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Day of the Dogs, Part 6: The Curious Sensation of Pity

He reached to take her hand – and her other hand swung out from behind her back. Omar caught a glimpse of a large, rough-edged chunk of cement…

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Panama City slum, Panama

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

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

“You’re out of my league, hermano.” – Halima

Hundred Watt Smiles

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Omar sat on a plush stool as an oddly muscular fortyish woman with pencil thin eyebrows applied makeup to his face.

Panama City, Panama high rises He’d been picked up that morning by a chauffeur driving a black town car, and delivered to the TVN studio, located on the 40th floor of a Calle 50 high rise. His mother was at work. He was alone on what felt like the biggest day of his life.

He’d worn his school uniform of blue pants and white cotton shirt, having nothing at all “dressy” to wear, but another lady came by – the wardrobe lady, young and skinny with a tight expression on her face. Fingering his sleeve, she said, “this won’t do,” and gave him a blue dress shirt.

He took it into the green room’s exotic bathroom, outfitted with magnifying mirrors on jointed arms and real orchids growing in wall sconces. His face was flushed with nervousness, and he wanted to splash some water on his cheeks, but he’d been warned by the makeup lady not to do so.

Someone knocked: “On the air in ten!”

“Okay,” Omar called back. “I’m almost done.”

In reality he was doing nothing but standing at the sink, looking in the mirror. He looked like a clown. But the makeup lady assured him that it would not show on camera and was necessary to reduce the glare of the set lights.

A giant, he told himself. I may be short, but I’m a giant. I can do this. Noticiera Estelar, starring Omar Bayano. He chuckled at his own stupidity.

Pretending a confidence he did not feel, he limped onto the set with his head high. He saw the two hosts – a 20ish man with spiky blond hair, and an older woman with angular cheekbones and a polished smile – take in his cane and scars. Their hundred-watt smiles flickered, then returned as bright as ever.

The five minute segment went well. The hosts dispensed praise like candy, and while the young man cracked corny jokes (“You’ll be famous now, the ladies will love you”), the woman asked surprisingly relevant questions about Omar’s injuries, and even about Samia, since she was the other person injured in the attack. She’d done her homework.

When they asked how he was spending his summer, he replied, “I’m helping my mom with her organic makeup company, Puro Panameño.”

Mango ice cream When it was over they chauffeured him home (and let him keep the shirt). It was strange, returning to an empty house after that. He scrubbed off the makeup and ate mango ice cream while watching football.

His mother came home and asked about the interview. It bothered him a bit that she’d missed it, but he knew it wasn’t her fault. If they’d had a VCR they could have taped it, but they were too poor for that. But couldn’t she have taken a few minutes off and watched it in the Arrocha break room or something?

Say Hip Hop

Around 6 pm the door knocker sounded. He limped to the door, opened it, and there – to his astonishment – were the Muhammad sisters, with Nadia and Naris in their colorful traditional clothing, and Nabila in jeans and a tennis shirt, wearing a backpack and bobbing her head to music only she could hear. Nadia held up a VCR tape and exclaimed, “You’re a celebrity!”

“You did well,” Naris said unsmilingly. “I was impressed.” She carried a VCR machine with the cord dangling to the ground.

Omar’s mouth fell open. “You taped it? How did you even know?”

Nabila kept time with her hand as she rapped, “Your mom gave us the lowdown, because we got the know-how, we’re bringing it on like Motown, we’re three at a pop and we don’t stop, all the Muslims in the house say hip hop-”

“Heep hope” said a heavily Spanish accented voice from behind the girls, and here came Halima, with her father waving goodbye from the family minivan. She looked amazing in black slacks, a black and white checkered top and a gray hijab that set off her green eyes. Before Omar could say anything a pizza delivery car pulled up and a young man trotted up with three large pizzas.

“Let your friends in,” Omar’s mother said. Nabila unslung the backpack and opened it, pulling out an Adidas shoebox that she handed to Omar.

“What’s this?”

“Sponsor swag. These look like they might fit you.”

They were brand new Adidas hi-tops. All black, except for the trademark Adidas stripes, which were white. Omar fingered the leather. They were beautiful shoes, better than anything he’d ever owned. And they were his size! “I don’t know what to say, Nabila.”

“No worries, bro. I get plenty.”

Soon they had the machine hooked up and were all settled in front of the TV, Omar on a folding chair and the ladies crowded onto the love seat and sofa. The doorbell rang again. Mamá went to the door and returned with Hani, followed by Samia and her younger brother, a fifth grader named Nuruddin. Omar was especially happy to see Hani, but the boy seemed reticent, and avoided meeting his eyes. Was he still tripping over what had happened?

Samia did not look good. Her hijab was pulled very low over her eyes, almost like a hood, maybe to hide the few scars that were visible just below her hairline. She’d already been chubby, but she’d gained more weight, and her breath was an audible wheeze. Beyond that, her eyes were troubled somehow, as though an unseen shadow was playing over her features.

They watched the interview three times, and each time the kids cheered when Omar was announced. It was so strange, sitting in his own home surrounded by – friends? – was that what these were?

Then Nadia said, “movie time!’ and popped in another tape. Omar was afraid it would be a chick flick, but to his surprise and excitement it was a Bruce Lee film.

A horn honked outside. Three short blasts. Hani rose. “That’s my ride.”

“Come on, hermano,” Omar pleaded. But Hani insisted, saying he had things to do. Omar started to stand, using his cane to lift himself up, but Hani put up a hand.

“No, man, don’t get up. Please. Just…” He shook his head, walked to the door and let himself out.

Down the Rabbit Hole

\After the TV interview, the trickle of orders for his mother’s products became a stream. So did the interview requests. They came pouring in from all over the world, by email and by phone. Every day he did three or four phone or webcam interviews, with TV shows and newspapers from as far afield as Bogotá, Lima, Mexico City and even New York, and some in person as well, when the media sent people to see him. He did not travel. Some paid him, some did not.

It came to a climax when President Juan Carlos Varela invited him to the Palacio de Las Garzas, where he was given the Manuel Amador Guerrero award, the highest civilian honor in Panama.

The day the call came, Omar and his mother stood gaping at each other. It felt like he was living in a strange reality that was half nightmare – with his injuries and pain – and half marvelous dream. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to wake up, or keep dreaming.

This time his mother took the day off and came with him. Omar wore the blue shirt that TVN had let him keep, and a pair of new black slacks, dress shoes, and a tie. Every Panama news station was rolling tape as President Varela placed the medal around Omar’s neck, while Omar’s mother stood beside him and beamed like the tropical sun. The medal was shaped like a white cross surrounded by golden rays, and was heavy around his neck. Omar accepted the cross solemnly, unwilling to say, “I’m a Muslim, I can’t wear this.” When President Varela asked how he was coping since the attack, Omar smiled at the cameras and said, “I stay busy working for my mom’s makeup company, Puro Panameño.”

Now he had definitely tumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole and was looking at the Cheshire cat coalescing into being before him. First the glittering, toothy smile, then the rest, bit by bit, ending in the tail. But he never let the attention go to his head. He sensed that this particular cat was one that could either curl up at your feet and purr, or eat you alive, leaving nothing behind but your bones.

The orders flowed in like the Chagres River, until their small kitchen was filled with shipping boxes, and Mamá was working fourteen hours a day.

Árabe Unido

Estadio Armando Dely Valdes in PanamaThe stadium, Estadio Armando Dely Valdés, held 4,000 people, and was packed to the rafters. People chanted, cheered, and blew horns. Mamá had surprised him with tickets to an Árabe Unido game for his birthday in late July. He had not been to a game since Papá died. It was the semifinal match against Tauro in the Liga Panameña championship.

Omar wore his number 58 jersey, along with a blue and white striped Árabe Unido hat from the concession stand. The concession lady recognized him, as people sometimes did, and insisted on giving him the hat free of charge.

Their seats were all the way down near the field. Making his way down the stadium steps, Omar had to be careful. His left calf had been badly damaged in the dog attack, and his left shin had been fractured by a dog’s tooth. Neither wound had yet fully healed. He held tightly to the railing with one hand as he descended, and with his other hand gripped the cane that he used to take weight off his leg.

Still, he was so thrilled by the scene before him that he hardly noticed the pain. The field was brilliant green, the sky so blue he imagined he could dive upwards into it and swim. The air smelled of cotton beer and french fries, and was so thick with humidity that Omar had sweat spreading out all over his body, even on the backs of his hands.

As they made their way toward their seats in row A2, Omar spotted a tall young man with curly hair sitting in A1. His parents were with him, as well as his younger sister. It was Tameem, and Omar remembered that this was one of the few things in the world that he and Tameem had in common. Tameem was an Árabe Unido fan.

Tameem happened to glance over his shoulder. The older boy’s face went blank as he spotted Omar, no doubt taking in Omar’s scarred face and arms, mangled left ear, his limp, and the cane that he needed to walk. Tameem turned to his father and spoke in the man’s ear. The father looked up at Omar, and the two of them – father and son – appeared to argue. Then the entire family stood up and began to leave.

The only thing Omar could think was that Tameem was ashamed. Tameem had bullied him all through their childhoods, but somehow the situation was now reversed. Omar had become the strong one, sure of himself. It wouldn’t have mattered to him if Tameem had suddenly hollered, “Punching Bag!” or “Patacon.” Such things seemed petty now. He would have laughed it off. But Tameem couldn’t face him.

Omar had hated this bully for so long. In school they’d learned about Argentina’s guerra sucia, their “dirty war” of the 1970’s and 80’s, when right-wing government death squads would fly their enemies out over the ocean in helicopters and drop them in. Omar remembered wishing he could do the same to Tameem.

Now, though, he found himself wondering what it must be like for the older boy, reviled by their friends as a coward. What did Tameem have left now? He’d never been a good student. Omar suddenly perceived the older boy as a mask of arrogance worn by a mannequin. An empty thing. The thought gave him a chill, and he experienced the curious sensation of pity, not for himself but for his tormentor.

He called out, “Tameem!” He was going to say, “You don’t have to leave.” But the older boy didn’t look back.

Armando Cooper of Árabe Unido in action

Armando Cooper of Árabe Unido runs it down.

At halftime, the stadium announcer said, “Give a hand of applause to Omar Bayano, recipient of the Manuel Amador Guerrero award for bravery.” The crowd roared. Omar looked up and there he was on the jumbotron, wide-eyed, his mouth hanging open. His mother lifted his hand and waved it, and the crowd laughed.

Árabe Unido won four to one, and by the time the game was over Omar’s throat was sore from cheering. The blue express had done it again. If only his father had been there it would have been the best day of his life, bar none.

Heroism Befitting a Believer

Returning to school, all Omar knew was that he wanted no pity. He had, at some point, stopped caring about people’s reactions to his scars. He did not regret what had happened to him. He’d done the right thing, trying to save Samia. If he could do it over again, he’d make the same choice. So what sense did bitterness make?

It was true, he still had nightmares. And on the rare occasions when he went out walking, he was nervous, constantly looking over his shoulder. Not that he blamed the dogs who’d attacked him. They had only reacted to Tameem’s provocations. He wished they had not had to die, but he told himself that the dogs’ deaths were not his burden to carry. Like Surat An-Najm said: no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Even so, they had been living creatures, with minds and hearts. Omar knew violence well, and would not wish a violent death on any living thing.

Tameem did not return to IIAP, nor did Basem. Strangely, Hani did not come back either. That first day back, the principal called him up in front of the entire school at morning assembly and gave him a trophy. Inscribed at the base were the words, “For heroism befitting a believer.” Omar found the attention embarrassing.

The other kids treated him with deference, parting for him in crowded hallways, and holding doors for him. Some of the little kids even called him ustadh, which he found hilarious.

Strangely Colored Hope

The first Saturday after school started, he decided to walk to Hani’s house, on the southern end of Panama Viejo. He wanted to know what had happened to the boy. Had he transferred schools for some reason? He put on his number 58 jersey and new Adidas, grabbed his metal cane, and set out.

Panama City slum, Panama

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo, true to its name, consisted of a slum of dilapidated houses that sprawled along the waterfront, within sight of the skyscrapers of tony Punta Paitilla on one side, and towering Costa del Este on the other. Being on the waterfront did not mean beach access. For one thing, Panama Viejo was cut off from the sea by the taut line of the Corredor Sur highway. Furthermore, there was no beach. Just smelly mud flats that bordered a bay polluted with effluent.

Omar walked through the muddy streets, doing his best to keep the new kicks clean, and pulling his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth whenever a diesel-fueled diablo rojo rumbled by. He detoured around potholes, sometimes stopping to rest his arm, which tired from supporting his weight on the cane. Occasionally he switched the cane to the other hand, angling it to relieve his left leg. Hani’s house was normally a fifteen minute walk, but Omar had a feeling it would take a lot longer today.

The working class inhabitants of this neighborhood drove taxis and buses, cleaned floors and toilets, worked as cashiers, cooks and servers, styled hair and nails, or simply peddled goods on the street. Some did what was called in Panama, “mata el cameron” – killing the shrimp, which meant any odd jobs that paid the rent. And some walked the wrong side of the law, robbing, extorting, and selling drugs or people.

Many lived in fear in this barrio. But Omar had never been afraid. When his father had been alive, and they’d sat on the front steps at night watching the stars, Omar had always felt supremely safe. Papá could handle anyone. But Omar had been wrong about that. Papá was not superman. He could not defeat any bad guy. And if he couldn’t rely on that, then what could he rely on? The world might as well be jello, for all the solidity and security it offered.

After Papá died, Omar was still not afraid, but now it was because he didn’t care what happened to him. What did it matter? If he died in an accident or a mugging, a few people would fill a few thimbles with tears, and the world would roll on, turning inexorably into the horizon like a celestial bulldozer.

He still felt that. He’d been lauded in the media and given awards, but a big part of him felt like he could disappear right now, fall into a bottomless pothole, and there would be no butterfly effect, no tiny ripples as Samia liked to say. His absence would not save the life of a stranger in China. And… he wanted to say that he himself would not care. Living or dead, what was the difference?

He’d felt that way for so long that it felt strange to feel any different.

But he did feel different. Somehow some stray light beams had slipped into his Stygian interior. Some strangely colored hope. It was an odd feeling, almost uncomfortable, but it made him lighter on his feet in spite of his injuries. He stopped walking and gazed up at the moisture-laden afternoon clouds coursing in from the south. He might get rained on. For so long he’d wanted to be anywhere else but here, in this decaying barrio, living this ramshackle life. Today, though – it amazed him to think this – he was okay with existing right here, right now.

Blue Braces

At the moment this thought flitted through his brain, he was standing beside a house with a chain link fence. Suddenly a dog ran up to the fence and barked. It was not a large dog. Some sausage-shaped breed, maybe a dachshund. But its approach frightened Omar badly. He broke into a run purely out of instinct, driven by a pointless but overpowering dread. He managed a half dozen steps before his injured leg gave out. Planting the cane to check his fall, he missed the mark, the tip sliding into a pothole. He fell heavily in the rutted, dirty road. Only his karate training saved him from injury. At the last second he turned in the air and took the fall on his side, as he’d been taught.

He looked up to see two women striding briskly toward him. They were in their mid twenties or early thirties perhaps, and had the angular, used-up look that some women get when they’ve lived too hard. One, a wiry woman with mahogany skin, wore cellophane-tight jeans and new sneakers, and had blue braces on her teeth. The other was white and very thin, and wore a tank top and red shorts that exposed sores on her pale legs. “Hey little brother,” the one with the braces called out. “Are you okay?”

As they neared, the blue braces lady reached out a hand to help him up. Veins that stood out beneath the skin of her muscled arm, and a tattoo of a dandelion covered the back of her hand, with the seeds blowing away up her forearm. A perpetual wish for a better life, Omar supposed.

He reached out to take her hand – and her other hand swung out from behind her back. Omar caught a split-second glimpse of the object she gripped – a large, rough-edged chunk of cement – but didn’t even have time to cry out before it struck him across the face with the force of a sledgehammer. He tumbled back onto the road. Pain seared his face, and his head rang like a gong. One of the women kicked him in the stomach and he folded in over himself, all the breath expelled from his body.

Hands rifled through his pockets. One found his faux leather wallet, pulled it out. Omar knew there was nothing in there except five dollars, a miniature copy of Surat Yasin the school had given him at graduation last year, and a clipping of a newspaper article about him. He had twenty dollars on him – a bit of his newfound wealth from the paid news interviews – but it was tucked inside his sneakers.

Blue Braces rolled him onto his back, then slapped his face with his own wallet. He was still gasping for breath, trying to force air into his lungs.

“Where the money at, puto?” the woman demanded. “I know you got some. Look at these sick kicks. Fancy football shirt, walkin’ with a cane like some kinda gentleman. And this.” She pulled his copper bracelet off his wrist and slid it onto her own. Pulled his little flip phone out of his pocket and took that too. Then she opened the wallet, pocketed the five dollar bill, and flicked the copy of Surat Yasin into the street.

Omar went cold. To disrespect and abuse him was one thing. But there was no world in which he would tolerate someone disrespecting the Quran in his presence. And as for the bracelet, his father had given it to him. His FATHER.

Breath came into his lungs. The pain in his face and stomach vanished, and all emotion fell away. He knew what was happening to him. He’d seen Sensei Alan switch into this state of awareness when sparring. It was frightening, sparring with Alan. Something inside the man would change and you’d see it in his face, which would go as flat as a marble slab. Omar had once kicked Sensei in the stomach while sparring, a hard snap kick, connecting with the ball of his foot. It should at least have driven him back. But the man walked right through it.

He understood now. Cold descended upon him, and he felt as calm as a glacier. A roaring sound filled his ears, and though his eyes were wide and unblinking, his vision narrowed so that he saw only the two women.

Blue Braces pulled a screwdriver from her pocket, took a handful of Omar’s shirt in one hand and pressed the tip into his cheek. She shouted something, her spittle striking his forehead. The screwdriver should have hurt but he felt nothing, and did not hear her words. The two muggers were little dogs, yapping. Dogs again, always dogs, coming at him, attacking him. But he knew how to deal with dogs, didn’t he? He didn’t back down to dogs.

“No,” he said, responding not to any particular thing Blue Braces had said, but to the entire situation.

Blue Braces screwed up her features, said something.

Omar heard only the sound of ocean waves crashing in his ears. “No,” he repeated more loudly.

Blue Braces spoke over her shoulder to Skinny Legs, who hauled back her foot to kick again. Her foot flew at Omar’s thigh. He pulled up one knee and let the woman’s toes impact his kneecap. A common sparring technique. She cried out soundlessly and turned in a circle, hopping on one foot. Blue Braces gripped Omar’s shirt tighter and drove the tip of the screwdriver into his cheek. He felt it break the skin and sink into the flesh. Yet there was no pain. Only pressure.

Enough of this.

“I SAID NO!” He shrimped to the side, seized the wrist that held the screwdriver, then struck Blue Braces in the throat with the web of his hand, using the L-shaped part of the hand formed by the index finger and thumb. This was not a sparring strike, but a technique from kata – the set forms he had practiced thousands of times. It was called the tiger’s mouth.

Immediately Blue Braces released the screwdriver and clutched her throat, gagging. Omar shoved her and she fell away. He stood and faced Skinny Legs. Her green eyes were wide now, her hands up in a placating gesture. Omar kicked her in the stomach, not a snapping kick but a powerful thrusting kick that drove deeply into her abdomen. She flew backward, literally coming off her feet, and crashed to the ground, moaning in agony as she rolled in the dirt.

Omar turned back to Blue Braces, who was still clutching her throat. Her face was turning blue. If he’d crushed her trachea she would die without medical intervention. He took his bracelet back, then dug into her pockets and recovered his phone and cash. A handful of crumpled bills spilled from the woman’s pocket, maybe a hundred dollars, but Omar left that. He found his wallet and surah in the street and wiped the surah on his shirt to clean it.

Reymundo is My Guide

He picked up his cane and began to walk away, and was nearly overcome by a wave of nausea, dizziness and pain. He pushed through it and kept on walking, leaning heavily on the cane, barely aware of his environment. If someone else tried to rob him in that moment he’d be done for. When he’d covered two blocks he came to a small store with a sign that said, “Reymundo is My Guide Panama Viejo Snacks and Lottery.” He’d seen this place before and had always noticed it because Reymundo was his own father’s name. But he’d never actually stopped here.

The shop had a little wooden bench out front, one leg chained and locked to an eye bolt in the ground. Omar sat, took out his phone and dialed 911 for the ambulance service. A woman answered and he gave her Blue Braces’ location and condition, then hung up.

“Hey son,” the shopkeeper called. “Are you okay?” He was an old man with wide Indian features and gray hair, and wore round spectacles.

Omar stepped up to the shop’s small window and looked over the goods. What could he get for $5? He settled on a bottle of Coke and a cheese empanada. The shopkeeper refused Omar’s money. “I know you,” the man said. “I knew your Papá. He was a great man.”

Omar returned to the bench and began to eat and drink. The shopkeeper emerged with a box full of medical supplies. Omar started to protest but the old man ignored him. As Omar ate, the man cleaned Omar’s face with a hot towel, applied alcohol with a cotton swab – that hurt badly, making Omar flinch – then applied three bandages.

“Your father help me build this place,” the man said. “You know that?”

Omar shook his head.

“Oh yes. He was very handy. I buy a big pile of bricks and mortar, and we put this place up in a week. He used to come here, help me move boxes, do repairs. My name is Melocoton.”

Omar gave the man a quizzical look. He was named after a fruit? He had a thought. “Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “The Reymundo in your sign?”

The old man grinned, showing teeth that were yellowed but intact. “Your Papá. Is a story. I tell you someday. Anytime you come here, no charge for the son of Reymundo Bayano.”

Omar thanked the man and decided he was ready to head for home. He’d try the trip to Hani’s house again tomorrow, if he was up to it. Right now he just needed to rest.

By the time he was close to home his face and body were drenched in sweat, and his arm trembled from supporting his weight on the cane. He was exhausted and sore everywhere, and his face ached. As it turned out, the sweat at least was not a problem, because when he was one block from home the sky unleashed its torrent, and the rain came down like the curtain at the end of a Greek tragedy.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 7:  The Underground Dream

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

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

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

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

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

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    October 15, 2020 at 3:32 AM

    As-salamu alaykum dear readers. I need one more week to finalize the next chapter, so look for it on Wednesday October 21, inshaAllah.

  2. Avatar

    Aziz

    October 24, 2020 at 6:12 PM

    Can’t wait!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      October 24, 2020 at 10:12 PM

      Thanks brother. Chapter 7 is uploaded and read to go. InshaAllah this coming Wednesday.

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Podcast: David’s Dollar | Tariq Touré and Khaled Nurhssien

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We often preach about our children learning the importance of money, group economics, and developing healthy spending habits. How awesome would it be to have a fully illustrated picture book that explores how a dollar travels from hand-to-hand?

Join Khaled Nurhssien and award winning poet and author Tariq Touré as they discuss Tariq’s new children’s book David’s Dollar. In this Interview they touch on art, Islam’s approach to community and Tariq’s creative process.

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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 9: All We Have To Do

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

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Corredor Sur, Panama

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8

“Policia Nacional!” – Omar

Broken Window

Tocumen International Airport
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Tocumen International Airport

Back in Panama, pulling his wheeled suitcase along behind him, Omar walked out to the long-term parking lot at Tocumen airport. It was a hair past noon, and the sun poured forth its fire as if the earth were a morsel of meat it wanted to cook for lunch. Knowing the weather in Panama, Omar had changed his clothes in advance in the airport bathroom, putting away the linen suit and slipping on a pair of knee-length basketball shorts and a t-shirt. He was glad he had. After the chilly skies of Bogota, being back in Panama was like stepping into a sauna.

When he came to his car, he found the driver’s side window shattered. He shook his head in disgust. Why would anyone break into his car? It was a five year old silver Toyota sedan with no frills. It didn’t even have a CD player, just a basic AM/FM radio. He could have afforded better, but he drove this old beater for exactly this reason: it didn’t look worth breaking into.

Searching the car, he found nothing missing. There hadn’t been anything worth stealing anyway. Just the manual in the glove box, a little LED flashlight, a pack of cinnamon chewing gum, and some napkins. Oh, wait – they’d taken the Quran CDs. Arabic recitation with Spanish translation. Maybe the thieves would listen and be guided.

When he inserted the key and turned it, he got nothing. Not even a click. Opening the hood, he discovered the reason: the thieves had stolen his car battery. So that was what they’d been after. Now he was angry. Where was airport security?

Car with shattered window

Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he considered who to call. He needed someone to bring him a battery. His wife didn’t drive. Fuad didn’t drive either, because he never knew when he might have an epileptic attack.

Fuad’s crazy wife Ivana did drive, but Omar didn’t want to deal with her. If Fuad somehow convinced her to come out here, she would either want to be paid, or would expect Omar to take her and Fuad to the most expensive restaurant in Panama. Ten times! Omar laughed at the thought.

He could call Nadia Muhammad, his old friend from IIAP. She was married and sometimes came to visit with her husband and two kids. She was a goofball, always telling jokes and making his son Nur laugh. But even though they were just buddies, and his wife thought nothing of it, he didn’t want to push the boundaries of trust by spending half a day driving all around Panama city with her.

It Burns!

Deciding that there was nothing left to steal, and that it wouldn’t hurt to leave the car alone for a while, he trudged back to the taxi stand in front of the terminal. Ignoring the touts who snatched at his sleeves, desperate to put him in a limo or town car, he found a 60ish, balding taxi driver with forearms like German sausages. The man sat disconsolately in his cab, filling out a crossword puzzle. The two of them negotiated a price of $40 for the whole business, and took off.

As they headed into the city with the windows open and hot air whipping through the car, Omar reclined his head against the seat and closed his eyes.

Apparently not noticing or caring that Omar was trying to rest, the driver called out, raising his voice to be heard. “Oye, jefe. You some kinda tuna fat foreigner?”

“I’m Panamanian.” Omar opened his eyes and studied the road, and was dismayed to see that the driver had taken the slow midtown route. Avenida Domingo Diaz was an interminable road lined with auto shops, plant nurseries and love motels – known as pushbuttons in Panama, because all you had to do was drive in and push a button. You never had to see any clerk or staff face to face. “Hey, why did you go this way? I would have paid the tolls on the Sur.”

“Well I din’ know that, no?” The man’s sped-up slang Spanish marked him as having been raised in Colon. Omar could barely understand him. “Just because you a tuna fat Colombian. You might be a biter. You ahuevao foreigners is welcome if you bring some flus. Otherwise we don’ need you.”

Ignoring the fact that the man had just called him stupid – he’d understood that much – Omar, repeated, “I’m Panamanian.”

“Then where the president live?”

“Palacio de Las Garzas. I’ve been there.”

The driver whistled. “Waow. You some big politico? So watchu gonna do about the foreigners snatchin’ our jobs? The Chinos?”

There were a lot of Chinese in Panama, true, but they didn’t take jobs. Just the opposite. They opened stores, restaurants, internet cafes and electronic shops, and employed Panamanians. Omar explained this.

“Then the mascabola Venezuelans! Ñangara Comunistas!” The driver hawked and spit on the floor of his own car. “They spray the word taxi onna side of a car and steal my fares, don’ even have licenses.” He pounded the dash with a meaty fist. “It burns!”

“I see how that’s bad for business, but they’re our neighbors. We have-” Omar stopped talking as the driver abruptly swerved across two lanes of traffic and pulled up beside a love motel called Lady Finger.

“Get out!” the driver demanded. “Ain’t drivin’ no mascabola Communist-lover. And I ain’t votin’ for you!”

Omar pursed his lips. It would be hard to find another taxi out here. He considered offering the driver more money, but the guy was a nasty piece of work. As much as the man wanted Omar out of his cab, Omar wanted to be done with him too.

He collected his luggage and paid the driver a quarter of the normal fare, which under the circumstances he felt was generous. The driver cursed at him and peeled out with a squeal of burning rubber.

Allah blessed him. Omar had only begun to contemplate his options when another taxi pulled up to the Lady Finger. A 60ish man in a business suit and a young woman in a skin-tight dress headed into the pushbutton. Omar called out to the driver and half-ran, pulling his bag behind him. A minute later he was on his way – again – with a driver who kept the windows rolled up, the AC on and a Cuban jazz CD playing softly. Alhamdulillah.

Do the Right Thing

Three hours later, with a new battery in his car, Omar navigated his way out of the airport parking lot. He noticed several other cars with shattered windows. Useless airport security officers walked around making notes, and two cars were being lifted onto tow trucks.

Corredor Sur, Panama

Corredor Sur, Panama

He headed home along the Corredor Sur, the express toll highway that led along the Pacific waterfront. The area bordering the highway had once been an expanse of impenetrable mangrove swamps, but now it was Costa del Este, the most expensive seaside neighborhood in all of Panama. Two-hundred meter skyscrapers glittered in the tropical sunshine, their glass sides reflecting sky and sea, while construction cranes marked the sites of future towers.

These million dollar apartments were occupied by business people, wealthy expatriates and even crime cartel bosses, mostly hailing from neighboring (and less stable) countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. And, of course, by Fuad, who – pushed by his Cuban beauty queen – had purchased an apartment he really could not afford.

The mangroves that had been drained and filled to make Costa del Este possible had been one of the richest wetland habitats in Panama, home to dozens of endemic species. Such was the way of his country. No one valued nature, nor even old things of human make. It was all about what was new and sleek.

At least people like Naris Muhammad were out there fighting to protect what was left. Naris, the serious-minded member of the Muhammad triplets, was one of the most prominent environmental activists in Panama.

He exited the freeway into the leafy district of San Francisco. It was an upper middle class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of gated homes, all bordering Parque Omar, the largest urban park in Panama.

Passing by Parque Omar, he eyed the spot where, last year, he’d intervened to stop a man from beating a woman. He’d been out for a morning jog and had seen a tall, thin man with hollow eyes punching a young woman in the face.

For a good portion of his childhood he had been the one beaten while the person who should have protected him stood by helplessly. He’d always promised himself that he would not be that impotent bystander, allowing someone to be abused before his eyes.

So when he saw the man punching the woman, he instantly ran forward, wrapped the man’s neck from behind and pulled him off the woman. The woman, instead of thanking him, screamed, “Leave my boyfriend alone!” She picked up a broken tree branch and struck Omar on the head, and the pair of them dashed off. Omar went home with his scalp bleeding, expecting a tongue lashing from his wife. But she cleaned the wound, kissed him and made him one of his favorite foods: an apam balik pancake filled with banana slices, sesame and sugar.

He returned his eyes to the road. He couldn’t be responsible for the choices people made. But he could do the right thing.

As he approached a large, sky-blue home fronted by a high brick wall and a steel gate, he hit a remote control and the gate slid open. The house had a circular front driveway that curved around a bubbling Islamic style fountain shaped like an eight-pointed star, covered in green tiles. The crisp water sparkled as it poured out of an upper bowl and into the larger basin below.

Nur liked to play in this pool, while Omar’s wife enjoyed sitting beside it after sunset, listening to the Quran on a little cassette player. Omar had offered to buy her a portable CD player, but she said she couldn’t tell one side of a CD from the other.

Tall trees flanked the front yard, with a pair of mango trees anchoring east and west. Around them grew passionfruit trees, guava and berry bushes. Nur often came out here with his mother and ate the berries straight from the bushes, until his cheeks and chin were red from the juices.

Something For Everyone

When he opened the door, Nur came running. Omar dropped to one knee to catch the boy. He was a handsome tyke, with sturdy limbs, a strong nose and square face. His eyes were dark and his black hair was straight, like his mother’s. Omar’s love for him was a deep river that would never run dry.

He found his wife in the kitchen standing at the stove, garnishing a red snapper for the oven. The split AC in the corner hummed, its cool air circulating the scents of lemon and parsley. The space was large and comfortable, with a cooking island in the center, and teak cabinetry all around. A matching rustic teak table occupied one side, beside a low, molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall and was covered with cushions. The family spent a lot of time here.

His heart surged at seeing his wife again. Her face was dewed with perspiration from the heat of the stove. Even so, she looked beautiful, with a slender, strong form, and her long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He went to her and she turned to embrace him, saying, “Careful of the stove.”

Putting his arms around her, he could feel the muscles in her shoulders and arms. The two of them ran five kilometers every morning in Parque Omar, and two evenings a week he taught her karate in an upstairs bedroom they’d turned into a training studio.

Labrador retriever He felt something cold touch his hand and looked down to see the dog, Berlina, nuzzling him with her wet nose. She was a young labrador retriever, well trained as a guide dog. She was a gentle creature, intelligent and good with Nur as well.

He reached down to scratch Berlina’s head. Her tail thumped happily against the kitchen cabinet. Nur grabbed his other hand. “What did you bring me, Papá?”

Standing in the middle of the family mob, Omar laughed. “I have something for everyone, okay?”

They sat at the kitchen table and Omar parceled out the gifts: for his wife, a pair of silver earrings shaped like crescent moons and fashioned in the uniquely Colombian “momposina” style, with finely woven silver threads. For Nur, a set of coloring pencils with a small leather carrying case.

“What about Berlina?” Nur wanted to know.

In answer, Omar stood, grabbed the plastic jar of beef jerky sticks from the top of the refrigerator, and tossed one to the dog. Berlina caught it in mid-air, settled down and went to work, her wagging tail brushing the floor.

Drawings

Later that evening Omar sat at the kitchen table with his son, watching the boy draw. He could hear the shower running upstairs.

Papers were scattered across the table, covered with drawings of ocean waves, leaping dolphins, a squid brandishing a scepter, and a mermaid wearing a crown. Nur had always been fascinated by the ocean and all its creatures.

Nur held up a picture of a tsunami arching over a small town. He’d even drawn tiny cars on the roads and stick figures of people. “Do you like it, Papá?”

Omar raised his eyebrows. “It’s drawn very well.” He leaned close to his son’s ear. “But let’s not tell Mama that story. We don’t want her to be sad for the people.” Nur’s mother could not see the drawings, so normally Nur would describe them to her in detail, telling the drawing’s story.

Nodding, Nur tucked the sketch beneath a pile of others as his mother came down the steps, tying a towel around her hair. Omar was always amazed at how confidently she moved. A stranger would never guess she was blind, at least not here inside the house, where everything was laid out precisely in its place. Though her vision was not 100% gone. She could sometimes make out broad outlines and colors.

“Sad for what people?” she asked.

“Nothing, just drawings.”

Omar’s wife sat on his lap, resting an arm around his shoulders. She ran a hand through his hair, playing with the curls, taking care to stay away from his mangled ear, as he was sensitive about that. He kissed her on the cheek, happy to be home with the loveliest woman he knew. He was blessed, alhamdulillah.

A Scarcity of Friends

“I missed you,” his wife said. “But I’m glad you found your friend Hani. You don’t have many friends.”

It was true. He had Mahmood, Fuad, and Nadia. That was about it. Nadia’s sister Naris could have been a friend if she weren’t so engrossed in her work as an environmental activist. As for Nabila, she’d moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on her Youtube stardom, and ended up becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Was this scarcity of friends the reason he’d been so excited to see Hani again? And why he had overlooked the brother’s disconcerting negativity?

“What’s his wife’s name, by the way?”

“He never told me. She works as a house cleaner.”

“Do you think it’s wise to invest with him? He sounds unstable.”

Omar pulled her hand out of his hair. It was too close to his ear, and was making him nervous. “Does he?”

“The way you describe him.”

“Hmm.”

She ran a hand over his face – her way of reading his expression. “You’ve already decided to give him the money, haven’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Then why make him write a business plan?”

“For his own benefit. To help him succeed.”

“I think you just wanted a reason to see him again.”

As a reply, Omar pulled his wife close and kissed the side of her head. Her black hair smelled of the papaya shampoo she favored. She knew him too well, and never failed to let him know it.

He watched his son working on a new drawing of a squadron of flying fish. Each fish wore a beret and had a cigar in its mouth. As the boy drew, he chewed on his upper lip.

Nur was an intense child, but was he happy? Omar thought back to his own early childhood, training in martial arts with his father, watching football games, attending the masjid for Jumah prayer; and going on hikes with his mother, or visiting that amazing ice cream shop on Avenida Central that sold a giant scoop of mango sorbet for a quarter. They had been poor, but Omar had been happy because he was loved by his parents, and what more did a child need?

That’s all we have to do, he thought. Love him. He reached out and stroked the back of Nur’s neck. The boy did not even look up. “All we have to do,” Omar said out loud.

“Do what?” his wife asked.

“All we have to do is love each other.”

His wife settled into him, resting her back against his chest. “Yes. That’s all we have to do.”

Put Your Hand Down

Karate class “I KNOW YOU WANT TO EARN A BLACK BELT ONE DAY,” Omar said as he strode up and down in front of the line of kids. One girl – an especially enthusiastic eleven year old green belt named Tabina who was always asking when she’d get her next promotion – raised her hand frantically. Some of the kids nodded their heads.

“Put your hand down, Tabina. It wasn’t a question. Fix your stances.” His own son Nur was leaning too far forward in his horse stance, and Omar showed him by giving him a slight push, which nearly toppled him. Technically Nur was not old enough for this class; it was for kids aged six to twelve, but being the instructor’s son had privileges. Not that Omar went easy on the boy. Just the opposite. He demanded much from him.

Omar loved these kids at the Centro Islamico, which everyone called the Centro. He volunteered twice a week, teaching this class and another for teens.

“There are three things you must do,” he went on, “if you want a black belt. One, come to class. Two, practice at home. Three, don’t quit. If you do these things, week after week, month after month, year after year, I guarantee you will get your black belt eventually, inshaAllah.”

He cast a glance at the clock on the wall. It had been a month since his return from Bogotá. Hani and his wife were supposed to arrive today. In three hours, actually.

“Line up,” he ordered the class. “Respect Allah, your parents and yourselves.” With a command of, “Sensei ni rei!” he bowed the class out. “Domo arigato gozaimusu,” all the kids intoned in Japanese.

His own wife was teaching a Quran memorization class in one of the upstairs rooms. He called Nur over and kneeled to give the boy a hug. “Run upstairs and tell Mamá we have to go.”

Refugees

As the three of them exited into the audacious Panama sun, unmitigated by any trace of cloud, they saw a scene unfolding in the empty lot across the street. A group of refugees – Venezeuelans no doubt – were camped in a large weed-ridden field, which was muddy and spotted with litter.

One family hunkered in the shade of a patched-up tent, while a thin woman with frizzy hair in a ponytail sat beneath two pieces of corrugated metal that had been leaned against each other and covered first in cardboard, and then with a tarpaulin. Her two small children kicked a deflated soccer ball in front of the shelter. A toothless old man with a cane sat on a plastic milk crate, out in the open, with only a gray baseball cap to shield his face from the sun. There were about a dozen people altogether, mostly women and children. They were a doleful, dejected group. It broke Omar’s heart to see such scenes, but Venezuelan refugees were everywhere in Panama these days.

Now, however, a group of young Panamanian men and women – in their late teens or early twenties, perhaps – had pulled up to the lot in two tricked-out Japanese cars. They began shouting at the refugees, telling them to go home, and calling them leeches and scum. The well dressed youths, consisting of five boys and two girls, exited their cars and began throwing stones at the refugees.

Omar had witnessed scenes like this before. With over one hundred thousand Venezuelans in Panama, resentment was rising among those who chose to scapegoat the refugees for all of Panama’s problems – like the taxi driver.

The little boys who’d been kicking the soccer ball ran to their mother in the lean-to. The old man with the cane yelled at the youths, who shouted insults in return.

“Papá,” Nur said in alarm, “why are they doing that?”

“What?” Omar’s wife wanted to know. “What’s going on?”

Omar gave his wife’s shoulder a squeeze. “Kids misbehaving. Go back inside the Centro with Nur.” She did not have Berlina with her, as dogs were not welcome in the Centro, not even guide dogs. It was a bad policy, but one that Omar had not succeeded in changing. But she had her cane, and of course she had Nur.

He strode across the street, mindful that if these youths chose to fight he’d be badly outnumbered. An idea came to him. Taking out his wallet, he opened it and held it above his head. “Stop!” he commanded loudly. “Policia Nacional! You’re all under arrest.” He did not have a badge of course, but the kids were several meters away and probably would not notice.

Indeed, the youths scattered, dashing back to their cars, jumping in and peeling out, tires squealing.

Omar strode across the muddy field to the refugees, who all looked frightened. “Easy,” he told them, making a calming motion with his hand. “Are you okay?”

A woman in her forties, her brown face weatherbeaten and lined, stepped forward. “It’s nothing new,” she replied bitterly. “But thank you anyway.”

Omar looked the group over. He wanted to do something, say something, but what? In the end all he said was, “Do you have enough food?”

“No,” the woman replied bluntly.

Omar’s wallet was still in his hand. He took out $60, which was all the cash he had on hand, and held it out to the woman.

Her eyes flicked to the money, then to Omar’s face. Her mouth was a grim line. “We did not ask for anything.”

“I know. But you’re my neighbors. Maybe Panama will be in trouble one day, then I’ll come to your country and need your help.”

The woman’s mouth quirked upwards into a smile. “I don’t think so. You are rich, and you don’t know it.” But she took the money.

When Omar went back across the street, his wife and child were still there, to his consternation. “I told you to go inside,” he said.

“Excuse me?” She was annoyed. “Number one” – counting on her fingers – “Nur wanted to see. Number two, you don’t tell me to go inside like I’m a child.”

Omar wasn’t the type to give orders, and he knew it was her blindness that brought out the protectiveness in him. But sometimes his wife had to trust him to lead. He tried to explain this, and saw her growing angry. It might have turned into an argument, but Nur spoke up.

“Papá,” the boy said solemnly. “You lied.”

Omar twisted his mouth to one side in embarrassment. “Yeah,” he started to say, “I know, but-”

“It was cool!” Nur broke in. “Did you see how those bad kids ran away?” He held up one hand, pretending to be Omar holding up his wallet, then marched in a circle. “You went, ‘Policia!’ and they went, ‘Oh no!’”

“Okay, okay.” They walked to where their car was parked a half a block down the street. As they drove home, his wife patted his knee. “You did good, mashaAllah. I’m proud of you.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 10:  The Girl With the Goldie Gum

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

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

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

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Day of the Dogs, Part 8: Rich and Poor

A security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly. Omar frowned. Why would the security staff be suspicious of him?

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Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

“Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.” – Omar

A Small Price to Pay

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

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

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

After high school, Omar attended Florida State University’s Panama campus, on the northern edge of the city near the Miraflores Locks. From the library’s second floor you could watch the ships rising and falling in the canal. It reminded him of his childhood, when his mother used to take him to the locks, then to Avenida Central for a snowcone.

What would he say now if his mother wanted to do that? Not that she would. No longer a battered widow, she was now the CEO of a successful company, and had little free time. Omar lived on campus, and rarely saw her.

He encountered old friends, made new ones, and founded the karate club. After graduating with a B.S. in international affairs, he went to work for his mother’s company, which had forty five employees by that time. He started in shipping, and rotated to other entry level positions, as his mother wanted him to learn the day-to-day operations.

Word came that Nemesio had been imprisoned for murder. He’d lost his temper and killed a prostitute who tried to steal his wallet. Omar thought he should feel satisfied at this news, but he only felt sad for the man, which surprised him.

He fell in love and married an extraordinary woman. Fuad was a witness at his wedding. No one who knew Fuad from high school would have recognized him that day. Gone were the inch-thick glasses, replaced by contacts. His formerly shaggy hair was expensively cut, and his beard neatly trimmed, and he wore a beautiful blue suit that made him look like a Bollywood celebrity. He’d attended medical school in Cuba, then returned to Panama and joined a major medical group specializing in brain disorders.

Unfortunately, from Omar’s perspective, Fuad brought something back with him from Cuba: a beauty queen. He’d met and married the former Miss Cuba, of all things. Ivana was certainly beautiful, with flawless mahogany skin and flowing raven tresses that spilled over her shoulders; but she had the personality of a vampire bat. Greedy and materialistic, Omar watched helplessly as the woman pushed Fuad to spend money he did not have on luxuries he could not afford.

The other witness was Mahmood, a Palestinian brother Omar had met at Florida State, and who now taught history and English literature at IIAP, Omar’s old school. The Muhammad triplets were there as well, and even Mahboob came, as he and Omar had long since patched things up. Though Mahboob still joked that the only way they’d truly be even was if Omar went headfirst into a trashcan. To which Omar would reply, “Save that for the politicians,” or, “My name is Omar not Oscar,” and once, concocting an admittedly awful English-Spanish pun, “That would be an interesting sucio-logical experiment.”

Omar was eventually promoted to executive vice president of Puro Panameño. He bought a house, and his wife gave birth to a son. At some point, the nightmares that had plagued him after the dog attack stopped coming. He realized this only later, and could not pinpoint exactly when they had stopped, though he thought maybe the turning point had been his marriage.

He taught karate to kids at the Muslim community center, and ran three times a week at Parque Omar – something the doctors had told him he would never do again.

Fuad was always calling to complain about his psychotic wife. Okay, not psychotic, but Ivana wore a pound of gold to the grocery store, insulted Fuad in public, and had a vicious temper. Omar had once seen her lift an ice cream making machine over her head and throw it against a wall hard enough to crack the plaster. Aside from that, she spent Fuad’s money like it was her life’s purpose, and neither worked nor cared for the house. Spent all her time at the Coronado beach club, or out with her friends at night, doing nobody knew what. Though she had not converted to Islam, she’d promised to give up drinking when she married Fuad. But she would stumble home at 3 am so drunk she had to be carried to bed.

Fuad wanted Omar to talk to her, guide her, help her change. Omar tried one time to talk to Ivana about at least moderating the drinking, and she threw a table lamp at him. Omar suggested to Fuad that he and Ivana were simply not compatible.

But Fuad would have none of it. The woman had flawless dark skin, curves like a ripe peach, and a face that might have been molded by angels. Fuad could not give her up.

Not Omar’s problem, he decided.

Overall, life was good, and he was grateful. If his body was sometimes stiff in the morning, if the old wounds still ached when he ran or practiced karate – especially his left leg – so be it. It was a small price to pay for the life he lived. Alhamdulillah.

TEN YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

Bogotá, Colombia WHY WAS THE SECURITY GUARD STARING AT HIM? Omar was in Bogotá, Colombia, for a business conference where experts presented seminars on subjects ranging from marketing in China, to label design, to ensuring ethical treatment of laborers.

Now it was the morning of the second day of the conference, and as he approached the rotating doors at the building entrance, a security guard – a long-faced, muscular man – stared at him disconcertingly.

Omar frowned. He knew security was always a concern in Colombia, so it was not surprising that this event was staffed by a score of burly red-jacketed security guards. But why would they be suspicious of him? In his tan-colored bespoke Panama suit, light blue shirt and navy tie, he was just another businessman. Maybe the man wanted to search the leather laptop case he had slung over one shoulder?

The guard half-reached toward him with one meaty hand, pointed to the copper bracelet Omar still wore on his right wrist, and blurted, “Omar? Omar Bayano?”

Tipping his head, Omar studied the man. There was something familiar about that elongated face and nose. SubhanAllah! It was Hani. He would have walked right past him. Gone was the acne and the long, greasy hair. Hani was the same height he’d been in high school, but his complexion was a clear, burnished olive, and his hair was shorn to a crewcut and receding at the temples. His shoulders were huge, and he looked like he could lift a horse.

Omar knew that he too looked different. In tenth grade he’d been the shortest boy in his class; but now, at the age of twenty-eight, he was a relatively tall 182 cm. His formerly full head of curly hair was now just long enough to cover the tops of his ears, hiding his disfigurement. The scars on his face were faded, though you could still see the white lines if you stood close. Even his limp had disappeared.

Grinning widely, Omar stepped forward and embraced his old friend. He felt unaccountably excited, as if he’d just found someone he’d spent years searching for, even though the reality was that he’d thought of Hani only now and then in passing.

Hani gave a surprised laugh at Omar’s warm greeting, then beamed like he’d just won the Copa América. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet that night.

Rich and Poor

Click Clack Hotel, Bogotá, Colombia Omar was staying at the Click Clack, an ultra-modern hotel in Bogotá’s trendy Chico district. When Hani arrived, Omar was already seated in the hotel restaurant, a funky place that served dishes based on famous paintings. The food was actually crafted on the plate to resemble the painting.

Omar steered clear of the Jackson Pollock pollock – would it be chum on a plate? – and instead ordered the Fernando Botero cod, on the theory that even an unconventional place like this would not disrespect a revered Colombian artist like Fernando Botero.

Hani looked at the towering lobby fountain and plants literally growing on the wall, like a vertical garden. “You’ve come up in the world. I don’t know if I can afford to eat here.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the company expense account.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“My mom’s company. Puro Panameño, remember? It’s grown.”

“Man. That’s great.” Hani kept shifting in his seat, picking up the menu and putting it down. It occurred to Omar that maybe Hani was uncomfortable having someone else pay for him.

“Hey, you know what?” Omar offered. “We don’t have to eat here. We could go for a pizza or something.”

Hani frowned. “Why? You don’t think I’m good enough for this place?”

Omar was taken aback. “I didn’t mean that at all. I want you to be comfortable.”

“Then don’t patronize me.”

Omar didn’t know what to say. The silence grew, until Hani blurted out, “Why are you being so nice? You’re acting like I’m your best friend.”

“Well… you were, once. You still are my friend.”

“I was mean to you. We used to call you Patacon because your father was a security guard.”

Omar heard the unspoken continuation of the sentence: And now I’m a security guard. How ironic life could be. Did Allah teach lessons on a decade-long scale? Why not? A decade, a century, a millennium, an age, these were nothing to The One with no beginning or end. But Omar had never held a grudge against Hani. He’d never felt the boy – now the man – had anything to atone for.

“That,” Omar said firmly, “was Tameem, not you.”

“I participated. Then I barely talked to you before we moved away, because I couldn’t face you.”

Clearly, Hani had never gotten over the way he’d behaved in high school. And now there was an obvious wealth gap between them. In Latin America that was a big deal. Rich and poor lived in different worlds. The power imbalance between the classes colored every interaction. People were supposed to “know their places.” Omar had to alter that balance, and he had to do it with something true, because you could never achieve an honest rapport with a lie.

Honesty Between Strangers

Omar ran a hand through his hair and chose his words. “I admit, I was hurt by the way you went along with the bullying. That was a terrible time for me. I felt like no one was on my side, no one was helping me. My father was gone, Nemesio used to beat me every day-”

“Who?”

“My so-called tio.”

“He beat you?”

“All the bruises, remember?”

“I thought that was from karate.”

Omar shook his head. “Mostly Nemesio. It went on for years. There were times when I contemplated suicide.” Omar had never said these things out loud to anyone, not even his wife. Why was he sharing them with a man he hadn’t seen in twelve years? Maybe because it was safe, in a way. Hani knew him but did not know him at the same time. A familiar stranger.

“Oh my God. I didn’t know, man. I’m so sorry.” Hani leaned forward impulsively and gripped Omar’s forearm, giving it a squeeze, then settled back into his seat.

Omar was moved by this. “You know, Hani, my most vivid memory of you is during the dog attack, when I saw you standing there with the knife. That little thing would barely cut a mango. You took a huge risk. The dogs could have turned on you.”

Hani shrugged, but Omar could see the words pleased him. “I did what I had to.”

“You could have done nothing.”

Hani shook his head. “You were my friend.”

Omar snapped his fingers and pointed. “Exactly. I could buy you a thousand dinners and it would be nothing. I’m breathing because of you.”

“You’re breathing because of Allah.”

“You were Allah’s instrument. But it must have been terrifying for you.”

“I peed my pants, actually.”

“For real?”

Hani nodded, and suddenly the two of them were laughing, and the tension was gone.

Nobody Uses Ice

They ate and talked. Omar told Hani about his family. His wife worked with him at Puro Panameño. She was his dream wife, and he was crazy about her. Their son Nur was four years old and a quiet child, but very smart ma-sha-Allah.

As for Hani, he’d gotten married nine years ago. Omar did the mental math. Hani had married at nineteen! He tried to ask about this, but Hani skirted the subject. Omar wondered if maybe Hani had an affair with a girl and was forced to marry her.

Hani’s father had early onset dementia, and his mother suffered from depression. His wife worked as a house cleaner. Life was a struggle. They wanted kids, but it hadn’t happened yet.

"Still Life With Fruits" by Fernando Botero

“Still Life With Fruits” by Fernando Botero

As it turned out, Omar was right about the Botero cod. The fish was served with a pear glaze, pea soup, a baguette and a watermelon slice. All items from Botero paintings, but grouped appealingly.

By ten o’clock the table had been cleared and Omar was tired. Hani kept brushing the tablecloth with his fingers. His high forehead was beaded with sweat. Omar flagged a waiter and asked for ice water for Hani.

The waiter stared at him blankly. “Ice?”

Omar made the shape of a square with his fingers. “Cold. Hard. You put it in drinks.”

Hani laughed and waved the water away. “Nobody uses ice in Bogotá, man. We’re at 2,700 meters. We’re cold enough already.”

The thought of living without ice boggled Omar’s mind. In Panama ice was like the blood in your veins. You couldn’t live without it. “It’s just,” he said, “you’re sweating.”

“Oh.” Hani mopped his brow with a napkin. “I want to ask you something.” He went on to say that his security guard salary barely paid a living wage. He was struggling to support his wife and parents, and always on the edge of being broke. He had an idea to start a security business of his own.

“I know I can succeed.” He’d balled the napkin in one hand and kept squeezing it as if trying to wring water from it. “I’ve been a guard for five years. I know everything about the business. But it takes financing. I was wondering if you could loan me the money. I hate to ask, but I don’t know where else to turn.”

Omar nodded slowly. For a split second he thought that maybe Hani had joined him for dinner only to make this request. But he brushed that thought aside. He should give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

He told Hani to write a business proposal. Projected income and expenses, how he intended to acquire clients in a highly competitive market, that kind of thing.

Hani frowned. “Why are you making me do all that, man?”

“It’s for your benefit. You need this kind of analysis if you want to succeed.”

“Fine. So should I email you all that?”

Hani didn’t sound happy, but Omar plowed ahead: “Why don’t you bring it in person? I would love to have you and your wife visit us in Panama. Let me know what date works for you and I’ll reserve the tickets.”

Gheerah

Later that night he sat on a towel laid on the floor of the hotel room, having just prayed Ishaa’, and thought about the encounter with Hani. It occurred to him that Hani had told him almost nothing about his wife, not even her name. That seemed odd, especially since Omar had told Hani everything about his own family. But some Muslim men – especially the Arabs – were secretive like that when it came to their wives. For a long time Omar had not understood this cultural trait, but he’d mentioned it once to Mahmood, his Palestinian friend.

Mahmood was knowledgeable in the deen and said that this type of protective behavior was called gheerah, and that it required a man to ensure that the women of his household wore hijab, did not mingle inappropriately with men, and were shielded from lustful gazes. Not to do this, Mahmood explained, was considered shameful in Arab culture.

Islamic mashrabiya balcony “You see it in architecture,” Mahmood explained, steepling his fingers like a professor giving a lecture. “Islamic mashrabiya balconies allowed women to watch the street without being seen. Islamic Spain adopted the mashrabiyyah, so you see it in Latin America too.”

Gheerah was not about distrusting women, Mahmood said, nor about punishing them. Rather it was about shielding them from those who harbored ill intentions.

In which case it seemed to Omar that it should be a two way street, with husbands and wives both protecting each other. Anyway that was probably the reason for Hani’s silence on the subject of his wife. Hani’s ancestry was Arab and he would have been brought up that way.

Omar stood, stretched, then set about packing his bags. He’d be returning home early in the morning, inshaAllah. He’d spoken to his wife and son on Skype earlier that day, before the dinner with Hani. He was glad the conference was over, not only because he was eager to see his family, but also because if it had not been over, he might run into Hani again. Yes, he’d invited the man to come visit him in Panama, but for some reason he felt uneasy at the idea of seeing him again. Why should that be?

The World School

The world was covered in an unending school building. For a few days he would travel through crumbling, abandoned classrooms and auditoriums, sleeping on the floor when he couldn’t walk anymore. He never knew if it was day or night, since windows and doors opened only onto more hallways and rooms. Once he came to a staircase and climbed it through twenty floors, until he came to a floor in which the ceiling had crumbled, and the sun shone through. The sun! He sat on the dust covered floor and bathed in the warm rays, astounded at how good it felt. Dust had accumulated on the floor until it became soil, and shrubs grew. It was a different world up here.

He tried traveling on the upper floors for a while after that, but some rooms were occupied by masses of birds or bats, and the structure was so heavily rotted and mildewed at that level that he feared he might fall through a hole in the floor. So he returned to the ground level.

Sometimes, as he journeyed through the unending, purgatorial building, he came to sections that were better maintained. Occasionally, class was in session. But when he looked into these rooms, the children were like automatons, staring blankly at a chalkboard on which words and numbers appeared by themselves. When Omar spoke, no one turned to look at him. He was not even sure they were human.

In some places, a stream or river ran through the school, and bridges crossed over it. Omar saw creatures in the water: chimeras with the fins of fish but the tentacles of octopi. Creatures that looked like small, pale children with the tails of dolphins; and immense crocodiles that drifted with the current, turning their unblinking eyes to watch Omar as they passed.

One night (if indeed it was night – in this area most of the lights did not work, and everything was shadows and gloom) he heard a familiar voice. He couldn’t put a name to it, but his heart sped up in excitement. Another human being! Someone he knew. The voice came from a dark classroom.

Dark, abandoned class room

Omar rushed into the room, and found Mr. Suwaylem, his old principal from IIAP, lecturing to a dark and empty room.

He glanced at Omar. “You’re late. As I was saying, the Byzantine empire was a… was a sprawling, tremendously influential nation that could be said… Could be said what? I think, to have been… have been… founded in 330 CE, when Constantine the First…”

As Suwaylem stuttered on, Omar took a seat. He saw now that the man’s normally immaculate suit was dirty and torn, and hung loose on his frame, while his usually well coiffed hair was tangled.

“Who can tell me,” Suwaylem said, looking around as if to a room full of pupils, “something… what was it…” He wrung his hands helplessly, then looked to Omar. “You.”

Before Omar could point out that he didn’t know the question, a terrible moan came from the back of the room. It was a drawn out, tremulous sound, somewhere between a groan of pain and a death rattle, and it made the hair on Omar’s arms instantly stand on end. He spun in his seat and looked behind him.

In the deep shadows at the back of the room, two figures stood. Omar stared, trying to make them out. Finally their forms resolved, and he saw to his horror that they were Tameem and Basem, exactly as they had been in high school, except for one thing: they were dead. Or they should have been. Tameem’s throat was opened from ear to ear. His skin was alabaster pale, and blood stained his clothing down to his bare feet.

As for Hani, his head was half crushed, flattened on one side and broken open, so that his brains were visible.

It had been Tameem who moaned, because he opened his mouth and did it again. The sound sent a shudder all through Omar’s body. The boy was trying to speak, Omar realized. Trying to answer the principal’s non-question, maybe. But he could form no words, because his throat gaped open like a papaya with a wedge cut from it.

Tameem and Basem’s eyes fixed on Omar, and they both stepped forward, their expressions sorrowful and pleading. Omar tried to leap to his feet but the school desk seemed to have shrunk and his legs were stuck. He yelled in terror and panic. The two dead youths took another step forward.

* * *

He woke up shouting. He lay in a strange bed, his legs tangled in the sheets. Looking around in confusion, he realized where he was: the Click Clack Hotel. He was still in Bogotá. The glowing digital clock on the nightstand said 4:16 am. His alarm would go off in an hour. Three and a quarter hours until his flight.

He thought about the dream. He hadn’t had a nightmare in many years. Seeing Hani again must have brought back memories of the bad old days at IIAP, before the Day of the Dogs. Now he almost wished he could cancel the invitation he’d extended. But that wouldn’t be right.

He rose from bed. Time to shower and pray Fajr. Time to go home.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 9:  All We Have to Do

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

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

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

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