Connect with us

#Culture

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?

Avatar

Published

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
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.

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.

Avatar

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: 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.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Omar

    November 6, 2020 at 10:24 AM

    this was awesome! always great to see the ‘underdog’ finally start coming up in life mashAllah. curious what will happen with hani!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      November 6, 2020 at 2:55 PM

      Thanks Omar. Yes, it’s good to see him growing into a confident young man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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

Books

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

Avatar

Published

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.

Continue Reading

#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?”

Avatar

Published

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
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.

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.

Avatar

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

Continue Reading

#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 7: The Underground Dream

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

Avatar

Published

Caves of Borneo

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

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

“Not without you,” – Omar

Eggplant

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you guys moving?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Snow in Fiji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Person Goes in the Garbage Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently the bullies didn’t believe him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know about those dogs that attacked me?”

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

“You know what happened to them?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither a Miracle Nor a Brute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lifeline in a Choppy Sea

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

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

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

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

Love Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your dear friend,
Halima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avatar

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

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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

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

Continue Reading
..

Trending