See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is a multi-chapter novel. Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21
“We’ll make our own reality from now on. As a family.” – Omar
By the time he crossed the Bridge of the Americas, it had begun to rain. The downpour thickened by the minute, and when he pulled into his own driveway he sighed with relief and cast his gratitude to Allah, saying, “Ayiboona, taiboona, abidoona, li rabbina hamidoon.” We return repenting, worshiping, and thanking our Lord.
He found Samia in the bedroom armchair with her headset on. She stood and embraced him.
“What are you listening to?”
“Youtube lecture on the philosophy of immortality. He points out that people want to live forever, but they don’t know what to do with themselves when they have a little free time. They talk about passing time, killing time. How did it go for you?”
Omar fell onto the bed. The rain had risen to a dull roar. “Feels like a different world up there. Beautiful, rugged. But crazy.”
“Honey,” Samia said in a cautious tone, “Don’t take this personally, but I have reservations about how your uncle’s burial was handled. A Muslim has a right to an Islamic janazah, whether he’s been Muslim one day or a century.”
“I did the best I could. I didn’t have any control over what happened with Celio’s body. It was up to the Council. Mamá was pushing too hard. If I’d taken the same tack, they might have decided we were a couple of radicals and rejected all our requests. They might have buried him in a Christian cemetery. At least this way he is buried in free ground, in the wilderness he loved.”
“We could still have a janazah for him. We could pray salat-al-ghaib in absentia.”
“We’re doing that!” Omar snapped, irritated. “I met with the imam at Jama Masjid yesterday. It’s all set for this Friday.”
“Okay, baby.” She rubbed his shoulder. “I didn’t know. I’m surprised he agreed. Jama Masjid is Hanafi. The Hanafi madhhab doesn’t allow a janazah prayer for a person who isn’t present.”
Omar gave a tired laugh. “The imam mentioned that. He said, ‘For you, brother Omar, we will make an exception. Everyone knows the name of Omar Bayano.’” There was a touch of bitterness to the words. It might have been different if he’d been famous for some good thing he’d actually done. But he was famous for being part of this mad family of heroes and villains, and for the bloody events on the bridge, which he would rather forget.
As usual, Samia knew what he was thinking. “However this so-called fame came about, if you can use it to make good things happen, then it’s a tool Allah has placed at your disposal.”
República Islámica de Bayano
“I want you to know,” Samia went on, “if you ever decide you want to fulfill Don Celio’s vision and take a leadership position among the Ngäbe, I’ll go with you. I’m serious.”
“To the comarca. If they want to make you a governor, I’ll move with you to the comarca. Whatever you choose, I’m with you. As long as I’m by your side, I’m happy.”
SubhanAllah. This woman. “Sure. I’ll marry three teenage Ngäbe girls and have a harem. You’ll each give me ten kids, and I’ll have my own mountain kingdom called República Islámica de Bayano. We’ll grow coffee and build electromagnetic weapons based on ancient Ngäbe secrets. No foreign power will dare enter our land. The CIA will try to infiltrate us but we’ll catch them and send them home in giant teacups made of cocobolo wood.”
She pinched his cheek. “Shut up, buster. You’re loco. Take a shower and come to bed.”
“You sleep. I’m going to sit up for a while.”
He took a hot shower, which felt in that moment like the most magical thing he’d ever experienced. Afterward, he prayed ‘Isha, then went downstairs and sat on the sofa. Sitting alone, listening to the rain, he imagined it as the sound of airplane propellers. He was a pilot in one of those old fashioned prop planes, taxiing on the runway, ready to take off. The plane would leap into the stormy sky, its powerful headlights tunneling through the darkness as it took him… where?
“Hasbun Allahu wa-n’em Al-Wakeel,” he said. Outside the living room window, sheltered beneath the overhanging roof, a gecko called: Dap dap dap dap dap dap. Berlina, who’d followed him downstairs, lifted her head and gave a half-hearted bark, then went back to dozing and dreaming.
Take Your Victories as They Come
The next day, at the AIR offices, a cheer went up from the staff. Omar looked up from his computer, where he’d been reviewing the materials they were putting together for prospective donors, to see Samia, Naris, and the others high-fiving and clapping each other’s backs. He came out of his office and beckoned to Naris. “What’s up?”
She gave an uncharacteristic grin. “We just found housing for the last of the refugees by the Centro. That’s it. That field is now officially empty.”
Omar had decided in the end not to tackle the fight over the Pared Blanca dam. It was too big a project for their nascent organization. For now, they would focus on literacy, food donation and housing the Centro refugees. Naris was in charge of the refugees issue.
He chewed his upper lip. “Except that we missed two.” The old man in the baseball cap, the one who used to sit out in the sun on the milk crate – his name was Arturo – had died before AIR was up and running. His heart gave out. And the boy Chiki, the one who’d thrown mud at Omar, had been assaulted by a gang and was in the hospital with broken bones.
Naris eyed him. “You’re thinking of Arturo and Chiki. First of all, we did find a home for Chiki and Graziela. It’s not our fault the kid was beaten. Things happen. And the old man…” She shrugged. “Let me tell you something, Omar, and you’d better listen well if you intend to survive as an activist. There’s no such thing as total victory in this line of work, and there’s no room for self-castigating martyrdom. If you want to feel sorry for yourself, sit at home and do that nonsense. If not, then you take the wins as they come, for your sake and for the people who work for you. Do you have any idea what a remarkable achievement it is to have housed all those refugees in a week? Now get in there and congratulate your people for a job well done, and don’t ever let me hear you devaluing their achievements again, or I’ll be out of here before you can say, Wait Naris, don’t leave me.”
Thoroughly chastised, Omar did as he was told.
The Sun Runs for a Term Appointed
Celio Natá’s Islamic prayer service was held on the next Friday, just after Jum’ah prayer. Omar had received dozens of calls asking about a memorial service for Celio, not only from news agencies but also from government ministers, local celebrities, and even from the office of the president. So he was not surprised to see limousines and expensive cars pulling up in front of the masjid, jamming the intersection.
It was a bizarre scene as non-Muslim guests in black suits were asked to remove their shoes, and women in dresses were handed abayas and scarves at the door. As he was approaching the masjid door, holding Samia’s hand on one side and Nur’s on the other, a silver Jaguar pulled up, and a jaunty man in a gray suit hopped out. Seeing him, Omar’s mouth went dry and he choked.
“What is it?” Samia asked. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Carlos Small.”
“Árabe Unido number 58. Center-forward.”
“You don’t get it, Samia. I once saw him dance his way past five defenders – five! – then shoot the ball through the goalie’s legs to score.”
Samia smiled, then tugged on his hand. “Come on, buster.”
Inside, there was grumbling from the non-Muslims as men and women were separated, with men on one side and women on the other. Five hundred people filled the room, and the remainder had to be turned away. His mother and Masood were there, as well as a sizable contingent of Ngäbes. Omar saw a well known Colombian singer, the Panamanian minister of tourism, a legendary news anchor, and yes, the president of Panama, flanked by burly bodyguards.
The non-Muslims watched as the Imam led the Muslims in prayer, then the imam beckoned for Omar to take the mike.
“Why’s he calling me up?” Omar whispered to Samia.
“It has to be you,” she replied. “Go.”
Omar mounted the small platform the imam used for his sermons. Surveying the crowd, he saw Carlos Smalls near the back, watching. Unable to stop himself, Omar raised a fist and chanted, “The blue express!”
Smalls grinned and pumped a fist in return. Nur, who was an Árabe Unido fan like his father, cried, “Yaaaaay!”
Scattered laughter broke out, though Omar also saw disapproving frowns.
He cleared his throat. “Sorry.” He went on to praise Allah and call for blessings upon the Prophet, then he said, “My name is Omar Bayano. Thank you all for coming. Allah says in the Quran that the sun runs for a term appointed to it, and that is the decree of the Majestic and All-Knowing God. Celio Natá burned with the power of the sun. And now he has run his course. He was a man who lived and died for others, rather than himself. What higher praise can be given?”
A murmur of assent swept across the crowd. There were several reporters taking notes, though no cameras had been permitted. Some of the attending dignitaries would want to speak today, maybe sincerely, or maybe to generate publicity and make political hay. No doubt the president expected to be called to the microphone. Omar intended to disappoint him. Tio Celio had spent his entire life fighting the exploitation of Ngäbe-Buglé land by men like this.
“I know some of you hoped to speak today,” he said, “But I want to hear from one of Don Celio’s own people. Is there one among the Ngäbe-Buglé who would like to speak?”
The room was silent. A hand went up slowly. Omar recognized the broad-shouldered, gray-haired man, and asked him to approach. He shook the man’s hand and introduced him: “Governor Amauro Ceballos of Kädridri district. This will be the only speech. Thank you.”
He merged with the crowd and listened.
A Force of Nature
“When I was nineteen years old,” Amauro said, “I was a canal maintenance worker, and lived in a shack with seven other men. I was walking home one night when the police accused me of breaking into a car. They beat me until I couldn’t see through the blood, and threw me into a cell. I was terrified. Two hours later, Don Celio came. I don’t know how he knew. I had seen him on the comarca, but we had never spoken. He took me to a veterinary clinic for treatment, because back then we Ngäbes were seen as little better than dogs, and ordinary hospitals would not admit us. Then he took me to the home of a Ngäbe businessman. The man appeared rich to me, though in reality he was probably middle class. That man took me in, and his teenage son taught me to read and write. Later, Don Celio paid for me to attend night school, and then to study sociology at the University of Panama. I do not know why.”
“When my youngest daughter developed leukemia, the hospital informed me that the medicine necessary to boost her immune system during chemotherapy was too expensive and not covered by insurance. Don Celio appeared, walking in out of the rain. He spent an hour on the phone making calls, then the doctor came and said the insurance company had reversed their decision, and my daughter would get the shots. Celio would not tell me who he’d spoken to, or what had been said. Just walked back out into the rain.”
“I could go on like this. And I’m not the only one. Many of our people could tell similar stories. The man was a force of nature. As Omar said, he was a brilliant sun that illuminated our lives so brightly that no shadows remained. And I will tell you something. If Don Celio believed that Omar Bayano’s religion -” Amaura waved to encompass the masjid – “was the right path for him, then it is the right path for me too. That is all.”
Murmurs and mutters of surprise, consternation and praise rippled through the crowd. Omar smiled. SubhanAllah. The way things worked out amazed him sometimes.
He made the circuit of the gathered celebrities, speaking to Carlos Smalls, the Colombian singer, and others, telling them about Adelanto de Indígenas y Refugiados, aka AIR, and asking for their support. Everyone turned him down, telling him they only worked with pre-approved charities, or that he should send his proposal to their office. When he reached Carlos Smalls, however, the man withdrew his checkbook without hesitation and wrote a check for a sizable sum, enough to get AIR through another two months of operation.
“Do you play football?” Smalls asked.
“Well.. I mean.. I kick a ball around with my kid.”
Smalls’s white teeth flashed as he smiled. “Call me sometime. We’ll kick a ball around.”
It was a full minute before Omar could wet his throat enough to swallow.
Before leaving, he put Amauro in touch with the imam, and gave him the number of the converts’ support office at the Centro Islamico.
That night, Omar dreamed that he, Samia and Nur flew to California to go to Disneyland. When they arrived, Samia didn’t feel well, so Omar took Nur to Disneyland by himself. They went on foot from the hotel, because the amusement park was near. But they got lost. Somehow they ended up outside the city, wandering through endless kilometres of orange groves. The roads were unpaved, and the dust rose with every step, choking them. There was not a human being in sight. The sun, as vast and bright as a navel orange, blazed unrelentingly.
They encountered a pickup truck sitting on the side of the road, with the keys in the ignition. Exhausted and out of options, Omar decided to borrow it. They drove, but just when a city rose on the horizon, the truck died.
“Don’t worry,” Omar reassured his son. “You stay in the truck, and I’ll carry it.” He lifted the truck onto one shoulder, balancing it, and began to walk. They reached the city, but it was not Los Angeles. It was sprawling, gray and dank, and consisted of tall concrete buildings streaked with rainwater. A pair of Venezuelan refugees approached and wanted to know if they could get a ride. “Sure,” Omar said. “Climb in.”
He carried the truck into a crowded mall filled with dark banners and weary crowds, then down a staircase and back into the open. Rain began to fall. Many of the street signs were in Chinese. More and more refugees clambered aboard. Everywhere people watched him, marveling at his strength, and this made him proud.
At some point, as he walked, he noticed that the truck had shrunk. It was the size of a golf cart, and then only a large box. He set it down, and there was no one in it. Dread filled him. Where was Nur? He looked around wildly. He had no idea where he was. Could Nur be back in the dark mall? But where was the staircase? He couldn’t find it. Where was his son? He began to shout, “Nur! NUR! NUUUUUUUR! NUUUUUUUR!” Panic overwhelmed him.
He awoke with a gasp. It was very early on a Saturday morning, just before Fajr. Samia reached out for him, muttered, “Bad dream, honey?”
Omar rose from the bed and went immediately to Nur’s room. The boy was fast asleep in his little bed, snoring lightly. He slept clutching a stuffed tiger. Omar kneeled and rubbed the boy’s back. Nur’s snore disappeared, and his breathing became regular and soft. He did not wake.
Omar performed wudu’ and prayed Fajr. The dream had shaken him up badly. After he prayed, he sat thinking. He believed in what he was doing with AIR, but Samia and Nur always had to come first. If he lost them, he would be ruined.
Eres El Milagro
Several hours later, a caravan of five cars turned off the Pan-American highway onto the road that led to Santa Clara Beach. A few kilometers in, the lead car – a silver Toyota sedan – slowed to a halt, the other cars stopping behind it. The door opened with a squeak of slightly rusty metal, and Omar stepped out.
The day was bright and warm, trending toward hot but not there yet. Birds sang, and the scent of mangoes filled the air. Large, expensive homes lined both sides of the narrow road. Omar walked to a spot in the center of the road, in front of his car, and stood with his hands in his pockets, looking around. He was still out of sorts from his dream, feeling the anxiety of it pressing on his heart. Has he been a bad father to Nur lately? Was he devoting all his energy to other people, and depriving his family?
From the red Renault three cars back, Ivana shouted, “What’s the hold up, primo? Did your piece of junk Toyota break down?”
A cane tapped the ground as Samia came to stand beside him. “Hey, buster. What -” she stopped and tilted her head, as if hearing a far off ship’s horn. She smelled the air, then rubbed the ground with the toe of one shoe. The road was cracked in that spot, and a plethora of yellow wildflowers had rooted in the crack. “This is the spot, isn’t it? Right…” She tapped the road with her cane. “Here. This is where it happened.”
He didn’t ask how she knew. Seriously, she could have been Daredevil’s sidekick. He looked at the spot she’d indicated and seemed to see a younger Samia there with her head in a dog’s mouth, screaming. Then himself with both dogs atop him. Sharp teeth penetrating his face, collapsing his sinus cavity, tearing his muscles, killing him. He was blinded by blood, and blood filled his mouth. Kids around him screaming. Another minute and he would not have survived. He wondered if there’d been a harpy eagle there that day, watching from the shadows of a tree.
“What are we doing here, babe?” Samia asked gently.
Omar rubbed his copper bracelet. He hadn’t been wearing it since the fire, as his skin had been very sensitive, but today he needed the comfort it gave him. “Tio Melo – I mean Santiago – used to say, ‘The past is not a tourist destination. You don’t want to go there.’”
“Maybe I’m not a tourist. Maybe I’m a ghost, haunting my own past.”
Samia took his arm in both of hers, wrapping it tightly. “Or you needed to remind yourself how strong you are, and what you are capable of surviving. To remember that Allah has power over everything, and there is nothing on this earth to fear if Allah is on your side. And that you saved my life when everyone else ran. Maybe you needed to remember that you are a giant, Omar. Everyone stumbles through their days praying for a miracle. Not me. I have my miracle right here.” She squeezed his biceps. “Tu, mi amor. Eres el milagro.” You, my love. You are the miracle.
Nadia and Naris Muhammad exited a green mini SUV. They both wore colorful Indian outfits, but were easily distinguishable. Nadia, with her two kids, had put on a few pounds over the years – just enough to give her a motherly look. Her hair was concealed beneath a bright orange scarf. Naris was still as lean as a teenager, and her once-long black hair had been shorn to the bottoms of her ears.
“We remember this place too,” Nadia said, and burst into tears. Her sister embraced her and wiped her face with her sleeve.
“Qué bolá, idiots!” Ivana shouted in a mixture of Spanish and English. “You holding the road!”
Nadia’s sobs turned into choked laughter. Omar and Samia began to laugh as well, and even Naris let out a chuckle. Samia reached for Nadia, found her and gave her a hug. “Come on,” she said. “I can smell seawater and grilled fish from here!”
The beach was sparsely populated for a Saturday morning, maybe because the surf was high, with waves rising like soldiers in a turquoise army, perpetually trying to conquer the land. And they might finally succeed, Omar thought wryly, with climate change. No waders or swimmers braved those luminous swells, though a handful of surfers paddled and rode, looking for that moment of man-and-nature glory.
Omar wore knee-length shorts, sandals, an Árabe Unido jersey, a brimmed hat and sunglasses. The group gathered around two picnic tables in the shade of an acacia tree. Omar counted twenty two people and a dog: Omar himself, plus Samia, Nur and Berlina; Nadia, Naris, and Nadia’s husband and two kids; his Palestinian friend Mahmood; Ximena and Masood; Fuad, Ivana and Santiago; four young AIR employees; Graziela and Chiki – the boy had been released from the hospital and wore braces on his arm and ankle; and a fashionably dressed young girl Omar did not recognize.
Naris called out to everyone to gather around. When they ignored her, she hopped onto the picnic bench, put two fingers in her mouth and gave a shrill whistle. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “We have an announcement to make.” She blushed – something Omar had never seen her do – and seemed suddenly tongue tied.
“We who?” one of the AIR employees called out.
Mahmood stepped forward and Naris jumped down beside him. “We me,” he said. “Naris and I are getting married.”
Omar smiled. He’d seen Mahmood coming around to AIR to take Naris out to lunch, and had hoped for something like this, but hadn’t been sure. He was happy for Mahmood. The brother was intellectually brilliant, with a comprehensive knowledge of history and geography, but he was perpetually anxious. He worried constantly that the military would take over Panama again, China would seize the canal, he’d lose his job, he’d be robbed, his home would be invaded, and so on. Naris, with her courage, would be good for him. And he’d be good for her too, because he was kind and gentle.
The women crushed around Naris, while the men congratulated Mahmood. Omar shook the brother’s hand.
Towels, frisbees and a football came out. Someone had brought a boombox and put on some salsa music, and the women danced as they prepared the food, including Samia, who waved her cane above her head like an Arab dancer with a sword, while Berlina sat wagging her tail happily. Omar was almost blinded by a flash of golden light, and realized it was the sun reflecting off Ivana’s plethora of golden bracelets. She’d had no trouble replacing the ones he’d made her give away, it seemed. Only Ivana would wear a queen’s ransom worth of gold to the beach.
The well dressed girl was staying close to Ivana, helping her unpack avocados, garlic, cilantro, an onion, a variety of spices and even a pineapple. “Pay attention,” Ivana said in Spanish. “I will teach you to make Cuban guacamole. Grab the olive oil.”
The girl turned to grab the bottle, and Omar saw her face. He didn’t think he knew her, though there was something familiar about the way her eyes remained serious even as her mouth smiled, as if there were some internal well of sadness that nothing could touch. Then it clicked, and his eyebrows shot up in amazement. It was Amelia, the homeless Venezuelan girl. She looked like someone had taken her first to a spa to be hand-scrubbed from head to toe, then to a hair stylist, then to an expensive dress shop. Omar was baffled.
Santiago, dressed in camo shorts, a New York Yankees baseball hat, a white t-shirt and flip flops, ambled over. “How are you?”
Omar gestured to his grandfather’s hat. “Odd choice for a Marxist.”
“I don’t know what I am anymore.” He pointed with his lips to Omar’s bracelet. “I remember your father wearing that.”
Omar rubbed the bracelet. “I guess it’s a family heirloom.”
“I wish I had left you an heirloom. Or a legacy.”
“You left a legacy of kindness.”
Santiago’s eyes widened, and he looked like he might cry again.
“Hey,” Omar cautioned. “Don’t get soft on me. You’re a revolutionary, remember?”
Santiago laughed. “Don’t make me thrash you.”
“Didn’t Che say, ‘The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.’”
“So we’ll make it fall. We’ll make our own reality from now on. As a family.”
Omar’s grandfather nodded solemnly. “Agreed.”
“Hey.” Omar leaned closer to Santiago and whispered. “What’s up with Ivana and the Venezuelan girl?”
“Amelia? Ivana said she adopted her.”
Omar clenched his teeth. That wasn’t how it worked. You couldn’t just snatch a kid off the street and adopt her.
Reading his face, Santiago said, “Yeah, I thought there was something fishy. But is it so bad? Ivana is happy, the girl is happy.”
Yeah, Omar thought, but what about all the other street kids selling candy to survive? The kids begging, stealing, and starving? You can take one kid off the street, buy her designer dresses and create an artificial idyllic family, but what about the rest? Plus, Amelia wasn’t an orphan. She had a living father somewhere. And no doubt other relatives too. You couldn’t just strip her away from all that.
But backbiting was a sin, and he didn’t want to talk behind Ivana’s back. So he remained silent.
Mahmood called out to Omar. The men and boys had started a football game.
Omar waved them off. “I’m going to the water!”
“Don’t worry,” Santiago said, as he trotted off. “I’ll represent the family. I played with the best.”
“Who?” Omar called after him.
“Shanghai Football Club!”
Omar’s eyes sought Nur and found him playing frisbee with Jameel and Fairy. They were near the picnic tables, and Nadia was keeping an eye on them. Remembering his dream, and wanting Nur close to him, even if it was irrational, Omar almost called out to him to come along. But the boy was having fun. Let him play.
Turning away, he walked down to the waterline, where he shed his sandals and let the cool foam hiss across his feet and calves. In his youth the sea had stirred thoughts in him of exile, and the desperate need for change. It had been a symbol of his desire to escape at any cost. He’d even considered drowning himself in it once.
Watching the pounding waves, he remembered the last time he’d been here, on the Day of the Dogs. He’d heard Samia crying, and had gone to investigate. She opened up to him about her family troubles and health issues. And she told him – uninvited – to stop pitying himself. He smiled now, remembering it. That had been the beginning for the two of them. The first time they were honest with each other in a mature way. And even though their friendship faded into the background after the dog attack, that day was the hammer that cracked open the seed. One of the worst days of his life had also been the origin point of the family he had today. Thinking of how Allah worked, and how from the most terrible moment of one’s life something beautiful could grow, he said, “SubhanAllah.”
You’re All Crazy
He spun to see Samia with Berlina at her side, and Nur laughing. Both wore brimmed hats and sunglasses, and Omar detected the white sheen of sunblock on their faces.
“Good God, woman! You trying to give me a heart attack? How do you do that?”
Delighted, Nur grabbed his father’s arm. “We really surprised you, huh Papá?”
Omar smiled. “Yes, you did.”
“Can we swim?”
“The water’s too rough. But I have an idea. See that outcropping of rocks down there?” He pointed.
“Sometimes seashells get trapped between the rocks. Want to go look?”
Nur nodded rapidly. “Yes Papá, can we?”
Omar pulled the boy close to him and patted his back. “Hey, sweetie,” he said to Samia. “Do you know that the girl, Amelia, is living with Ivana? Am I the only one who finds this bizarre? The girl’s not an orphan. She has a father, somewhere.”
Samia shrugged. “Ivana’s a Bayano.”
“What does that mean?”
She laughed. “You’re all a bunch of lunatics.”
“Even me, Mamá?” Nur piped up.
“No, you take after me. You’re smart and sensible.”
Omar snorted. “Thanks.”
“Why don’t you ask Naris to try to track down the father?”
He snapped his fingers. “Yes! Good idea.”
Three Plus One
Samia leaned against him and took his arm. “I have an announcement too.”
“You want to jump on the picnic table and tell everyone?”
She squeezed his arm. “I’m serious. How shall I put this? Three plus one equals four.”
Nur scrunched up his face. “Your announcement is about math? That’s boring.”
“Three plus -” Omar began, then understanding came. Elation rose in him like a wave. “How do you know? Did you take a test?”
“Don’t need to. I just know.”
“Even I know that,” Nur offered.
As Omar embraced his wife, she whispered in his ear: “It’s a girl this time.” He didn’t ask how she knew. Samia always perceived things that others could not.
“What should we do?”
Samia laughed. “Nothing right now..”
“Can we go find seashells now?” Nur demanded.
“Yes,” Samia said. “Take him.”
Omar took his sandals in one hand and Nur’s little hand in the other, and set off.
“Hey!” Samia called after them. “Say hasbun-Allahu wa n’em-Al-Wakeel!”
Omar said it.
They prowled barefoot between the rocks, some of which rose above their heads. The water swirled around Omar’s calves and Nur’s waist, but the rocks blunted the force of the waves, so that the pools were relatively calm. Nur froze when he saw tiny crabs darting in and out of holes, but Omar assured him they were more afraid of him than he was of them. Purple anemones covered the rocks, their tentacles waving in the currents. Omar showed Nur a trick his own father had shown him once – how you could press your finger into the center of an anemone and it would grab your finger and squirt water.
So he was going to be a father again. And a girl this time. The idea held no fear or anxiety – only happiness. He’d never imagined when he was young that he would be blessed with a family that he loved, and with work – as of recently – that he believed in. And of course his faith – that part at least had always been with him, even in the dark days. It had carried him through, and now the sun was rising over his life, and he was grateful.
To his delight, Nur found a lovely sea urchin shell, which looked like a compressed sphere covered in tiny blisters. “Look Papá,” he said, whisking it through the air, “it’s a flying saucer.”
Omar picked up several common fan-shaped shells and the tiny conical ones. Seeing Nur stepping into a deep crevice between two tall rocks, Omar said, “Come out of there, son.” Crevices like that could fill with water very quickly.
“But there’s something here, Papá,” Nur protested. “It’s a horn!”
A large wave was sweeping in. Omar circled an arm around Nur’s waist and hauled him out just in time. As the wave rolled in, the gap filled with water above the height of Nur’s head. The water gushed out of the main opening, and poured from other chinks in numerous small waterfalls. When the water receded, Omar peered into the shadowed space. There was indeed something poking out of the sandy floor. Something pink and white. It wasn’t a horn, obviously. His heart skipped a beat as he realized what it might be.
“Go back up onto the dry sand,” he instructed Nur. “I’ll try to dig it out.”
“I lost my sunglasses. They fell off when you grabbed me.” Nur looked like he might cry. Omar hugged him. “I’m sorry if I scared you. Don’t worry about the sunglasses, we’ll get you new ones.”
Nur exited the water. Omar waited for a lull between waves, then got down on his hands and knees and pulled. The object was embedded in the sand and would not budge. He dug around it, and suddenly the crevice was full and he was underwater. The force of the water banged him against the side of one of the rocks. In his shock, he gasped, and seawater filled his mouth. By the time he got to his feet the crevice was already emptying. He stepped out and coughed violently. Nur called out to him, worried.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Stay there.”
He went back to digging, scooping rapidly for a few seconds, exiting the crevice when waves approached, then ducking back in. Within five minutes, he knew that the object was indeed what he had thought. Another five minutes and he had it. He lifted it, amazed, turning it one way and another. It was the biggest conch shell he’d ever seen. It was conical, with a large ear-shaped flap that protruded from one side, and a studded horn. The inside gleamed creamy pinkish white, while the outside shone orange with russet tones, reminding Omar of a Caribbean sunset.
He rinsed it off in the swirling water, turning it this way and that to wash out the sand. Stepping out of the water, he showed it to Nur. The boy’s eyes were wide with amazement.
“What is it? Can I hold it?”
Omar handed it to Nur. “It’s called a conch. It used to be the home of a very big sea snail, can you believe it? They crawl along the seabed eating plants, and their shell protects them from hungry sharks.”
“Wow!” The boy hefted the shell, feeling its weight.
“You know what? People eat the snail. In Panama we eat it in ceviche, but in the Caribbean islands they make it in stew.”
Nur made a face. “I wouldn’t eat a snail.”
“But here’s the best part. You can blow the shell like a horn.”
Nur gasped. “How?”
Omar took the conch, and turned it this way and that. “I’m not sure. There’s supposed to be a hole that you blow in.”
“Let’s go ask Mamá!”
Omar grinned. Nur always thought his mother knew the answers to everything. “Ask your great-grandpa. He’ll know.”
“Who’s my great-grandpa?”
“Tio Melo. Who we call Abuelo Santiago now.”
Nur frowned. “I didn’t know he was my great-grandpa.”
“Yeah,” Omar said dryly. “I know the feeling.”
Give the Chicken
The sun had decided it meant business, and was not playing games. Omar was glad for his hat and sunglasses.
Fairy came running across the sand. She put her hands on her hips. “My mum says it’s time for lunch, and get back before you drown yourselves.”
“Fairy,” Nur enthused. “Look what we found.”
The girl gazed at the conch with an expression of wonder and fear, as if some clawed creature might dart out. “It’s gross,” she declared, then dashed back.
Nur shook his head. “Girls.”
By the time they reached the picnic tables, the sun – which had apparently concluded that today was a day for baking human beings like brownies – had dried them off completely. No one was playing games anymore, and the group was crowded around the shaded tables, on which a feast was spread. Omar saw all sorts of delectable Malaysian, Cuban and Indian dishes and desserts.
Graziela looked stunned at the quantity of food on display, while her son Chiki – not waiting for anyone else – had already seized a Cuban sandwich and begun to devour it.
Omar’s stomach rumbled audibly.
“Look what we found!” Nur exclaimed. Omar set the shell on the table. People oohed and aahed, and Samia said, “What is it?” Someone passed it to her. Feeling it, she said, “SubhanAllah!”
“My father blew one like a horn,” Omar said, “but I don’t know how.”
“Give it to Abuelo Santiago!” Nur said.
Santiago looked at Nur with an expression of wonder, a huge smile breaking his face in two. He took the conch, studied it. “Never seen one so big. You have to drill a hole in the tip of the horn.”
“I have tools in the car,” Shahbaz offered. “I’ll do it after we eat.” Like Nadia, her husband Shahbaz was a Fijian Indian. Slender and dark skinned, with perfectly cut hair and a finely trimmed goatee, he was the pretty boy of their bunch. But Omar knew that as an engineer, Shahbaz could use just about any tool in existence, and was a handy person to have around. Plus, the man’s hobby was archery, and he could put an arrow in an apple at fifty meters.
“Say a prayer for us, brother Omar,” Fuad urged.
Omar pointed to Mahmood. “You do it, akhi.”
Graziela slapped her son’s hand and he put down the sandwich reluctantly.
Mahmood said a dua’ in Arabic, then translated. “Oh Allah, bless what you have provided for us, forgive our failings, guide our families toward You, protect our children from evil influences, bless our teachers, have mercy on the oppressed and suffering peoples of the world, and be gentle with those who are no longer with us. Ameen.”
A collective “ameen,” arose. Ivana looked pensive, and he knew without having to ask that she was thinking of her lost son. But she covered it by declaring, “Drop the stone and give the chicken!” Omar imagined this must be some strange Cuban expression, but he was too hungry to bother asking.
Let Me Try
He ate like a man who had not seen food since 1999. Once, he glanced up at Amelia and saw her trying to stuff food into the pockets of her beautiful dress. Ivana noticed it too, because she seized the girl’s wrist and whispered something in her ear.
By the time they were all finished, the sun was past its zenith. As Fuad called the adhan for dhuhr, Omar strolled down to the water and made wudu with the seawater. They spread towels in the shade and lined up for salat, with Mahmood leading. Ivana – with an expensive scarf draped over her hair – stood beside Samia, and Amelia in turn stood beside Ivana. It amazed Omar how the girl had taken to imitating Ivana in everything, as if she had handed over her fate to the woman who took her in. Or maybe it was a street survival strategy, to maintain a good relationship with the person who was feeding and housing her.
Everyone was standing for prayer except for the AIR employees, the two Venezuelans, and Santiago. The old man sat on the picnic bench looking withdrawn and preoccupied, as if he’d made a mistake but couldn’t figure out what it was. It occurred to Omar that all of Santiago’s living family members were now Muslim. Omar stepped out of the line and went to the old man, patting him on the shoulder. “Relax,” he said. “You’re fine.”
After salat, people began cleaning up. Shahbaz went to his car and returned with a handheld drill. Omar trapped the conch between his knees, and Shahbaz expertly put a small, neat hole in the apex of the horn.
“Let me try!” Nur exclaimed.
Omar handed the conch to the boy and explained that he should purse his lips tightly and blow as hard as he could.
Nur’s face turned red, but nothing happened. Fairy and Jameel both demanded to be next.
“No,” Omar said firmly. “I let Nur try because he found it. But this is not a toy. In my family the conch always had a special significance. When I was a kid I saw it as a symbol that my parents’ love would last forever.” He did not add, Papá died, and Mamá sold our conch for food. He cast a sidelong glance at his mother. She sat at the table opposite him, holding her husband’s hand. An expression that Omar could not read passed across her face like a cloud, and was gone.
Omar handed the conch to Santiago. “Give it a shot.”
The old man stood and blew, then tried again. His hands shook as he handed it back. “My lungs are old and tired. It has to be you, Omar.”
The Trumpet Shall Be Blown
People seemed to be saying that to him a lot lately. In spite of the blazing summer heat, a chill ran up Omar’s spine. He turned the shell over in his hands, and imagined he could feel electricity coming off it. It was as if the thing wanted him to blow. As if it had traveled who knew how many miles in the deep sea, washing up in that exact spot, and revealing itself at exactly the right moment.
Standing and taking a deep breath, he raised the conch to his lips… and lowered it. Several people laughed.
“What is it?” Samia demanded.
“Papá tricked us,” Nur explained.
“Do not toy with us brother Omar,” Fuad said. “We bristle with anticipation.” Fuad was the only man not wearing shorts. He’d come to the beach in an expensive looking shalwar khamees, traditional gilded sandals with curled toes, and a turban, of all things. He would not have been out of place at a prince’s wedding.
Omar was not toying with them. He needed to work up to it. Saying, “Bismillah,” he took two deep breaths, and on the third lifted the conch and blew. He did not blow as hard as he could, but gave it a good, strong breath.
The sound that emerged from the horn was as loud and piercing as a ship’s horn. It came out long and clear, and as pure as midday sunshine, or honey fresh from the comb. Several people exclaimed in surprise. Not everyone had been paying attention, and as Omar lowered the horn he saw that Naris, who’d been on the telephone, had dropped the phone in the sand, and was staring at him in amazement, while Amelia’s face had turned red, though Omar did not know why. As for his mother, she’d gone pale, as if she’d seen a jinn. Graziela and Chiki regarded him with superstitious awe. Others were smiling with delight.
In the midst of this, Samia stood and recited something from the Quran, then translated:
“And the trumpet shall be blown, so all those that are in the heavens and all those that are in the earth shall swoon, except him whom Allah wills…”
A hush fell over the group. People looked as if they had never heard this ayah before, and Omar saw that they were all suddenly imagining the real trumpet, the great and terrible angel’s horn that would – by Allah’s command – dissolve all existence into nothingness.
“Blow it again, husband,” she commanded. “Louder this time.”
Omar took only one deep breath, filling his lungs, then tipped his head back and blew. If the previous blast had been a ship’s horn, this one was thunder. It was the sound of a volcano ripping apart, or an asteroid colliding with a planet. It went on and on, causing leaves to fall from the tree above them, and finally vanishing over the waves. From the corner of his eye he saw Nur looking up at him in absolute astonishment, his mouth hanging open. In Omar’s mind’s eye, Nur at that moment was he, Omar, as a child, gazing at his Papá in adoration, and Omar was his own father, blowing the conch in the face of the sea’s wrath, shouting his defiance, not against God, but in the name of God, defying all the evil of the world.
Though in the end, his father had been defeated by that evil. Or had he? As he lowered the horn, Samia said,
“Then it shall be blown again, then they shall stand up awaiting.”
Looking around, Omar saw other people walking his way, some from the far ends of the beach. Among his own group, everyone appeared stunned. A few had their hands to their mouths in amazement. Naris’s phone still lay in the sand, and from it a woman’s voice – Omar thought it might be Nabila – said, “Hello? Hello? What was that?”
Naris reached down, picked up the phone and spoke into it. “That was Omar Bayano.”
“Blow it one more time,” Samia urged. “Just once.”
Omar saw fear on some faces, as if they thought he was truly Israfeel, the angel of the trumpet, and that if he blew again all would disintegrate into dust and smoke. Others appeared excited. A few put their fingers in their ears.
“It’s just a seashell, guys,” he said into the silence. Then he lifted the conch and blew.
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
Author’s Note: I struggled with this book. For a long time I wasn’t sure where it was going or what it was about, beyond a story about a boy who is attacked by dogs, and how that event affects everyone who was present that day. In the end, however, it turned out to be a story about family: what it means to be part of a family, what lengths we go to to protect it, and the inner depths we dredge to forgive our family when they fail us. I plan to go back and revise the story from the beginning with that understanding in mind. I’ll publish the finished product on Amazon.com, inshaAllah.
I’m working on some miscellaneous projects, such as Uber Tales (a narration of my year as an Uber driver) and Haven Chronicles (a fantasy story about an immortal unicorn searching for others of his kind). In the meantime, once Ramadan is over, check back every other Wednesday for a new stand-alone short story. Thank you for reading. It means more than you know.
See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
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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