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Gravedigger: A Short Story

A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own.

fight, life, death, grave

A fist crashed into Ghada Aziz’s eye, snapping her head back and turning her legs to straw. Pain exploded in her face and she wondered if her orbital socket had just shattered. Somehow she clung to consciousness, covering her head with her arms, then lashing out with a punch of her own. It was only the first round of a three round fight, but she couldn’t take much more. Her left leg was swollen and numb, her ribs deeply bruised, and blood poured into her eyes from a cut on her forehead.

MMA ring

She never saw the blow that knocked her out. She crashed to the blood-spattered canvas, mouth open and drooling, dimly aware of the referee shielding her. A roaring like an avalanche filled her ears, and she knew it was the sound of the crowd cheering her opponent. This was her sixth loss in the last two years, and the fourth by knockout. She’d once been the seventh ranked female bantamweight fighter in the world, but she was done. Twenty seven years old and washed up, her MMA career was over.

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Was it for this that Baba – her father – had fled Iraq with her when she was twelve, leaving behind the land where his wife and son – her mother and older brother – had been slaughtered? He’d been a radiologist in Iraq, but his credentials were not recognized in America. He worked as a janitor instead, emptying wastebaskets and buffing floors in a Los Angeles skyscraper, still somehow managing to pay for her English and karate lessons. Was it for this he had sacrificed?

How had she repaid him? Other Arab-American children became doctors and engineers, but Ghada dropped out of college, driven by her passion for martial arts. The fighting ring was the only place where she felt in control of her destiny. Life delivered one crushing blow after another. She lost loved ones, experienced heartache, grief and isolation. But in the ring, standing over her opponent in triumph, the nemesis called life was powerless. Only in the ring did she feel in control, secure.

She wouldn’t have blamed Baba if he’d been disappointed, but he’d been proud, even when the local Arab community criticized him for letting his daughter adopt immoral ways. He dropped in on her training sessions and hung news stories about her on the wall. Unlike many fighters Ghada had no nickname, and Baba used to teasingly say that she should call herself The Saracen, or The Arab Assassin. As if she needed to call further attention to her heritage. She already received death threats from Americans and Arabs alike. The only thing Baba would not do was attend her fights. He couldn’t bear to see her getting hit.
Baba also supported her financially until she began to win, at which point she bought him a little house in Eagle Rock with a garden he tended lovingly.

Then he died, his heart giving out on a cold January morning as he raked the leaves in the yard, while Ghada was away at training camp. Caught up in the fight world, she hadn’t seen him in six months. Her shame at having neglected him was a worse blow than any she’d taken in the ring.

Someone gripped her arm. Sibni, she thought in Arabic, her cheek glued to the canvas, her braided black hair soaking up blood. Let me be. But her coach pulled her up and mopped the blood from her eyes as the cut man pressed the freezing end-swell disc into her forehead. She hung her head, not wanting to see the faces of the leering crowd, many of them overjoyed to see the Arab bitch lose. So much hate she’d faced. All for nothing.

“Get up chica,” Coach Enriquez demanded. “Lose with your head high.”

So she did. The announcer called the fight and the ref raised the other fighter’s hand in victory. Ghada stared blankly at the ceiling of the convention center. Her heart was a dark cave, but she held her chin high, because sometimes that was all you could do. The thought came that she was glad her father was not alive to see this moment. That was followed by a flash of guilt for thinking such a thing. He’d never doubted her.

She remembered being surprised at how many people came to Baba’s funeral last year. Arabs and other members of the Muslim community – Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, and the odd Latino or white convert – stood in rows to pray janazah for her father, while the non-Muslims looked on, approaching her afterward to offer their condolences. She didn’t know most of them. They spoke of her father’s generosity, or his guidance. While she’d been immersed in training, it seemed he had intertwined with many lives, touched many hearts. That should have been comforting, but it only reminded her that she hadn’t been there enough to know him. Her grief was a thunderstorm that would not let up. She skipped training sessions, lived on instant noodles and delivery pizza, slept past noon and lost fight after fight, unable to win the outer battles while the inner ones raged. And now it was all over.

The Door Will Open

She stopped bathing, washing the dishes, paying the bills. Late notices came. Sometimes the doorbell rang and people called to her. A few times she recognized the voices of Farah and Summer, two Muslim friends she’d had in high school. They’d drifted away after she became an MMA fighter. Or had she pushed them away, pre-empting the threat of rejection? They’d attended a few of her fights as well – she’d seen them in the front rows, waving. She’d always refused to acknowledge them, fearing that they were there to judge her. They both wore hijab, while she was out in front of the world wearing knee-length shorts and a lycra shirt, making a spectacle. So she’d avoided meeting their eyes when she left the ring.

Sometimes she thought about killing herself. She resisted the idea, knowing it was against her religion and everything her father had taught her. But… there was no way forward. She was an unemployed college drop-out, finished in her career, alone in the world, and – judging from the unopened late notices she was receiving from the state – probably about to lose her father’s house for non-payment of taxes.

One miserable night, unable to sleep and equally unable to bear her thoughts, she walked into the kitchen. Roaches scattered. Filthy dishes stewed in the sink. In the middle of the room stood a small table and two folding chairs. Her father used to sit there when he read the newspaper and paid the bills. Why had he kept two chairs? Perpetually waiting – hoping – for Ghada to return home and join him at that little table? Atop the table stood a glass vase filled with dessicated stalks that had been morning glories. Those same dead flowers had been there since Baba died.

Kitchen knife

She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a large steel vegetable knife. Her father always kept the knives sharp, and the edge was like a razor. She placed the tip against the inside of her left wrist. She would make a long, deep cut, then she’d do the other arm. Then maybe she’d lie down in bed and wait for it to be over.

She pressed the tip of the knife into her wrist. It broke the skin and blood welled up, running in a rivulet into her palm and dripping from her middle finger. This was for the best. She had no other options. No one would miss her anyway.

Except… she could not make her hand move. She could not go further. An inner voice whispered, “This isn’t right. There’s always another way, a better way. You’re a fighter. Don’t give up now.” She ignored that voice and cut further. Blood began to pour, running down her wrist and hand and spattering onto the kitchen floor. Her arms trembled. One of her elbows bumped the vase on the table. It tipped over, rolled off the table and shattered into a hundred fragments.

A memory came. She was a child in Baghdad, in the small villa they’d called home. Mama was standing on a stepladder, removing a burnt-out fluorescent bulb – the long, skinny kind – from the ceiling fixture. She handed it down to Ghada, who was her assistant in everything, whether cooking, cleaning or home repair. “Pass me the new one.”

“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” Tousle-haired Ibrahim, her younger brother, snatched up the bulb before Ghada could stop him – and dropped it. Slivers of glass exploded across the floor. Both children froze, expecting to be punished. Their cat, Halawa, padded in to investigate the commotion. Mama merely sighed and instructed Ghada to put Halawa in the bathroom before she cut her paws. It was the only room with a door, since the others had curtains in the doorways. As they all cleaned the broken glass, Halawa mewed to be let out. Ghada felt bad for the cat, but it was for her own good. When they were finally finished and released the cat she trotted out with her tail high, giving them an accusing look.

Later, Mama said, “What we did with Halawa is a metaphor for how Allah protects us.”

“What’s a metaphor?” Ibrahim wanted to know.

“An example. Sometimes we feel trapped in our situations. We can’t find a way out. We cry and complain, not understanding why Allah has closed the doors. Our vision is small, so we don’t see the dangers all around. We don’t realize that we are exactly where we need to be in that moment, and that Allah is protecting us. But if we are patient, the door will open when the time is right.”

Remembering this now, and remembering her dear, patient mother, Ghada imagined what her mother would say if she could see her daughter in this moment. She cried out and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a clatter. Her body trembled, with what emotion she could not say. She would wait. She would… try something. What, she did not know.

Hard Labor

She left the house for the first time in two weeks to visit her father’s grave. It was located in a sprawling, hilly cemetery belonging to the city of Los Angeles. She sat on the grass of his grave and wept, fingering the plaque set into the ground. Sami Daoud Aziz, beloved husband and father. She tried to speak to him, or to pray over him, but no words came. On her way out she saw a sign on the gate: Help Wanted. She saved the number and called the next morning. The cemetery was looking for a full-time gravedigger. $15 per hour plus benefits. It was no fortune, but it might pay the bills, and she’d be close to Baba. She applied and was accepted.

For the first six months there was hardly a day when she did not think about quitting. The work was grueling, even harder than MMA training. As a full time fighter she’d only trained four hours per day. The rest of it was just healthy eating, watching and analyzing training videos, and getting nine hours of sleep every night.

This job, on the other hand, was what she imagined when a convict was sentenced to hard labor. Not that the environment was forbidding. It was beautiful. This was a green cemetery, which is why the graves were hand dug. There was no gasoline-powered machinery, and only two maintenance workers for the entire, sprawling cemetery – herself and Dave, the groundskeeper. No embalming chemicals, Ghada learned, were used in burials, nor any grave liners or vaults. Only shrouds or biodegradable wooden caskets. Wildflowers proliferated. Songbirds, squirrels and deer roamed the grounds, and butterflies flitted. With oak and bay trees covering the slopes, it looked more like a natural woodland than a cemetery.

On a typical day Ghada dug two or three graves, which meant a full eight or nine hours of digging. She’d wake up in the morning with her muscles aching from the previous day. At first her hands blistered, then they bled. Finally they grew calloused.

The plus side was that she was close to Baba. She’d sit on his grave every day at lunchtime, sometimes crying, sometimes praying, sometimes talking to him. Was this morbid? Was she psychologically damaged, unable to let go? She only knew that being near her father comforted her.

Time passed. She paid off her bills. Her muscles stopped aching. Her almond colored skin darkened to cafe-au-lait from working in the sun all day. And she stopped crying. She began to pray again and to fast in the holy month of Ramadan, two things she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Her transformation amazed her. She thought back to the night she’d pressed the knife to her wrist. Was it Allah who’d put that memory in her head at that moment – the memory of her cat Halawa and the broken glass? Regardless, alhamdulillah.

Life Amid Death

baba, death, suicide,

She tossed the last spadeful of dirt and mopped her brow. The sun was straight overhead, illuminating even the inside of the grave. Unhooking a tape measure from her belt, she checked the grave. One shovel deep, two and a half feet wide by seven long. Industry standard. Satisfied, she tossed the shovel out and leaped out of the grave, tucking and rolling as she cleared the top. Time for lunch.

A relatively flat acre at the northeast corner was screened by a row of pines. Management kept the maintenance equipment in a shed back here. There was a long, narrow stretch of clear grass between the pines and the road to the shed, and Ghada spent an hour and a half practicing martial arts here every day. Thirty minutes to warm up before work, half of her lunch hour, and another half hour after work. It was something she’d come back to gradually, and she realized she’d missed it terribly. She wasn’t training for anything. It was movement for the sake of movement. Running through footwork and strikes, angling in and out, the workout left her physically energized and as serene as a summer sky. She hadn’t been in a gym in two years, so she worked on fundamentals, sometimes combining the moves she already knew in inventive ways.

Today she was using striking combos to set up a shoot. She’d throw a round kick and a punch combo to the face, then drop her weight, letting one knee almost touch the ground as she drove forward, miming grabbing the opponent’s legs and lifting her off the ground for a slam. Half an hour of this and she wasn’t even breathing hard. She felt like she could do it all day.

Later, sitting on the grass of Baba’s grave, she unwrapped the ‘eggah sandwich she’d prepared that morning. It was an Iraqi dish her mother had taught her to make – a patty formed from a blend of eggs, broccoli and cheese, served in pita bread with a hummus spread. With it she had a cup of hasa al-khadr – vegetable soup spiced with ginger, garlic, cilantro and cumin. Eating these traditional foods made her feel that she was carrying on her cultural heritage in some small way, and kept her healthy for the extreme labor of this job.

The sunshine on her face felt pleasant. The air smelled of bay leaves and wild roses. Two squirrels chased around a tree and up and down the trunk. Watching them, Ghada smiled. Life was good. It amazed and pleased her that she could think this, feel this. The only thing lacking was companionship. She had no family, no friends. She was all alone in the world.

As if disproving her assertion, Dave the groundskeeper sauntered over from where he’d been digging out a patch of broom grass. He carried his lunch bag in one hand and thermos in the other. Ghada didn’t mind. Nearing forty, tall but stoop shouldered, Dave was harmless, not to mention married. He and his wife June were MMA fans. He’d been thrilled to meet Ghada when she first started, as he’d seen her fight in her prime. He kept telling her she should be coaching fighters, not digging graves. She always shrugged. Maybe someday. The fighting world felt too much like the bad old days – though, if she were honest with herself, there was still a part of her that wondered how far she could have gone as a fighter if Baba had not died.
They ate in silence. This was one of the things she liked about Dave. The two of them were well attuned to each other’s moods.

“You don’t talk to your dad much anymore,” Dave said finally. He nodded to her father’s plaque.

Ghada remembered how she used to sit here and confess her sins, as if she expected her father to condemn her failings. Why had she thought that? He’d never done anything but love her. My shining star, he used to call her. “I’ve said it all.”

“You two are good?”

She smiled. “Yeah.”

“You’ve changed.”

“No kidding. I don’t wake up with my limbs aching like I just ran a marathon. I remember when digging one grave was exhausting. Blisters everywhere, my back sore, everything.”

“Not just that. You’re peaceful.”

She nodded. “It’s this job.” She waved a hand at a bluejay that sat on the branch of a nearby oak tree, watching and waiting for crumbs, no doubt. “Life amid death, you know? It’s a constant reminder to live in the moment.”

You, Idiota

Her phone rang. Spam, no doubt. No one she knew ever called her. She mostly used the phone to study MMA techniques on Youtube and listen to Arabic pop songs. She dug it out of her pocket, then frowned. It was Coach Enriquez. She hadn’t spoken to him in ages. For a moment she thought of not taking the call. But that was the old Ghada. The new Ghada had nothing to fear from the past.

“You sure you have the right number?” she greeted.

“Hola chica. You staying in shape?”

Ghada held the phone at arm’s length and looked at it quizzically. Dave gave her a questioning look but she waved him off.

“Chica? You there?”

She put the phone back to her ear. “It’s been two years, and that’s what you say? Am I in shape? Not, how are you holding up, did you lose the house? And how are Julia and the kids, by the way?”

“Gimme a break. I tried stayin’ in touch with you after that last fight. I came by your house coupla times, called you over and over, you told me to get lost, remember?”

“Not really,” Ghada muttered, chastened. “Those days are a blur.”

“Yeah, well. Julia and the kids are fine. Jesus made the honor roll. Anita is band captain. Did you lose the house?”

“No.”

“How you holdin’ up?”

“Pretty good, actually.”

“Wonderful. Bueno. Can we get down to business?”

Ghada rolled her eyes. “What business? You need a janitor at the gym? I have a job.”

“Oye, chica, I’m serious. You in shape? You training?”

Ghada moved her toes up and down, flexing her calves. “Pretty much. I’m not at a gym but I train on my own.”

“Bueno. Listen chica, I got a opportunity for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You follow the fights? You know the WFC is at the convention center tonight?”

“I heard. This guy I work with, Dave, he’s a fan.”

“Fine. I got a fighter. Ariana Gomez, you remember her? She collapsed. Can’t fight.”

“What happened?”

“Stupid idiota, tryin’ to cut too much weight. Got fat between fights. I’m in a bind, chica. I need a replacement.”

“Yeah, so? I don’t know anyone.”

“I mean you, idiota.”

“Me?” Even as Ghada laughed out loud, she felt a thrill of excitement. Why should she feel that? She was done with that life. “Is this a joke?”

“No it ain’t a joke!” Coach snapped. “I got six hours before the opening bell. I’m at my wit’s end. I been callin’ all over. It’s too short notice, either no one wants to take it or they’re too far away.”

“I’m flattered, Coach-”

“Flattered my ass. You’re a jobber. But the fight pays ten thousand.”

Ghada snorted. “Gee, thanks.” A jobber was a slot-filler. Just there to make the winner look good. “I don’t need the money.”

Coach’s tone took on a note of desperation. “Then do it for me. WFC will fine the daylights outta me I don’t find someone. I’m already hurting. Times been hard.”

Ghada sobered up. “I’m not licensed anymore.”

“I kept your paperwork up. Just in case. How much you weigh?”

Ghada couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. “Oh, 135, 140.” She knew full well the upper limit for a bantamweight was 135. Maybe now Coach would drop this crazy idea.

“Christ. You eating pizza and pop tarts? What’s with you girls, all getting fat? Which is it, 135 or 140?”

“Probably 136 or 137 in my birthday suit,” she said honestly.

“Okay. We can work with that. Worst case, we sweat one pound outta you, you come in one pound over, you forfeit ten percent of your purse.”

“Who’s the opponent?”

“Don’t worry ‘bout that. Will you do it or not? If yes, I need you here pronto.”

“I want to know who the opponent is.”

Coach sighed. “It’s Viviani Silva.”

Ghada took a sharp breath. “I need to think. I’ll get back to you. Yes, yes I know. Ten minutes.”

Dave had been watching keenly all through the conversation. “What was that about? You look like you’ve seen a dead body.” He grinned at his own joke. Funerals were a part of daily life here.

She said nothing.

“You’re scaring me, kiddo.”

“Sorry. You know the World Fighting Championship is on tonight?”

“Of course. June and I are going.”

“Oh. Well, one of the fighters, Ariana Gomez, dropped out. My old coach wants me to take her place.”

Daved gaped at her. “Gomez was fighting Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva.’”

“I know.”

“She’s ranked third in the world. She’s a bone crusher. Her last fight, the other girl went straight from the ring to the hospital.”

“Thanks for that.” Annoyed.

“Sorry.”

“Do you mind leaving me alone for a bit?”

Dave scooped up his lunch and hurried off, no doubt to call his wife and tell her the news.

Ghada ran a hand through the grass of her father’s grave. She was not afraid. Where once the storm had raged inside her, now she was the eye. “What do you think, Baba?” she said aloud.

I think maybe, came his reply, just maybe, you have unfinished business. She knew it was only the whisper of her own subconscious. But it spoke in Baba’s voice, and that was close enough to faith for her heart.

“But that’s not my life anymore.”

Does the dream live inside you? If so then seize it, habibti, my love, my shining star.

That Aziz Spirit

“I owe you big time.” Her coach hustled her into the arena, one hand on her shoulder. “Why’d you say you were fat? You ain’t fat at all.”

“I never said-’

“No one expects you to win, okay? All you have to do is put on a show. Flash that Aziz spirit, try to make it through the first round. After that, if you’re gettin’ hurt bad, just tap or take a fall, Brock Lesnar style. No one will hold it against you. Even if you lose you make ten grand.”

Not much of a pep talk, Ghada thought. To hell with him if that was all he thought of her. She’d fight, but for herself, not for Coach or anyone else. Oddly, the thought of the fight itself excited her more than the purse. What did she need $10K for anyway? She had everything she needed in life. What thrilled her was the opportunity to plunge into combat once again, to hit and be hit in a battle that was mental and emotional even more than physical. Those electric, brutal, and vivid minutes in which she was more fully alive than 99.99% of human beings.

A half hour later she stood on the scale at the weigh-in, fight officials all around, press bulbs flashing. Viviani ‘The Monster’ Silva had already weighed in, but was there to check out the competition. The thick-jawed, heavily tattooed woman postured and called out insults. She looked exotic and mean in her skin-tight short-shorts and halter top.

Ghada, on the other hand, wore her usual knee-length shorts and a form fitting long sleeved shirt. It was her concession to Islamic modesty and she knew it was insufficient, but it was the best she could do in the ring. She’d taken an electric trimmer to her jet black hair and shorn it to an inch all over. She ignored The Monster and let out a slow breath, unperturbed.

She saw surprise on the faces of the officials. Did they remember the out-of-shape, emotionally depressed wreck of a fighter from two years ago? Her eyes flicked to the wall mirror, curious to see herself as they saw her. Standing 5’7”, she weighed in at 135 pounds on the dot. Coach breathed an audible sigh of relief. No need to deplete herself by sweating her weight down, and no need to forfeit any money.

The thing was, even though she was right at the upper weight limit for a bantamweight, there was not an ounce of fat on her. Her legs were rock solid and rippling with muscle, her arms powerful and well defined even through the shirt, her shoulders like two small boulders. She looked like a granite statue. The gravedigging, she realized. Digging graves was the most physically taxing thing she’d ever done. When she’d first started she couldn’t dig a single grave without resting multiple times. Now she could dig for ten hours, wake up the next day and do it again, as easy as babaganoush. She’d never been stronger in her life, both physically and emotionally.

She looked to The Monster and saw a flicker of doubt on the woman’s face. The hair stood up on Ghada’s arms. I’m going to win this fight. The premonition hit her like the light of the summer sun, leaving no room for doubt. She was going to beat the third ranked female fighter in the world.

What would she do after that? Would she continue to fight, or become a coach as Dave was always telling her to do? Or would she go back to digging graves? She didn’t know. But she was sure she was going to win. She could feel it in her bones, as surely as her ancestors had sensed the approach of a sandstorm or the coming of the rain.

Someone called her name. She looked over the crowd and spotted Farah and Summer at the back of the crowd of spectators. They grinned and waved. How had they known she would be here? In the past she would have looked away, not wanting to acknowledge them. But this time she smiled and waved, genuinely happy to see them. Their faces lit up and they shrieked as if they’d just met a celebrity.

The fight announcer approached, shook her hand. “Do you have a nickname you want me to use when I announce you?” he asked.

Ghada’s smile spread into a grin. Then she laughed out loud. “Sure. Call me Gravedigger.”

THE END

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

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDM?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1579756718&sr=8-1Wael 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.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    June 27, 2019 at 1:55 PM

    As-salamu alaykum everyone, thanks for reading. Please leave comments and constructive criticism. I am always open to your thoughts.

    • Avatar

      Umm Al-Ameem

      June 27, 2019 at 7:52 PM

      Call me gravedigger. Intriguing. Easy read. Enjiyed it. Looking forward to the next chapter.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        June 27, 2019 at 11:23 PM

        Umm Al-Ameen I´m glad you liked it, but this was a one-off. There´s no next chapter. Just a short story.

        • Avatar

          Umm Al-Ameem

          June 29, 2019 at 8:35 PM

          Awwwww. So that’s the end, I’ll try to use my imagination to complete it then. Lol. But seriously, you sure are talented Bro. Wael. May Almighty Allah put His barakah in your works.

        • Avatar

          Huda

          July 14, 2019 at 9:01 AM

          Haraaaaam! That is torture!!!! This was so promising!!!
          Can’t believe you’re making us take an unfinished story to the grave. Pun intended.

          :) So good to read your words again!

  2. Avatar

    Siraj

    June 28, 2019 at 12:57 AM

    Couldn’t stop reading once I started. Now I am reading your other stories from the Index. Masha’Allah, very descriptive. Someone should make a movie out of this for sure!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      June 28, 2019 at 1:31 PM

      Jazak Allah khayr brother. You should purchase the print or ebook version of Pieces of a Dream as well. It´s much more complete than the online version.

  3. Avatar

    Spirituality

    June 28, 2019 at 11:17 AM

    Awesome story, Jazak Allahu Khayran!

    I was just reading about the famous Ansari fighter, Nusaybah bint Kab (RA) before reading this story.

    Muslima fighters have been around!

  4. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    July 10, 2019 at 11:42 PM

    As-salamu alaykum everyone. This story, Gravedigger, just won 14th place in the popular NYC Midnight short story contest. There were 4,500 entrants from all over the world, most of them published authors. Alhamdulillah.

    • Avatar

      Spirituality

      July 17, 2019 at 5:09 PM

      Masha Allah, congratulations!!

  5. Avatar

    Omer

    July 11, 2019 at 9:43 AM

    You never fail to deliver. What I really like about your writing is how you delve deeply into the psyche to answer questions that we sometimes are shy to ask out loud. Intertwining the feelings of shame,family,judgement and community. I know you have a lot going on but I really hope you find time to write more short stories, you are really good at it. Even your Uber stories are a treat :)

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      July 11, 2019 at 1:48 PM

      Omer, I love this comment. It´s like a mini professional review in its specificity. Jazak Allah khayr.

  6. Avatar

    Fuad

    July 11, 2019 at 8:07 PM

    Soulful story. Thanks for starting my day good.

  7. Avatar

    Sabi

    July 14, 2019 at 12:32 PM

    Maa sha Allah, I had tears rolling down my cheeks, got very involved in the story. There always a fighter in each one of us, especially as Muslims I guess it runs in our blood!

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#Culture

Again, And Again, And Again, And Again

Again And Again And Again And Again

Posted by Tariq Touré on Tuesday, June 2, 2020

We back screaming I can’t breathe again
From the morning light to the evening
It’s like something just ain’t evening
Killer cops on repeat again
Why Colin ain’t in the league again?
What was the problem with taking knees again?

Ohhh only if we puttin knees to them
Only if it’s beneath a chin
Only if it could seem to end
But if looting is where we begin
But not as broken necks the reasoning
Then folks will be back in the streets again
Choking on fruit from the seeds of sin

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Since they can’t break us they make us bleed and bend
Guess we need an overground railroad to get free again
Your words ring hollow we don’t believe in them
Cuz you’d rather shoot hollows than find peace within

They threw us to the grown and planted seeds again
So we screaming no justice and no peace again
For our people who’ll never be able to breathe again
I guess we have to breathe for them

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From Tweet to Virtual Event: Online Organizing In The Time Of Corona | Muslim Virtual Grad

musllim grad

It was mid-April and we were one month into the pandemic. Ramadan  was a couple of weeks away and we had settled into the “New Normal,” but still learning every day of changes. The most recent one was schools, colleges and universities canceling graduation ceremonies. Many choosing to not to postpone but to cancel.

My wife received the email from her graduate program and was lamenting how she wouldn’t be able to wear the cap and gown she had gotten for the commencement.

Her phrasing made me think of the popular slang term “No Cap” that is used heavily these days, and I tweeted out what I thought was a funny joke.

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The tweet quickly got traction and was being shared as people resonated with it with people responding in various ways. One of these interactions seemed benign at first.

 

 

At the time, it didn’t go anywhere. Sara had left me with the thought but I didn’t act on it. Alhamdulillah, she did. Two weeks later, she messaged me. “Let’s do this,” she said. From there 2020 Muslim Virtual Graduation was born. 

We realized there was an opportunity to connect with the amazing organizations in our communities that are focused on Muslim students and the unique challenges they face. Since then, we have partnered with Midwest Muslim United Student Association (MMUSA), MIST Chicago, and A Continuous Charity, all of which are Muslim organizations dedicated to serving high school and college students in different capacities, from on-campus services, to inter-school competitions, to interest-free financial aid.

The 2020 Muslim Virtual Graduation will be free to attend and live streamed May 30th at 5:15 pm CST and live streamed to MMUSA’s Facebook Page. Inshallah, Dr. Omar Suleiman, President of Yaqeen Institute, (and a 2020 graduate himself) will be giving a Commencement Speech. There will be entertainment at the end.

It is open to high school, university, and professional grads, all around the world. 

Graduates who would like to be recognized can submit their slide with their name, degree, school and photo (optional), and a dedication or message to the following URL: bit.ly/vmggrads. The deadline to register is the of the day Friday, May 29th, 2020. 

Sara had previously recognized the merit of online organizing and resources, and compiled a master list of Islamic lectures and seminars that had been recently being streamed online due to the pandemic. “Online events cannot totally replace the spirit of in-person gatherings. But I think organizing during this time requires a shift in perspective: what challenges do we face when organizing in-person, and how can we take advantage of the new opportunity we do have now since those are gone? This is what inspired us to go global with the event,” says Sara.

Alhamdulilah, we already have graduates from the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore registered! 


About Us

Ziyad Dadabhoy is a Civil Engineer living in Chicago, IL and Co-Founder of Midwest Muslim United Student Association (MMUSA). He has also been a part of AlMaghrib Chicago and MIST Chicago.

Sara Alattar is a student of Islamic Sciences, upcoming medical student, and Director of Operations at thinkbites.org, a new multimedia Islamic publication for personal development.

A Continuous Charity (acceducate.org) is the first and only national Muslim 501(c)3 that provides interest-free loans and financial mentoring for higher education. 

The Midwest Muslim United Student Association (midwestmsa.com) is dedicated to connecting college Muslim Student Associations (MSA’s) from around the Midwest for collaborative events and projects.

Muslim Interscholastic Tournament (mistchicago.org) is a non-profit that hosts annual educational and creative competitions for high school students across the US, and in 19 regions across the world.

Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research (yaqeeninstitute.org) is a non-profit research institute which aims to instill conviction and inspire contribution based on mainstream Islamic texts.

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River Delta: A Love Story

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time.

Sacramento River delta

They both have the day off. Jimena takes him to the Sacramento river delta, where the muddy shallows stretch forever. Mile after mile of wetlands, some preserved for migratory birds and small, wild creatures, and others claimed as farmland, growing rice in vast acres of standing water. They take off their shoes and she drags him into the calf-deep water, laughing. She is tiny, a small-boned woman of Mexican ancestry, and the water comes up to her knees.

A crisp wind sweeps across the open water, lifting the clothes from their bodies and drawing tears from their eyes. The air is brilliantly fresh, like he imagines air must be in the middle of the ocean, or coming off a remote glacier.

“This is the safest rice,” Faiz says, his toes sinking into the frigid mud. “Asian rice nowadays is grown in industrial wastewater and sewage. It’s full of heavy metals. And most American rice is grown in the South, where the land is tainted with arsenic residue from the cotton growing era. Only California rice is not polluted.”

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But she’s not really listening, and why should she? He’s prattling. There’s no one else in sight and she is splashing in the mud, shrieking with pleasure, not caring that her leggings and even her dress are soaked. “SubhanAllah!” she exclaims, bending over to pick something up. It is a tiny seashell, curled in on itself, burnished copper outside and pink outside. “Que bonita! What kind of shell is this?”

Faiz smiles and shrugs. He should know, but does not remember. And he is worried about how they’ll keep from tracking mud into the car.

‘You know,” she says, “My father used to bring me here to fish. I know this area like my own living room. See that deep spot? You’ll find catfish among the tree roots.”

“You mean like our living room.” They’ve been married two months, but he still feels she is a bright macaw that he has somehow tamed, and if he doesn’t pay close enough attention she’ll fly away.

“Right.” She begins to sing in Spanish, and the sound seems entirely natural, as if she is a creature of these wetlands.

He almost asks, “What made you want to be my wife?” But he has asked this question before, and does not want to annoy her. She’s my wife, he thinks. He likes the sound of that. “My wife.” It occurs to him that this is an odd way of expressing things. “My” husband, “my” wife. Possessive. As if we do not all belong to Allah, carried in His hand. Do we truly own anything in this dunya? Not really. All this will pass, and only the presence of Allah will abide. Take a breath, he tells himself.

Sacramento River delta

Sacramento River delta

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time. Overall it is better than he expected, Alhamdulillah.

Back on solid ground, covered in mud like a riverbank otter, she takes a notepad from the glovebox and scribbles a note, her soaked hijab dripping onto the paper and smearing the ink. She slips it into his shirt pocket.

“I wanted to drown myself in the deep part,” she says with a laugh. Only later does he realize that she meant it. Beneath all the wackiness and laughter, her sadness is a wide river. He has seen it in flashes, when she talks about her father, who was killed in a street mugging when she was a child, and her mother, who died of uterine cancer when she was in high school. There is a terror in her too, a dark chasm that he has only glimpsed.

There are moments when she does not know he is looking, when her eyes go wide and distant. He watches her, holding his breath. Her skin is dark, and he thinks she must have some Mayan ancestry. But she has a sharp Castilian nose and wide-set green eyes. She is captivating, way out of his league. Then she catches him watching and gives him a quizzical look, or she doesn’t catch him so he goes to her and rubs her shoulders, and she returns from wherever her reveries took her, sometimes grabbing him and wrestling him playfully to the ground.

They go home to the little green house Faiz grew up in and inherited from his parents. In the front yard is a Japanese-style arched wooden bridge over a pond, and a Zen sand garden. His father, a practitioner of Japanese martial arts, was crazy for everything Japanese, but Faiz never took to it.

A New Land

Thai restaurantThey shower and change, toss their clothes in the washer, then walk to the country-style Thai restaurant a block away. It stands alone between a house with peeling paint and an empty lot, and is covered in vines, as if it has been there for centuries. The sign looks hand-painted, and the brass Buddha mounted in a niche above the door smiles beatifically, as if welcoming all visitors.

Sant, the owner, in his sixties but sporting a full head of black hair, brings a bowl of sticky rice and a platter of salmon with cashews in yellow curry. As he sets the food down, Jimena exclaims, “Wow, this looks amazing!” and touches the back of Sant’s hand. Faiz flushes, but says nothing. He knows his jealousy is stupid. He loves Jimena and trusts her completely. He is grateful that no one notices his reaction.

Sant smiles widely. “In my country we have story of man who cannot taste food. All his life he wonder what the fuss is. He is bony and thin, because he have no interest to eat. Then he get married. The first time his wife cook for him, he taste everything. He weep with surprise and joy.”

“What’s the moral of the story?” Faiz asks.

“What you think?”

“The family that eats curry together, stays together.”

Sant grins. “Correct.”

“Also, love changes you.”

“Correct!”

“It’s more than that,” Jimena offers. “Love pulls you into a new land. You enter a trance state, like a dervish, where everything is possible through the love of God. Then you lose balance and come out of it and you don’t know your name, and don’t recognize the country in which you stand. You realize you died and didn’t know it, and that the oceans of this new land go on forever.”

Sant’s smile falters. “Ehh… Not so sure about that one.” He wanders off.

Faiz watches his wife licking yellow curry from her fingers. He knows that some of his friends do not approve. She’s a Hispanic convert, and was married once before.

“You can’t trust converts,” one of his friends said. “They might be Muslim now, but leave the religion later. It’s not in their DNA like us.”

Faiz does not speak to that friend anymore. There is no place for arrogant fools in his life. Let them look, let them whisper. He does not care. He is a poor man, still pursuing a masters in environmental studies and earning meager pay as a teaching assistant. He does not consider himself handsome.

In his first year of college he attended an Islamic retreat that affected him deeply. One of the scholars spoke of sincerity, and how this simple philosophy – to be sincere with God, with yourself, and with others – could transform your life. Since then he has strived to always be sincere. That is all he really has going for him, he thinks.

And yet, this beautiful woman married him. She is gorgeous, and smart – a Stanford grad. She’s petite but so strong. Sometimes she seizes his arms and squeezes playfully and it hurts. What she sees in him, he does not know. Later he comes to understand that she is deeply insecure. Would she still have married him if she actually knew how smart and beautiful she was? Did it matter?

Still, her faith is as powerful as the tide, and she loves him. What a miracle. Like Jibreel striking the ground with his wing to produce water from the desert. What an unexpected blessing. He never saw it coming.

At home, Faiz moves the clothes to the dryer, and they pray the night prayer. His wife goes to bed – she gets up early for work and always sleeps before he does.

The Note

Sea shellWaking in the morning, he notices the little seashell that Jimena found in the delta. She has placed it atop their bedroom dresser. The morning light illuminates it, making it look like a museum piece. How amazing to think that something lived inside it once. Some tiny creature manufactured this shell as a home. That creature is long gone now, dead. No one but Allah knows what it was, or when it lived.

Looking at the shell, he remembers the note Jimena wrote. The clothes they wore yesterday are still in the dryer. He knows the note is in the pocket of his blue shirt, and may be ruined, or illegible. But he forces himself to fold the clothes one at a time, tapping his foot nervously. Finally he removes the note. The paper is crumpled and fragile. He unfolds it gingerly. The writing is faded and smeared, but to his surprise he can read it. “You will always be my hero,” it says. “Be patient with me. I love you.” He is so moved that his face grows warm and his eyes well up. He performs wudu’ and prays two rakahs out of sheer gratitude.

Two months later Jimena goes through her first serious depression, at least that Faiz has seen. She weeps, rocking back and forth, and will not let him touch her. Back when she found the seashell she wove a cord through it and hung it around her neck. Now, as she weeps, she clutches it tightly, as a drowning woman might clutch a life-ring. She draws the curtains and barely eats. It lasts almost a week.

Aside from her job as a nurse, she is an activist, always raising money for one cause or another. She paints, writes poetry and plays the guitar, singing Los Lobos songs in a lovely, clear voice. At dinner parties she is the center of attention, telling anecdotes and jokes, and laughing along with her audience. Faiz knows that some of the stories are exaggerated, and he thinks she laughs too loud, but he does not say so. People tell her she is an inspiration, the most positive and cheerful person they have ever known.

Those people are not there when she slashes her own paintings with a box cutter, or strides through the house raging and screaming at Faiz for not supporting her, or locks herself in the bathroom until Faiz has to break the door because he fears she might harm herself. Though she never actually goes that far.

These depressions come along every three or four months. Anything can trigger them. A criticism by a work supervisor. One of her experimental vegetarian dishes not coming out right. One time she is talking about a patient at work, a child who had been abused by a parent, when Faiz receives a text on his phone. He checks it, and that is enough to send Jimena spiraling into the howling tunnel of depression.

Faiz, in his typically rational way, tries reasoning with her. He praises her, pointing out her many good qualities, and tells her how many people love her, including himself. None of it works. Then one day he is texting with his cousin Saleem Haleem, who has dedicated his life to working with the homeless but also possesses a wacky sense of humor. “Try dressing up in a bunny suit,” Saleem suggests, “and run around hopping and shrieking, ‘stop eating my chocolate eggs!’”

Faiz laughs it off, but then thinks, why not? In a desperate fit completely unlike himself, he pulls on a swim cap, paints his face red with Jimena’s lipstick, and runs into her bedroom shouting, “I am alien. Where is leader? Bashooomdafaaaah! Oueeegamaaala!”

Jimena stares wide-eyed, looks for a moment like she might attack him, then bursts into uproarious laughter. And like that, she is back to her usual creative, bubbly, hyper-social self.

Faiz begins to think that this is why he was blessed to marry her. It’s a bargain that Allah has made with him. A trade. She is too beautiful for him, too witty and charming, it is true, but he is patient enough for her. He can bear the insults she flings. He can comfort her when she rages that life is dark and useless, and that she is ugly and alone. She may be the woman he desires and dreams of, but he is the man she needs.

She loves to sit on his lap and kiss him until his lips are sore. She cooks his favorite foods. She writes love letters that he reads again and again, saving them in a sandalwood box, along with the note she wrote at the delta. She brags to her friends about how smart he is. She prays with him, and asks him to teach her Urdu and Quran. And through it all, she does not lose her faith. Just the opposite. When all else seems bleak to her, she still believes in Allah, still prays.

Hard Times

Empty walletJimena becomes pregnant but miscarries. She is plunged into postpartum depression that continues for a year, during which she cannot work. An economic recession hits. Faiz loses his job and takes consulting work when he can find it. They buy used clothing at thrift stores, and shop for groceries at the dollar store. There are times when they have no money in the bank, and Faiz’s wallet is empty. He is reduced to selling his childhood baseball card collection and his father’s old coins. Jimena castigates him: “You’re not a man. A man provides for his family.” She blames him for her miscarriage, saying that the stress of poverty caused her to lose the child. This last accusation wounds him to the quick, but he knows she doesn’t mean it. It’s the depression talking.

He goes for aimless drives in the foothills, letting the curves and angles of the road rock him like an infant. Sometimes he stops the car and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes as hard as he can, so that his eyes ache and strange shapes appear. Dark hands reaching for him. Exploding suns. Ghosts with no arms. Jimena is big on healthy eating and will not tolerate junk food, but when Faiz is out driving he goes through the Taco Bell drive through and binges on nachos and soda. Then he stops at the car wash and vacuums away the crumbs, eliminating the evidence.

When he feels most frustrated with life and with Jimena, he opens the sandalwood box. Beneath all the letters is the note she wrote that day at the delta, the words barely legible. He reads it and thinks of all the love Jimena has given him. He holds a picture of her in his head, a shining image of the woman he fell in love with, and his love returns stronger than ever, like a river replenished with the spring melt. Holding that bright image in his mind, he goes to her and takes her in his arms.

Jimena’s depression passes, as does the recession. She goes back to work for the hospital, and Faiz gets a government job as an environmental compliance inspector. Jimena has one sibling left, an older sister named Mariela. One evening the phone rings. As Jimena speaks to her sister, her face goes pale. Mariela has breast cancer. The doctors don’t know yet how advanced it is. Further testing is needed.

Jimena cannot stop weeping. “I’m alone now,” she moans. “There’s no one left.”

Faiz urges her not to imagine the worst. “Maybe they caught it early. Be patient. Trust in Allah.”

It turns out the cancer is advanced. Mariela undergoes treatment, but in three months she is gone.

Things are never the same between them after that. Jimena has it in her head that he told her Mariela would be okay. “You always make promises you can’t keep.” She stops writing love letters, stops sitting in his lap. She works overtime, returning home late. Faiz orders takeout and eats alone. When Jimena’s depressions descend she checks into a hotel, telling him she can’t stand the sight of him. Whenever she leaves he checks to make sure she has taken the seashell necklace. It is the only thing that gives her comfort anymore. She holds it obsessively, kisses it like a talisman. As long as she has it with her, he believes, she will not harm herself, and will come back to him.

Goodbye

One day he comes home and the necklace is hanging on the coat rack by the front door. There is a note on the kitchen counter, scrawled on computer paper:

“Don’t come looking for me. You’re better off anyway. You know it. Let go of your worries and be clear hearted. Goodbye.”

Sandalwood boxHe takes out the sandalwood box. Her love letters are there. Also the old note, yellowed now. “You will always be my hero. Be patient with me. I love you.” Faiz does not know what to do. After all they went through together, she is gone. So what was it for? He thought this was his test, his bargain, his gift, all rolled into one.

He wants to burn the letters. He wants to go after her in spite of her warning, convince her that they belong together, prove his love and his patience. What does she want, for God’s sake? What does that mean, let go of your worries and be clear hearted? Is it a puzzle for him to solve? No one will ever love her like him, doesn’t she know that?

He decides to wait. He will be patient, and she will return. She has blocked him on all the social media networks, so he creates a fake profile and befriends her, and learns that she has moved clear across the country. There are photos of her with people he does not know, looking happy. She posts about her usual activist causes, shares messages from her favorite religious teachers. Nothing about Faiz. It’s as if he never existed. Her profile status says, “single.”

Every day he takes out the sandalwood box. He selects one of the love letters at random, unfolds it. Her cursive script is flowing, loose:

Rumi wrote, “This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.” I thought true love was a myth, but you, my darling Faiz, have caused the veils to slip from my eyes. The veils of cynicism, bitterness and despair, lifted by the wind of your love and carried away. Now I see the hidden heart that beats in the forest of bones, the intoxicating air that only lovers can breathe, the hushed and peaceful path that only reveals itself to four feet that walk as two.

How could someone say such things and not mean them? Or if she meant them, how could such love disappear? Shaking his head, he folds the letter carefully and returns it to the box.

Six months later he receives divorce papers in the mail. All this time he still believed she would return. He is dumbfounded. Why is Allah doing this to him? What terrible thing did he do, to be punished this way? Why does Jimena not love him anymore? How can she be happy without him? Who will love her as he did? In a fit of pique and resentment, he signs the papers and mails them.

He tumbles into his own emotional hole, where he has thoughts of suicide for the first time in his life. He imagines stabbing himself in the throat, or maybe taking some pills, that would be easier. He doesn’t do it, and would never do it, he knows that. His faith in Allah would never allow it. No matter what else he might be, he is still a Muslim.

A month later, he learns from a mutual friend that Jimena has married a wealthy restaurant owner with grown children. Faiz is shocked and angry, and blindingly jealous. He wants to find her and scream at her, insult her, but he knows this is useless and stupid. Instead he begins taking hour long walks before Maghreb, feeling the breeze in his face, exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods, admiring people’s gardens, thinking of nothing.

A week later he hears that Jimena and that man have divorced. He can make no sense of it, but feels bitter satisfaction. How is it possible that he loves her but is happy at the news of her failure? Does he really love her, then? He doesn’t know anymore. Love is all fake nonsense. He deletes the fake social media profile and shuts down all his own pages.

He is sure that one day she will show up at his door again, and he fantasizes about what he will do or say. In one fantasy, he spits on her and screams in her face. But he would never actually do that. In another, she starts to beg forgiveness, and before she finishes her apology he snatches her into his arms and embraces her, and they resume their relationship of adoration and madness. In yet another scenario, he invites her in and they have a civil conversation in which they agree to be friends.

Japanese Garden

His walks lengthen to two hours, then three. He stops at the masjid to pray Maghreb in the middle, then resumes walking, going on until his feet and calves ache. His legs grow muscular. His body feels light and strong. He thinks of Jimena every day, but he can live with the ache and loss. He has learned this. He hears that she has married again. A white convert this time, a sufi. Faiz feels some jealousy but not like before. If jealousy is a green-eyed monster, then what he feels is its pale-green ghost.

Six months later she is divorced again. Faiz feels only sadness and confusion.

He usually pays little attention to the Japanese garden, but one day he gets out a rake and begins drawing patterns in the sand. He remembers his father trying to teach him: “Don’t drawing anything real,” he’d say in his sharp Pakistani accent. “Just moving the rake in random patterns. Seek for symmetry.” Faiz does so, and is happy with the design he creates. Then, as his father taught him, he erases it and starts anew, ending up with something different but lovely.

As he gets into bed that night, a thought makes his breath catch. He used to believe that Jimena was a gift from Allah and a test. He imagined he was the man she needed, the man who could handle her. No one could love her like him. But how arrogant these ideas were! How insincere. She was not a wild animal, and he was not her caretaker. Nor was she a child. Who was Faiz? He was not some living key to Jimena’s joy. He was not Jimena’s god. He was just a man. She had a life before she met him, and she would have a life after.

This leads him to another thought: he too can be happy without her.

Two months later an old friend named AbdulMalik calls him. “Guess what I heard? Jimena-”

Faiz cuts him off. “I don’t need to know.” It is true. It’s not necessarily that he doesn’t care. But he has achieved some measure of hard-won inner peace. Why mess that up?

Four years pass. In the beginning he thinks of Jimena often, remembering intimate moments they shared, conversations, the way her chin dimpled when she smiled, and the curses and weeping as well, the accusations. And their lost child. That is the most difficult of all, for the pain it caused and for what could have been.

One day he realizes with surprise that he has not thought of Jimena in quite a while. He’s pleased by this, and rewards himself with a pint of premium vanilla fudge ice cream – something Jimena never would have let him get away with.

Be Sincere

At the masjid after Jumah prayer, the Imam signals him to enter his office. A sister has recently moved to town, a white American woman named Anamarie, with two small children. She converted to Islam a year ago. The father of her boys is in prison. Would Faiz be interested?

The offer is not exactly tempting. If his parents were alive it would be a non-starter, as they would give him blazes over it. Raising someone else’s kids? A frightening thought. What if he doesn’t love them, or they don’t love him? What if he has no idea how to treat them? What if he disciplines them and the mother gets mad because he’s not their dad? Stop, he tells himself. What’s the harm in meeting her?

He meets her in the Imam’s office, with the Imam present. She is his height, not fat but a bit chubby. She breaks the ice by inquiring about his work, and is surprisingly interested and informed about science and the environment. She has a slight southern accent, and eyes the color of a winter sky. He asks hesitantly about the kids, and what she would expect of him. Evan is three years old, and Ellie is one and a half. Anamarie can see, she says, that he is a kind hearted man. She would not expect anything more from him in the beginning than to be present in their lives. “Be sincere with them,” she says. “That’s all you have to do.”

They meet for lunch next time, still just the two of them. Being around Anamarie is strangely easy. Why is he so comfortable? Maybe because she is nothing like Jimena. With Jimena he was always giddy, nervous or dejected. Anamarie, on the other hand, is a calm summer sea. You could lay out on your boat and relax on a sea like that, and not have to worry about hurricanes or whirlpools.

Oh, there are things she is passionate about. She is a teacher, and loves her work. She is also an aspiring novelist, and speaks wistfully of being able to earn a living from writing one day. She is not an activist of any stripe, and Faiz likes that, as he has come to associate activism with instability.

Meeting the kids is easier than he expected. Evan is serious but friendly, surprising Faiz by taking his hand as they walk through the park. The boy’s hand is warm but dry. Ellie is wacky and easily entertained, ready to laugh at any funny face Faiz makes.

Their nikah is held on the shore of a nearby lake. There are only a dozen people in attendance: Faiz, Anamarie and the kids, the Imam, and a handful of Faiz’s friends and co-workers. He rarely thinks of Jimena anymore, but can’t help wondering on this day whether she is happy somewhere. He hopes so.

He has saved quite a bit of money over the last five years. He sells the tiny house and buys a modestly sized Mediterranean style home with arched doorways, a sunny breakfast nook and a large backyard.

A week after the wedding he takes a drive out to the river delta by himself. Squatting at the water’s edge, he burns Jimena’s letters one by one, watching the ash spill into the water and dissipate like breath on a cold day. He feels no anger. Standing, he takes the seashell necklace from his pocket. He studies it one last time, admiring the perfect smoothness of its inner curves. Something lived here once. But now it is gone. He draws his arm back and throws the necklace far out into the water. It floats on the surface, buoyed by the cord, then sinks.* * *

A year later he, Anamarie and the kids are seated in the nook, eating spaghetti and meatballs for lunch. They are planning to visit the airplane museum tomorrow and Evan is excited about the planes they will see. Faiz smiles to hear him talk about wing designs and aerodynamics. A budding engineer, mashaAllah.

Spaghetti and meatballsEllie is on Faiz’s lap, and he is struggling to increase the ratio of spaghetti that goes into her mouth versus onto her shirt. “The flyer is returning to the mothership,” he says dramatically. The forkful of spaghetti swoops and dives. “Open the bay doors so it can land.” Ellie shuts her mouth tightly. “Open the mothership,” Faiz urges.

“I’m not a mother,” Ellie pouts, turning her face away.

“Ships in space don’t land,” Evan says. “They dock.”

The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” Anamarie offers.

Faiz waves her off. “No, I’m on it.” She is seven months pregnant. Getting to her feet is a struggle. He hoists the little girl onto his hip.

When he opens the door he feels the blood drain from his face. It is as if an angel, a devil and a ghost have all combined into one person and materialized on his doorstep.

“As-salamu alaykum,” Jimena says.

It has been five years since she left. He has forgotten how tiny she is. Yet she is as intense as ever, even just standing there. Her eyes are forest green, her teeth white. She wears an orange hijab, blue jeans and a “Save Gaza” t-shirt.

“Who’s this?” Jimena nods at Ellie and smiles, but there is tension behind it. Is that jealousy Faiz sees in the set of her jaw? Disappointment? Unconsciously, not knowing why, he shifts his hip slightly, moving Ellie away from Jimena.

A flash of anger crosses Jimena’s face, then vanishes. “You look good. You’re fit. Do you think we could talk? I have some things I want to-”

“I didn’t know if I would ever see you again,” Faiz interrupts calmly. Sincerity, he tells himself. That is all. “I am glad you are here so I can tell you that I am grateful for the love you gave me, for as long as it lasted.” His voice is soft, gentle. “I was angry, but not anymore. I only think well of you. I wish good for you in the dunya and aakhirah. May Allah bless you in everything. That is all I have. Please don’t come here again.”

He steps back into the house and begins to close the door. He is afraid she might throw a tantrum, maybe push her way in. But she stands in place. Her mouth turns down in an expression of utter dismay, and Faiz feels a terrible flood of guilt. He never could bear hurting her. He closes the door all the way. His hand trembles on the doorknob, and his breath is ragged. He locks the door.

Back in the nook, he takes his seat.

“Who was it?” Anamarie asks.

“Oh. One of those people, you know, the people who come to the door?”

“What people? Missionaries?”

“Daddy didn’t let her talk,” Ellie says.

“That doesn’t seem like you,” Anamarie remarks.

Faiz picks up the fork. “Open the bay doors. The flyer is coming in for a landing. I mean, to dock.” He glances to Evan, who nods approvingly.

Ellie turns her face, and the fork pokes her in the cheek.

The End

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

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

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