. They weren’t the president. He was! They didn’t have people all over the world reading their Tweets. He did! Something smelled good, though. He looked around, trying to identify the source of the delicious smell, when the staffers noticed his presence. They all jumped to their feet, and one man saluted. Mental note: promote that guy to presidential advisor.

Natasha Lipps gave him a wide smile. Trump leaned forward even more than he normally did, all his attention focused on the Russian woman.

“Look what I have,” he boasted, grunting as he hefted the case. “The nuclear football.”

“You are such a poverful man,” Lipps purred in her Russian accent.

Cherokee People

“Something smells good in here.” He gave her a wink. “Is that you?”

“I vish it vas, Mr. President. Is Ahmad over there.” She nodded to the brown-skinned man. “He alvays bring delicious food.”

Trump frowned at the man, who had just taken a meal out of the microwave. Ahmad? Wasn’t that a Muslim name? He turned to Cohen. “Do we still have any Muslims on staff? I thought we fired them all.”

“I don’t know, sir. The White House has thousands of staffers.”

“Arrest him. But bring me his lunch. It smells really good.”

“I don’t know if that’s strictly legal, sir, there are laws-”

Trump silenced him with a chopping motion. “Hey, you. Ahmad.”

The brown-skinned man froze. “Yes, Mr. President?”

“You’re not Muslim, are you?”

Ahmad’s eyes shifted left and right. “I’m from California.” Which was technically true.

Trump made a face. “Just as bad.”

“I believe he is Indian,” Petrova whispered.

Oh, that was fine then. Trump had been dealing with Indian-owned casinos in Atlantic City for decades. “Cherokee people,” he sang out loud, “Cherokee trii-iibe. Hey chief, what are you eating?”

Aloo Gobi

Aloo Gobi

“Aloo gobi, sir.”

Holy gobble? What the heck kind of a dumb name? Getting back to more important matters, he set the football on one of the tables, touched his thumb to the biometric scanner, and popped the case open.

Inside, a special laptop computer was custom-fit into the case. The upper panel came on automatically, displaying a map of the world, with all the major cities marked with glowing dots. The lower panel contained a keyboard and a large red button, along with two smaller buttons, one labelled YES and one NO.

Allergic to Pepper

Trump grinned at Natasha Lipps. “Guess what this does? I could destroy the planet from right here if I wanted to. Pretty hot, huh?”

“Is vonderful.”

“Mr. President, sir!” the aide-de-camp protested. “This is highly irregu-”

Trump sneezed into Natasha’s face. It was a wet, jet-propelled sneeze. Her smile flickered for an instant, then returned as bright as ever as she wiped his spittle away. Trump scanned the room. The dark-skinned Indian guy had a hand-held pepper mill and was grinding pepper onto the holy gobble.

“Stop that, you moron!” Trump snapped. “I’m allergic to pepper.”

The man gazed at him pleadingly, and gave the crank a slow-motion turn. “But I like a lot of pepper on my food, sir.”

Trump let out a tremendous sneeze, one that shook him all the way down to his spinal cord. This time he felt himself losing balance, and reached out a hand, which landed right on the nuclear football’s red button. A loud beeping noise sounded, and lights flashed on the screen, along with the glowing words:

CONFIRM MISSILE LAUNCH = YES
ABORT = NO

Trump prided himself on being a positive person. No one had ever been more positive than him in all the history of the world. He didn’t believe in the word NO. He pressed the button for YES.

Arrest That Man

Everyone stared in horror, except for Ahmad, who used the distraction to give the pepper grinder three fast turns. Then he sat, said a quick dua’ and rapidly began to eat his aloo gobi.

“Dear Heaven,” the aide-de-camp breathed. “The Russians will retaliate. We’ll all be destroyed.”

Trump smirked. “You think I would point missiles at Russia? They’re pointed at Mexico and China. Immigration problem solved, plus we win the trade war! Am I the smartest or what?”

The aide-de-camp studied the laptop screen. “One of the missiles is off target. It’s headed for California.”

Trump nodded smugly. “I always keep one aimed at San Francisco.” Grinning widely, he crooned, “Goodbye, Pelosi!”

The SAIC tapped his earpiece. “We’re getting word. The Chinese have launched a retaliatory strike. We’ll be hit in fifteen minutes. We need to get you to the bunker!”

Ahmad took out a portable prayer rug, set it down and began to pray. “Alhamdulillahi rabbil aalameen,” he intoned. One last salat before the end of the world. He would meet his end with dignity.

“I knew it!” Trump pointed. “Arrest that man. For being Muslim, and for eating holy gobble.”

Cohen sighed, and Natasha Lipps – err, Petrova – began to cry.

THE END

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.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

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

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

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.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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