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

grit

I don’t really care about grit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

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

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

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

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

To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm Al-Ameen

    August 23, 2019 at 9:18 AM

    Excellent, excellent piece. A very balanced response to Duckworth’s book. I do have the book which I bought a while back on Amazon and yes, it’s good and worth buying. Yet, after reading the book, I felt there was something missing in the narrative and the author of this piece just gets it.

    “The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization”. Excellent.

    And of course, the God-factor in the success of any endeavor because as Muslims, we know we can only will if Allah wills. Personally, I see grit as “tethering one’s camel” to the best of one’s ability but ultimately, the final outcome belongs to Allah.

    Great piece brother, May Almighty Allah reward you for this effort.

  2. Avatar

    Sam

    October 20, 2019 at 9:27 AM

    I don’t really care about grit.

    Thank Allah I decided to not be critical and keep an open mind as I read the passage. Excellent message!

    As the commenter above mentioned, this is a new perspective to me:
    “The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization”.

    It seems rational to say it’s difficult to think about the future when a collection agency, your landlord, and your own family is desperately in need of cash today. Show me your grit when you are drowning in the middle of a stormy ocean struggling to survive. Verses someone on a calm cruise preaching that “it’s easy, all you have to do is meditate and focus on your goals to succeed”. OK buddy.

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#Culture

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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Africa

Top 10 Books On Black Muslim History

The history of Black Muslims seems to be trapped between Bilal raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) and Malcolm X. While these are particularly bright supernovas in the pantheon of giants from Muslim history, they are far from being the only stars in that history.

Recent events have meant that many Muslims want to actively close that gap in their knowledge of Black Muslims. This isn’t just an academic interest, it is one of the recurring pieces of advice given by Black Muslims themselves when asked what the rest of the Muslim community can and should do to actively fight against racism in all its forms.

When you don’t know the story of a people, it becomes easy to belittle or even dehumanise them.

So here, in no particular order, are my Top 10 books on the history of Black Muslims in the English Language.

  • Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles amongst the early pious Muslim by Dawud Walid and Ahmed Mubarak

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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.

There are many reasons why tokenising Bilal ibn Rabaah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) is embarassing. One of them is because there are just so many other Black Sahaabas out there to talk about. This great book showcases so many of the greatest generation who, we may not have realised, were black. I actually did a prior book review on this that you can check out here.

  • The history of Islam in Africa edited by Levtzion & Pouwels 

This is less a book and more like a mini-encyclopaedia. This is for the serious student of history and a good reference book. If you want to tell the difference between the Songhai and the Sanussi or want to tell apart the different Tariqahs – this is your encyclopaedia. I mean book.

  • Illuminating the Darkness: Blacks and North Africans in Islam by Habeeb Akande

Habeeb Akande is one of the most prolific Black Muslim writers out there on a range of topics. This book offers a sweeping narrative dealing with history, social issues like interracial marriage and the concept of race as dealt by scholars such as Al-Suyuti. As expected, this book is well researched and well written so a good primer for those new to the topic.

  • Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa by Ousmane Kane

Timbuktu and West Africa was for a time one of the richest centres of Islam in terms of wealth and intellectual tradition. To read about this time read this book by the Harvard professor Ousmane Kane. To all those who believe in the idea of racial superiority, you’ll be quickly disabused of that notion when you realise that this is the intellectual depth of a book about the intellectual depth of Black Muslims in West Africa.

  • The Black Eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire: Networks of Power in the Court of the Sultan by George Junne

In almost every Muslim Empire, the Sultans and rulers might change but there is a constant presence just off centre if you look closely enough. Eunuchs, who were often but not always of Black heritage, were right there at the centre of power. While the institution that brought them there was horrific and inhumane, the power they wielded was serious and far reaching. This book goes through the lives of a group of Black Muslims who shaped the Muslim world in ways that may surprise you.

  • The African Caliphate: The Life Work & Teachings of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio by Ibraheem Sulaiman

In a part of the world that gave us the world’s richest known person, great kings and warriors – you have to be pretty special to stand out. Usman Dan Fodio was more than special. He was one of those people who excelled as a military leader, a teacher and a person. He revived the sunnah and stands as one of the giants in the history of Islam. Learn about the man they call simply “Shehu.”

  • The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader by Jean Boyd

History tends to be His story far too often. It is the history of great men doing great things. 50% of the world is missed out with women far too often playing cameo roles as femme fatales or spoils of war. Well, the story of Nana Asma’u bucks this trend. She was not just a towering figure. If her father conquered lands, Nana conquered hearts. Learn about her story. Herstory – get it? Just read the book.

  • Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylvaine Diouf

The story of how enslaved Muslims struggled to hold on to their faith and values, to not just survive but to actually thrive is fascinating and should be required reading. While there are other books that deal with the subject in a more detailed manner, this book is accessible and touches on all the main themes from revolts to literacy levels. Ms Diouf does a lot to shine a light on one of the darkest institutions in Islamic history.

  • Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser

It is a measure of the man that despite being the greatest sportsman of all time, it was still only the 2nd most interesting part of the life of Muhammad Ali. How this young scrawny kid from Louisville went from being Cassisus Clay to one of the most recognisable human beings on planet Earth is not just a biography of a superstar but the story of the struggle of a people, the many missteps on the road to that struggle and the ultimate redemption that awaited. Long after the name of the Presidents and Kings of his era will be forgotten, the name of Muhammad Ali will live on.

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley

For me, even though it speaks to a specific person, place and struggle, this is by far the greatest of all the books out there on the history of Black Muslims . This is the denouement of a centuries long struggle for the survival of faith against the greatest odds and how slavery, racism and enforced conversions all came crashing down when one man of rare intelligence decided that it was time to overcome “by any means necessary.” If you have not read it, what are you waiting for? It will change you.

As I argued in a previous article called Erasing Race: Problems with our Islamic history, the history of Islam without Black Muslims isn’t really a history at all.

Whether you decide to read any of these books or check out some YouTube videos or articles about the history of Black Muslims, let us all educate ourselves. Only then will we all be able to start helping to build a more just world. Only then will we all be able to breathe.

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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 note: “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 finally 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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