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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 set eyes, close-cropped gray hair, and unwrinkled skin the color of rich cocobolo wood. Perfectly round spectacles perched on his nose, making him look hipsterish. He could have been anywhere from sixty to eighty years old.

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.

As the old man worked, Omar noticed some faint scarring along the insides of his forearms, as if someone had run up his arms with a sewing machine. Whatever it was must have happened a long time ago, as the scars were nearly invisible now.

“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. Now I teach you something every gentleman must know.” He went inside, then came back out with a patterned wooden case of some kind. As he opened it and took out two containers filled with small white and black stones, Omar realized it was a board game of some kind.

“Weiqi,” the old man explained. “Most ancient of games. Cha Shen-hsing wrote that Weiqi is the cosmic game, a battlefield as trivial as worms and ants, and as great as marquises and kings.”

The case itself opened up to become the board, a grid of 19 squares by 19. The pieces, Melocoton said, were called stones, and the goal was to surround and capture the other player’s stones. Unlike chess, once you set a stone down it remained in place for the rest of the game, unless captured.

They played a beginner’s game using only an eighth of the board. Even that took a half an hour, and of course Melocoton won soundly. Omar yawned, and the old man laughed. “Enough for one day. Come back, I teach you more.”

Omar thanked the man for the food and the lesson and bade him goodbye. 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.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

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

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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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 10: The Girl With the Golden Gun

Wide eyed, Ivana spun and extended the ojbect she’d been holding. Omar saw that it was not a pen, but a small, gold-plated handgun. Pointing straight at him.

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Published

Could you be loved

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 | Chapter 9

“You going to rob me some more? Next time I shoot you for real!” – Ivana

Could You Be Loved

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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.

Could you be lovedOnce his family was settled at home, Omar showered and changed, prayed ‘Asr, then headed to the airport. He’d hardly driven a block when his phone began to play Bob Marley’s Could You be Loved, which was what he’d assigned to Fuad as a ringtone, because Fuad should be loved, but wasn’t.

Omar debated whether to answer. Occasionally Fuad just wanted to catch up. But more often he called when he was perplexed, in a funk, or outright despairing over Ivana’s antics. Which was part of what friends were for, but Omar didn’t have time right now. Hani and his mystery wife would arrive in an hour.

He answered anyway, and knew instantly that this was a bad one. Fuad was shouting, not at him but at someone else, in passable but heavily accented Spanish: “Cálmate mi amor! Por favor!”

There came in the background the sound of something being smashed or shattered.

“Fuad?” Omar said.

Now Fuad sounded angry. “Was that my Latin American Association of Epileptologists award? It better not have been, you Cuban werewolf!”

Ivana screamed something that Omar could not understand. Then another SMASH.

In the background, a moaning sound rose in pitch until it became a wail. Por Dios, what was happening there?

Fuad’s voice became pleading. “I apologize baby, you are not a werewolf, you are a luscious Caribbean mango, a juicy mamey sapote -”

“Fuad!” Omar said, more loudly. And again the loud moaning sound.

Ivana screaming. SMASH.

“No, mi amor, I know those are round fruits, I’m not saying that you are fat, I meant to say a sweet Cuban banana-”

“FUAD!” Omar bellowed.

Fuad finally heard him. “Oh, Omar. As-salamu alaykum brother. How is your day proceeding? All is well, I trust?”

Omar shook his head. “Is she drunk again?”

“No, she quit drinking.”

“Yeah, right.”

“It’s true! But she imagines I was regarding a woman at the mall with prurient interest, but I assure you, Omar, I-”

“I get the picture.” Approaching the on-ramp to the Corredor Sur, Omar ran one hand through his hair. “What do you need from me?”

“Well, I am locked in the bathroom. Ivana has a knife. It’s merely a kitchen knife, so I cannot speak to the degree of its sharpness-”

“You want me to call the police?”

“I cannot,” Fuad said in a reproving tone, “call the police on my own wife. Can you please come and calm her down? And disarm her? The door code is -”

“Have you changed it since last time?” Omar snapped. He didn’t have time for this.

“Eh, no.”

“Then I know it. Are you safe?”

“As I said, I am locked in the bathroom, so yes, but -” He was drowned out by another moan.

“What on earth is that noise?”

“Oh, that’s Taj Mahal. He’s trapped in the bathroom with me.”

Taj Mahaj was their cat. Poor creature must be terrified. “I’ll be there shortly. And try calling her sugar cane. Nice and skinny.” He hung up. Shaking his head in disgust, he put the pedal down and sped toward Costa del Este. Fuad and Ivana had been married almost five years now, but it was always the same. Fuad spending money he didn’t have, Ivana never satisfied, the two of them fighting like jaguars and eagles. A thousand times, Omar had been on the verge of telling Fuad to divorce the crazy drunkard and be done with it. But Islam taught that it was evil to come between a husband and wife. So the words had never escaped his tongue, not even once.

After all, it wasn’t like anyone was being beaten, or committing adultery. There were things, in Omar’s view, that were deal-breakers. Things that should rightfully end a marriage. But constant arguments, excessive greed… well, who was he to say? If Fuad loved her and could put up with that, then it was up to him.

The drama sure was a headache, though.

Throw Her Off The Balcony

Fuad lived in a luxury apartment on the thirty fifth floor of an oceanfront highrise called Torre del Cielo. He made good money in his practice, but he still hit up Omar a couple of times a year, asking to borrow money to pay off his credit cards.

Torre del Cielo was two exits south on the Corredor Sur – on the way to the airport, luckily. But what would Omar do when he got there? He didn’t relish the idea of taking on a knife wielding lunatic, even if she was the former Miss Cuba. He’d studied knife defense in karate, but had never attempted it in reality. And Sensei Alan had always said, “The first truth of knife defense is that you will get cut.” Being slashed by a beauty queen would be just as painful as being slashed by a Japanese samurai. Fuad’s fancy apartment wouldn’t look nice with Omar’s blood splashed all over it.

French dessertsAs he was about to jump onto the Corredor, he spotted a new French boulangerie that had opened in a small shopping center. Maison San Francisco. He’d taken his family there once, but had not repeated the experience because although the food was delicious, the prices were exorbitant. It gave him an idea, however. Ivana loved anything European and expensive.

He swerved across two lanes of traffic, eliciting a cacophony of blaring horns, and came in hot, screeching to a stop in the small parking lot. Inside Maison San Francisco, he ordered a box filled with half a dozen stunning treats: eclaire au chocolat, opera cake, tarte framboise, tarte au citron and more. Wincing as he paid the bill, he then hurried back to the car, and gunned it onto the Corredor.

He glanced at the car’s digital clock: Hani and his mystery wife would arrive in one hour. Hani didn’t seem like the type to take it kindly if Omar arrived late. He’d probably take it as a personal insult.

“Could you be loved?” sang Bob Marley’s voice from his phone. “Don’t let them change ya, oh! Or even rearrange ya! Oh, no!”

“I’m on my way, Fuad.” Omar said without preamble.

“Oh. Eh… you must promise me that you will not hurt Ivana. Just get the knife away from her.”

“No, Fuad,” Omar said dryly. “I’ll throw her off the balcony.”

“Please be serious, brother. She is so precious to me. I could not bear it if-”

“She’ll be fine if she hits the water in a streamlined position.” Though this was not true, of course. The coastal waters here were shallow. She’d break every bone in her body.

“Omar!”

“As-salamu alaykum, gotta go.” He ended the call.

Allah is One

Ten minutes later Omar pulled into the parking lot for the Torre del Cielo. Two young women carrying shopping bags with designer labels were heading into the building. One was a dark-skinned Afro-Latina wearing mirrored shades, the other a short blonde. Omar walked behind them. The barrel-chested doorman, looking like a preening dove in an ivory-white double-breasted uniform, opened the door and greeted them all with a cheerful, “Buenas tardes.”

The Afro-Latina gave the doorman a nod, but the blonde scowled as if to say, “How dare you speak to me?” Typical upper class Panamanian rabiblanco arrogance. On impulse, Omar opened the bakery box and gave the doorman a strawberry tart. What was one less? Five was as good as six. The man smiled from ear to ear. With such enthusiasm that one would have thought he’d just won a trip to Paris, he said, “Gracias señor Bayano.”

Omar shared the elevator with the two young women. They pressed the button for 30, and Omar hit 35.

“Good afternoon,” Omar said, merely being polite.

The blonde ignored him, took a tube of lipstick from her purse and began to apply it while gazing into the mirror on the wall of the elevator. Recognizing the lipstick, Omar smiled. It was made by Puro Panameño, but was part of the company’s luxury line, marketed under the name Printemps Paris, for all those wealthy Latin Americans who thought a Panamanian-made product was beneath them. This particular shade was made with a dye from muntingia calabura, a Latin American berry that was strangely known locally as the Chinese cherry. That little stick cost $139, Omar knew. The blonde could ignore him all she liked, but her money was still in his mother’s pocket.

Perhaps thinking he was smiling at her, the Afro-Latina removed her shades, flashed Omar a smile in return and said, “Hi, I’m Maria.”

Omar gave his name.

Maria nodded to the bakery box. “Sweets for your sweetheart?”

“A bribe for a knife-wielding Cuban psycho.”

“Sounds exciting.”

The blonde said, “Why are you talking to this moron? He could be a serial killer.”

Purely on impulse, only wanting to mess with the blonde a bit, Omar said, “Allah is One.”

The blonde gave a disgusted grunt. “See what I mean? A nut.”

“What does that mean?” Maria wanted to know.

Omar hadn’t actually meant to initiate a da’wah session. Aware that the elevator had almost arrived at 30, he kept it brief: “It means God is One God. No son, no saints, no partners. We owe Him everything: gratitude, love, worship. And we are all absolutely equal in His dominion.”

The elevator came to the 30th floor, and the doors opened. The blonde stepped out, but Maria held the doors open with one hand. Her face bore a strange expression of intrigue and wonder, as if she’d just seen a mythical beast prancing by. “I want to know more,” she said.

“Do you have a phone?”

Maria took out her cell phone, and Omar gave her the number of the Muslim Community Center. “Call that number after 6 pm. Ask for Fatima.”

As the elevator rose quietly to 35, Omar found himself moved by the look of wonderment he’d seen on Maria’s face. All because of a few sentences he’d uttered. He knew that he himself often took Islam for granted. It had always been a part of his life. But Maria had acted as if he’d just opened a door and shown her a glimpse of Paradise. While the blonde, on the other hand, had been utterly uninterested. SubhanAllah, the human heart was an astonishing thing. It made you wonder how many other people were out there, seeking a bit of truth, hungering for a ray of light to show them the way.

A Scene of Mayhem

Omar stood outside the front door. It was quiet inside. He’d come here in a frustrated, almost angry mood, ready to lay down the law with the crazy Cuban, even wrestle her to the ground if necessary. But after his experience with the young woman in the elevator, he felt suddenly humbled. He would reason with Ivana. For all her flaws, she was an intelligent woman. She’d always used her intelligence to manipulate others, or so it seemed to Omar. But maybe she would respond to kindness.

Fuad’s door possessed an alphanumeric keypad instead of a traditional lock. The code, Omar knew, was REINA, meaning queen – Fuad’s nickname for Ivana. This translated to 73462. Omar punched it in.

The door swung open onto a scene of mayhem. A sofa and chair had been slashed open, and stuffing was scattered across the floor. The ruined chair was Fuad’s favorite, Omar noted. He loved to sit in that brown leather recliner while watching cricket matches.

Some of Fuad’s awards had indeed been smashed. Shards of glass and china littered the floor. Curtains had been pulled down, and the curtain rod was snapped in two, lying on the marbled floor in front of the huge sliding window that opened onto a balcony and looked out over the Pacific. A floor-to-ceiling, built-in cubby shelf normally held a variety of items, including books (all Fuad’s), statues of Catholic saints (in spite of Fuad’s protestations), and numerous framed photos of Ivana, many of them from her Miss Cuba contest win. Omar noticed that Fuad’s books had been pulled down and thrown about the room, and some even had their pages torn out, while Ivana’s things were untouched.

A minibar that stood against one wall, opposite the wall with the built-in-shelves, was bare. Omar wondered what had happened to all the bottles of wine and rum that normally stood on it. He’d told Fuad many times that he should not allow that poison in his house, but Fuad had complained that he could not stand up to Ivana.

Speaking of the devil, Ivana sat in an antique French chair carved from mahogany and upholstered in white suede. It was her favorite chair and was undamaged of course. She had not heard Omar come in. She sat in profile to him, facing the huge sliding window. An elegant, sleeveless green dress glowed against her dark brown skin, and swept its way down to her ankles. One arm was draped over the back of the chair. With her other hand she tapped her teeth softly with something Omar could not quite see – a golden pen? Her thick black hair was disheveled, and she appeared flushed. A large carving knife lay on the French side table beside her.

Carrying the box of desserts, Omar greeted her with, ¡”Acere, qué bolá”! Maybe the Cuban phrase – meaning, hey buddy, what’s up – would draw a smile and help calm her down.

Gold plated gun Wide eyed, Ivana spun in the chair and extended her arm, holding the object she’d been tapping on her teeth. The midday sunlight streaming through the picture window caught the object, glinting off its smooth metallic lines, and Omar saw that it was not a pen, but a small, gold-plated handgun with an inlaid pearl handle. He might have admired its beauty, if it had not been pointing straight at him.

His karate trained in and he sidestepped to the right. He didn’t even think about it. “Getting off the track,” it was called in karate, and Omar had drilled it a million times in response to punches, kicks and simulated knife attacks.

It may have saved his life.

The Girl with the Goldie Gum

“CRACK!”

Omar had never heard a gunshot up close. Only distant reports in his neighborhood at night, back when he was young and they lived in Panama Viejo. In the movies, gunshots sounded like the roaring of cannons, or the clapping of thunder. But this gun made a very sharp, flat sound, like the cracking of a whip. A hot pain branded his left shoulder with fire. He grunted in surprise, dropped the box of sweets, and ducked behind the shredded sofa.

“Ivana!” he shouted, and his voice sounded strange to him in the muffled silence following the shot. “Are you crazy? It’s me, Omar!”

He heard a clattering sound – the gun being dropped? – as Ivana screamed, “Ay Dios! Why do you sneak into our house like a burglar?” She had that throaty, growling tone of voice that nearly all Cubans had – Omar never knew why – but it was tinged with panic at the moment.

From inside the bathroom, Fuad shouted, “What’s happening? What was that sound?”

He risked a peek over the top of the gutted sofa, and saw Ivana standing, looking angry and afraid. The gun rested on the table beside her. Picking up the box of sweets, and thinking how idiotic it was to do so, he stood. His shoulder still burned, and now something tickled his skin, like an insect running down his arm. He looked and saw a rivulet of blood streaming to his hand and dripping to the floor.

“You shot me,” he said to Ivana, half accusing, half dazed.

Ivana’s hands shot to her mouth, and her eyes went as wide as Havana Harbor. She bolted for the bathroom door, pounded on it. “Mi amor, come out! Omar has been hurt.”

The bathroom door opened instantly and Fuad dashed out, right past Ivana, and Taj Mahal streaked by on his heels, flying past in a silver blur and disappearing into a bedroom.

“Don’t let the cat out!” Ivana cried – nonsensically, Omar thought, since the front door was closed.

Fuad’s mouth fell open as he took in the condition of the apartment, then he saw Omar and said, “Oh my God.” Running to him, Fuad studied Omar’s shoulder. In that instant, his entire demeanor changed. Whereas Fuad in his personal life often seemed irresolute, hapless and frustrated, at that moment he transformed before Omar’s eyes. He stood straight, and his gaze took on a sharp focus. He pressed a hand firmly to Omar’s wound, and in a commanding voice, said, “Reina! Fetch my medical bag from the hall closet. Immediately!”

Ivana ran and returned with a large, brown leather bag with a handle and a brass clasp.

“I brought you some French sweets,” Omar said stupidly, still holding the box, which was smeared with blood now.

“That’s nice,” Ivana said matter of factly, and took the box.

“Open my bag and remove the scissors,” Fuad said. At his direction, Ivana began to cut Omar’s shirt from his body.

“Great,” Omar complained. “This shirt was a birthday present from my mom. And I’m supposed to be at the airport in half an hour. What’s the matter with you, Ivana? Why did you shoot me? Are you drunk?”

“No,” Ivan said defensively. “I quit drinking. See?” She waved a hand at the empty minibar, nearly taking Omar’s eye out with the scissors. “Because I want to be a good wife to my beautiful love Fufu.”

“Fufu?” Omar tried to laugh, but his teeth were chattering too much. Why were his teeth chattering? He said, “Why do you have a go – golden gun? You think you are some kind of Bo-Bond villain? The guh-girl with the goldie gum?” Wait, what had he said? That didn’t sound right.

“Stop talking,” Fuad said. “You’re in shock. Ivana, wrap the emergency blanket around him, but leave this shoulder bare.”

As Ivana wrapped some kind of space-age silver blanket over Omar’s head and one shoulder, Fuad activated a small digital voice recorder, set it on the table and treated Omar’s wound quickly and efficiently, narrating the whole time.

“The wound is a shallow elliptical furrow on the outer left deltoid, approximately four centimeters long, and less than a centimeter deep at the center. The proximal corner of the wound presents a crescentic margin of abrasion. The edges of the wound have small diagonal lacerations radiating away from the initial point of contact.”

To Omar he said, “It is merely a graze, brother. Not deep. You don’t even need hospitalization. I can capably treat it immediately if you have no objection. I’ll apply lidocaine to numb it, then suture it.”

Omar nodded his head. He felt warmer and had stopped shivering. The shoulder would hurt but not intolerably. He knew why Fuad did not want to take him to the hospital. The doctors would report the incident to the police, and Ivana would get in trouble. Personal firearms were illegal in Panama. Why did the crazy woman even have a gun? But he trusted Fuad. If the brother said he could treat him effectively right here, Omar believed him.

Antique wall clock As Fuad cleaned and then treated his wound with Ivana’s assistance, Omar’s eyes wandered to the antique clock that hung on the far wall. It was white, with Roman numerals and a floral pattern on the face, with roses marking twelve and six. He saw with alarm that it was 2:20. He was supposed to be at the airport in fifteen minutes! With Hani’s temper and suspicious attitude, what would the man think if Omar was late, or didn’t show up at all? He’d take it as a deliberate snub.

Fuad bandaged the wound, then prepped a syringe, tapping on it. “Giving you a broad spectrum antibiotic. I’ll transmit a prescription to Farmacia Arrocha, you can pick it up anytime.”

Omar averted his eyes as the fat needle slid into his flesh. He’d had enough of things piercing his body for one day.

As soon as Fuad was done, Omar stood up. A wave of dizziness hit, but passed quickly. “I have to go. I have to be at the airport.”

“Not so fast!” Fuad gripped Omar’s good arm to steady him. “You are in no condition to drive. And I need to put your arm in a sling, to stabilize it so you don’t tear the sutures. I have one here somewhere.”

“I have to pick someone up. Like, now. It’s not open to debate.”

Fuad sighed. “Very well. Ivana will take you.” Ivana began to protest, but Fuad silenced her with an uncharacteristic glare and a chopping motion. “Not a word, Ivana. We will talk about all this later. Take Omar where he needs to go.”

He turned to Omar, and in a soft, halting tone, said, “I’m sorry, brother. This is all my fault. I bought the gun for her, because there was a home invasion in the building, and she was scared, staying home alone when I work late. She was supposed to keep it in the home safe. Please forgive me.”

Omar waved this away with his good arm. “Like you said, we can talk later.”

The Road!

Ten minutes later, wearing one of Fuad’s expensive dress shirts, and with his left arm snug in a shoulder sling, Omar sat in the passenger seat of Ivana’s cherry-red Renault Laguna as they sped up the Corredor Sur. Ivana could have demanded a Mercedes or Porsche and Fuad would have bought it for her, but she preferred the Renault because it was French. This was  Ivana’s definition of high culture. If it was French, she wanted it.

The car was comfortable, with a smooth, soft ride. Omar had heard that Renaults worked like a dream for the first three or four years, then started to break down in major ways. No doubt Fuad would buy Ivana a new one when that happened.

Ivana was driving dangerously as she always did, swerving around slower cars, but for once Omar did not complain. He was definitely going to be late to pick up Hani, and was feeling anxious. And the steady throbbing in his shoulder did not help.

He knew he should let Ivana focus on the road, but he couldn’t help himself. “If you’re not drinking anymore,” he demanded, “then why did you shoot me?”

“I’m sorry, okay? It was an accident. You surprised me and the gun went off. It’s your fault for sneaking like a burglar.” She waved a manicured hand dismissively. “Besides, you heard what my beautiful love said. It’s only a scratch. Don’t make a big deal.”

“What were you even doing with a gun? And you made a huge mess of the apartment, Ivana. This is not a way for normal people to act!”

Omar knew right away he’d made a mistake. Fury twisted the Cuban’s face. She rounded on him, jabbing a finger. “You should know, mister ‘no mas’ Omar.”

Omar frowned. “What do you mean, no mas?”

“I know what you tell him. No mas Ivana, leave her, divorce her, send her back. You are lucky I did not kill you on purpose!”

Traffic had slowed, and they were about to crash into the car in front of them. “The road!” Omar cried. “The road!”

With only a glance at the traffic, Ivana swerved around the slow-moving cars, onto the narrow shoulder – kicking up dust and gravel, speeding a hand’s width from the concrete wall on the side of the Corredor – then, after flashing past a long line of cars, cut back into traffic when it was moving fast again.

“I was going to kill myself!” she shouted. She slapped a hand against her ample breast once, twice, three times. “Right in my heart. He cannot divorce me! I will not go back to Cuba! I swear I will finish myself first.” She looked at Omar and her tone became suddenly soft and pleading. “You think I am using him. But I swear I love him. He is the world to me.”

She began to cry, and this was worse than anything because while Omar didn’t believe she actually would have killed herself, he had never seen her cry, never seen her vulnerable in any way. Tears ran down her cheeks, streaking her mascara. “I could not bear it, Omar. Please don’t make him leave me.” She put her head on the steering wheel and began to sob loudly, not even looking at the road. Not only did she not reduce speed, the car actually sped up, just as traffic began to slow for one of the periodic toll booths that studded the Corredor.

“Stop the car,” Omar shouted, bracing his one good hand on the dashboard, and pushing into the floor with his feet. “Ivana! STOP!”

Ivana looked up and slammed her foot onto the brake. The tires squealed, the rear end fishtailed violently, and Omar gave a wordless shout as they careened toward the back of a stopped 18-wheeler big rig. With a huge shudder, the car came to a halt only a breath away from the truck’s fender, the engine stalling and dying.

“Alhamdu-” Omar began to say.

“BAM!” Something crashed into their rear, driving them in turn into the back of the semi. Omar’s head jerked and hit the headrest, then bobbed forward. He turned and looked. An old Datsun the color of a withered lime, dented and weatherstripped, had run into them from behind.

“Oh no,” Omar moaned, clenching a fist and pressing it to his forehead. He’d never get to the airport now. “No, no, no.”

Negotiation

He and Ivana exited the car and performed the mandatory survey of the damage. The front of the Renault was badly dented, and one headlight was smashed, but the damage was cosmetic. The overall structure was intact. In the back, the rear fender was skewed, tipping to one side, but that was it. As for the other vehicles, the truck in front was totally undamaged, not even a scratch, and the little beater behind merely had a shallow dent in its fender.

Almost immediately the other two drivers were out of their vehicles and shouting at Ivana and Omar.

“Look what you did to my car!” Ivana screamed at them in return. “This is a Renault, not some piece of junk like yours.”

The driver of the big rig, a small man wearing a baseball cap with BOYD SHIPPING printed on it, waved his arms perfunctorily, going through the motions for appearance’s sake, it seemed to Omar. As if getting angry and making a scene were a social requirement in these situations.

The Datsun driver, a squat, gray-haired woman in a cheap pantsuit – the traditional uniform of the Panamanian female working class – seemed genuinely upset, though Omar could not imagine why. The Datsun already looked like a pineapple.

Ivana, not one to be outdone, hurled insults so foul they could have curdled milk.

Gold bracelets “I don’t time for this,” Omar muttered. Stepping between the three, he shouted, “Shut up! Listen.” He pointed a finger at Ivana. “This woman’s husband is a lawyer. He’s a shark. It doesn’t matter who’s at fault, he will sue you both-” here he pointed dramatically at the little truck driver, then at the woman, who shrank back – “and take everything you own. Or-” Omar smiled and softened his tone – “to avoid delay, we could give you each something, and all be on our way.”

The two drivers nodded vigorously, liking this idea.

Omar pointed to Ivana’s wrists, on which she wore – as usual – an impressive collection of gold bracelets. “That’s 22 karat gold. You each get one bracelet. That’s a lot of money.”

“Are you insane?” Ivana shouted. “It wasn’t my fault. If you think for one second I’m giving anything to these larcenous, dirty, low-class-”

Omar rounded on her and pressed his nose almost to hers, whispering fiercely. “It was your fault, fool! Now do as you’re told, or wallahi-” he touched a finger to his lips, then shot it into the air – “I will press charges against you for shooting me. You’ll be deported.”

Muttering angry curses, Ivana removed two bracelets and handed one to each driver. They departed with smiles. The gray haired woman in particular looked practically giddy with joy.

Back in the car, Omar said, “Pull onto the shoulder for a minute.”

“Why? You going to rob me some more? Next time I shoot you for real!”

“You did shoot me for real. Please, just pull over. I have something to tell you.”

Continuing to curse, Ivana pulled over. “I am not a fool,” she said, glaring at Omar.

Omar took a breath, let it out. “I know. But you do act foolish sometimes.”

“You are talking to a member of the royal family.”

“Oh, brother.” Several years ago Fuad had run a DNA test on Ivana to make sure she didn’t carry the genetic marker for epilepsy, since both parents having the gene for epilepsy increased the chances of the children having it. As it turned out, she did not have the marker, but the test revealed that she was distantly – very distantly – related to the Spanish royal family. And Ivana never let anyone forget it.

“You better show some respect, Mister Omar, or-”

He held up a hand, silencing her. “Stop. I swear by Allah, I never told Fuad to leave you. Not even a suggestion. I thought it, sure, but I never said a word. Fuad would never do it anyway. He loves you madly. He’d cut off his own hand first. So calm down, please. And by the way, I’m glad you gave up drinking, that’s a wonderful step.”

With her head tipped to one side, Ivana studied him. “You swore by Allah. I know Musulmanes don’t do that lightly, so I believe that you never told him to leave me. But I know he is planning to!” Her lower lip trembled, and her eyes welled with tears. “I saw him looking up lawyers on the computer. He closed it when I came in the room, but I saw it.”

“Ohhhh.” Omar shook his head. “He was looking up malpractice attorneys. He told me about it last week. A patient is suing him for a million dollars. From what I gather, the suit has no merit, but Fuad didn’t want you to worry. That’s why he didn’t tell you. Trust me, he would never divorce you.”

Ivana covered her face in her hands and began to weep loudly. Not knowing what to do, Omar patted her shoulder. Her skin – for she still wore the sleeveless green dress – was hot, and he snatched his hand back as if he’d been burned. Opening the glove box, he found a small pack of tissues, and handed a few to Ivana. “It’s okay,” he said lamely. “Everything’s okay.”

Ivana blotted her face with the tissues, and her crying slowed. “Alhamdu-” she stuttered, her breath catching, “Alhamdulillah.”

Omar raised his eyebrows. Since when did Ivana use Islamic phrases? “How about letting me drive the rest of the way?” Omar suggested. “I still have one good arm. And I really, really have to get to the airport ASAP.”

“No, I’m fine.” Ivana gave him a bleary smile. Another first: a smile from the Cuban princess. “We can go now.”

“No more dramatics?”

She shot him a look. “Don’t push your luck.” She put the car in gear, and, blaring the horn in a long, insistent command, pushed her way into the line for the tollbooth.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 11:  Reunion

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

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

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Podcast: 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.

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.

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.

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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 Golden Gun

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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