See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
Saturday, February 6, 2010 – 9:00 am
I slept straight through Fajr, which I was not happy about but knew was probably inevitable considering my state of utter depletion last night. I finally jerked awake from a terrible nightmare in which I was being attacked by eight foot tall robots with wings. They were armed with long serrated knives, and wherever I tried to run they flew after me in pursuit. I carried a pair of flaming Kali sticks, and when I struck one of the robots it would burst into flame, but in that moment of destruction or death it would change form, revealing itself to be someone I knew. One turned into Imam Abdus-Samad, another into Dr. Ehab Anwar, and another into my wife, Safaa.
That last one shocked me awake and I sat up in my cot with a cry on my lips. Realizing it had only been a dream, I collapsed back into the cot, my hands on my face. Why did Safaa have to join the robots against me, I thought bitterly.
Yes, I was being ridiculous, but I’m a dreamer. My dreams are powerful and often feel as real as waking life, and I have a hard time setting aside the emotions I experience in them. Sometimes I believe the dreams represent real life situations, and that my subconscious is trying to clue me in on something important.
I was rested, but my wounded left arm felt like it was on fire. Blood had soaked through the bandage and even messed up my bedsheets and blanket. Damn that Baldy and his partner. What kind of people try to kill someone they’ve never met just for a few bucks? I hope the guy is paralyzed, I thought savagely, and in that moment I think I meant it. The other events of the previous day flooded into my mind and I groaned. I’d participated in a felony murder. My friend Tarek was dead. And I’d been seen in a strip club by Safaa’s relative. So I could go to prison for life, give my client the worst news possible, and possibly see my marriage irrevocably destroyed.
“The Golden State.”
Another day in the Golden State.
I sighed. First things first. My arm was killing me. I removed the stained bandage and checked the knife wound. The edges of the gash were swollen and red. It needed stitches, if I was honest with myself, but I didn’t have time for that. I disinfected the wound yet again, then used superglue to close it up. It was a slow and painful process. I went a millimeter at a time, pulling the edges together, holding them closed until the glue set, then moving up. The skin was hot to the touch, and the entire process was agonizing, but I gritted my teeth and got through it.
When I was done I performed wudu’, re-bandaged the arm, then made up the morning prayer. After that I spent a few minutes reading the Quran. It was something I tried to do daily, even when I was in a hurry.
I began at the start of Surah 41, called Fussilat:
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
[This is] a revelation from the Compassionate, the Merciful
A Book whose verses have been detailed, an Arabic Qur’an for a people who know,
As a giver of good tidings and a warner; but most of them turn away, so they do not hear.
And they say, “Our hearts are within coverings from that to which you invite us, and in our ears is deafness, and between us and you is a partition, so work; indeed, we are working.”
Say, O [Muhammad], “I am only a man like you to whom it has been revealed that your deity is but One God; so take a straight course to Him and seek His forgiveness…”
The part about people who refused to hear the truth was interesting, but what really caught my eye was that sixth verse: “I am only a man like you to whom it has been revealed that your deity is but One God.” Only a man like you. Not a superman, not an angel, not infallible from error in mundane matters. And yet the Prophet, peace be upon him, withstood so much suffering, persisted in the face of so much opposition, and did it all for the glory of God and the betterment of humanity, never for his own benefit.
I remembered Shaykh Rashid, my teacher in Qatar, saying that any human being could reach the same level of piety and faith as the Sahabah – the righteous companions of the Prophet – for if the presence of the Prophet himself – peace be upon him – had been a requisite for the achievement of faith then the message would not be universal. Therefore while there might never be an entire generation like them again, on an individual level there was no bar to achieving what they did.
Then there was the last part of the sixth ayah: “so take a straight course to Him and seek His forgiveness.” That certainly applied to me. Astaghfirullah, I said out loud. I seek Allah’s forgiveness. It felt like trying to apply a Band-Aid to a sucking chest wound, but I repeated it nonetheless: astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah.
Perhaps, as a seeker of forgiveness myself, I could forgive Safaa for being a flying robot and attacking me. Man la yarha la yurham, went a well known hadith. Whoever shows no mercy will be shown no mercy.
I put away the Quran and attempted to practice a little Kali – again, something I felt compelled to do daily. When I picked up my sticks and began working the basic heaven-six sinawali pattern, a wave of dizziness hit me. I stumbled and struck my hip painfully on the edge of my desk. I put a hand on the desk until the dizziness passed.
When had I last eaten? My stomach felt like the Grand Canyon, like I could drop a food truck in there and it wouldn’t make a dent. I put away the sticks and checked my kitchen corner to see if Jalal had completed his shopping errands. I found my mini fridge and the three-tiered plastic shelf I kept in the corner stocked with groceries. Ma-sha-Allah, good job Jalal. I made myself a quesadilla with jack cheese, avocado and diced jalapenos, which I toasted on the hot plate with a little butter, and washed it down with a tall glass of orange juice.
There was a mini-mart about a block away. I locked up my office and walked down the street to buy the newspaper. I wanted to see what was being reported about the shootout at the stash house and the girl’s death.
The owners of the mini-mart a.k.a. liquor store were Arabs. They had an entire wall of liquor bottles behind the counter, the glass on those bottles gleaming green, brown, burgundy and every other shade of the alcoholic rainbow. Above that wall of sin hung a plaque with an Arabic verse from the Quran: “wa lasawf yo’teeka rabbuka fa tardaa.” And your Lord is going to give you, and you will be satisfied. Surat-ad-Duha again. It was interesting how that Surah kept cropping up in my life lately.
I’d always been appalled at the nerve of these people, hanging an ayah of Quran above a liquor display. I had always felt these dope-slinging Arabs – and yes, liquor was another kind of dope – were an embarrassment to my community. Whenever I went into their store to buy something I kept my head down and restricted conversation to a minimum, wanting to get in and out as quickly as possible.
Today, though, I felt unable to judge anyone. Who was I? I was the worst kind of sinner.
I went in the store and picked up the newspaper and, on impulse, a chocolate bar. Somehow guilt never seemed to affect my appetite. The two young men behind the counter greeted me in Arabic. They were both slender and dark-skinned, with curly hair and handsome faces. Their names were Basim and Jasim Ibrahimi, I knew. Brothers. Many of the liquor store owners in Fresno were Yemeni, but the Ibrahimi family were Palestinian. Like my own family, they hailed originally from Bethlehem, though when my family was driven out by the Israelis in the Nakbah – the catastrophe of 1948 – they ended up in refugee camps in Lebanon, while the Ibrahimis had fled to Syria. I had an idea they might even be distantly related to me – like third cousins twice removed, or something. Okay, I made that up, but it was something remote like that.
“I opened the newspaper…”
I mumbled a reply to the brothers’ greeting, purchased my newspaper and chocolate, and headed back to the office.
With some trepidation, I opened the newspaper. The stash house robbery was the front page story. The headline blared in bold letters:
Gang War Leaves Three Wounded in South Fresno
I stared at the words. Three wounded? What about the girl? I quickly scanned the article:
A massive gun battle in a quiet residential neighborhood of south Fresno left residents shaken yesterday. Police sources say the incident, which took place just after high noon on a normally placid block of Casa Verde Street, appears to be the result of a turf war between a Samoan gang known as the Two-Ton Valley Crips, and another, unidentified gang.
“It might have been much worse,” a police source commented, “but it appears that one side was using primarily non-lethal weapons.” Police say two men suffered non-serious impact wounds, possibly from shotgun rounds known as bean bags. A third victim, identified as Valerie Kincaid of Porterville, suffered a gunshot to the chest and is reportedly in critical but stable condition. Kincaid is 21 years old and has previous arrests for prostitution and drug possession.
“We do have leads, and we are following them up,” stated veteran FPD detective Reina Saladino.
A local resident described the battle as sounding like the end of world. “I swear,” said Crystal Tines, 54, who lives across the street. “I thought it was the Rapture. Come and take me Jesus, that’s what I said, just ask my husband.”
There was more, including a few photos of the outside of the stash house and a mug shot of Valerie Kincaid from a previous arrest. My eyes, however, kept coming back to four words: “critical but stable condition.” My scalp prickled and the hair stood up on the back on my neck as I read those words again and again, hardly able to believe it. I studied the mugshot of the woman. It was a black and white photo, but the resemblance was unmistakable. It was the same woman Pinkie had shot in the shower.
Alive. She was alive!
The chocolate bar slipped from my hand and fell to the sidewalk. I was about halfway down the block on the way back to my office, but I fell to my knees on the cracked and stained sidewalk and prostrated in the direction of the Qiblah, right there in front of the Salvation Army thrift store. I put my forehead on the dirty cement and gave thanks to God. Subhan Allah wa bihamdihi, I whispered. Glory to Allah and praise be to Him.
“Amigo, estás bien? You need the help?”
I raised my forehead and looked up. It was the lean, bearded homeless man in the watchcap. The man I’d purchased the burrito and apple bread for yesterday morning. Had that really been only yesterday? So much had happened since then, it seemed like a year had passed.
“Yeah man,” I replied. “I’m okay. Estoy bien.”
He held out a hand to me and I took it, and he heaved me up off the sidewalk. Then he bent down and picked up the chocolate bar and tried to hand it to me. “That’s okay,” I said. “You keep that.” A surge of euphoria passed through me, as if my blood had been made of lead and someone had just rinsed it clean, so that now I had sunlight running through my veins. I felt ten years younger. I pointed to my office down the street. “That’s my office,” I told the homeless man. “Mi oficina. Cuando tienes hambre, anytime you’re hungry, you knock on my door. If I have food, I’ll share it.”
“Eh… muchas gracias,” the man stammered. I wondered if he thought I was some kind of nutjob, handing out food and prostrating on the sidewalk.
I was almost at my office when my stomach rebelled. Without warning, I found myself bending over in front of my own door and retching. I lost most of my breakfast. Shaking my head, I got some paper towels from my office and cleaned up, thinking the entire time that Allah was good to me, and I was grateful. Yes, physically I felt terrible – my entire body ached, my arm was hot, and I couldn’t shake a growing feeling of dizziness and nausea – but emotionally I was re-energized. All the problems that had seemed insurmountable – my marriage, this case, and my own personal salvation – now seemed suddenly solvable.
Of course, Tarek was still dead. But the knowledge that I was not a murderer – that I did not have to face Allah with that terrible burden of sin – gave me perspective.
Speaking of Tarek, I knew intellectually that his death had been inevitable. He was a drug addict. He’d long since made choices that led him down this ill-fated path. He’d rejected all attempts to help him, even running away from rehab. There was nothing I or anyone else could have done about it.
Emotionally, however, that line of reasoning didn’t seem to matter. I was angry at Tarek for throwing his life away. I was angry at him for abandoning his wife and child, for taking what I saw as the easy way out, the coward’s way out. And I was angry at myself for I knew not what, for failing him in some way, for not being there to physically drag him out of the muck, shake some sense into him, and save him.
I had to go see the Anwars today. I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Before I did that, I opened my computer and went to a discount travel website. I had very few leads on Angie, but it hadn’t escaped my attention that everyone I talked to seemed to mention one thing: Panama. Angie still had family there, and she spoke wistfully of her childhood in Colon. Maybe she intended to take the forty five thousand and start a new life there. Maybe she was fleeing from whoever she’d stolen the money from. In any case it was worth pursuing. I checked my bank account online – I had a healthy balance now, thanks to this case. I searched flights leaving for Panama that very day, and used my debit card to book a flight that left at 5:30 pm.
With that done, I shuttered my office and headed out to see the Anwars.
* * *
The Anwars lived in Woodward Lakes, a sprawling residential development in north Fresno consisting of million dollar homes constructed around a caterpillar-shaped artificial lake called – you guessed it – Woodward Lake. Wedged as it was between the San Joaquin River, the Fort Washington Golf Club and the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, the neighborhood was almost invisible to outsiders. This was the ultimate white flight refuge, a hidden conclave where all the bankers, insurance execs and industrialists went to be apart from the working class hoi polloi and the darker hued masses of central and south Fresno – myself among them.
I rolled into the circular driveway of the Anwars’ gargantuan home on Mariners Circle – I had to laugh at these these pretentious street names, as if any real mariner had ever been within a hundred miles of this place – and parked next to a meticulously structured front garden with square stone tiles, perfectly clipped hedges, and square planters bursting with petunias and snapdragons.
It was odd that there were no other cars here. The Anwars’ car might be in the garage, but where were all the mourners? Maybe it was too early. The word might not have gone out until this morning. The Anwars’ daughter Mina would probably not arrive from New York until tonight, and Dalya might be on her way from Merced even now. But surely some of the Anwars’ friends would have arrived already, not the least of which would be my own parents.
I rang the doorbell and Farah Anwar herself opened the door. She made a sour face and said, “What do you want?”
I realized instantly that she had not yet been informed about her son’s death. There was no sign of weeping or grief on her face. Well. Perhaps it was better this way. They would hear the news from someone who cared.
“I need to speak to you and Dr. Ehab,” I said politely.
Farah glanced back to the interior of the house as if worried that someone might overhear, then turned back to me. “We are busy and don’t have time for your nonsense,” she hissed. “Go away, idiot!”
I could not for the life of me understand this woman. Hadn’t they hired me and paid me ten thousand dollars to find their granddaughter? And now she was treating me like a traveling snake oil salesman.
“Who is it Farah?” Dr. Ehab called from inside.
“No one ya Baba,” Farah called back. “Just watch your program.”
“I don’t mean to bother you Tant,” I said calmly. I was being generous by calling her auntie. “But I have important news.”
Dr. Ehab appeared at the door beside her, dressed in green cotton pajamas, his hair still rumpled from sleep. “Why didn’t you tell me it was Zaid? Tafaddal ya ibni, come in.”
Farah glared daggers at me but stepped aside. The interior of the home was as beautifully and expensively furnished as one might expect, with gleaming hardwood floors, thick Persian rugs, an elegant wooden staircase that curved along one wall to a second floor, and chandeliers overhead. The house was also immaculate and almost sterile, as if it were only a showpiece, not intended for actual human use.
“Atop the table sat a yellow marble carving of the sphinx.”
Ehab led me to a sitting room with burgundy colored walls, cream and green striped sofas, a towering grandfather clock in one corner and a piano in the other. The two of them sat on one sofa, and I sat opposite. Between us was a stunning Ottoman-style wooden coffee table with geometric, floral and arabesque designs as well as Quranic ayahs inlaid in ivory. Even the legs were inlaid with ivory. If it was a genuine antique it was probably worth a fortune.
Atop the table sat a yellow marble carving of the sphinx. This contrast was typical of Egyptians, I’d noticed. They never seemed sure which heritage they should celebrate more: the Pharaonic legacy, or the Islamic, in spite of the fact that the two were in direct conflict ideologically.
“Would you like some Turkish coffee?” Ehab asked. “I always start my Saturday with thick Turkish coffee and a football game. Real football you know, not this barbaric American kind. We get it on the satellite. Farah, please bring us some coffee.”
“No,” she replied flatly. She crossed her arms and stared at me as if I were a mud-covered warthog despoiling her sofa.
“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I’m afraid I have bad news. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this.” I paused, not sure how to continue.
Dr. Ehab frowned. “Did you learn something about Anna?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But the bad news concerns your son. Ammu, Tant, I’m sorry to tell you that Tarek is dead. I found him last night. It appeared he had been dead for some days. It looked like a drug overdose. I am truly so sorry. Allah yarhamuh. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon.” May Allah have mercy on him. We belong to Allah and to him we shall return.
All the anger went out of Farah Anwar. She sagged as if her bones had turned to rubber. Her chin fell onto her chest. I worried she might be having a heart attack. As for Dr. Ehab, he merely stared at me.
“There must be a mistake,” Dr. Ehab said finally. “We have heard nothing. Tarek is a young man. I don’t see how he could be dead.” He shook his head. “You are mistaken, I’m sure.”
“I’m sorry Dr. Ebab,” I said gently. “There is no mistake. I was there. The paramedics put him in a body bag. It appeared to be a heroin overdose.”
“But…” Ehab paused, at a loss for words. “Why has no one contacted us? Where…” His lower lip began to tremble, and tears came to his eyes. “Where is he? Where is my son?”
I swallowed, trying not to cry myself. “The paramedics would have taken his body to the county morgue on American Avenue. His body was discovered last night. Today is Saturday and they might have only one medical person on staff. I’m sure they will contact you soon. Or you can call them. I have their number in my phone.”
Dr. Ehab collapsed back into the sofa and put his hands on his head. His breathing came in ragged gasps.
“There’s something else,” I went on. “I know the timing is terrible. But you hired me to find Anna. I’ve learned that Angie got her hands on some money. She may have stolen it from a drug dealer, or from a local gang.” I couldn’t tell if they were listening. Ehab stared ahead vacantly, while Farah’s head still rested on her chest, her eyes downcast. Nevertheless, I plowed on. “The only place I can think that she might have gone is Panama.” I explained my reasoning, then continued. “I’m leaving today. I’ve had some expenses so far, but that can wait. For now I will cover the costs from what you’ve paid me so far.”
If not for the news about Tarek I would have asked them to reimburse me for expenses so far, including my flight to Panama. But the timing was horrible. I couldn’t ask them for money right now.
Farah Anwar slowly raised her head and focused on me. Her eyes were rimmed with red and filled with a profound, undiluted hatred – a hatred unmistakably directed at me. The sheer virulence of it rocked me and made me flinch.
“Expenses,” she said slowly, then repeated the word more loudly. “Expenses?” She stood, bent forward and seized the stone sculpture of the sphinx that rested on the table. Before I could think to react she drew one arm back and heaved the sculpture at me.
If it had been some street thug throwing the object d’art at me I could have easily ducked or dodged. But Farah’s action was so out of context that I sat frozen, unable to believe that she would do such a thing. The heavy sculpture struck me on my left eyebrow. I cried out in pain and put a hand to my eye. Blood poured into my eye and down my cheek.
“Ya harami!” Farah Anwar screamed at me. “Ya ibn al-haram! My son is dead, and you come here to take our money? Ya wisikh! You are a waste of life! Your mother kept the wrong child! She should have kept the lame one and aborted you! Get out of my house, get out!”
“Farah!” Dr. Ehab cried out. “Bitamili eh? Are you crazy?”
I rose to my feet and listed toward the door, still pressing one hand to my eye. Behind me, Farah’s insults went on. Dr. Ehab was saying something, but I paid no mind. I opened the door myself, fumbling for the latch with hands slick with blood, then stumbled out to my car.
I sat in the car for a moment, my breath coming hard. What a disaster that had been. I started the car, drove for about a block, then parked in the shade beneath a large tree on a quiet residential street.
What had Farah screamed at me? That my mother should have kept the other one and aborted me? What other one? What was she raving about? It made no sense at all.
I reminded myself, as I had so many times before, that I had a job to do. The first thing was to clean up the blood staining my face and clothing, and even messing up the steering wheel and the car seat. I retrieved the first aid kit from the trunk. The bleeding from the cut above my eye had slowed to a steady ooze. I bandaged it with heavy gauze, then grabbed a roll of paper towels and cleaned the car and myself as best I could. Lastly I shed the bloody t-shirt I wore and replaced it with one of the spares I kept in the trunk, a cream-colored T with a logo that said, “California Medical Delivery Service.”
I texted Jalal: “Need your help again. My office, one hour.”
The eye cut was going to continue bleeding until it was stitched, I was pretty sure. I didn’t have time to wait hours for treatment at a hospital. I searched my phone for medical supply houses and found a Ray Fisher Pharmacy on Blackstone, not far from my parents’ house. Good.
As I walked into the pharmacy ten minutes later, the clerk behind the counter gaped at me. I must have looked like a ghoul. My jeans were stained with blood, and streaks of blood still showed on my skin. Dry paper towels don’t clean blood very well – little tip there.
“Do you need an ambulance?” the man asked.
“No thanks. Listen, if I wanted to close up a cut myself, should I use stitches or one of those fancy staple guns?”
“Uh… well…” the man stammered. “The staples allow for rapid wound closure and result in less inflammation, and they’re easy to remove. But, I mean, are you alone?”
“Let’s say I am.”
“Then you’ll want stitches. Staples require two people, one to pull the wound closed with forceps and one to staple. Stitches you can do alone, I mean, if you know how.”
I nodded. “Stitches then.”
“You, uh, I mean, you could buy a suture kit. It’ll have everything you need.”
I took his suggestion and purchased said kit and a topical anesthetic. “Do you have a restroom here?” I asked.
“Well… yeah, I mean, over there.” He pointed.
I made my way to the restroom where I removed the bandage, washed my face with soap and water, then applied the topical anesthetic. It was made for insect bites and bee stings, not stitching a wound, but it would have to do. I threaded the surgical needle, a wickedly curved piece of stainless steel with a razor sharp tip. I actually knew how to sew, as I’d taken home economics in middle school, the year before we moved to Qatar, but I’d never handled anything like this.
I took out my phone, pulled up an article on how to suture a wound, and propped the phone on the washbasin. I opened the kit, which contained all manner of stuff I didn’t need, including scalpel, forceps, probe, and surgical scissors.
I scanned the article. Sterilize the equipment, it said. Okay. The kit contained rubbing alcohol. I poured it generously over the cruel looking needle. Next: pain relief. I’d done what I could in that regard. Next: clean and irrigate the wound, removing all foreign matter. That wasn’t really necessary. I’d been struck with a blunt object. There had been no penetration. Instead I poured antibacterial disinfectant over the cut, taking care not to get it in my eye. Next: use the surgical scissors to cut away loose or ragged flesh. Forget it, I was so not doing that. Besides, there wasn’t any. The next step was to thread the needle and use something called a hemostat – it was included in the kit, apparently – to grip it.
Okay. I was ready. Gripping the needle with the hemostat, I inserted it at the top of the cut for the first stitch.
Ouch! Ow, ow ow! SubhanAllah, that hurt. Fresh blood poured from the cut. I bent over, covering my eye with one hand, grimacing. That was much worse than I expected. A wave of dizziness and nausea rocked me and I hurried to the toilet and threw up again, putting a hand on the toilet tank to steady myself. I was sweating and hot, in spite of this being a cool February day. What was wrong with me?
I washed my hands thoroughly, rinsed my mouth out, and stood, breathing deeply. I could do this. It was just pain. I was used to pain. I’d been injured in Kali training more times than I could count, though they were always minor injuries like welts, sprains and bruises.
I girded myself, gritted my teeth, said bismillah, and resumed. The pain was still there, but I took it. I imagined soaking up the pain and transforming it into resolve. I could barely see because of the blood so I sewed by feel. My hand was steady as a stone. Seven stitches later I was done. I tied the thread on both ends with tiny knots, then put a bandage over it, washed up, packed up the kit and headed out. The entire procedure had taken less than ten minutes.
* * *
My parents lived in the Old Fig Garden. It was an unincorporated district right in the center of the city. There were no sidewalks or traffic signals, just stop signs. The homes were old but large and mostly well maintained, with mature trees that gave the neighborhood a woodsy feeling.
I was a mess, I knew, but I was pressed for time and my parents’ house was near the pharmacy, so it was logically the next stop. I rang the doorbell, waited, rang again, and finally my father opened the door. He was a tall man with swarthy skin and a full head of jet black hair. He must dye it, I supposed. He was dressed in slacks and Italian loafers, a baby blue dress shirt and a gray evening jacket. He looked like he should be smoking a cigar in some posh private club.
My father looked me up and down, taking in my feverish appearance, bloodstained jeans and boots, medical delivery t-shirt, and bandaged arm and forehead. He shook his head and said, “Your mother will have words for you.” Then he simply turned and walked away.
This was the maddening thing about my father. I’d spent my entire childhood trying to get him to notice me, talk to me, interact with me in any way. But he’d always been more interested in his engineering work, and had been absent for long periods of time. Sometimes I had deliberately misbehaved to get him to notice me, and it had worked, alright. My father was a normally dispassionate and placid man, but when he blew his top, he exploded like a nuclear bomb. When I misbehaved badly enough he’d go into a frenzy, beating me with his belt as if he were trying to score the devil out of me.
I still remembered when, as a little kid, my father missed my fifth birthday because he was away on an engineering job. He sent a lovely pair of handmade leather sandals as a gift. When he finally returned two weeks later, I greeted him wearing the sandals, hoping he would notice. He merely patted my head – not even a hug to go with it – and told me to go play outside. I promptly went down to the swamp, which was the name we kids gave to a boggy field of wetlands across the street from our apartment complex. I splashed about for an hour, completely ruining the sandals. When I returned home, my father whipped me until my throat grew hoarse from crying. I remember taking a kind of grim satisfaction in this.
In many ways, the various teachers and mentors I had known – Shaykh Rashid, Imam Abdus-Samad, Malik Sulawesi – had been more like fathers than my own. The only sign I’d had in many years that my own father even knew I existed was when he’d sent me books in prison, assuming it was actually him and not someone he’d paid to do it.
Maybe that was, in part, why I’d come here in this ragged state. To see how he’d react. To stimulate a response. That was childish, of course, and once again it failed. Sometimes I wonder if I have changed at all since I was five.
Well. There was no point explaining to my father why I was here, as he clearly did not care. I headed for the internal door to the garage. I was pretty sure that my passport was in a box there, along with some old books and miscellaneous letters and postcards. That was what I’d come here for.
My mother was in the kitchen making what looked like maqlooba. She was a small woman with large blue eyes and age-spotted pale skin, still attractive in spite of her advancing years. She wore a short sleeved dress and an apron, and house slippers. Her long blond hair was tied back into a ponytail. She was Palestinian like my father, but looked like a European.
She must not have heard the doorbell. When she saw me she rounded on me, furious. “What are you doing here?”
I exhaled loudly. “As-salamu alaykum Mom. I need my passport, it’s in the garage.”
She grimaced as if she’d tasted something foul. “What have you done now? Farah Anwar called. She said that Tarek is dead, and you had something to do with it. Why, Zaid, why? Why do you continue to shame us? What did I do, that Allah is punishing me like this?” She was working herself into one of her hysterical bouts, and sure enough, the tears began to flow. She raised her arms to the sky and pleaded with God. “What have I done? What sins have I committed in my life to be punished this way?” She turned her attention to me again. “I thought you left all this evil behind. How can we hold our heads up in the community? How did I raise a son like you?”
I hung my head, not in shame but in weariness and the desire to avoid conflict. I made my way to the garage. I went through several boxes in the garage before I found the passport. I checked the date and found it still valid, alhamdulillah. On the way out I called to my parents, who were arguing in the family room. “I’m leaving. As-salamu alaykum. Love you both.” I headed toward the door.
I turned to see my mom hurrying after me. “Where are you going?” she demanded. “What do you need the passport for? Did you commit a crime again? Are you running away?”
“I’m on a case. I’m going to Panama.”
“But… do you have to leave immediately? Why don’t you stay a while?”
I closed my eyes and gave a mental eye roll. A moment ago I was a shame on the family, and now she wanted me to stay and visit. “I don’t exactly feel welcome,” I said matter of factly.
My mother shook her head and sighed as if her heart were breaking. “Why is it so difficult with us? I feel there is a shaytan here.”
My jaw tensed. “Are you calling me a shaytan?”
She clucked her tongue. “No. I am saying there is a shaytan dividing us. I just want you to succeed in life, to make us proud. I want you to do better, stop making these awful mistakes, stop being foolish.”
I knew she was referring to my entire life to date, as in her mind it was all one big mistake. Still, this was the calmest I’d seen her in a while. “Can I ask you something?” I said. The words came out of my mouth without planning. “Farah Anwar said something when I was there. She cursed me, and said that you should have aborted me and kept the lame one. What was she talking about?”
My mother stepped back and her face turned white as an eggshell. I mean she was already naturally pale, but every trace of color drained from her face, as if she were an animated corpse. Then she stepped forward and slapped me across the face. She must have put all her strength into it because the blow hit hard. It caught me off guard and I stumbled back a step, almost falling. I tasted blood in my mouth.
“You lie!” my mother shouted. “Farah would never say such a thing! You are spreading slanders about me. How dare you! Get out of my house!”
Wow. I was living a nightmare version of deja vu. Once again I found myself stumbling toward the door, carried along by curses like driftwood on a raging current.
Again I drove only about a block. My hands were shaking too hard to control the wheel. I pulled over and parked.
I couldn’t take much more. My wounded arm ached badly. I felt feverish and sick to my stomach. My eyes filled with tears and I began to cry. I sobbed out loud, shaking, pounding the steering wheel with one fist. Tears poured down my cheeks and mucus dripped from my nose. I had not wept that way in years, maybe since I was a kid. It wasn’t all because of the insults, whether Farah’s or my mom’s. In fact I hardly cared about that. Or so I told myself. It was… I didn’t know what it was. Everything. I missed my wife and child. I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to for help. I was tired of being hated, tired of being looked down on and misunderstood.
Mentally I grasped for something to hold on to, some rope to steady myself. And I remembered Salman Al-Farisi.
Salman, Salman. My hero, my favorite Sahabi. When I had last mentally reviewed his story, he had been sold into slavery. My sobs abated and my breath turned to hitching gasps. I reclined the car seat and tipped my head back, closing my eyes as I continued the story in my head, recalling it in Salman’s own words:
I worked as a slave. Eventually my master sold me to a nephew of his belonging to the tribe of Banu Quraydah. This nephew took me to Yathrib, the city of palm groves, which was just as the Christian at Ammuriyah had described it.
At that time the Prophet was inviting his people in Makkah to Islam but I did not hear anything about him because of the harsh duties which slavery imposed upon me.
When the Prophet reached Yathrib after his hijrah from Makkah, I was in fact at the top of a palm tree belonging to my master doing some work. My master was sitting under the tree. A nephew of his came up and said:
“May God declare war on the Aws and the Khazraj (the two main Arab tribes of Yathrib). By God, they are now gathering at Quba to meet a man who has today come from Makkah and who claims he is a Prophet.”
My entire body flushed with heat as soon as I heard these words. I began to shiver so violently that I was afraid that I might fall on my master. I quickly got down from the tree and spoke to my master’s nephew.
“What did you say? Repeat the news for me.”
My master was furious and gave me a terrible blow. “What does this matter to you’? Go back to what you were doing!” he shouted.
That evening, I took some dates I had gathered and went to the place where the Prophet had alighted. I went up to him and said:
“I have heard you are a righteous man and that you have companions with you who are strangers and are in need. Here is something from me as sadaqah. I see that you are more deserving of it than others.”
The Prophet ordered his companions to eat but he himself did not eat of it. I gathered some more dates and when the Prophet left Quba for Madinah I went to him and said: “I noticed that you did not eat of the sadaqah I gave. This however is a gift for you.” Of this gift of dates, both he and his companions ate.
* * *
After that, Salman believed in the Prophet and accepted Islam. He was released from slavery by the Prophet who paid his slave-owner a stipulated price and who himself planted an agreed-upon number of date palms to secure his manumission. After accepting Islam, Salman would say when asked whose son he was: “I am Salman, the son of Islam from the children of Adam.”
I thought of Salman working as a slave, beaten by his master and treated with contempt even as he labored in the scorching heat of the Arabian sun without recompense. Yet he carried no self-pity, no anger or frustration. He was a man on a mission, seeking a true Prophet of God as he had done all his life, bearing all hardships in the meantime with patience. He was Salman, the son of Islam.
My own hardships were nothing compared to his. Look at all the blessings I had: a child who loved me (even if my wife did not), a career I enjoyed (even if it was not always successful), and now Allah had blessed me with a case and money so I could eat and care for my family. And – let’s not forget – the woman was alive. The woman Pinkie had shot. What a huge relief that was, what a blessing.
Most of all, I had the gift of faith. Allah had drawn me to Himself and chosen to guide me. That was priceless. I could not imagine my life without my religion.
Okay. Enough self-pity, enough wallowing. I was back in control. I took a deep breath and let it out.
Let everyone think what they wanted. Let them curse me, hate me. Let it all fall from me like water from a sea lion’s back. I knew who I was and what I was about, no matter what anyone thought. To borrow Salman Al-Farisi’s saying, I was Zaid, the son of Islam from the children of Adam. I was a good father, a good private detective, and struggling daily to be a good Muslim. That was all I needed, by God. I would survive and thrive, Insha’Allah, and no one’s opinion of me would matter more than a rainstorm matters to a mountain.
Next week: Chapter 12: Fever Dreams
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.