Connect with us

#Culture

Day Of The Dogs, Part 1 – Tiny Ripples Of Hope

Omar picked at his food and watched a double line of leaf-cutter ants. They were a perfect example of a harmonious society, all laboring for a grand purpose. But humans weren’t like that. They sabotaged each other, letting their egos dictate their choices.

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

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

Tiny Ripples of Hope

“You look how if you saw a white rabbit wearing a suit go down a hole, you’d go after him.” – Halima

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.

THE DOGS WOULD NOT STOP BITING HIM. Omar felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood. He was almost blind from the sting of it in his eyes, and tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

ONE DAY EARLIER

Islamic school graduationFifteen year old Omar Bayano shifted in his folding chair beneath the large awning set up for graduation day at the International Islamic Academy of Panama. He was impatient for graduation to be over so he could get to the banquet that had been set out. But first he had to sit through the speeches given by the best students from each of the four upper grades, as was customary every graduation day.

He wasn’t bothered by the broiling air, nor by the “drown while breathing” humidity. He was a native Panamanian and had grown up in this steam-kettle-for-air climate, unlike most of the other kids and parents at this graduation, who were immigrants from the Middle East, Malaysia, the USA and other countries. Those parents fanned themselves with paper graduation programs while muttering about the ridiculousness of holding this event outdoors. But IIAP was a small school, and the air-conditioned assembly room was not large enough for this event.

In spite of the heat, parents carried umbrellas in hands or purses. The sky was searing blue, but come late afternoon the clouds would roll in like a conquering army, thunder would erupt across the city, and the rain would cascade like the Red Sea closing on Firawn and his men.

One of the graduating 12th graders spoke first. She was a Yemeni girl, trilingual and a perpetual honor student. When she broke into tears as she talked about how much the IIAP meant to her, Omar had a hard time relating. Rather than sweet times of friendship and shared ideals, his days at school were ordeals to suffer through.

Tameem, an 11th grader, captain of the basketball team, and a bully who’d mocked Omar mercilessly for years, was next. The tall Palestinian boy was a terrible student and everyone knew it, but his father was a dollar-signs-for-eyes real estate developer who was putting up half the skyscrapers in Punta Pacifica. Somehow Tameem always got straight A’s, even though he couldn’t tell a Newtonian law from a Fig Newton. That was life in Panama.

Tameem spouted some blather about how the IIAP students would be the future leaders of the world. Yeah, Omar thought. You’ll put up more buildings with your daddy’s money. Or more likely just party and play.

Omar’s arch-rival Samia represented the 10th graders. Papaya-shaped, wide-nosed and with spectacles like glass bricks, she was an assertive Malaysian girl who took no nonsense from anyone. She was also as smart as a silicon chip.

Ever since first grade Omar and Samia had competed for the top honor roll spot. For years they had pranked each other relentlessly, all the way back to first grade. He’d shoot spitballs at her, she’d put jello in his shoes, he’d tape a “kick me” sign on her back, she’d put a fake spider in his backpack, he’d put a real slug in hers… By fourth grade their rivalry grew into genuine animosity, but by seventh grade it evolved into a mutual pact to ignore each other. Still, Omar couldn’t help respecting her.

Omar actually had the better grades than Samia this year, but considering he had a black eye and split lip, the principal thought it best to let Samia take his place at the podium.

In her best lecturing voice, Samia recited an authentic hadith that everyone in school knew, since it was one of the narrations they had memorized at morning assembly:

“The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.”

“We’re supposed to think of the Muslim Ummah as a single body,” Samia elaborated, “and to care when any part of the body is suffering. But sometimes it seems like every part of the Ummah is suffering. In China, the Uyghur Muslims are being persecuted terribly by the government. With Ramadan two weeks away, we are looking forward to being spiritually rejuvenated. But the Uyghur Muslims are not allowed to fast. At work they are required to eat lunch in public, so they cannot secretly fast. Communist officials visit their homes with ‘gifts’ of pork and watch to make sure they consume it.”

Samia paused as some of the children exclaimed “ooh” or “gross!”, then continued. “Facial recognition cameras and police checkpoints are everywhere. Wearing hijab, growing beards, having a copy of the Quran, or avoiding alcohol are all considered signs of extremism. Women are forcibly sterilized. The Uyghurs don’t dare say, as-salamu alaykum. If they break any of these rules they are taken to concentration camps. There they are taught the ‘126 rules’, which say, for example, ‘religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in the Communist Party.’ Prisoners are punished with electric cattle prods, or tortured by wearing 50 pound iron suits. They are subjected to medical experiments. Their organs and hair are harvested. Women are gang-raped by Chinese guards while others are forced to watch.”

A loud protest went up from the parents, and the principal, a short man with perfectly coiffed hair and an elegant linen suit, practically tripped over his feet in his rush to get to the podium. The microphone emitted a squeal as he snatched it away. His face was as red as a ripe mango as he stammered, “Thank you Samia, I don’t think we need to know all that. I apologize to our parents and guests. I did not know she was-”

Samia grabbed the microphone back. The principal tried to recover it but she held it away. The children laughed. Even though Omar was shocked by Samia’s description of the camps, he couldn’t help smiling as well.

“Okay,” Samia said. “I just want to say that what I described is one example of how Muslims are suffering. Hearing about these things can be overwhelming. You don’t know whether to be angry or depressed. You feel insignificant. It’s easier to shut off your feelings and act like a robot, or blow it off and live your life. But we can’t let ourselves shut down completely.”

At this point, apparently convinced that Samia was back on safer ground, the principal shook his head and retreated. Samia went on:

“So what do we do? Former U.S. President Kennedy said, ‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.. those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.’”

“A tiny ripple of hope. For those feeling burnt out, I propose that we think smaller. Let’s start with our school. This school is a body. There are kids here who are hurting.”

Samia paused and looked over the assembled students and parents. Was it Omar’s imagination, or did her gaze linger on him? He frowned and looked away, thinking furiously. Was there any way for her to know? He didn’t think so.

“Especially with Ramadan coming,” Samia went on, “let’s be kind to each other. If you know someone who is in pain, reach out. Forget about being a hero. Just be someone’s friend. Maybe by being a friend, you become that person’s hero without knowing it. Crazy, huh? As for those Muslims who are suffering overseas, hold a fundraiser, or donate your allowance to Islamic Relief, UNICEF or Justice For All. Do what you can. Tiny ripples.”

Again the principal tried to take the microphone from her, telling her she was over her time limit. This time she let him have the mic, but not before shouting, “Everybody say hasbun-Allahu wa n’em-Al-Wakeel!”

The crowd repeated the phrase dutifully. Allah is sufficient for us and is the best Protector.

Listening to Samia and thinking about their history of pranking each other had given Omar an idea. He sneaked away from the gathering, searched until he found what he was looking for, then returned as quietly as he had left.

Nadia Muhammad from 9th grade was wrapping it up with a talk about Muslim heroes of the modern world. She was one of the three Muhammad sisters, who were all identical daughters of Fijian Indian immigrants. Their father, Omar knew, owned a small used car lot. They were poor but never complained, and seemed like a fairly happy bunch.

The students received their diplomas, the principal congratulated them, then they all threw their caps in the air. Omar was not a “throw-your-hat-up” kind of guy, but he got caught up in the moment and did so anyway. His cap went awry and hit one of the third graders in the eye on the way down. The little girl started crying and Omar ducked his head and scuttled sideways, leaving the cap unclaimed.

A Harmonious Society

The crowd eagerly made their way to the tables laden with platters of chicken biryani, beef kebabs and stuffed grape leaves, along with traditional Panamanian dishes like stewed lentils, corvina in garlic sauce, and fried plantains. The kids as usual, ran to be first in line, and like every year Sister Mahfooza, the assistant vice principal, shouted at them to let the parents be served first. But it was well known that her bark had no bite, and no one paid attention.

Some of the older girls stood at the serving table, scooping homemade food from aluminum trays and glass dishes. The corvina, Omar knew, was his mother’s dish. He took a good sized helping. His mother always felt bad if any of her food was left over.

At the end of the line, Halima was pouring drinks. A tenth grader like Omar, she was a tall, lanky Syrian-Colombian girl. With her wide-set green eyes, high cheekbones and full mouth, she looked like a model even in her plaid school uniform and black one-piece hijab. She’d come to IIAP three years ago speaking no English, only Arabic and Spanish. Now her English was not half bad.

Omar gestured shyly to the Pepsi. Halima examined his bruised face as she poured a cup. “Oye parcero, I hope you gave them like you got. Your karate class is so rough. I could never do that. You must be very brave.”

Omar lowered his head and touched his eye. He knew Halima was not mocking him. She’d always been kind to him, and he never knew why. A short, dusky-skinned boy with unruly brown curls and a perpetually bruised face, he did not consider himself handsome, nor was he popular. And unlike the majority of the other students, whose parents were mostly highly educated professionals or business people from the Middle East, Pakistan, or India, Omar was a native Panamanian from a poor family.

Like many Panamanians, he was a mixture of ethnicities. His mamá was indigenous, while his papá, a Muslim convert, had been part European, part Jamaican and part Chinese. When people asked Omar what race he was, he didn’t know what to say.

“Well,” he stammered. “Don’t want to hold up the line.”

On cue, Tameem called out, “Get a move on, Punching Bag.”

Omar ignored him, but couldn’t help flinching.

“Hey,” Tameem went on, “I guess free food is the best kind for you, huh Patacon?” Some of the kids laughed.

Omar expected the worn out nicknames. “Patacon” in particular was a common barb, as it referred to the plantain, a popular food among the Panamanian poor. His father had been a security guard here at the school. Ever since Papá died four years ago, Omar had been a scholarship student. That was one of the reasons he competed so fiercely for top spot in his class. If he didn’t keep his grades up, the scholarship could be taken away.

“Don’t pay attention to him,” Halima said fiercely. “He’s an idiot.”

Leaf cutter ants“Yeah.” Hanging his head, Omar shambled out to the soccer field and settled in an isolated corner behind a wide-canopied acacia tree. A cicada let out a loud whine. Something moved on the trunk of the tree and Omar realized that what he’d thought was a large twig was actually an iguana.

He picked at his food and watched a double line of leaf-cutter ants. One line marched up into the tree, and the other came down, each ant carrying a chunk of leaf many times its own size. It was a perfect example of a harmonious society, all laboring for a grand purpose: the survival of the race. But humans weren’t like that. They sabotaged each other, letting their egos dictate their choices.

One more year, Omar told himself. One more year and Tameem would graduate from IIAP. Omar would never have to see him again. But one year seemed like a lifetime.

Paralyzed

The only thing that made Tameem’s verbal abuse tolerable was that everyone believed Omar’s constant bruises were the result of sparring at karate class. That earned him some respect, in spite of Tameem’s teasing. And it was partly true. He’d been training in karate since he was five, and was one level below black belt. Though he was small, his body was compact and strong. Papá had trained along with him, but since his passing Omar took the bus across town by himself to attend class. He also taught the kids’ beginners class, which was why Sensei Alan didn’t charge him a fee.

Most of the bruises on his face, however, were not inflicted by his karate classmates. That privilege belonged to Nemesio, his piece-of-crap uncle who did not deserve the title of Tio, because to be a true uncle was to have at least a shred of decency and caring, which Nemesio did not. How could that man be Papá’s older brother? Papá had been loving and funny. Nemesio, on the other hand, was a vicious little rodent.

He heard his mother calling his name. She stood at the edge of the basketball court shading her eyes, a small figure shimmering in the afternoon haze. Her brightly colored pollera dress, traditional among Ngäbe-Buglé women, stood out even in the Panama sun. Had she heard the kids laughing at him? It didn’t matter. He wasn’t interested in talking to her. There’d been a time when the two of them were close. She used to take him to the canal zone to watch the massive ships rising and falling in the locks. Sometimes they’d climb the path up Cerro Ancon and look for monkeys and sloths, or go to the pedestrian mall on Avenida Central for ice cream. They hadn’t done those things in a long time.

Omar understood why Mamá had taken Nemesio in. When Papá died they were left nearly penniless. His mother had a job at the makeup counter at Farmacia Arrocha, but it paid minimum wage, which in Panama was barely enough to eat. Then along came Nemesio, with his Mercedes-Benz and Italian loafers. The brown knight, the self-important businessman, with his gas station on the Tumba Muerto. He paid the bills and put food on the table, so Mamá had no choice. The short, gold-toothed uncle claimed Omar’s room, and Omar slept on the sofa from then on.

As Omar grew older he came to understand that Nemesio hoped to marry Mamá, for she was a beautiful woman, literally a princess of the Ngäbe-Buglé, exiled for converting to Islam. At first Nemesio only watched Mamá, his eyes coveting her, but by the end of the first year he made his intentions clear.

Any woman would be glad to have him as a husband, Nemesio said. Women fought over him. What was the matter with her? She’d married his broke bum of a brother, who aspired to be nothing more than a rent-a-cop, but a real businessman wasn’t good enough for her?

Mamá, however, kept putting him off, and Nemesio grew angry.

The first time Nemesio struck Mamá, Omar flung himself in the middle, circling his arms around the little man’s legs and dragging him to the ground. And the second time, and the third, until Nemesio turned his wrath to Omar instead, beating him for any reason or no reason. Sometimes he’d come home drunk and in a foul mood because his gas station employees, according to him, were robbing him blind, the government was taxing him to death, the low price of gas was sucking away his profit; or because, he said, caring for Mamá and Omar was bleeding him dry. Though Omar couldn’t imagine why, since the cheapskate paid for nothing but the bare minimum. Regardless, no matter what was angering the man, the result was that he would beat Omar.

And Omar took it, in the beginning because it kept the man away from his mother, and because without Nemesio he and Mamá would be on the street, and because he was too small to stop it. Now, four years later, he still took it, and didn’t know why. It had gone on for so long he felt paralyzed in the face of the man’s wrath. Nemesio always said that Omar deserved it, that he was a useless delinquent, nothing but a burden to his mother. Part of Omar believed all that.

After all, if Nemesio was wrong, then why did Mamá not kick the man out? She didn’t need Nemesio anymore. Their situations had reversed over the years. Nemesio’s gas station had burned in a fire last year. He’d collected a large insurance settlement, but somehow, after a year of late-night excursions, the money was gone. From the “Veneto” matchbooks Nemesio used to light his cigarettes, and the way he reeked of perfume, Omar could guess what he had been doing: the Veneto casino, and the prostitutes who frequented it.

The rat didn’t work anymore, he would just lay on the sofa drinking beer day after day. Mamá, on the other hand, had started a business buying makeup products at the Colón Free Trade Zone and reselling them. She earned enough for their needs now. So why didn’t she evict Tio? Why did she let him continue to mooch, and to use her son for target practice? Was there something more going on between them? No, astaghfirullah. He shouldn’t think that.

Not for the first time, he contemplated running away. But where would he go? Panama was no place to be homeless. There were street gangs, dirty cops, Colombian cartels.

Tio Niko

Once, he ran away to his mother’s sister’s apartment in El Chorrillo. Tia Teresa. She was the only member of Mamá’s family who hadn’t rejected her when she converted to Islam. It had something to do with Teresa’s strangely intense husband Niko, who had a soft spot for Muslims. He was a muscular man, emotional and affectionate, and prone to quoting poetry. The fact that he was confined to a wheelchair didn’t seem to slow him down at all – he could even play basketball in the chair. Even though Niko was not Omar’s blood relative, Omar was proud to call the man Tio, because Niko was exactly what an uncle should be.

Tio Niko often spoke of a North American Muslim named Zaid Karim who had come to Panama and changed his life. Though as Omar understood it, Zaid Karim had been responsible for putting Niko in the wheelchair. That was a sore spot with Tia Teresa, and she didn’t like them talking about it.

Sometimes Omar wondered if Niko wasn’t Muslim himself. He wore a kufi, and when Ramadan came around he fasted. But Niko merely said he was a man with God in his heart, and quoted a poem:


I thought I was drowning
but God was in the water
and I breathed
where I should not have been able to breathe.
I felt hands of flame upon me
stoking the embers of my soul
and I was baptized in rushing,
silt-laden darkness
until I understood
that I must not take life for granted
and must neither fear death
nor greet it at the door.

Omar did not completely understand the poem but it made him think of either the moment of birth, or the moment of death. He’d asked Tio Niko to write it down so he could learn it, and Niko had done so. Omar loved the first four lines in particular, and sometimes recited them when he felt like life was inundating him in frustration and sadness. I thought I was drowning, but God was in the water, and I breathed
where I should not have been able to breathe.

Omar liked it there with Teresa, Niko and their kids. The eldest, Emanuel, was a few years older than Omar, and the two of them used to lift weights together using an improvised barbell set Emanuel had made from a bamboo stick and a pair of water jugs tied in place with socks. But eventually Teresa laid down the law by telling Omar that he must go back, as his mother needed him.

Did she, though? For what? They barely saw each other. Omar stayed away from home as much as possible, sometimes wandering the streets until just before bedtime, when he’d sneak into the house. He felt alone in the world, and didn’t know where to turn. Samia had said in her speech that he should be someone’s friend, and in doing so become their hero. But what if he was the one who needed a hero?

If only his father were still alive, everything would be different. No one would dare to bully him, and Nemesio would never have come. But it was more than that. His father had been his best friend. Whenever an Árabe Unido match was on, he and his father would set everything up in front of the TV. Nachos, fizzy water, Árabe Unido pennants to wave about, horns to blow. They trained in karate together, and went out onto the porch at night to look at the stars. And they talked. Papá had been his worldly mentor and his spiritual guide.

Actually, Samia reminded him of Papá a little bit in the way she spoke. Her fierce compassion for the suffering people of the world. The believers as a single body. Papá used to say such things.

But Papá was gone. One evening after work he’d been murdered while trying to stop a robbery on a microbus. A masked man boarded and demanded wallets and jewelry from every passenger. His father, the witnesses said, handed over his wallet. But then the robber pistol-whipped a woman who would not give up her wedding ring, so Papá attacked him and knocked him out, not realizing that the man had a hidden accomplice already on the bus. The second man had killed Papá without warning, shooting him in the back of the head.

Now all Omar had to remember him by were some photos and videos, and the copper bracelet he wore on his right wrist. It had been a gift to his father from the man who had guided him to Islam, a man named Abdul Qayyum who was one of the pioneers of Islam in Panama. The bracelet featured an Islamic star pattern, and the word “sabr” – patience – written in calligraphic script and cleverly worked into the design. His father in turn had given it to Omar on his tenth birthday, only a year before he died. Omar never took it off, except to shower, and during karate class.

Jabberwock

“Oye, parcero, qué más? What world you are in?”

Startled, Omar looked up to see Halima standing over him, smiling.

“No estás prestando atención,” Halima said. “The ants is eating your food.”

He looked down and saw that she was right. The half-eaten plate of food he’d set on the grass beside him was being devoured by black ants, who’d made a little superhighway between his plate and an ant mound several meters away.

Alice in Wonderland's white rabbit“Sabes como pareces? You look how if you saw a white rabbit wearing a suit go down a hole, you’d go after him.”

Omar smiled. “Waistcoat.” He was usually tongue-tied with Halima, but this was a subject he knew well. Alice in Wonderland had always been one of his favorite books.

“Wait for what?”

“No. The rabbit was wearing a waistcoat. And yeah, I would go after him.”

Halima gave a knowing look. “Mm-hm. Why?”

“I’d drink from a little bottle and shapeshift into a-”

“Pig?” Halima laughed. “Why would a Muslim wanna be a pig?”

He gave her a tolerant look. “No. Into the Jabberwock. Jaws that bite, claws that catch. Eyes of flame, whiffling through the tulgey wood.”

Halima threw up her long-fingered hands and switched into Spanish. “Paila, hermano! Sabes que soy Halima, no Samia, ¿verdad? No entendí una palabra.” Wow, brother! You know I’m Halima, not Samia, right? I didn’t understand a word.

“I definitely know you’re not Samia.”

“Okaaay. Anyway,” – back into English – “a bunch of us are taking the autobus to Playa Santa Clara tomorrow. Make a beach party to celebrate. You wanna come?”

“Is Tameem going?”

Halima waved a hand dismissively. “Who cares? But I tell you what. If you are scared of Tameem, forget Playa Santa Clara, I will tell my papá to take us to the cinema and we go, just you with me and my family. Black Panther is playing, we could see that.”

Omar’s face flushed. “I’m not scared of anyone. I’ll go with you to the beach.”

Halima flashed her white teeth. “Chévere. Hasta mañana.” She turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. “Didn’t the Jabberwock get killed?”

Omar nodded grudgingly. Indeed.

When the ceremony was over and people made ready to leave, Omar – still sitting beside the soccer field – heard Samia scream. He grinned. Some things never got old.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 2: Spiniflex Rubirosa

* * *

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.

Avatar

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.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDMWael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

4 Comments

4 Comments

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

      #Culture

      Day of the Dogs, Part 4: You Are the Miracle

      Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did?

      Goat standing on a cow's back

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

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

      Krägä Bianga

      “Fear no one.” – Samia

      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.

      Hospital IV bagLIGHTS IN HIS EYES AND PAIN EVERYWHERE… warmth pouring into his veins like liquid honey… his mother’s face close to his, saying his name… darkness…

      His mother and a doctor talking… everything blurry… his face hurt. He tried to touch his face, but his mother grabbed his hand and stopped him… sleep…

      Someone sobbing… why?… pain everywhere in his body. He moaned then fell into darkness…

      A nightmare, hands dragging him down into a well, and at the bottom of the well, sharp teeth and claws. He struggled, until a warm hand took his, and he settled into silence…

      An old woman in a red Ngäbe dress standing over him, singing. Her skin was walnut colored and deeply seamed. Her long ebony hair hung free, falling below her waist. She spooned something into his mouth and he swallowed. It was bitter, but as it slid into his stomach he felt it nourishing and strengthening him. The woman’s night-black eyes stared unblinking into his as she whispered a single word in a language he did not understand. His eyelids came down like shuttered doors, and once again he was asleep…

      The next morning he was somewhat aware. It was the third day after surgery. His mother and a doctor spoke at his bedside. He tried to eat something but could only manage a cup of pudding.

      “There was a woman,” he said, and his voice sounded like radio static. “Singing.”

      His mother touched his forehead. “A krägä bianga. A healer of my people.”

      “But we’re Muslims.”

      “Hush,” Mamá said. “She is a krägä bianga, not a curandera. Medicine, not magic.”

      That evening, Omar’s mind was completely clear for the first time. The doctor spoke to him personally about his surgery and recovery. He was able to eat some solid food. Samia came for a visit as well, and he learned about what had happened to her. At some point, as Samia was speaking, he fell asleep.

      The Old Nightmare

      The fourth day, the old nightmare returned. The spiders.

      Red boxing spiderTHE SPINIFLEX RUBIROSA LARVAE WERE IN HIS BODY, and they were hatching. They ate their way out, chewing through muscle and cartilage, fat and veins, destroying his body as thoroughly as if he’d stepped on a landmine. There was no point calling out for his mother. She was nowhere to be found.

      The spiders burst out through his skin, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and through a crimson curtain of pain Omar saw that they had the bodies of spiders, but the heads of vicious dogs. Dewed with his blood, they growled, thousands of tiny dog voices joining into a single rumble.

      He rolled onto his back and saw that he lay on the muddy, putrid stretch of beach below the Panama City seawall. The ground was littered with rotting seaweed, plastic bags and used diapers. Above the seawall, the city was burning. Flames engulfed the tall towers, pouring from shattered windows. Smoke darkened the sky. Not a soul could be seen. The metropolis was dying.

      The Spinifex hatchlings advanced up his body toward his face, intending to eat his eyes. Their little dog eyes were solid ruby red, as if filled with blood. Omar thrashed, slapping his own face and crying out in terror.

      Where was Mamá, where was Papá, where were Samia, Halima, Hani, anybody? Anybody anybody the Ruby was killing him…

      Eighty Seven Bites

      “Hey. Wake up.” Someone touched his shoulder.

      Omar’s eyes flew open and he gasped as he shot up to a sitting position in the bed, looking around wildly. His racing heart began to slow as he realized that he was still in the hospital, of course.

      Samia sat in a chair beside his bed, wearing a fluffy gray robe and an orange hijab, and still reading Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. One side of her face and head were completely bandaged, so he could only see her mouth, nose and one eye. Her skull had been fractured in two places from the attack. The doctors had shaved her hair, she had told him, but she wore her hijab on top of the head bandage, which made her head look about the same as usual.

      “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

      “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

      Omar’s mother slept next to Samia in a chair, her head tipped back against the wall, her mouth slack. She wore black pants and a dark blouse rather than her traditional dress, with a gray hijab. She looked exhausted, with purple circles beneath her eyes.

      He groaned and sank back. He hurt everywhere. It was not the pain of the Ruby hatchlings burrowing out of his body, but of the wounds from the eighty-seven bites he’d received in the dog attack. It must be almost time for his pain medication.

      He’d been here for five days. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, his organs had been on the verge of shutting down due to massive blood loss. He’d been in surgery that entire first day and halfway through the night, they told him.

      It hurt even to breathe, as he had a tube in his nose to prevent his nasal airway from collapsing, as Dr. Medrano had explained to Omar and his mother. A jaunty, heavyset man with thick black hair, Dr. Medrano had smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels as he detailed Omar’s injuries and the surgeries that had repaired him.

      A stent had been placed under Omar’s left eye. It drained out of his nose to keep his tear duct system from collapsing as well. He’d lost a piece of the upper half of his left ear. He had lines of stitches everywhere, like Frankenstein’s monster. Several parts of his body, including his face, had required primary reconstruction during surgery, to repair or replace flesh and skin that had been torn away. Much of his body was still purple and swollen with bruising. He was receiving aggressive antibiotic treatment to prevent infection from the many deep punctures. His left forearm might never recover to full strength.

      He would require multiple follow-up procedures, including secondary face, hand and calf reconstructions, as well as fat grafting to fill in depressed areas, cartilage grafting to reconstruct his nose, and ongoing scar treatments.

      Goat standing on a cow's back“Hey,” Samia said, interrupting Omar’s morose mental review of his Frankenstein-like reconstruction. Samia had been in his room daily, when she wasn’t in her own. “Remember we were talking about unlikely things? You know what else is unlikely? A goat standing on a cow’s back. But I saw that once.”

      Omar turned his head to look at her. The girl was certifiably crazy. He felt a laugh begin to form inside him, but it hurt to laugh, and it came out sounding like a cross between a chuckle and a moan.

      Bruises

      The sound awakened his mother. She stood with a soft exhalation of, “La ilaha il-Allah.” She came to his bedside and bent over him, gently stroking his cheek, taking care to avoid his injuries. “¿Cómo estás mi amor?”

      Omar began to reply, but then, seeing his mother’s face up close, noticed something. The discolorations beneath her eyes were not the result of exhaustion. They were bruises. Her cheek was bruised as well, and she’d made an effort to conceal it with makeup. She’d been beaten.

      Tio. Omar’s face settled into a hard mask. He seethed, wishing he could leap out of this bed and go thrash the little rat, taking the man apart limb by limb. For a moment these thoughts surprised him, as he had never been inclined to fight back against Nemesio in the past. Something had changed inside him.

      Beating up Nemesio was not the solution, however. Omar had bested him that last time because Nemesio had been drunk. But the two of them fighting sober would turn into an all-out brawl. He needed another solution.

      Mistaking his expression, Mamá said, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll be as strong as ever. And these scars will fade.”

      Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

      “I’m going to go to the cafeteria,” Mamá said. “Can I bring you some guava juice?”

      The doctor had prescribed a post-op dietary regimen for Omar, but it was so bland it was like eating paper. Normally Omar would have said yes to some tasty tropical juice, but he was too angry right now.

      “I don’t want anything.”

      Mamá hesitated, looking between him and Samia. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll be back soon.”

      When she was gone, Omar spoke to Samia without looking at her. “You should leave now.” His fists were curled into balls beneath the blanket. Seeing the bruise on his mother’s face had brought it all back, pushing his rage to penetrate his very bones. His nightmare of a life just went on and on. Oh, you need something to break up the routine? life said. How about a dog attack? Okay, now back to the daily mess.

      It wasn’t only his foul excuse for an uncle he was angry with, but everyone who was supposed to have been responsible for him, who was supposed to have cared. He resented his mother for not being strong enough to protect herself, or him. The principal and teachers at his school had surely seen the bullying directed at him year after year, and had done nothing. Even his father he blamed for dying and leaving him. Why had his father done that? Why had it been more important to stop the mugging of some stranger on a bus than to survive for his own family? And lastly, Omar blamed himself for being a victim. His father would have expected more from him.

      He had to do something. Life could not continue like this. He heard Sensei Alan saying, “The only failure is the failure to act.” But what could he do here, in this bed, with his body torn half to shreds?

      Fear No One

      “I’ve been reading Surat An-Najm,” Samia said, hefting her book. “You want to hear?”

      He had forgotten she was there. He wiped his tears with jerky motions. “No, I told you-”

      Samia recited:

      “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses, and Abraham who fulfilled his mission; That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another; And that there is nothing for man but what he strives for; And that his effort will be seen, and then he will be rewarded for it generously?
      And that to your Lord is the final return; And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep; And that it is He who causes death and gives life…”

      A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Al-Ghazali says,” Samia went on, “that we must recognize Allah’s power over everything, and know that no man can control another’s fate. There is nothing for man but what he strives for. If you want something, make a plan and go after it. Fear no one.”

      “Do I even have to tell you this?” she continued. “Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did? How many did? Nobody. Only you. You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant.” A tear ran down one cheek and she wiped it away.

      She finished in Spanish, something she almost never did: “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Rolling her Spanish r’s hard, sounding almost like Halima, and almost bitter. How strange.

      “Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.” Samia commanded.

      Omar did so, then Samia stood and shuffled away slowly, one chubby hand grasping her book.

      Omar felt like Samia had taken a hammer and smashed the diamond-hard shell of fury that had encased him, shattering it. She was somehow able to see through his emotional walls as if they did not exist. Was she like this with everyone? And had she really just happened to be reading that surah, or had she chosen it specifically for him?

      Alone in his room, Omar began to think. He was still angry but it was cold anger now, the kind that did not interfere with his ability to reason. Make a plan. The only failure is the failure to act.

      Friends

      When Mamá returned from the cafeteria with cups of mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese for him – he could only eat soft foods for now – Omar said, “Tell Nemesio to come see me.”

      Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

      “Just tell him.”

      “He will not come, I think.”

      “Tell him I know a way to profit from this thing.” He waved a hand to indicate his ravaged body. “I want to consult with him.” That’ll get him here.

      She studied his face uncertainly. “Your friends are here again. The doctor says you are ready for visitors now, but only two at a time, and only ten minutes each.”

      He nodded his head, and his mother and Samia withdrew.

      First in were the three Muhammad sisters, all with large black eyes and rings in their left nostrils. Nadia and Naris were decked out in colorful shalwar khamees outfits,  looking like young mahogany trees hung with bright fabrics for a festival, while Nabila wore jeans, a band t-shirt and hi-top sneakers. One or all of them wore a musky, jasmine-scented perfume that filled the small hospital room.

      Many of the teachers and students at IIAP could not tell the sisters apart, but Omar always could. Nadia was quick to laugh, goofy and wide-eyed, as if constantly surprised. Naris was solemn, and asked hard questions, or gave uninvited criticism. Nabila – she of the band shirts and hi-tops – couldn’t stand still. She danced to her own music, ran when other people walked, and rarely spoke. Even now she was swaying her hips and rotating her hands Bollywood style. She had her own Youtube channel where she showed off dance moves. Omar had heard she was making money with it.

      “I thought it was only supposed to be two at a time.”

      Nadia grinned. “We dazzled them with our triplicate identicalness.”

      “They wanted to know,” Naris said seriously, “if we were Hindu princesses.”

      “Did you tell them you were Muslim princesses?” Omar asked. Nadia giggled, while Naris looked at him solemnly, as if he’d said something profound.

      “We’re sorry about what happened to you and Samia,” Nabila broke in, ceasing her dancing momentarily. “Our family’s been praying for you. Everyone has.”

      “Thanks,” Omar said, and he meant it. “So what’s new?”

      “Árabe Unido beat FCDeeeeee,” Nabila sang, and she did a little dance that ended in a victory pose, her fingers in Vs.

      “Halima and Hani are here to see you too,” Nadia said. “And the principal, and a couple of teachers, and the TV news people.”

      Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

      “And if you’re wondering if Tameem is out there,” Naris added, “he’s not. He wouldn’t dare show his face. He and his coward sidekick Basem.”

      Not surprising. Tameem would never bother visiting him. “Why do you call them cowards?”

      “He was the one who said to run, wasn’t he?”

      “Didn’t you all run too?” Omar was not accusing, just trying to understand.

      Nadia let out an explosive laugh. Naris shot her sister a chiding look, then said, “Yes, but we came back. Tameem and Hani kept going. I think they ran all the way to the main road. We haven’t seen them since the Day of the Dogs.”

      When Omar raised his eyebrows she added, “That’s what we’re calling it now. You know what, I heard they were laughing about it later. If I ever see them again I’ll stick kebab skewers in their eyes.”

      Omar sighed and adjusted his head on the pillow. His pain level was increasing, and he was tired.

      “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

      Omar thanked them for coming, and asked them to send in Halima and Hani. He was exhausted just from this short visit, but he needed to see those two. His memories of the attack were a mayhem of images and sensory impressions as overwhelming as a fireworks show. Teeth and claws, pain, slick blood on his skin, the hot metallic taste in his mouth, the smell of dog fur, the sound of Samia screaming, others shouting… a knife and a gun. People standing around as if they’d just witnessed a massacre. And Halima and Hani right there, above him. He needed to talk to someone who’d been there.

      Panama Rainforest

      Halima and Hani would not meet his eyes. Hani with his long face and nose that reminded Omar of a horse; shoulder-length greasy hair, and persistent acne. Halima, as lovely as a daydream, her eyes as green as the Panamanian rainforest.

      Omar remembered his fantasy of marrying Halima one day. If she’d been out of his league before, how about now? He was a mangled mess.

      He tried to put such useless thoughts out of his head. “What’s the matter with you two?”

      “We’re sorry about what happened,” Halima said. “I’m the one who pressured you to come. If I hadn’t done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

      “If you hadn’t done that, Samia might be dead,” Omar countered, then immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing by reminding them that they had done nothing to save Samia.

      “It was all Tameem’s fault,” Hani said, glancing up to meet Omar’s eyes, then looking away again.

      Omar said nothing.

      “I know what you’re thinking,” Hani went on. “I’ve been following Tameem like a robot. You and I were friends, and I abandoned you. I’m sorry. I know he’s no good. I can’t explain, man. He’s rich, and everyone admires him, and when you’re around him you feel important. But I’m done with him now. My eyes are open.”

      “Hani,” Omar said kindly. “My memories are mixed up, but I remember you standing there at the end with a bloody knife in your hand. What happened?”

      “Hani killed the one dog,” Halima said fiercely. “And the cop shot the other.”

      “But I ran away first,” Hani said dejectedly.

      “You were there when it counted. Whatever happened in the past, a lo hecho, pecho. And you, Halima, are a good soul. I remember you standing beside me when everyone else ran away. The Day of the Dogs is done. Let’s look forward.”

      He began to realize that he had changed. In his mind he heard Samia saying, “You might be short, but you’re a giant.” He was not speaking as one in need, but as one who held power, and therefore possessed the ability to forgive. He felt a core of iron within himself, yet strangely enough, from that iron flowed benediction. Cowardly Tameem and Basem didn’t matter. Omar saw now how meaningless they were, how petty.

      He thought of the verses of Surat An-Najm: That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another... And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep…

      Let Tameem and Basem bear their own burdens, laugh their own laughter, cry their own tears. Omar would be his own man, in the universe of his own soul.

      A nurse came with Omar’s medication, and instructed his visitors to leave. On the way out, Halima turned back with a quizzical expression and said, “Day of the Dogs?”

      Omar shrugged. “That’s what we’re calling it now.”

      Get Out

      He was awakened by a rough thumping on his shoulder. Nemesio stood there with his short, barrel-body and gold teeth, dressed in an expensive but rumpled yellow suit, the broken veins in his nose betraying his alcoholism. His breath stank and his cheeks were shadowed with a week’s growth of beard. A fat canary on a bender.

      “What’s this nonsense ‘bout making money?” Nemesio demanded. “You thinking to sue? The dog owner is a policia nacional captain. Sue him, you bring a heap of trouble on your head. Stupid boy.”

      In spite of Nemesio’s words, the man must have thought the possibility of a lawsuit held some promise, or he wouldn’t have come. Omar was going to have to disappoint him.

      “You know,” Omar said casually. “The police captain came to see me. The one whose dogs attacked me.” This was not true, but Nemesio would not know that. “He was extremely apologetic. He said if I ever need anything, I should only ask.”

      “Ah, I see.” Nemesio nodded knowingly and stroked his chin. “You wanna ask for compensation for the attack.”

      “No. I want to ask him to investigate the fire that burned down your gas station.”

      “Whaaa?” Nemesio’s eyes bugged and his cheeks turned beet red. He seized Omar’s bandaged wrist. “Watchu talking, you little bastard?”

      Omar ignored the pain flaring in his wrist from the puncture wounds there. He kept his tone calm, and began a carefully rehearsed speech. “I seem to recall that gas prices were at rock bottom around the time your station burned. And you were always complaining about your employees stealing from you. You couldn’t have been making much of a profit. What did the fire inspectors say? An electrical problem? Did you bribe someone to say that?” This was pure speculation on his part, but he saw Nemesio’s eyes widen and knew he’d struck pay dirt. “Then you had a huge insurance payout, but you didn’t restore the station. You abandoned it. I think the police captain would find all this very interesting. And you don’t have anything left to bribe him with, do you? You’ll end up rotting in La Joya for fraud.”

      Still gripping Omar’s wrist, Nemesio raised a fist.

      “Go ahead,” Omar said. “The captain can add assault to your charges.”

      Nemesio released Omar’s wrist and stepped back, looking as if he’d just released a viper. His chin trembled and a speck of spittle dribbled from his bottom lip as he spoke. “Watchu want?”

      Man walking away, leaving Omar brought his voice to a low hiss, letting some of his rage show. “I know you’ve been beating my mother again, Nemesio.” Normally he would never dare to call the man by his given name as it would bring a terrible beating, but now he spat it like a curse. “I want you gone, today. Pack your things, leave and never come back. If I ever see you again I will beat you to a pulp myself. If you don’t think I can, wait and see. Then I’ll report you to the police.”

      “I-” Nemesio stuttered. “I don’t got nowhere to go.”

      “That’s your problem. Leave today, you understand? And don’t you dare touch my mother again. Now get out.”

      Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 5:  Sorceress of the Forest

      * * *

      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.

      Avatar

      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.

      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.

      Continue Reading

      #Culture

      Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

      The dog spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face…

      Doberman pinscher

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

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

      Stop Pitying Yourself

      “I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” – Samia

      Playa Santa Clara, Panama
      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.

      Playa Santa Clara, Panama

      OMAR DID NOT FIND A SEASHELL. At one point he heard the sound of muffled sobbing, and followed it to where Samia sat in her cabana. She had her face tucked into her knees, her forehead pressing against the book she’d been reading. When Omar said, “What’s the matter?” she looked up with a startled, tear-streaked face.

      “Nothing.” She wiped her face with her scarf.

      Omar shifted his weight and looked at the ground, unwilling to either press her or leave her alone.

      “My parents are getting divorced,” she said finally.

      “Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought you guys were a perfect little Islamic family.”

      “Yes, well. Things are not always what they seem.”

      That sure was the truth. “Will you go back to Malaysia?”

      “No. My dad’s going back. I’ll stay with my mom.”

      That struck Omar as odd. Wasn’t it usually it was the man who traveled to work and the woman who accompanied him?

      Seeming to read his mind, Samia explained: “She’s an executive for Petronas. She interfaces with oil company executives from all over Latin America. My dad owned an electronics shop back home, which is fine, you know, it’s a good, halal business. I just think…” Her mouth twisted to one side as she tried to hide her distress. “I think he was happier back home.”

      Omar pointed with his lips to her book. “What are you reading?”

      “That’s so Panamanian. Pointing with your mouth.”

      “I am Panamanian.”

      A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Oh yeah. It’s Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. Hey, can I give you a little advice?”

      Uh-oh. Omar’s shields went up. Samia always thought she knew best. Before he could say anything, she went on: “You should stop pitying yourself.”

      He glared. “Excuse me?”

      “How long have I known you? You think I don’t see you’re miserable? I know there’s something wrong.”

      “That’s not your business.”

      Samia sighed. “Would you listen? I’m trying to say that you’re so strong and smart. Almost as smart as me.” She grinned. “Whatever’s going on, you’ll get through it if you stop pitying yourself and just keep on working. You’ll come out on top. You’ll see.”

      “Unlikely.” She sounded like Sensei Alan, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

      “Is it? I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” Seeing his quizzical look, she added, “Halima told me you were reading Alice in Wonderland.”

      He wasn’t reading it. And if he recalled correctly, the White Queen believed in six impossible things before breakfast. But whatever. “That’s fine for you and Alice. You don’t have my life.”

      “Oh really?” Her voice was sharp. “Where’s your imaan, akhi? Allah always makes a way, don’t you know? You want to know something else unlikely? I’m unlikely!”

      “What do you mean?” he muttered, chastised.

      “One: My family comes from Kedah province, on the coast of Malaysia. On December 29, 2004, my father, who was not my father yet, was invited by my grandfather to go sailing on a boat he had bought. They were boarding the boat when my father received a mobile call from the wife of his best school friend. The man had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital at Jitra, an inland city. My father said goodbye to my grandfather and went to see his friend. One hour later, you know what happened?”

      Omar shook his head.

      Indian Ocean tsunami

      Indian Ocean tsunami

      “The Indian Ocean tsunami. One hour later! You may have heard of it? It killed a quarter of a million people, including my grandfather, who was never found.”

      Omar made a sympathetic face, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” he managed.

      “Two.” Counting on her fingers. “My father’s taxi was buried in mud, and he should have died, but the mud left his face exposed. He was able to breathe, and to lick rainwater that ran down the inside of the crushed car.

      “Three: He was rescued by a volunteer relief worker. She was my mother. Soon they married.

      “Four: My mother’s pregnancy was difficult. The doctors said she might lose the baby. I was born premature. In fact I was not breathing, but the doctors revived me.

      “Five: I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

      “Six: When I was five I had bacterial meningitis. My body didn’t respond to treatment and at one point the doctors told my parents I would die by morning. I remember hallucinating that the doctor was a wolf with a muzzle and huge black eyes. I tried to scream but didn’t have the breath. It was terrifying. My mother told me later that she spent that entire night making dua by my bedside. In the morning my fever broke and by noon I was walking. No one could explain it.”

      Seven.” She paused, touching index finger to index finger, then shrugged. “I don’t have a seven. But my point is, you say it’s unlikely that your life might improve? My entire existence is unlikely. But Allah does what He wills.”

      Omar hadn’t known any of that, and didn’t know what Samia was trying to tell him.

      Samia snapped her fingers. “I’m saying, the unlikely happens every day. And you know what else? Ramadan is coming. Ramadan is about not only the unlikely, but the impossible. Miracles. Angels pouring out of Jannah by the millions. The battle of Badr. Think about that, akhi. Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.”

      Omar said it.

      “Go back to your wanderings.”

      The Gate Opens

      It was funny how people kept telling him to go away. What was he, a bad smell?

      At noon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, the kids ate at a beach restaurant that served only fish and chips. Omar didn’t have enough money for that, but that was okay. He sat in a cabana eating the peanut butter sandwich from home. It was smashed into a trapezoid and the bread was soggy, but it tasted fine.

      They prayed Dhuhr in congregation, with Tameem leading. Omar didn’t mind. It was not about who stood in front, but about his personal connection with Allah. Though sometimes he wondered about that connection. Not about Allah, but about his own heart. The Creator felt distant sometimes, and Omar knew that was his own fault. But he didn’t know how to fix it.

      The group headed back up the road at two o’clock, wanting to make it to the highway before the afternoon rains came. As they passed the house with the vicious dog, the creature was nowhere in sight. Tameem kicked the gate and shouted, “Oye perro estupido!” and the dog came running, barking like firecrackers going off.

      Doberman pinscher

      Doberman pinscher

      This time a second dog, a tall doberman pinscher with alert ears and a black muzzle, rounded the house as well and sped toward them on the other’s heels. Drool flew from its mouth as it growled and bared its terrifying teeth. Again the kids screamed and ran, except for Omar, who only shook his head and trotted away quickly, and Samia, who was not a fan of running.

      A few houses further up the street they stopped and watched a massive silver-colored 4×4 truck cruising down the road. It might have been three meters tall, jacked up on oversized tires, with chrome running boards, and a top-mounted light bar that could probably turn night into day. On the front were bull bars that could be used to ram another vehicle.

      As it passed they saw it bore the logo of the National Police, and had a rifle mounted in the cab, though the driver was not wearing a police uniform. He was a youngish man, in his late twenties maybe, sporting shades and a cowboy hat. Spanish gangster rap battered its way out of the truck’s speakers. Heading right for the awestruck kids, the truck blasted its horn. The kids jumped out of the way, a few of them cursing the driver.

      The truck stopped in front of the house with the dogs, and the driver must have hit a remote control, because the gate began to roll quietly open.

      The two dogs came flying out, snarling, and charged straight at the kids. The German shepherd was in the lead, its large fangs flashing white in the sun, but the doberman was gaining ground. Both dogs were enraged, in full attack mode. The driver yelled at the dogs to stop, but they were so inflamed by Tameem’s provocations that they ignored him.

      The hair raised up on Omar’s arms and neck. He stood rooted, unsure what to do. Watching the dogs come was like watching a pair of nuclear torpedoes shooting at him. Living torpedoes of bone and claw, muscle and sinew, burning brain and vengeful heart. Their feet flew across the dirt, and their eyes were filled with rage.

      The Attack

      SAMIA HAD STOPPED TO CATCH HER BREATH after her brief trot and was now at the tail end of the group, closest to the dogs, with Omar just ahead of her, and Halima beyond him. All the kids froze utterly for one second, as if they were playing a game of red light green light where the losers would be shot dead. In that numb, dumb moment, the dogs covered half the distance from the gate to their motionless victims. Then Basem made a wordless whimpering sound, and Hani whispered, “Oh my God.” One of the girls screamed.

      Halima started to say, “Nobody run,” but was cut off as Tameem bellowed, “RUN!”

      Omar shot a glance in the direction of the group and saw they were all fleeing in a panic, led by Tameem and Basem. Only Halima was hesitating. He turned back toward the dogs and saw instantly that Samia wasn’t going to make it. She was jogging toward him but her run was little more than a fast waddle. The dogs were almost on her as they blazed forward with ears tucked and teeth bared. They would kill her.

      He could not let that happen. It was not even a decision – there was no decision to make. The believers are a single body. The only failure is the failure to act. He ran toward Samia and the charging dogs.

      Seeing him running toward them, the dogs hesitated, slowing just enough to buy Omar the time he needed. Samia’s eyes were wide with terror, and she looked like she might have a heart attack.

      Just as Omar reached Samia, the German shepherd leaped at her from behind. Omar tackled Samia, taking her to the ground. The dog sailed over them where they lay in the dirt. He shrugged off his backpack and thrust it at Samia, shouting, “Shield your face!” Then he turned toward the other charging dog and started to rise, bringing his arms up defensively, with a crazy idea that he could use his copper bracelet to block the dog’s teeth – then the animal was on him, crashing into him with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking him back to the ground.

      German shepherd

      German shepherd

      Pain exploded in his forearm as the dog’s fangs stabbed deeply into his flesh. He grunted in shock, but remained clear-headed. Falling back to his years of karate training, he used his free arm to deliver powerful elbow strikes to the dog’s nose and eyes. Not releasing its bite, it snarled and shook its head as if trying to rip the meat loose from Omar’s arm. He screamed as he felt the muscles in his forearm begin to tear.

      The doberman, meanwhile, had overshot. It turned and charged back. Samia lay on the ground just behind him and to the side, calling out loudly for help. Goaded by her cries, the doberman aimed not for Omar but for Samia.

      As the doberman raced past him, Omar shot out his good arm and made a desperate grab for the dog’s spiked collar. He caught it! But the dog’s momentum stretched his arm out until he felt something pop in his elbow. Between that and the spikes digging into his hand, he could not hold on. The doberman pulled free, and an instant later Samia cried out again. This time it was not a cry of fear, but a chilling wail of pain, shock and horror. Omar turned his head to look. Oh God. Samia must have begun to roll away before the dog reached her, because the beast straddled her side, and was biting the top of her head as she clutched the backpack tightly to her face.

      Desperately, with every shred of strength he possessed, Omar struck the German shepherd repeatedly in the face with his wrist, using his copper bracelet as a weapon. Dazed, the dog released its bite and stood over him, swaying. Anguished over Samia and given fortitude by this outrage, Omar pushed, flinging the monster off him. He turned and scrabbled toward Samia. The doberman straddled her, not biting once and clamping down like the shepherd had done to him, but biting repeatedly about her head and shoulders, and sometimes biting the backpack as well.

      The neighborhood Omar lived in was poor, and there were plenty of stray dogs, many of them hungry, rabid or vicious. He’d seen dog attacks, and knew what to do. He seized the doberman’s sleek black tail, and pulled it backward and up as hard as he could. The big black dog gave a yelp of surprise as it was dragged away from Samia’s weeping form. Then it spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face, penetrating his forehead and cheek. At the same moment the German shepherd, recovered now, bit his calf, its teeth sinking into the muscle like the jaws of a bear trap. The pain was so shocking that he could not even draw a breath to scream.

      They were both on him. He rolled and fought as best he could, punching, kicking, clawing at the dogs’ faces, even biting the shepherd in the neck at one point. And the whole time the dogs were biting him. He felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood.

      The blood in his eyes blinded him, so that he saw the world faintly, through a sheet of stinging red. He tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

      Some of the kids must have come back to help, because he heard voices shouting and crying, men and women, but above them all he heard Halima very near, screaming, “What do I do, Omar? What do I do?”

      “Knife,” he managed to croak. “Hani’s knife.” Then louder, mustering his panic and fright, “Get me Hani’s knife!”

      The dogs continued to bite and tear at his flesh, and he fought, but his strength was giving out. His arms wouldn’t work properly. Then the doberman yelped in pain and was gone, pulled off him. The shepherd was still on top of him, its teeth deep in his upper arm. Omar put a thumb in its eye and it yelped and released his arm, then went for his throat. He turned, and felt its teeth sink deeply into his shoulder. His body went slack. He couldn’t fight anymore. Cold seeped into his body and mind. Even the pain was beginning to recede.

      Drifting Out to Sea

      A tremendous blast rang through the air. The shepherd wailed in agony and released his shoulder. Another blast, and the dog was gone. Not on him anymore. He heard terrible, anguished weeping, and realized after a moment that it was him. Tears flooded his eyes, clearing the blood, and he saw people standing over him, their faces registering horror and disbelief. Halima and Hani were closest. Hani’s knife was in his hand, and the blade was bloody to the hilt. His eyes were wide with shock.

      A man in a cowboy hat also stood over him, and Omar saw that the man was carrying a pistol, and that smoke wisped from the barrel. The man’s face was drained of blood, white as a bone. Who was he? Omar couldn’t think. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore, or why he was lying here on the ground, burning with agony and covered in something wet.

      “Samia,” he managed to say, and wasn’t sure why he said that. Then his body began to shake. His teeth chattered and his limbs convulsed, and he couldn’t stop. He was cold, and didn’t understand why. Panama was not supposed to be cold. His heart raced and he could hear it thrumming in his ears, pulsing and crashing like ocean waves.

      He was half-conscious through all that followed. Hands doing something to him. Sirens. Someone wrapping him in something and lifting him up. Moaning rhythmically, asking for his father. A ride in the back of a vehicle, rocking. The pain going away, ebbing like the tide, to be replaced with a feeling of warmth and comfort, and a deep drowsiness. Something over his face, forcing air into his lungs.

      Then he was gone, lying on the deck of a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, drifting out to sea, borne on the back of a giant, warm wave. He would live on this sailboat, and Allah would provide for him as He had provided for Maryam, and he would be content. He would sail the world with Alice and Halima and Niko and the white rabbit, and…

      Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 4:  You Are the Miracle

      * * *

      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.

      Avatar

      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.

      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.

      Continue Reading

      #Culture

      Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

      He felt a need for Allah, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he prayed Isha’ on the grass that bordered Avenida Balboa, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

      Puente de Las Americas, Panama

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

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

      A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

      “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you.” – Sensei Alan

      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.

      Old tennis shoes shoesAFTER GRADUATION OMAR TOSSED HIS GOWN INTO THE DUMPSTER in the school parking lot and went walking through the streets of the city, still wearing his school uniform of navy pants and white shirt, along with a pair of ratty old sneakers that were separating between the uppers and the soles.

      He had a little money in an envelope that his mother had given him as a graduating present. Remembering what Halima had said about Black Panther playing at the cinema, he took a bus to Multicentro mall, bought a large bucket of popcorn and sat in the very front row, letting the noise and light of the movie drive all thoughts from his head.

      After the movie he wandered into an electronics shop in the mall. Árabe Unido was playing Alianza on the large screen TV, and a knot of men were gathered. Árabe Unido, founded by Arab immigrants to Panama, was Omar’s favorite football team. He stood wedged between a burly man with the forearms of a construction worker, and a middle-aged man wearing shorts, flip flops and a polo shirt. They watched as Leslie Heráldez lofted a high shot to the brilliant Carlos Small, who stopped it with his chest, deftly steered the ball past two defenders, then banged it into the goal. All the men cheered, and Omar threw up his arms and shouted, “Goaaaaal!”

      A moment later a grasshopper-faced salesman, decked out in a cheap suit and obviously trying to mask his utter lack of interest in the game, stepped in front of the TV to begin his pitch.

      “You see how amazing this television is? Doesn’t it feel like you are right on the pitch? It includes built-in wifi and the highest LCD picture quality. You can own this TV today with a monthly payment of only $49.95…”

      The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

      “Sorry,” Omar offered, consoling the salesman. “It’s a nice TV, though.”

      The salesman waved him off.

      Stepping outside the mall, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon. The sun would be down soon. Was it a coincidence that malls had no windows? He prayed ‘Asr in the small grassy area outside the main entrance, leaping over a low wall to do so. In the middle of his prayer, a mall security guard walked up to him and said, “This area is off limits, kid. Move along.” When Omar did not respond, the man keyed his radio. “Pereira here. I need backup. I got a kid doing yoga or a protest or something.”

      By the time Omar was on the last rak’ah another guard had arrived.

      “I’ll grab his hands,” the original guard said, “and you take his feet.”

      “Wait,” the newcomer said. “He’s not causing any problems.”

      “At least let me taser him.”

      No, Pereira.”

      “It’s not fair,” the first guard grumbled. “We never get to do anything.”

      Omar finished his prayer and stood. The original guard, a thin young man with a scowl that looked superglued into place, stepped back, startled. The newcomer, a fit black man in his fifties, merely raised his eyebrows.

      Omar smiled. “I was praying. You wouldn’t want to stop a kid from getting into heaven, would you?”

      The older man laughed. When Omar hopped back over the wall and strolled away, the younger guard shouted after him, “You better not come back!”

      Karate is Life

      DojoHe took another bus down to the Carolina district, and walked into the karate dojo as class was bowing in. The dojo was small, with pear-colored tatami mats on the floor, traditional weapons mounted on racks, and a Japanese flag on one wall. At the moment there were fifteen students training in the cramped space, ranging from thirteen years old to twenty-five. The dojo had no air conditioning, and the room was ripe with the tang of sweat. Shedding his shoes at the door, he bowed to Sensei Alan.

      Sensei was a muscular, smooth-faced man in his forties, with an oddly contrasting head of white hair. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Spanish. “I thought you were taking the day off for graduation.”

      Omar shrugged. “Graduation is crap. I’m only graduating tenth grade, it doesn’t mean anything.”

      Sensei addressed Evangelista, a short woman in her 20’s who sported a blue mohawk and was one rank below Omar himself. “Get class started. Forms one to five.”

      Sensei took in Omar’s school uniform, the popcorn butter stain on his shirt, the bruises on his face… Sensei Alan had known Omar’s papá, and since his passing had witnessed the changes in Omar’s life.

      “You will always be you,” Sensei said without preamble. “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you. If you live in an abusive situation, with people who do not care for you, you are still you. Not in relation to them, but in the chambers of your heart. When you leave that abusive situation behind, as I guarantee you will, and if you end up wealthy, or happily married with kids, you will still be you. Not as others imagine you, but as you exist in the sanctity of your own mind. I could say that I admire you, and I do, seonbae-nim. But if your happiness is dependent on my admiration then you have failed, because what if I did not respect you? So the question is, who are you? Not in relation to anything else. But alone, in the universe that is your soul.”

      This was the longest speech he’d ever heard Sensei give. And why did the man address him as seonbae, an honorific given to a prized student? Usually he just called him Omar.

      “That is not to say,” Sensei continued, “that the outer world does not exist. It acts upon us. But you know how to handle that.”

      Normally Sensei did not like questions, but this statement seemed to invite one. “I do?”

      “Karate is life. When an attack is imminent?”

      “Hit first and hard.”

      When the attacker pushes forward…”

      “Yield and counter.” Sensei had repeated these aphorisms many times.

      “The only failure…”

      “Is the failure to act.”

      Sensei waved a hand. “Come back when you have considered my words.”

      Omar was confused. The dojo had classes every day except Sunday. “You mean…”

      “You will know.”

      The discussion was over. Omar bowed. “Oss!”

      It was fully dark outside now. He walked around the city thinking over all that had happened that day. As he walked, women of the night propositioned him, calling out, “Oye, chiquito! Quieres dulces?” Gangsters shouted out insults, street vendors tried to sell him mangoes or cigarettes, and always the traffic ran through the concrete gulches of the city like great schools of fish in the sea: swarming, racing and pulsing, though unlike fish the traffic was never silent, but hooted and blared perpetually.

      He puzzled over Sensei’s statement. You will always be you. Was that a Zen thing Alan had learned in one of his visits to Japan? Like the story about the man who came to a wide river that had no bridge or ferry, and called out to an old man on the opposite shore, wanting to know how to get to the other side. And the old man said, “You are on the other side.”

      But Omar didn’t want to be on this side.

      Night rainLightning flashed, thunder rolled across the city like a steamroller, and the skies opened like the floodgates of a dam, dropping water by the ton onto the rich and poor, bloated and starving, arrogant and desperate. Within a minute he was waterlogged, water squeezing out of his shoes with every step. But the rain was as warm as blood, so he walked on.

      He felt a need for Allah, a need to be comforted, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he made wudu’ with the rainwater and prayed Isha’ on the grassy strip that bordered the Avenida Balboa embarcadero, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain percolating into his skin and maybe into his bones, washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

      Rogue Planets

      HE ENDED UP IN CASCO VIEJO, TO HIS OWN SURPRISE. Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived nearby, and he realized that his feet had been taking him there of their own accord. But it was late, he was dripping wet, and he did not want to drop in on them unannounced. So he walked down to the tip of the small peninsula, where the seawall looked out over the entrance to the Panama Canal.

      Casco Viejo, Panama

      Casco Viejo, Panama

      The rain had stopped, and he stood watching the gargantuan ships queued up in the bay, waiting their turns to enter the canal. Fog lay upon the water, so that Omar could see only the lights of the ships hanging in the darkness. He pretended that each ship was its own rogue planet inhabited by jinn, elves and fairies. They only appeared at night, in the fog, and would disappear by day, or so he imagined.

      If he could swim out to one of those ships, and climb up onto its deck, the strange inhabitants would welcome him as a refugee from the crumbling civilizations of humankind. They would grant him asylum, and set him up in a job tending to the elfin gardens, or teaching karate to the young fairies. He would become a part of their world, their rogue planet, and over time the memories of his past life would fade. Flashes of his mother’s and father’s faces might come to him now and then, but they would be like images in a dusty book, yellowed around the edges, the paper flaking away.

      He would be a unique figure – the only human in an inhuman reality. Some would hate him and plot against him, but many would love him. He would become advisor to the fairy king, and marry a fairy princess. And if he ever heard the word Panama, he would pause, his head tilted to one side, trying to recall where he had heard that name before.

      He sighed. It was late, and he was far from home. He had enough money left for a taxi, so he flagged one and closed his eyes, letting the motion of the vehicle rock him. The driver left the windows open, and the night air hit his wet clothing and chilled him. By the time he arrived home he was shivering.

      He lived in a rundown seaside barrio on the eastern edge of Panama City. It was called Panama Viejo, named after the ruins of the original Spanish settlement of 1519. It was the kind of neighborhood where a stranger would be robbed in the first ten minutes. But Omar knew everyone here, and knew which streets to avoid, and when to duck into the shadows.

      The front gate of his home was secured with a combination padlock, and the front door had two separate locks. When he let himself in, Mamá emerged from her bedroom, wanting to know why he was so late.

      He told her of his day’s travels. He hoped that she would say something to assure him of the future. Some promise, even a hollow one, that life would be different. But before she could say anything, Nemesio came barging out of his room. His open shirt revealed a mat of curly chest hair and a belly that hung over his waistband. He reeked of alcohol and dried sweat.

      “You little bastard,” Nemesio snarled. “Stay out late, worry your mother. Watchu doin’? Selling drugs? Gimme the money.” He came forward, arms outstretched to seize Omar. Always Omar had let him do so, willing to be the object of Tio’s aggression as long as the man left Mamá alone. But this night, Sensei’s reminders were fresh in his head: When the attacker pushes forward, yield and counter. The only failure is the failure to act. So when Nemesio came at him, Omar sidestepped deftly and gave the man the slightest push, adding to the momentum he already had.

      Nemesio careened past Omar, out of control. He tumbled into the sofa, which overturned, dumping him over the other side where he crashed head-first into the wall, and was knocked unconscious. Mamá screamed and ran to him. She probed his skull, then said with relief, “He is fine, I think. Just knocked out, or maybe passed out from the alcohol.”

      “Who cares?”

      “Omar!

      He looked at Nemesio’s sorry form, lying crumpled against the wall. His head had made a dent in the plaster. The man would be on a tear tomorrow, ready to commit serious violence. But at that moment, Omar was beyond caring. He was tired, and wanted only to go away and never return. He imagined himself sitting on the beach on one of Panama’s Pearl Islands – a place he’d seen on the map but never with his own eyes – sheltering in the shade of a tree. Like Maryam when she retreated from the people and clutched a palm tree, and Allah provided her with water and fresh, ripe dates, so Allah would provide for him too.

      But he was not Maryam. He was a kid that no one wanted. He trudged to his room, stripped off his wet clothes and dumped them on the floor, then toppled into bed.

      Spiniflex Rubirosa

      That night, Omar awoke with a terrible burning on the back of his neck. He knew instantly what was happening. Anyone would. There had been nothing else in the news for the last two months.

      A new and deadly spider had appeared in the world, perhaps a mutation, or perhaps something ancient uncovered beneath the melting ice of the glaciers of Asia or Europe. It was a tiny thing, less than half the size of a fingernail, pink and red, and almost pretty if you didn’t know what it could do. It was called Spiniflex Rubirosa, though most people just called it the Ruby.

      Red boxing spiderThe Ruby reproduced by crawling onto a sleeping or unaware human, extending a tiny tubule from its abdomen, and injecting a spray of thousands of eggs into the human’s skin, preferably on the back of the neck or between the shoulder blades. Sensing the warmth of their host, the eggs hatched immediately, and the larvae burrowed down into the hypodermal layer, where they fed on rich blood and tissue fat, growing larger.

      As the larvae burrowed in, the infected human experienced a terrible burning sensation, as if the affected area were on fire. It was not uncommon for sufferers to scrape away the outer layers of their skin with their fingernails or even with knives. This, however, only prompted the Ruby to burrow deeper.

      Once they were in place, however, the larvae secreted an anesthetic, so that the pain faded, and sufferers often thought their initial symptoms had been a false alarm.

      The larval stage lasted three days, after which the larvae would cocoon for a week then hatch. Thousands of spiders would emerge from the cocoons and – using sharp pincers – chew their way out of the infected person’s body, resulting in massive blood loss.

      Panicked crowds fled at the rumor of infestations, carrying the spider or its eggs all over the world. In a matter of weeks, half the world’s population was dead or dying.

      Now the Ruby was on Omar. He felt it on the back of his neck, the scorching pain flaring higher and higher as the larvae burrowed into his body. He cried for his mother and she came running, but froze in place when she saw him frantically clawing the back of his neck, scraping away his own skin until his fingernails came away bloody.

      “Do something!” he pleaded. “Get it off of me!” But she only stood and stared, her expression wide-eyed and stunned. Why wouldn’t she help him? She could not become infected unless the Ruby laid eggs on her. She had to help him, he was dying!

      * * *

      He woke thrashing in bed, reaching for the back of his neck, panting in terror. But he made no noise. He’d learned over the years that waking up loudly from nightmares would bring beatings from Tio, so he had somehow taught himself to dream silently, even when the dreams were visions of darkness and dread.

      It was early, just a glimmer of pale blue light easing through the window. He’d shed his clothes last night before bed but had not showered, and somehow the scent of rain had transferred to the bed sheets, so that his bed smelled like ozone and musk. The house was silent but for the hum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner in Nemesio’s room. Mamá preferred not to use the AC at night to save money, but Nemesio insisted he could not sleep without it. What did that bum care? He didn’t pay the bill.

      Omar dressed quietly, putting on a pair of old jeans and his blue and white Árabe Unido jersey bearing number 58, Carlos Small’s number. He performed wudu’ and prayed Fajr, then quietly made himself a sandwich, stuffed a towel into his school backpack, and slipped out the door.

      Chicken Heart

      Panama Viejo was a long walk from Albrook. Omar could have taken a bus, but he’d found that sustained exercise cleared his mind and settled his spirit like nothing else. Two hours later the sun was hot enough to fry a fish on the pavement as he arrived at Albrook Mall, which doubled as the national bus terminal. Scores of buses departed constantly for every part of Panama and beyond, even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Playa Santa Clara was two hours and twenty minutes away. You had to take a $4 bus to Santiago, then a $4 taxi to Santa Clara village, then walk. It was a lot, but Halima said Playa Santa Clara was the best beach on the Pacific side of Panama. A hidden gem.

      The group boarded one of the buses. Omar sat alone in the back, taking a window seat. He hadn’t been out of Panama City in years, and wanted to see the sights.

      Aside from Omar and Halima, Samia was there, the three Muhammad sisters, Tameem, and two other boys named Hani and Basem. Nine kids altogether. Hani, a thin Egyptian boy with long hair and bad skin, was Omar’s age and from the same neighborhood. When they were younger they used to play football together in the street, or chess on rainy days. They’d been good friends back then.

      Tameem was the real games expert, though. His game consisted of playing people against people, shaming them for their choices of friends, and forcing them to compete for his attention. Eventually Hani, embarrassed to be friends with the “Patacon,” had moved into Tameem’s orbit and cut Omar out of his life.

      Basem, a chunky Emirati boy with a surly attitude, had arrived only last year. He laughed at everything Tameem said, bought the same brands of clothing as him, and copied him in bullying Omar. Interestingly, when Tameem was not around, Basem ignored Omar completely. Either way, Omar wanted nothing to do with him.

      Those three boys – Tameem, Basem and Hani – sat together now, speaking loudly over the reggaeton music pounding from the bus’s speakers. The five girls sat in a group as well, chatting and laughing. Samia did not acknowledge Omar, but Halima and the Muhammad triplets turned and waved to him. The triplets were Fijian Indians, slender and chestnut-skinned, with shining black hair that cascaded to their waists. They could have passed for indigenous Panamanians, Omar thought. Because they were all identical, they drew looks wherever they went.

      Puente de Las Americas, Panama

      Puente de Las Americas, Panama

      Pressing his forehead to the window, his breath condensing on the chilled glass, Omar watched as the bus threaded its way past El Chorrillo, where his Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived. Then they crossed over the Puente de Las Americas, and he gazed down at the navy blue water of the canal, surrounded on both sides by thick emerald jungle.

      A gargantuan container ship – perhaps one of the same ones he’d seen in the queue last night – was traversing the canal, piled with thousands of shipping containers. Omar had heard that these vessels were run by skeleton crews, since most of the ships’ processes were automated. For a moment he wondered what it must be like to work on such a ship, hardly seeing a human face, wandering alone through the decks, hearing your voice echo off the vast steel bulkheads. Then he realized he knew exactly what it was like.

      He’d worn a light windbreaker in case of rain. He zipped it up all the way to ward off the chill of the bus’s AC, which must have been set on “Mt. Everest” or “Viking Warrior.”

      At Santiago they crowded into two taxis, boys in one and girls in the other. Hani sat in the front passenger seat, while Omar was in the back seat next to Basem, with Tameem on the other side. “Don’t worry, Patacon,” Tameem sneered. “I’ll pay for the taxi. My father is rich, unlike yours who – oops!”

      Basem sniggered at this.

      Hani turned around in the front seat, said, “Hey, that’s not cool, man. That’s going too far.” Hani shot Omar an apologetic look, but Omar ignored him. They may have been friends once, but Hani was just another of Tameem’s toadies now.

      “Shut up, Hani,” Tameem said roughly. “Or you can get out and walk the rest of the way.”

      Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

      “I’ll pay my share,” Omar insisted. “And as for my father, he’s in a place you’ll never see, you ghoul.”

      Tameem shot Omar a look of furious rage, then pretended to laugh it off. “Good one, Punching Bag.”

      “I may be a punching bag, but I’ll never be your punching bag, chicken-heart.”

      Tameem made no response, as Omar knew he would not. The boy could toss out whatever insults he liked, but it would never be more than that. And that was fine, Omar told himself. He could handle insults. Sticks and stones, and all that. But then why was he so full of anger?

      The Blue Express

      The taxis took them as far as the end of the paved street. From there it was a fifteen minute walk through the village of Santa Clara and down a dirt road. They trooped along, Omar bringing up the rear. The village homes were traditionally Panamanian: small, cement-block houses with tiled floors, shuttered windows and corrugated zinc roofs painted red.

      Many of the doors stood open, the inhabitants sitting in plastic chairs on the patios. The older women were attired in colorful pollera dresses, while the men sported straw hats. The younger women wore t-shirts and jeans so tight he wondered how they even managed to put them on. Children played marbles in the dirt, rode bicycles, or kicked soccer balls. The smells of cooking food filled the air- arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, tostones, grilled fish with garlic and tomatoes.

      People greeted the teenagers, wishing them a good morning. If anyone thought Samia and Halima’s hijabs were strange, they didn’t show it. One middle-aged man in a rocking chair called out to Omar in Spanish: “Go Árabe Unido! We are having a good season, eh?”

      Omar pumped his fist. “El Expreso Azul!” The Blue Express, the fans’ nickname for the team.

      Mango treeThe road was lined with thick-limbed mango trees. The mangoes were in season, hanging heavy on the branches like Ramadan lamps. Many had fallen into the road and lay there, whole or split, exuding a scent so rich you could almost see it, like a sweet orange mist in the air.

      Omar watched Hani pick up a mango, rub it on his shirt, then stab into it with his little pocket knife. Omar remembered that knife. Hani had received it as a gift from his father on his tenth birthday – one of the few gifts the boy had ever been given by his dad, who paid him little attention. It had a wooden handle into which Hani had burned his own initials, and a dull little blade that could barely cut.

      Hani sliced the mango with some difficulty and passed pieces to the other boys (Omar not included) and they ate as they walked.

      In front of a house with peeling paint and listing window shutters, an anorexic woman smoked a cigarette and argued into a cell phone as her dusty-faced toddler sat in the dirt. As the teens walked by, the little boy watched them. When Omar approached, the toddler stood and reached out his arms to be picked up. Omar’s feet faltered. Why was the boy reaching to him?

      Noticing him, the smoking mother said, “¡Piérdase!” Get lost.

      Omar wanted to move, but his feet wouldn’t budge. The boy’s eyes were brown and pleading. His little arms reached skyward. From the corner of his eye, Omar saw the boy’s mother begin to move toward him. She was shouting something.

      A hand tugged on the sleeve of his windbreaker and the spell was broken. He looked at the person pulling him forward, expecting to see Halima. It was Samia. She was breathing hard just from the exertion of this walk. The girl seriously needed to exercise more.

      “You can let go,” Omar said.

      “That wasn’t very funny what you did with the cockroaches.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “The cockroaches in my school bag yesterday. I thought we were past that kiddie stuff.”

      “Oh!” Omar said indignantly. “Naturally you accuse me?”

      “Well…” Uncertain now. “I’m sorry, I just thought-”

      “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

      Samia’s mouth fell open. “You jerk! You had me feeling sorry for you.” She stalked ahead to join the others, leaving Omar in the rear again.

      The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

      Peace be upon the bringer of light
      his turban black, his jubbah white,
      when round the ka’bah he turned,
      by his people mocked and spurned,
      while others came in the depths of night,
      whispers they’d heard
      of a Prophet
      reciting Allah’s word.

      Just before they reached the beach, they passed a cluster of wealthy homes with landscaped gardens and fountains in the yards. Many were weekend homes for rich Panama City families. One had a high brick wall with an arched steel gate topped by a family crest. As the three boys in the lead passed the gate, a huge German shepherd came running up, barking ferociously. The dog was tall and barrel-chested, with lustrous golden fur on its chest and legs, and a black face and back. It wore a collar studded with metal spikes that gleamed in the sun, but this didn’t restrict its voice, which was explosive and penetrating.

      The girls screamed and darted away. Tameem laughed and kicked the lock, enraging the dog who threw itself at the gate, snarling and baring his teeth. Tameem bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it into the dog’s face. Rather than shy away, the beast went into a frenzy. It lunged, trying to force its head between the bars to bite Tameem. Saliva flew from its mouth.

      “Stop that you idiot!” Samia shouted. “What if it gets out?”

      Tameem laughed. “Okay maestra chub-a-lub.”

      Omar shook his head as he gave the dog a wide berth. Why had he agreed to come on this trip?

      This Time for Panama

      Playa Santa Clara, Panama

      Playa Santa Clara, Panama

      The beach was deserted aside from a few families whose parents sheltered in the free cabanas set up in two long rows, while the kids built sand castles or played at the edge of the surf. Omar rolled up his pants and strolled on the wet sand, squinting against the light that reflected off the sea. He could not swim, and contented himself with enjoying the cool water on his feet and the smell of salt in the air, and looking for shells. The other boys ran into the waves.

      The Muhammad sisters changed into knee-length shorts and t-shirts and played in the shallows. Halima wore an Islamic style swimsuit, what did they call it? A burkini. She dove into the water and swam powerfully to the deeper water past the surf break, cutting through the water like a swordfish. Omar watched her. He hadn’t known she could swim like that. She was amazing. As for Samia, she spread out a towel in the shade of a cabana and sat cross-legged, reading a book.

      Maybe Samia was right about Ramadan. Maybe it was a time of miracles. Only a few days away now. But Omar could not imagine what shape a miracle might take. Why was Samia suddenly so concerned about him, anyway? Did she like him? He tried to imagine himself, five or ten years from now, married to Samia. Ugh. No. It wasn’t her pudginess that bothered him, but her pedantic bossiness, as if she were an Imam or life coach on a world tour, making a side stop in this Central American backwater to set Omar’s life straight.

      Halima, on the other hand… He could definitely see himself married to her. Whew! What an intriguing and exciting trip that would be. He chuckled at his own foolishness, knowing that Halima was out of his league. Might as well try to marry Shakira. Waka waka eh eh. This time for Panama.

      He remembered a trip to another beach with his parents when he was small. He built a sand castle with Papá, then went beachcombing with Mamá. Mamá found a perfect conch shell. She squealed with excitement and blew into it, but nothing happened. But when Papá blew into it, a sound like a ship’s horn burst forth. Little Omar was in awe. They took the shell home and put it in a display case in the living room.

      But after Papá died, and before Nemesio came, Mamá sold the shell to buy food.

      Omar hoped he would find another such shell today. He pictured the way his mother’s face would light up. Or would it make her sad, remembering that long-ago day? As he searched, the waves pounded in, undeterred by their failure to mount the land and claim it all for their blue depths. Your time is coming, Omar thought. You’ll drown us all like the people of Nuh one day. He imagined the waves were speaking to him, exhorting him in thunderous tones to do something dramatic. CHANGE, they were saying. And then shhhhhhh, as the water receded across the sand. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. But he did not know what change they demanded.

      Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 3:  The Attack

      * * *

      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.

      Avatar

      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.

      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.

      Continue Reading
      .
      .

      MuslimMatters NewsLetter in Your Inbox

      Sign up below to get started

      Trending