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No, My Son | A Short Story

It was pure happenstance that Payedar Olan was sitting near the entrance of the masjid on the day the gunman entered and shot him. He had forgotten that here in America they changed the time twice a year…

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San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

It was pure happenstance that Payedar Olan was sitting near the entrance of the masjid on the day the gunman entered and shot him. He had forgotten that in America they changed the time twice a year, so he was an hour early for Friday congregational prayer. The little masjid at the top of a hill was almost empty, with only a few brothers praying, and one washing up in the ablutions room. So he sat with his back against the wall to relax and wait.

Such a strange thing, this time changing. The sun rose and set. How could men change it? But in America they believed they had power over all things.

Life here was bewildering. People zipped around on electric scooters, in Uber cars and in trains that rumbled beneath the ground. Skyscrapers blocked the sun. People wore strange costumes, and one could often not tell a woman from a man. The markets contained more food than anyone could need, much of it artificial, tasting too salty or too sweet. People smiled for no reason, while crazy people wandered the streets, shouting at nothing.

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This city and country had taken him in and given him shelter when his own homeland was being devoured by evil men; so he was grateful. Still, it was perplexing, and so far removed from his experience that sometimes he felt he was on a different planet.

The Kurdish Heart

A Kurdish village

Kurdish village

Payedar had been born in 1953 in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a mountain village called Gur-e-Sofia, reachable by traveling first on the Ruwandiz road from Erbil, then by a three hour climb up a mule track. His bav was a duck hunter, and his dê a midwife.

In his village, whitewashed homes were built into steep hillsides in tiers, facing the sun. The mud of the roofs had to be rolled anew every September, before the winter rains, because in summer it would crack. Sheep and goats dotted the slopes. Most people grew barley or bearded wheat, and tobacco in summer, using oxen to plow the fields. Every family knew precisely how much water they could take for irrigation, and no one took more than their share, for fairness was ingrained in the Kurdish heart.

Walnut trees grew everywhere, and Payedar would shake them to bring the walnuts down, then crack them between two stones. Because of this he was never hungry, alhamdulillah.

He remembered his bav, his father, sitting at the village coffee shop, smoking rich Kurdish tobacco from a hookah pipe, and shouting exultantly as he won a round of backgammon. At home his dê cooked spiced kofta meatballs, bulgur pilaf and flatbread, with figs and sweetened black tea for dessert. Payedar, his parents and six siblings ate on the floor, sitting around a clean cloth. At night Bav led them in prayer, reciting the Quran in his powerful voice.

It was life, and he was happy, until he was eight years old and the Kurdish-Iraqi war began. His three older brothers and one sister went to fight and never returned. The village was bombed. Many were killed and many homes were destroyed. Even the small masjid was reduced to rubble. His bav fell into despondency, and one day went out to hunt ducks and blew his own head off.

Payedar, the eldest remaining child, became the breadwinner. Twice a month he loaded up a mule with white grapes, tobacco and walnuts and traveled over the mountain to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he sold them at a good profit. It was hazardous work. More than once he was injured. Three times he was robbed.

These dangers were balanced by getting to see Erbil, a city of a million people. A million! Where ancient Assyrian and Roman monuments and citadels mixed with four-story buildings and a modern soccer stadium. Women went out with their forearms uncovered, people wore Western jeans and shirts, and music played from boomboxes sold in shops filled with electronic goods. At the same time, Erbil was a frequent target of Iraqi bombs, and it was not unusual to see bodies in the streets.

The Dying and the Dead

The war ended when he was seventeen, and began again when he was twenty one. This time he joined the Kurdish peshmerga and fought the Iraqi invaders, sending his salary home to his mother.

Female peshmerga fighters

Female peshmerga fighters

It was in the war that he met his wife, Letya. Her name, which meant tiny and womanly, matched her stature, if not her personality, for she too was a member of the peshmerga, and the first time he saw her she was in a soldier’s uniform with a Soviet rifle in her hands, her fierce black eyes promising death to the enemies of the Kurds, and her long black hair streaming in the hot southern wind.

He killed many men, and saw many die. Back home in Sofia-e-Gul one of his two younger sisters got married and moved away, while the other, out one day foraging for food, was kidnapped by Iraqi soldiers, raped and killed. Shortly afterward his mother died of loneliness and heartbreak. He returned home to bury her, his tears falling into the rich mountain soil atop her grave. Sofia-e-Gul was now populated only by old people waiting to die, and by the dead in the cemetery. The fields lay untended, many homes half-destroyed, the animals lost. He prayed, begging Allah’s forgiveness for leaving his mother alone. He did not ask for Allah’s mercy on his mother, for it was unnecessary. She was a saint, and if anyone in the world deserved Paradise it was her.

He left Sofia-e-Gul and never returned.

Payedar and Letya were married as the war raged, and when the Kurdish militias lost and the Kurdish region was overrun by Iraqi troops, they fled to the Kurdish border region in Iran. There Payedar worked as an assistant to a stone mason. He and Letya raised two boys and a girl.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

These were the things Payedar was thinking about as he sat with his back against the wall in the little masjid. Lately it seemed his mind dwelled more in the past than the present. Sometimes he found himself standing on a street corner in this American city, thinking about the feel of his father’s bristly mustache when he kissed Payedar goodnight, or the smell of his wife’s hair, redolent with the day’s cooking – or, if she had bathed, with the scent of fermented rice-water shampoo. Then someone would interrupt his reverie, some Spanish girl with green hair, or a goateed man with earrings and a baby in a belly sling, and ask if he was alright. And he would smile and thank them.

He had no complaints about the way his life had turned out. He’d lost so much, yes. But he’d been a fighter all his life, and what more could any man do? Everything was in Allah’s hands. Whatever had happened was always going to happen, and whatever had passed him by was always going to pass him by. There was nothing he could say in the end but alhamdulillah. And if he was fortunate, he would meet his lost ones in Jannah, and all would be well.

Boots On

The gunman entered with his boots on. That was the first thing Payedar noticed, glancing to his left and seeing the military boots on the plush carpet of the prayer room. His eyes shot up to take the man in: tall, white, with a powerful frame. Green eyes and a scattering of freckles across his cheeks. Brown hair in a buzz cut. Dressed in green army fatigues, and carrying a semi-automatic rifle. The gun was pointed toward the mehrab as the man’s head swiveled, taking in the interior of the masjid.

The man seemed confused. Maybe he too had been fooled by the time change, and was expecting to find a full congregation. Maybe his eyes were adjusting to the gloom, for the interior lights had not yet been turned on, and the masjid was all cool shadows and lazily spinning ceiling fans.

The gunman’s hesitation gave Payedar the time he needed. He leaped up and embraced the man tightly, throwing his arms over the man’s arms, pinning them to his sides so that the rifle pointed at the ground. “No, my son,” Payedar said intensely, whispering in the man’s ear as if telling secrets to a confidante. “No.”

“Get off me you goddamn terrorist!” the man bellowed. He struggled, nearly falling. He was strong, but Payedar also was strong, for though he was sixty seven years old he had been a stone mason for decades, and the work had given him a broad back and muscular arms.

“No, my son,” he said again, his voice rising. “I will not allow it. I cannot, I cannot.” He heard other men shouting in panic and confusion, but he did not turn to look.

“I’ll kill you!” the man drove forward, but Payedar held on. The gun went off. The sound ricocheted off the walls like the roar of a cannon. Someone screamed. Payedar’s foot exploded with pain. Starbursts appeared before his eyes. Yet he kept his arms clasped. “No, my son,” he said again, desperately. ‘No, my son.” He was pleading, but not for his life. He and death were old friends or old enemies – he could not tell anymore. Sometimes you hated a man but admired him. So it was with Payedar and death. No, he was pleading for this man to understand, to stop before it was too late.

“GET OFF ME YOU CRAZY OLD MAN!”

Again the gun fired, and this time it was as if a sword had been driven into Payedar’s thigh. He closed his eyes and groaned in agony, but held on. Again he pleaded, his voice filled with something that might have been anger but might also have been love, and this time it was a shout, driven by pain and desperation. “No my son!”

The gunman stopped struggling. Payedar felt the man’s body go limp within the circle of his embrace. He opened his eyes to meet a gaze filled with hatred and rage, but also confusion and shame. Now that the man had stopped struggling, Payedar seemed to have lost his own ability to fight, as if he had drawn his energy from the other’s seething will. His arms grew slack and the world turned monochrome, as if he were seeing everything on the old television he and Letya had purchased when the children were still small and still alive. Pain filled his mind, and he could not stand.

Arms seized Payedar and the gunman. Both fell. Men were atop them, shouting in Arabic and English. Payedar’s mouth fell open as his eyelids came down like steel doors.

His Young Prince

Hospital IV bag

Two surgeries and a week in the hospital, and he was on his way to recovery. People said he was a hero. Visitors from the masjid were allowed in two at a time, but Payedar found their visits tiring. Reporters wanted to see him, but his son Ekrem shielded him. Payedar had no desire for fame. Police came as well. He told the story in halting English, and picked the gunman out of a selection of photos on a card.

Sometimes he did not know where he was. A hospital, but he had been in many clinics and field hospitals. He had been shot twice before, bombed, struck with grenade shrapnel, and tortured in an Iranian jail, where he was accused of being a Kurdish separatist.

When he became confused he remained silent and waited stiffly. Eventually Ekrem would appear, sometimes with his beautiful wife Amirah, and Payedar would relax, for even if he did not know where he was he knew that Ekrem was his young prince, his joy and legacy, and that if Ekrem was there then everything was fine.

Later, he awoke on the sofa in Ekrem’s living room. Usually he slept in a tiny upstairs room, but he had a titanium rod in his thigh and a cast from knee to toe. He let out a groan. His leg and foot ached as if a lion were gnawing on the bones. He’d experienced worse pain in life. But he was old now.

Amirah stood over him, speaking. “Apê. Tu dixwazî hin çay bi şekirê dixwazî? Dem dema dermanê we ye.” Uncle, would you like tea with sugar? It’s time for your medication.

Payedar smiled at this princess, this beautiful African-American Muslim woman who had given him two grandsons and had even learned Kurdish!

Trying not to show how much his leg hurt, he rubbed his eyes and yawned. “How about some mast-aw?” he replied in Kurdish. It was an old joke. Mast-aw was a Kurdish favorite: heated goat’s milk mixed with sour goat’s milk to curdle it, then with cold water. Of course it could not be found in America.

“Honey,” Amirah called in English. “He wants mast-aw.”

“Coming up.” Ekrem emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray with a single glass of milk perched in the center, and four pills beside it. The boys trooped at his heels, grinning. Payedar looked at his son, with his curly hair and long, proud nose. He was sturdy, for he too was a stonemason, having learned at Payedar’s side.

Payedar smiled at this prank. The pasteurized, homogenized milk sold in America was a far cry from mast-aw. But he took the glass without complaint, and downed a few pills. His eyes widened. The drink was thick and tangy, rich with the flavors of his homeland. It was mast-aw! He had not tasted it in many years, and for a moment the flavor took him back, so that he was a child, sitting on the floor with his parents and siblings after a long day of trooping over the mountains with his bav. The children enjoyed mast-aw and boiled wheat with sugar, and when his older brother tried to talk about the war Bav shushed him. His sister told a joke about a cat that tried to ride a bicycle, and Payedar laughed.

Remembering this, he laughed again, and witnessing this, Ekrem and his family laughed as well, and Payedar returned to the present. “This is miracle,” Payedar said in English, and his family grinned and told him how they had sourced all the ingredients.

Moments like this were a barakah, and Payedar was filled with gratitude to Allah. If only… he faltered, his hand shaking, nearly dropping the glass, so that Amirah took it quickly. A tear ran down his cheek. Ekrem was beside him, touching his shoulder. “What is it, Bav? Is something wrong?”

Payedar shook his head. “You are the spirit of my heart, Ekrem. All of you.” He reached a hand to his grandsons and they piled onto the sofa. “I wish…” He could not continue. He wished Letya, his wife, could have lived long enough to see this new land. And Sara, his daughter, gassed by Saddam Hussein along with her husband and children. And Baz, his firstborn, a lifelong soldier.

Ekrem rubbed his shoulder. “I know, Bav.”

“Can I try the mast-aw?” This was Ibrahim, his youngest grandson, a wide-faced boy with curly black hair and dark eyes, only four years old. His mother gave him the glass and he took a sip, then coughed and grimaced. “Eww!”

Payedar chuckled. “You are American boy. You better stick to apple juice.”

* * *

An assistant district attorney came to see him. A rail-thin blonde woman with spectacles like tea glasses. The gunman, whose name was Amundsen, had so far refused to speak to the police. He said he would only speak to, “the old man.”

“Meaning you, Mr. Olan,” the ADA said. “You’d be doing us a favor.”

Good Crazy or Bad Crazy

They met in a room in the county jail building. It was painted steel gray, with a thick window beyond which a tall black guard watched. There were no cameras or listening devices, as far as Payedar could tell.

The gunman, Amundsen, sat across from Payedar at a metal table that was bolted to the ground. The man wore orange jail coveralls with “JAIL INMATE” printed on the chest and back. He was handcuffed, his ankles shackled, another chain connecting hands and feet to a belly chain, and the whole mess chained to a steel eye loop welded to the table. The man was unmarked. No bruises or burns. Back home he would have been tortured until he confessed. Here they had to appeal to him, negotiate, reason. America was crazy. But good crazy or bad crazy? Both, Payedar supposed.

Payedar wore the traditional clothing of his homeland: a dark vest over a white robe, a black turban, and boots. He did not always dress thus. Sometimes he wore typical Western clothing. He was not sure why he had chosen to dress this way today.

The gunman eyed him. There was some hostility in that look, but not as much as Payedar had expected. The man seemed almost curious. “You speak English?”

“Yes. I learn.”

The chains rattled as Amundsen gestured to Payedar’s leg. “You gonna be alright?”

Payedar nodded.

“You really messed me up.”

“You mess up yourself.”

“Yeah.”

Neither of them said anything for a while. Payedar studied the gunman. The man’s eyes were intelligent, his jaw set tightly. A forearm tattoo peeked out beneath the sleeve of his coverall. His torso was as wide as a barrel. Payedar was amazed he’d been able to hold the man. In fact, he could not see how it was possible.

“Why did you say that?” the gunman wanted to know.

“Say what?” Though he knew.

“You know. You called me your son. You kept saying that. Even when I shot you. What the hell, man? I’m not your son.”

Payedar flushed with embarrassment. But he had agreed to talk to the man, so he answered. “Sometimes I get confused. At that time I thought you was my son, Baz.”

Amundsen stared, then shook his head and laughed. “Unbelievable. I got stopped by a senile old kook. Do I look like your son?”

“Little bit. Big and strong. He was soldier, fighting the Iraqis. Seven years ago, when ISIS start to invade our land, Baz come to me, say he going to fight them. I did not want. I lose so many people already. So I hug him, I tell him, no, my son. Do not go.”

Amundsen frowned. “Your son was going to fight against ISIS? I thought you Muslims supported ISIS.”

“You are fool!” Payedar snapped. “Never say this. Do you understand what ISIS did to my people? They attack the Yazidi villages because the Yazidis are Christian, not Muslim. So ISIS kill the men, take the women and rape them. My son cannot accept this, so he go to fight, to protect them.”

“So…” Amundsen’s mouth hung open as he took in what Payedar was telling him. “Your son fought to protect Christians?”

“Muslim, Christians, one people. They are Kurds.”

“What happened to him?”

“What you think?” Not wanting to speak it out loud.

The room fell silent. Payedar looked around absently, taking in the clean floor and walls, the even light from the fluorescents embedded in the ceiling. He looked at the jail guard on the other side of the window, who stood calmly, watching them both. Payedar’s mind wandered, traveling through time, crossing borders and eras in an instant, feeling the touch of his wife’s lips on his cheek, whispering her love. She had loved him like a fighter, fiercely, unreservedly. Then his mind swept forward like a flash flood in a mountain ravine, and he was once again in the present, in this tiny room in a foreign city far from home. His gaze returned to Amundsen, who in turn studied him silently. No one spoke.

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: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches 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.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mohammad Rocka

    April 16, 2020 at 6:54 PM

    Ma sha ALLAH, well written, I didn’t want the story to end so quickly.
    It was really good to hear the background story.

  2. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    April 16, 2020 at 7:00 PM

    Hope you guys enjoy this one. The story came to me out of the blue. I did a lot of research into Kurdish history and culture. By the time I was done I was very fond of this old man, Payedar Olan.

  3. Avatar

    Fatima Moinuddin

    April 16, 2020 at 7:09 PM

    Love love your writing MashAllah tabarakAllah

  4. Avatar

    Sarah HF

    April 16, 2020 at 10:17 PM

    Assalamualaikum. Brother Wael, is the main character based on a true story? It made me cry. I think I live in a country where peace has been taken forgranted. You don’t know the value of something until you’ve lost it.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      April 16, 2020 at 10:26 PM

      Sarah, wa alaykum as-salam. The story was inspired by this incident:

      https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3022518/norway-mosque-shooting-how-unarmed-65-year-old-mohammad-rafiq

      The actual history, geography and culture of Kurdistan as described in the story is real. Even the village I mentioned is real. However, as you can see, I changed the details and fictionalized Payedar’s life story.

      • Avatar

        Sarah HF

        April 17, 2020 at 12:35 AM

        Thank you for the link. What is it about your stories that people can easily relate to? Is it the theme? (Like hardships, poverty etc) Or that the places, location/culture that you’ve mentioned is very strikingly similar to what is in reality?

        • Avatar

          Wael Abdelgawad

          April 17, 2020 at 1:26 AM

          Sarah, if indeed it’s true that my stories are relatable, then I think it’s because I write about people who may be imperfect, and who may have troubled hearts, but in the end they are trying to do the right thing. They are people of faith, but they don’t have all the answers. There may be moral or spiritual lessons in the story, but those lessons are communicated through the plot, not by exposition or preaching. You walk the same path as the characters, you come to love them, and in that way you grow and learn along with them. At least that is what I strive for, inshaAllah.

          • Avatar

            Sarah HF

            April 17, 2020 at 11:46 AM

            “…in the end they are trying to do the right thing.” Brother, how would you deal with someone who…let’s say, envies you…to the extent of harbouring hasad and using sihr to get whatever they want? Isn’t it fitrah for everyone to want to be good, no matter who they are? But “forgiveness has a time and place”?

          • Avatar

            Wael Abdelgawad

            April 18, 2020 at 3:00 AM

            Sarah, I would avoid such a person to whatever degree possible, including removing them from my life altogether.

  5. Avatar

    Sarah HF

    April 18, 2020 at 11:21 PM

    Assalamualaikum. Brother Wael, thank you for a beautiful story and all your replies above. I’ve not only enjoyed your stories, I’ve also learnt many things as well. My mum loves your stories too. She is 79 years old. When I told her I was going to read to her this one, she got really excited as she remembered The Gravedigger and Zaid Karim.

    I especially like the way you explain a certain aayah or hadith. You’ve made it easy for me to understand. I’ve shared it with others and they too feel the same. So Brother, please keep writing. The world needs you!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      April 19, 2020 at 6:49 PM

      MashaAllah, that’s nice that you read to your mum.

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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 7: The Underground Dream

Behind them, the city was burning. Omar and a thousand others descended into the cave, led by the red-robed Saviors.

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Caves of Borneo

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

“Not without you,” – Omar

Eggplant

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Omar’s mother flipped when she saw the bruising on his face – how could she not, when the whole right side of his face was the color of an eggplant – and demanded to know who had attacked him, but he merely told her he’d slipped and fallen in a pothole, which was true as far as it went. No point in freaking her out further with the details. Though Omar didn’t see why she should care. Nemesio had beaten him for years and she hadn’t stopped it. Why should it matter now? It smacked of hypocrisy.

He was not the type to give up on anything, so the next morning he ate the breakfast his mother prepared – scrambled eggs, corn tortillas with white cheese, and coffee – and set out again for Hani’s house. This time he made it without incident, although he was exhausted by the time he got there, and his shirt and hair were damp with sweat.

Hani lived in an orange-colored home with peeling paint and a high metal fence surrounding a tiny front yard. Curiously, there was a moving van parked in front of the house, and a stack of boxes on the front patio.

Hani’s mother, a thin Arab woman with a long face just like her son’s, answered the door.

“Omar!” she said warmly. “It’s been too long.” Then her eyes took in the scars on his face, his half-ruined ear, and the massive purple bruise on his face, and her smile faded. “What happened?” She pointed to her own cheek. “Is that bruising from the… the incident?”

“No. I fell down yesterday. But I’m fine.”

“I see. Be careful.” She seemed at a loss for a moment, then she said, “I saw you on television. Congratulations for the award.”

“Are you guys moving?”

Her smile faded. “Yes. We are moving to Bogotá. For Hani’s father’s work, you understand. I know Hani will miss you.”

“Oh.” Omar was taken aback. He and Hani had known each other since they were little. Now he was moving without warning? Omar doubled up his hands on the cane, resting more weight on it. “When are you leaving?”

“In a few days. Hani is not here. He went with his father to buy boxes.”

“Oh.” Knowing he must sound like a simpleton. “Should I come back later?”

Hani’s mother hesitated, emotions playing on her face like the shadows of rain clouds. “Maybe not. He will be very busy.”

Omar did not understand. He wanted to ask if she could give him a ride home, but was too embarrassed. He walked slowly home and collapsed into bed for a long afternoon nap.

Underground

Caves of Borneo Behind them, the city was burning. Not from bombs, but from the hands of citizens against citizens. But the bombs would fall soon, they were told, so they were led into the cave and down into the depths of the mountain’s roots, a thousand of them shuffling toe to heel in the shifting darkness, lit by the pale illumination of the hand-powered flashlights carried by the red-robed Saviors.

Omar craned his head at the barely seen walls and ceilings of the caverns they passed through. The cave was frigid and damp, and he could not imagine this as his new home.

They would be safe here, they were told, and would be fed. But they must work. Life would be hard. Such was the price of survival.

And oh, they did work. Not at farming, technology, communications, or tending to the sick. No, they worked at one thing: mining for gold. Omar was a digger, excavating shafts and spiral tunnels. Others were muckers, removing blasted materials, or mixers, using cyanide to break down the ore. Some died from the poisonous fumes. Others were killed by cave-ins, vanished into unseen pits or crevices, or died of malnutrition or exhaustion. The “food,” if it could be called that, consisted of freeze dried meals, holding as much moisture and flavor as cave dust.

A few objected to the unceasing work and terrible food. One in particular, a young man named Javier, stirred up a fuss. One day the Saviors seized him. They held a public trial, declared Javier a traitor, and dropped him into a bottomless crevice that everyone called the Pit. After that no one complained.

Omar saw Samia from time to time. She was lucky enough to be a dowser – one of the gifted few who had the ability to find veins of gold. The only tool she used was a small candle floating in a bowl of water, which she carried with her. Somehow it worked. She was better fed than the others but still thin, all her baby fat gone, and her skin had a grayish tint that worried Omar.

One of Omar’s co-laborers, a former Ngäbe-Buglé leader by the name of Toribio, had broken a rib when a supporting beam snapped. Omar covered for him, working twice as hard, doing Toribio’s work as well as his own. In return, Toribio gave Omar an entire loaf of flatbread. Real bread! Omar could not imagine where it had come from, and Toribio would not say.

That night, Omar slinked stealthily into the women’s sleeping area, where he found Samia jammed into a too-small sleeping hole. He woke her with a hand over her mouth, and gave her the bread. Her eyes widened and she nodded, and Omar departed as silently as he had come.

Toribio’s broken rib must have punctured his lung, because his condition grew worse, until one morning he would not wake. He was barely breathing, and his skin was ashen. Omar knew what would happen. The Saviors would throw the wounded man into the pit. His eyes flicked to Toribio’s boots. Toribio was small, about the same size as Samia. He would not need the boots where he was going. Omar unlaced them and pulled them off, feeling like a criminal.

That night, he slipped into the women’s area and gave Samia the boots. But one of the women must have seen him and reported him, because the next morning the Saviors yanked him out of the work line and beat him with a stave, until he was bruised and bleeding everywhere.

Omar knew that something was not right. If the Saviors cared about saving anyone, they would not treat people so cruelly. Also, the Saviors claimed that they met with other survivor clans and traded the mined gold for supplies. But if that were true, then why were they eating dreck and wearing rags? Why did they sleep in tiny rock chambers that they dug out themselves with hand tools?

Above ground, they were told, the world was a ruin. The cities were destroyed, the forests burned, the air poisoned. Only in these depths was there any hope of survival. But Omar wondered… The Saviors were robust, not starving like everyone else. And what would a ruined world need with gold?

Late one night, Omar followed one of the Saviors. If he were caught he’d be publicly beaten, and might not survive. He followed at the edge of the man’s light as the red-robed overseer sneaked up a narrow tunnel that led to a locked door. Omar memorized the route, knowing that if he came this way alone he would do it in darkness. The man unlocked the door and slipped through. Omar could not follow.

The next day, as he was carrying a wheelbarrow full of unprocessed ore, he bumped into that same Savior. The ore tumbled out. The man shouted in rage and beat Omar with a stick, splitting his cheek and bruising his ribs. But Omar had what he wanted: he’d slipped the key out of the man’s pocket in the chaos.

Late that night he crept out of his sleeping chamber and traveled up the long corridor in pitch darkness, walking with his eyes closed, relying on memory. He reached the door, unlocked it, and found no more than a continuation of the tunnel. But… wasn’t there a whisper of a breeze? He continued. Was the tunnel rising? And the air… it was fresher. Now he saw light ahead, not bright but a lighter shade of darkness than the inky depths below.

The tunnel emerged into the vast openness of the surface world. It was night, and the stars shone blindingly in the sprawling firmament. Had the sky always been so vast? Omar could not remember. The air was rich with the scents of leaves and soil. A night bird called, and it was the sweetest thing Omar had ever heard. He felt something on his face, wiped it away, and realized he was weeping.

The area was forested, except for a paved road that disappeared into the trees, and a squat stone building with firelight flickering through the windows. Omar heard laughter. He eased forward and peered through a window. Inside was a beautiful dining room with a wide wooden table, colorful fabrics hanging on the walls, and logs burning in a fireplace. At the table sat eight Saviors. Omar recognized their faces, though they looked different without their red robes, which hung on hooks along one wall.

They were feasting on dishes that Omar remembered as if through a dream: whole roasted chickens, platters of fish stewed with vegetables, fresh salads, fried plantains, and sliced mangoes and pineapples. Omar’s mouth was instantly full of saliva. But he must return before someone spotted him. The Saviors would kill him if they caught him. He stopped only long enough to pick up a freshly fallen leaf and thrust it into his pocket.

Back in his sleeping chamber, his mind raced. The people would not believe him. Their obedience of the Saviors was absolute. Every day they were told that they would be dead without the overseers’ vision and guidance, that the surface world was a wasteland, and that only through labor could they be saved. If the people reported him to the Saviors, he would be cast into the Pit.

He could simply leave. The key was burning a hole in his pocket, demanding to be used. There was no need to remain in this tomb of horrors. But… he could not leave without Samia. The two of them hardly spoke. But they were connected in a way he could not explain.

The next night he returned to Samia’s sleeping chamber, knowing someone might see him and report him. It was a risk he must take. In whispers, he told Samia what he had discovered.

She was skeptical. “The surface world is a wasteland, Omar. You were only dreaming. Go away before you get us both in trouble.”

He showed her the leaf. Her eyes widened. She felt it tenderly, smelled it, even bit a piece off and chewed it. She began to weep silently. Finally she thrust the leaf back at him, her hand shaking. “I can’t. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in the Pit. It terrifies me. I can’t, Omar, I can’t. You go. At least one of us will be free of this nightmare. You leave.”

He silenced her with a finger on her lips. “Not without you,” he said softly. Then he departed as silently as he’d come. What could he do? Her fear was more real to her than his promise of freedom.

He hid the key beneath a stone in a disused mining tunnel, and went back to work. He would not abandon Samia. If she wanted to stay and be worked to death in this abyss, then he would do the same.

* * *

He woke with his hands clenched into fists. His heart felt like a withered leaf. Why was Samia so stubborn? Then relief washed over him as he realized it was only a dream. He was not a beaten-down, kidnapped laborer in an underground tomb.

How strange that Samia should appear in his dream. That had never happened before. The eerie thing was that even awake, he could not shake a sense of responsibility and guilt, as if he had truly abandoned some version of her, some alternate personality that existed in that mine, sleeping in a hole in the wall and slowly dying.

Snow in Fiji

After that movie night at his house, Omar had hoped that maybe he’d have actual friends at school. He’d be one of the “in crowd”. Especially now that Tameem and Basem were gone. But with Hani gone as well, Omar was the only boy left in his grade. There was no “crowd” left to be a part of.

Fiji snow globe Sure, the Muhammad sisters were cheery and kind. They brought him little gifts, like homemade cookies, and a snowglobe from Fiji, which was funny, since Omar was sure it had not snowed in Fiji in about five hundred million years. Nabila brought him sports jerseys, a Buffalo Bills baseball cap, and once even a cool pair of navy wraparound shades – all more sponsor swag.

But Halima was remote, finding excuses to avoid him. That stung. Not that he imagined she’d become his girlfriend. He knew that was not allowed in Islam. But when she smiled at him and made witty banter in her Colombian slang, he felt like he was drifting in a rowboat on a clear summer lake, and never wanted the moment to end.

The one time he gathered up the courage to ask Halima why she was so distant, she only smiled ruefully and said, “You’re out of my league, hermano.” Then she walked away. Omar assumed she was being sarcastic, and was actually telling him that she was out of his league. And of course she was right. Chastened, he left her in peace.

As for him and Samia, they mostly went back to ignoring each other. Omar appreciated the way she’d stayed by his side in the hospital, and her words of wisdom. But the two of them had never really been friends, unless you counted the way they’d pranked each other relentlessly when they were little. Samia was too much of a know-it-all for Omar’s taste.

Still, a string of odd incidents made him wonder. Once at lunchtime, a bottle of Pepsi that had been in his lunch bag exploded as he opened it, fountaining all over his face and shirt. Some kids laughed, while others were horrified, hurrying with napkins to help him clean up. What made Omar suspicious was that Samia, who sat at another table with her back to him, did not even turn to look.

Another time, when they sat for keyboarding class, Omar’s computer mouse would not work, no matter how much he jiggled it, unplugged it, and re-plugged it. Finally he turned it over, and saw that someone had stuck a post-it note over the optical sensor. Written on the note was, “HA HA HA.” Omar’s eyes shot to Samia. A Spanish speaker would have written, “JA JA JA.” Using the “h” gave the person away as a native English speaker. But Samia’s eyes were resolutely fixed on her computer screen.

Omar confronted Samia, who only rolled her eyelids and said, “Come on, Omar. That’s kid stuff.”

The Next Person Goes in the Garbage Can

In the middle of that eleventh grade year, a new boy named Fuad arrived to join Omar’s class. Omar was pleased to have another boy to keep him company, but Fuad was an odd duck. The Indian boy spoke in a heavy accent that Omar could barely understand, his eyeglasses were so thick you could see nothing but a blur behind them, and a mass of black hair always hung down over his eyes. He was physically awkward, and would sometimes rush out to the bathroom without even asking the teacher. A strange boy, altogether.

Lightning-scarred oak treeShortly after Fuad arrived, Omar overheard a few 12th graders making fun of him. They were both new kids whose parents had just moved to Panama. Mahboob, the leader, was a heavyset, full-cheeked Pakistani youth who looked more like a brown refrigerator than a high school student. He was known for being physically rough in football games. His sidekick, Asad, had a thin face that looked like a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a mass of curly hair much like Omar’s own.

Omar was sitting with his back against a tree in his usual spot on the yard, while the older boys sat at one of the nearby picnic tables. As Fuad walked past, Mahboob called out to him:

“Hey mophead! You’re so skinny, if we need to clean the floor we could hold you like a mop and use your hair.”

Mahboob grinned at his own joke, and Asad let out a high pitched, giggling laugh.

Fuad turned and said politely, “I beg your pardon? You are saying what about my hair?”

But Omar was already on his feet, striding quickly toward the boys, not even using his cane. He stopped in front of Mahboob and glared at the large youth. The hulking 12th grader could probably have picked up Omar and used him as a conga drum, and for a moment Mahboob looked as if he might be about to say something, but in the end he averted his gaze.

Omar had experienced this with all the kids since the dog attack. They held him in awe, or at the very least respected him. Though these two had not been hear last year, they must have heard about it.

Omar touched an index finger to his lips then pointed sharply with it – an Arab gesture he’d picked up during his years at IIAP. “Wallahi,” he growled, “the next person who bullies Fuad is going in the trash can. Try and see, if you don’t believe me.” He stared at each boy in turn, then walked away.

It wasn’t that he had any great fondness for Fuad. He barely knew him. But he’d been the victim of bullying for years while others stood by, and there was no way on Allah’s sweet earth that Omar was going to become one of those silent bystanders, letting apathy make him complicit in cruelty.

Apparently the bullies didn’t believe him.

The next day, after school dismissal, the Muhammad sisters’ mother, Sister Farida, had offered Omar a ride home. He was about to climb into their SUV when he realized he’d forgotten his homework folder in his desk. The 9th to 12th grade classrooms were located in an outbuilding behind the main building, flanking the basketball court. He went out there, retrieved the folder, and had just exited the classroom when he saw a drama developing between Fuad and the two older boys.

Fuad was apparently retrieving books from his locker. As he did, Mahboob and Asad stood behind him, blocking his way. The yard was mostly empty at that point, with only a few younger kids milling about, and no teachers. No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

As he watched, Fuad said something to the boys and tried to walk away, but Mahboob stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fuad fell heavily on his face. His glasses skittered away, and his backpack opened, the books tumbling out.

The boys laughed. Omar saw Fuad put a hand to his mouth. It came away bloody.

Omar’s vision turned as red as a forest fire. His hands tightened into fists as he strode toward the bullies, not even hearing the clatter of his cane as it fell to the ground.

The look on his face must have been unmistakeable, because when Mahboob saw him coming he raised his hands in fists. His stance was terrible, however. He held his fists along the sides of his ears, as if he were one of the pre-Islamic Arabs trying not to hear the Quran. It was obvious he had no training.

Where the head goes, the body follows – one of the martial arts principles that Sensei Alan had drilled into him over the years. Omar could not lift Mahboob, but he could control the bigger boy’s head. Slapping Mahboob’s hands out of the way, he seized the boy’s hair in one hand and his throat in the other. Giving the twelfth grader no time to react, he used Mahboob’s head to drag him toward the trash can. Mahboob shouted, as did the others, but Omar paid no mind. With a heave, he chucked Mahboob headfirst into the trash barrel, which was brimming with the day’s food leftovers and chewed gum balls. The can could not hold him, and tipped over, dumping the trash onto Mahboob’s head.

Asad jabbed a finger at Omar. “You can’t do that!”

Omar seized the finger and bent it backwards, forcing Asad down to the ground, until he was lying on his stomach. Omar stepped on his neck. Mahboob was up by then, wet, sticky garbage clinging to his shirt and hair. His face was purple with rage and embarrassment. He and the other two boys glared at Omar. Comically, Mahboob took off his sandal and lifted it as if to slap Omar with it. Thank goodness he has no confidence, Omar thought. Or he would just pick me up and slam me.

“I can do this all day,” Omar said calmly. The red fog was gone. He knew what he had done, and didn’t care. Boys like this were wild dogs. His days of backing down to dogs were over. “So far it’s garbage and a bent finger. You want to move up to broken bones?” He turned a fierce stare onto Mahboob. Under the weight of his glare, the hefty boy dropped the sandal and slipped his foot back into it.

Asad screamed and thrashed beneath his foot. Omar removed his foot and stepped back.

“You know about those dogs that attacked me?”

“Yeah, we know!” Asad shouted as he rose to his feet. Tears filled his eyes. “So what?”

“You know what happened to them?”

“No.”

“They’re dead. If you bully Fuad again, I’ll come after you. You outnumber me, but I don’t stop. You’ll have to kill me, or I will kill you.”

Mahboob pointed a shaking finger at Omar, then – apparently remembering what had happened to Hamada – retracted it quickly. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. He turned away, and Asad followed. Mahboob kicked the basketball pole, then cried out in pain and limped on, pulling garbage out of his hair.

Someone touched his shoulder and Omar was surprised to find Fuad standing beside him. The boy had recovered his belongings. His lower lip was split, and he’d apparently wiped the blood away with his white school shirt. The bloodstains looked ghastly.

“You did not have to do that,” Fuad said. “But I thank you nonetheless.”

Omar suppressed a grin at Fuad’s oddly proper English. “It’s nothing.”

The main building’s back door opened, and Nabila stuck her head out. “Omar! We’re waiting for you.”

Omar slapped his forehead. He’d forgotten. Nodding goodbye to Fuad, he retrieved his cane and hustled out to the parking lot. As he settled himself in the van, Nadia said, “What took you so long? I’m writing a book called Rip Van Omar.”

“Oh.” Omar wiped sweat from his forehead. “I got caught in a parade.”

Neither a Miracle Nor a Brute

Omar was worried about the repercussions of the fight. He could be permanently expelled. Nothing happened, however. The other boys apparently did not report the incident. Still, word must have gotten out, because no one so much as spoke a slantwise word to Fuad after that.

Omar also noticed that the deference the other kids afforded him seemed to increase, to the point where he got more respect than the principal. Younger kids came running to him instead of a teacher when someone pushed them around. Some kids brought him fruit or chips. When he made his way down a crowded hallway it cleared in front of him.

Omar and Fuad began eating lunch together. Once Omar got used to the thick accent, he found Fuad to be smart and funny, though his sense of humor – all math and physics jokes – took some getting used to. (Two atoms are walking down the street. One says, “I think I lost an electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first one says, “Yes, I’m positive.”)

One weekend Fuad invited Omar to come to his house to play cards and have dinner. Omar didn’t know any card games, but he accepted. Aside from Fuad and his parents, there was a younger brother with equally thick hair and glasses – Omar had seen him at school, he was a fourth grader – and a little girl named Anika who continually charged around the apartment waving a toy lightsaber.

Indian rice and cauliflower dish When dinner was served, Omar started in on a dish of rice, stewed beef and cauliflower. He took two bites before his mouth began to burn. He gulped down water, but that only made it worse. His eyes began to water, and he was sure his face was cherry red.

Fuad’s mother was apologetic. In spite of Omar’s protests, she went into the kitchen and, ten minutes later, returned with a dish of rice and cauliflower sans spice. For the rest of the evening, nearly everyone teased him about his “tender tongue.” After dinner, Fuad taught him a game called hearts, then the entire family sat to play.

In the middle of the game, Fuad suddenly leaped up and rushed off to the bathroom. Omar laughed. “He does that at school too! Like it’s always an emergency.”

Fuad’s father, a gentle man with a thick moustache, touched Omar’s arm. “He has epilepsy. The medication stops the grand mal seizures, but he still gets petit mal attacks. He can feel them coming, so he runs away to hide. He’s very embarrassed by it.”

Omar was mortified. Fuad’s father must have seen that, because he touched Omar’s arm again. “You did not know. Fuad told us what you did for him. We are grateful.”

Omar visited Fuad many times after that. It was always the same: Fuad’s mom would make one meal for the family, and a separate meal for Omar. Then the family would either play cards, watch a movie or all go for a walk together.

Omar enjoyed these visits, but at the same time he felt like he did not belong. These people were part of something Omar had rarely seen: a happy family. The only other one he’d seen, in fact, was Tio Niko and Tia Teresa’s family. They at least were relatives, and were Panamanians, with all the familiarity, loudness and general nuttiness that implied. But Fuad’s family were polite and soft-spoken – even Anika, the sword wielder, who would charge around waving her lightsaber then lightly tap Omar on the shoulder and say, “Touché, dear sir.”

They were gentle, normal people. Omar had a feeling none had ever committed a violent act, or been a victim of one. Whereas his own life had been immersed in violence for years. His father’s murder. Nemesio beating him. Sparring in karate class. The dog attack. The mugging. He couldn’t escape it. When he sat with Fuad’s family he felt like a fraud. His voice was too loud, his hands too rough, his scars too visible. He was a brute, and he did not belong.

At times, during these visits, Omar felt almost overwhelmed by these feelings. When that happened, he often remembered Samia saying, “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Sometimes the memory of these words would bring tears to his eyes, and he would excuse himself and go to the bathroom to wash his face. As strange as this was to admit, a part of him felt like if anyone truly understood him, it was Samia. He didn’t think he was truly a miracle, as she claimed. But maybe he was not a brute either. Maybe he was something in the middle. Maybe he was just human.

A Lifeline in a Choppy Sea

Aside from the persistent, low-level pain from his injuries – particularly in his left leg, which had actually been broken by the dogs’ teeth – he felt better this year than at any time since his father’s death. Still, there were times when he was dizzied by all the changes, and fell into sadness. Part of him missed having Hani around, exchanging banter with Halima, and practicing karate.

And as crazy as it was, he almost – almost – felt like he missed the abuse and bullying he’d been subjected to. He felt baffled and angry at himself for feeling this way, and cursed himself for being an idiot. What was wrong with him? But the thing was, as terrible as the last four years had been, the viciousness had given his life purpose. Every day he’d awakened and known that the day would be a battle, and he could rely on no one but himself to survive it. Whether it meant keeping his head down and hiding, or turning himself into a stone, so that nothing affected him, his mission was to get through the day without letting it break him. He even missed having to run away to Tia Teresa and Tio Niko’s house when the abuse became intolerable. The constant struggle had defined him.

Now, he felt directionless. There were his studies, sure. And he helped his mom with Puro Panameño after school, boxing products and printing shipping labels. But what was he really doing? Where was he going? He’d never had the luxury of being able to think about these things before.

He’d always been attentive to his salat, but not rigorously so, and had often missed prayers. Now, though, he found himself turning to the salat as if to a lifeline thrown to an overboard sailor in a choppy sea. It wasn’t a conscious choice. The salat reminded him of his days as a small child, when his father had taught him what to say and how to move. It was a respite from confusion. A few still, calm moments in which he knew once again who he was:  not an abused boy entering each new day like a soldier at war, but a servant of Allah, a worshiper, and a member of a nation of 1.5 billion souls. If he had a mission and a purpose, then it must be tied to that, because in the end, nothing else was real.

Love Letter

The year went by, and the next. Every two or three months there would be a new prank. He did not feel bullied by them, though. They were a mystery to be solved. But in two years he never discovered the perpetrator.

He graduated high school with high honors. The scars on his face were much less noticeable, though his ear would always be disfigured. He’d pushed himself with physical therapy and had resumed karate class, though he had to make adjustments. He could not kick with his left leg, for example, and found himself relying more on hand techniques. Sparring was out of the question. He no longer needed a cane, but still walked with a limp.

His mother’s company, Puro Panameño, now had a small warehouse space on the Transistmica, and two full-time employees. Omar worked there part time, taking customer service calls. The customers were almost all women, and the regulars got to know him by name. Some had seen him on TV. They’d ask about his life, and flirt with him in the harmless way many Panamanian women did.

Pink envelope On the last day of school, Halima gave him a small golden envelope, telling him to open it at home. Later, sitting on the edge of his bed, he opened it to find an ornately folded letter. When he unfolded it, a pressed rose fell out. He picked it up, set it on the bed and began to read the  handwritten letter:

I’m sorry that I have not been friendly the last few years. After the Day of the Dogs, I found myself thinking of you all the time, and I had to admit to myself that I loved you. I have never known anyone so strong, brave and smart like you. And not only because of what you did that day. Even before that, I knew your life wasn’t easy, and I admired the way you never let anyone stop you from advancing.

I never told you this because there’s no point. I know you would not want to do anything haram, and I feel the same. Now my father is sending me to Universidad Nacional de Colombia, his alma mater. I will live with my aunt. So I will never see you again. Besides, I’m not good enough for you. I never was. Take care of yourself. I will always remember you.

Your dear friend,
Halima

Omar was stunned. Never in his wildest imaginings would he have thought Halima had such feelings for him. And what did she mean that she was not good enough for him? He wanted to rush to her house and say, “No, don’t leave, you are good enough for me. I love you too!” But did he actually love her? He wasn’t sure he knew what love was.

Sure, there was the Hollywood version where two people were caught up in a wonderful, heated passion. Those romances always ended in disaster, at least in the movies. One of them killed the other, or one was a con artist, or an undercover cop. Then there was the version where the straight-laced, boring man fell in love with the mad, hot, out-of-control woman. That didn’t seem to apply. Oh yeah, and the one where one of the pair was not who they were portraying to be. The prince who pretended to be a commoner, or the college professor who was mistaken for a spy. Omar didn’t see how any of those related to his situation.

He liked Halima for sure, but love? He guessed not. Plus, she was leaving, and it was probably true that they’d never see each other again. Shaking his head, he let out a perplexed sigh. Life was confusing. At times like this he wished his father was alive.

He slid the letter and rose back into the envelope, stuck it in the bottom of a shoebox that contained miscellaneous old letters and postcards, and did his best to forget it.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 8:  Rich and Poor

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

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

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

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Podcast: The Fiqh of FIFA | Mufti Hussain Kamani

Zeba Khan

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It’s estimated that 3 billion people play some sort of video game, whether on a computer, console, or smart phone.  For the millions of Muslims included in this number, what’s the halal and haram of this? Is gaming a good thing? When is gaming a bad thing?

“I know a lot of kids in our community who play Minecraft to develop skills. I respect that because it’s now a tool being used for their education.” -Mufti Hussain Kamani

In this podcast, Zeba Khan talks to Mufti Hussain Kamani, a hafiz, scholar, and -surprise!- gamer, about the Islamic perspective on gaming, entertainment, and the fiqh of FIFA loot boxes.

“Do loot boxes and their contents carry any value or not? Is there a monetary value to that Messi card? If it’s all ones and zeros then you can’t technically classify that as gambling, but I believe that’s too simplistic. We live in a world of cryptocurrency. There are things that carry value beyond physical objects.” – Mufti Hussain Kamani

Is gaming halal? Are lootboxes haram? Does Mufti Hussain Kamani play FIFA, and can I join his league? Click To Tweet
Support MuslimMatters 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.

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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.

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Then and Now: Rereading Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

Zainab (AnonyMouse)

Published

In 2007, at the brash, naive, and frankly moronic age of 16, I penned a scathing review of Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” for this very website, MuslimMatters.org. Thirteen years later, I read it again – only to find myself deeply, utterly in love with this book.

Khadra Shamy is the American daughter of Syrian immigrants, Wajdy and Ebtahaj, who dreamt of little more than dedicating themselves to the Da’wah in their tiny Muslim community in Indiana. Khadra grows up immersed in the culture of conservative da’wah: of the Deen being black and white, of certain rules followed scrupulously, of culture frowned upon in exchange for the purity of Islam. As she moves from a 10 year old child overwhelmed with guilt for accidentally eating gelatin-containing candy corn, to a black-clad, angry teenager who reads Qutb and supports the Iranian Revolution, to a college student who dutifully marries young, Khadra finds the foundations of her worldview slowly cracking. 

Going for Hajj was not spiritually revolutionary, but a dark glimpse of what Arab youth get up to in the heartland of Islam; after devoting herself to tajweed and hifdh, Khadra is told that she must stop reciting Qur’an in mixed gatherings and that Qur’an competitions are only open to men. Her ideal Islamic marriage begins to crumble when her husband evokes the Qawwam card to prohibit her from riding her bike in public – and when she gets pregnant, only to decide on an abortion, and then a divorce, Khadra creates a schism between herself, her community, and all that she has known. In the years that follow, Khadra breaks down and recreates her identity as a Muslim and her beliefs about Islam. 

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In many ways, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is both a love letter and a breakup note to conservative Muslims. Kahf’s book traces, with intimate authenticity, what it is to be a Western-raised child of parents immersed in the Da’wah; our quirks and eccentricities and ties to a back home culture that we don’t always understand; our hidden hypocrisies and our secret shames. She breathes into words the tenderness of our bonds of faith, the flames of our religious passion, the complexities of our relationships. She knows who we are, how we are, and she speaks to us in our own words. Perhaps ahead of her time, she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims, of the almost insurmountable distance between the theory of Islam for Muslim women, and the reality of what Muslim women experience.

Of course, it comes with a price. Kahf ends her novel by having Khadra follow the by-now-predictable trajectory that we have seen from many Muslims of a progressive bent: Sufism is the only acceptable fluffy-enough type of Islam; all paths, even outside of Islam, lead to God; conservative Muslims are embarrassing, suffocating, and are holding their communities back from true spiritual enlightenment. To be fair, Kahf doesn’t hold back from pointing out the hypocrisies of secular liberal types either, and she is far softer and more tender in her portrayals of conservatives as well. 

It is worth taking a closer look at how Kahf chose to take Khadra down the path of progressiveness. Khadra’s story is a mirror of so many true stories, of children from religious families whose resentment over their experiences pushed them to choose an easier way, one less rooted in following Shari’ah and more a vague idea of spirituality. This narrative portrays turning progressive as the only logical conclusion to such experiences, which is in itself deeply problematic. In truth, there are many Muslims – born Muslims and converts alike – who have suffered far worse than merely restrictive upbringings, or unhappy marriages, and who have chosen instead to commit themselves even more determinedly to orthodoxy. Spirituality is not the sole domain of Sufis or liberals; it is part and parcel of Islam itself, even in its most conservative form. To imply otherwise is a dishonesty that is found all too often amongst those who have their own biases and agendas against any form of Islam that does not feel flexible enough for their own tastes.

As a particularly ridiculous 16-year-old Salafi, I was too consumed in my outrage at Khadra leaving the aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jamaa’ah, and too busy agreeing with her ex-husband on the inappropriateness of Muslim women riding bikes in public, to understand or appreciate this deeply emotional journey. Fast forward 13 years, and 29-year-old me identifies far more with Khadra than my past self could ever have imagined. Little had I known, that first time, that I too would experience what Khadra and so many other Muslim women have: the painfully cliche toxic marriage to controlling Muslim men who use Islam to suffocate our souls and our spirits. (But really, 16yo Zainab??? You legit thought that Khadra’s husband was justified in stopping her from riding her bike??? You almost deserved going through practically the same thing, you idiot.)

Rereading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as an adult, having lived through my own traumas and growth, through spiritual crisis and rediscovery, was a very different experience. My own upbringing was very similar to Khadra’s: in a religious da’wah bubble, surrounded by an insistence on Islamic ideals, blithely ignoring Muslim realities (and occasionally denying them outright). The self righteous ignorance in my 2007 review has me dying a thousand deaths of mortification, and I am all too aware of just how much like teenaged Khadra I was back then. Thirteen years later, my cynicism knows no bounds, my bitterness sours all idealism, and I feel a deep urge to slap my past self upside the head. There’s some Divine irony in all of this, I suppose; certainly, it is cause for reflection on the value of personal growth and maturity, of how the years and one’s experiences can turn one into the very person they once derided. I relate far more to Khadra today than my teenaged self could ever have imagined, and in many ways, I only wish that I could have retained the blithe innocence (if not the ignorance) that I once had in abundance. Following Khadra on her journey was to retrace my own steps, to remember precisely how and when I, too, made the choice to become someone new.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim.Click To Tweet

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim. Kahf does not waste time explaining things to a non-Muslim audience, nor does she hold back from dishing out hard truths to Muslim readers. She knows us, inside and out, and it is this startling familiarity that pulls one in and doesn’t let go until we find ourselves shocked that we’ve reached the end of the book. In the era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Mohja Kahf was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of diverse fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a damned good book – one that will have you blinking away furious tears and lay awake at night, feeling your heart ache with unforgotten, unseen bruises.

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