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Day of the Dogs, Part 14: If One Day I Am Shipwrecked

Muslim Matters - 13 January, 2021 - 07:00

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13

“Mamá knows things” – Nur

Ancient Knowledge

SAMIA DIDN’T NEED TO ASK WHY HE WANTED MELOCOTON’S DNA. Instead she said, “Take your shirt off and tell me what you see.”

“You can’t wait for me to shower before you jump me?”

She clucked her tongue. “Just do it.”

He shucked off the shirt. Samia’s hand went to his wounded shoulder and he pulled back, expecting it to hurt, but when she touched him, moving her fingers lightly across the skin, there was no pain. He pulled her hand away to study the wound… except there was no wound. Only a scar about a centimeter wide, and not a bad scar at that, but the kind you might expect if you scraped yourself on the corner of the car door. The flesh surrounding the scar was pink and new.

He probed the area with his fingers. There was no pain. Samia wanted to know what he saw, and he told her. “It was the krägä bianga.”

She frowned. “You mean the medicine woman? When did you see her?”

He told her, briefly, about his visit to his mother’s house the night of the dinner party, leaving out the fact that Celio Natá had been there and had practically ordered him to become a governor and move to the wilderness.

“SubhanAllah,” Samia whispered. “Ancient knowledge.”

“I guess.”

“There’s no guessing. The evidence is here.” She rubbed his shoulder. “Knowledge comes from many places. We forget that. Nowadays people think knowledge only comes from laboratories, computers, universities. But Al-Ghazali said that anyone who believes that unveiling the truth is the fruit of well-ordered arguments belittles the immensity of Divine mercy. The same is true for well-ordered technology, for sure. Truth, in other words, as well as understanding, insight and vision, all flow from Allah’s mercy. That’s why, in that hadith about the bald man, the leper and the blind man, the blind man was the only one who was grateful to Allah.”

“I don’t get you. What blind man?”

“Don’t you remember from school? To summarize, and I’m paraphrasing, the Prophet sal-Allahu-alayhi-wa-sallam told a story about three Israelites: a leper, a bald man, and a blind one.”

She sat cross-legged beside Omar and told the story:

Leper, Bald, Blind

In order to test the three men, Allah sent an angel to each one separately. The angel asked each one what he wished for most, and what he would like to own. The leper wished for good skin and a cure for his disease, and to own camels. The bald man wished for a beautiful head of hair, and cattle. The blind man wished to be able to see, and for sheep. Each was given what he asked for, and over time their animals multiplied until they were wealthy.

Later the angel returned in the form of a poor traveler. First he went to the leper and said, “I am a poor man, at the end of my rope on my journey, without recourse except to Allah and to you. I ask by the One who gave you a good complexion, good skin, and wealth, for a camel whereby I may complete my journey.”

But the man said, “I have many obligations.”

The angel said, ‘I seem to know you. Weren’t you a leper, destitute and shunned by society? And didn’t Allah help you?”

But the man said, “No, I’ve always had this lovely skin, and I inherited my wealth from previous generations.”

The angel said, “You are a liar. May Allah make you as you were.” So the man was returned to his leprous condition, and stripped of his wealth.

The angel went to the bald man with the same request, and the man similarly lied and denied Allah’s favor, and was returned to his previous condition.

But then the angel went to the formerly blind man with the same request. And the blind man said, “Indeed, I used to be blind, but Allah restored my eyesight. Take whatever you want for the sake of Allah.”

* * *

“Do you see my point?”

“That we should be grateful?”

“And?”

He snapped his fingers. “Generous.”

“And?”

Omar was suddenly tired. Samia’s tendency to lecture did not always come at ideal moments. “I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you, it’ll just take a sec. The blind man was given the vision to see the truth of things, and therefore could not deny that truth. He saw that all mercy, not only his ability to see, and the sheep he’d been given, but the light streaming from the sun, the uniqueness of each raindrop, the first cry of a baby, even the decomposition of bodies in the earth, is all a mercy from Allah, and that furthermore our own ability to understand these things and speak of them is yet another manifestation of rahmah.”

Omar’s was struck by the irony of Samia telling a story about a blind man gaining his vision. A thought came: Why can’t an angel come to her? Suddenly his eyes filled with tears, and he pressed his palms into them to hide it.

Mistaking this as a gesture of weariness, Samia caressed his curly hair and swung her legs off the bed, but Omar said, “So the krägä bianga is a manifestation of Allah’s mercy?”

“Why not?”

“She’s not Muslim.”

“Since when is Allah’s rahmah restricted to Muslims? Don’t the non-Muslims love their children too?” She clapped a hand on his knee. “Take a shower. I’ll make some apam balik.”

At the mention of apam balik, his stomach stuttered into gear and his mouth watered. He realized for the first time since waking how incredibly hungry he was. He grinned. “I should get sick more often, if I get apam balik for breakfast.”

* * *

He spent a few hours on the phone with his assistant Belem, and then doing research on the internet on DNA genealogy tests. He was pleased to see that the companies only wanted saliva samples, not blood. For sure Tio Melo would not willingly give him a DNA sample – the old man was obstinately private – but maybe Omar could somehow trick him into giving a saliva sample. The problem, however, was that the testing kits apparently needed about two millimeters of saliva, which was a lot.

Mamá Knows Things

Those few hours of work exhausted him. He took a noontime siesta, and woke to the feel of a small, sticky hand pushing his cheek around like baker’s dough. Opening his eyes, he saw Nur in his IIAP preschool uniform. While Omar had been sick his mother and Masood had been taking the boy to school each morning, and Nadia had been bringing him home.

Nadia was a lifesaver. Even in normal times, she picked Nur up every day, because the preschoolers had class until 1 pm, and Omar and Samia were both at work until 5. Since Nadia’s son Jameel was Nur’s classmate, she’d take Nur home with her, and Omar and Samia would fetch him on their way home. She had never asked for payment or reward. She treated Nur like a member of her family.

“Hey Nunu. How was school?”

Nur stuck out his bottom lip. “Bad.”

“Why?”

“Brother Ahmed didn’t give me a gold star sticker, and I cried. I told him that when I grow up and become a man I’ll buy my own stickers and I won’t give him any.”

“Aww, come here.” Nur hopped up onto the bed and Omar kissed him on the temple. “Were you scared when I was sick?”

“No, because Mamá said you would be okay, and I believe her because Mamá knows things.”

“Don’t I know things?”

“Yes, but not as much as Mamá.”

Omar grinned. Truth from the mouths of babes.

She’s Gone

Samia wanted him to take another day off work, but he was too far behind, and she too was needed at the office. So they returned to their routine the next day, with Omar driving Nur to school, and himself and Samia to work.

When they stopped in front of Nadia’s house to pick up Nur that afternoon, Omar stayed in the car. “You go,” he told Samia. He didn’t want to risk seeing Halima. They’d parted on such uncomfortable terms.

Samia shrugged. “Okay.” She stepped out of the car, unfolded her cane and snapped it open. When the door opened, Nadia and Samia exchanged cheek kisses, and Nadia waved to him. If Halima was there, she did not show her face.

When Samia returned with Nur, she had an odd look on her face.

“What is it? Something wrong?”

Samia hesitated. “Nadia says Hani showed up a few nights ago, banging on the gate and shouting. She threatened to call the cops but he went down on his knees and begged to see Halima. He was crying.”

“Crying?” Omar was incredulous. He’d never seen Hani cry in his life, even as a kid. For some reason he was repelled and disgusted by the thought, maybe because he found it impossible to believe the man was sincere.

“That’s what she said. Anyway… Halima went with him. She’s gone.”

Omar’s face became as flat as the road beneath them. “Of course she did.” Without another word, he started the car and pulled out into traffic. He felt bitterness and anger settle over him like a leaden blanket. He tried to tell himself that he was angry at Halima for making bad choices, and angry at Hani for being abusive and manipulative, but really, what were they to him? They were neither his children nor even good friends. They were adults, free to screw up, free to make the worst possible choices, free to be rotten, evil or simply stupid. To hell with them.

Even blind, Samia could read his moods. His silence was, to her, like the empty sky in a painting, portenting either the peacefulness of the day or the electricity in the air. When Nur tried to tell him about the latest trouble Fairy and Jameel had gotten into, his mother shushed him, saying, “Papá has to concentrate on driving.”

He turned on the radio, thinking to distract himself. A news announcer’s basso profundo voice intoned the daily ode to all the sadness and turmoil in the world: the Israelis were bombing Gaza. Syria was coming apart. In Europe, right-wing parties were winning seats. In Panama, a government minister had been arrested for selling protected forest land to a lumber company, and the inmates of La Joya prison were rioting.

Omar made a fist and punched the radio button, shutting it off.

Team Magma Vía España, Panamá, Panama

Vía España, Panamá

He made his way down Vía España, the bustling one-way downtown thoroughfare lined with stores, restaurants and hotels. He drove aggressively, blasting the horn as if it were a sonic weapon that would disintegrate everything in his way. His family ignored him. Samia had put on her cherry red headphones and was listening to the Quran on her phone. Nur was drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch.

He turned up a long driveway and into a large parking lot.

Samia lifted her head. “Where are we?”

“Price Smart. I told those Venezuelans by the Centro that I’d bring them food and water on Saturday, but I missed it.”

“You were sick.”

“They don’t know that. I don’t want to be yet another person messing them over.” He parked under the awnings that shaded the lot, and turned to his family. “Anyone want to come?”

Samia shook her head. Nur did not even look up. “Hey buddy,” Omar said, forcing a cheerful tone. “You don’t want to come with your Papá?” Price Smart had free food samples, plus a food shop that sold frozen yogurt and Mexican churros. Usually Nur enjoyed coming here. But the boy spoke without looking up from his toy: “No, you’re being a Team Magma.”

Omar pursed his lips. “What does that mean?”

“That’s what the kids say.”

“Which kids?”

“Fairy.”

“Of course. But what does it mean?”

“Nothing.”

Samia pulled one headphone cup away from her ear and said, “Leave it, honey.”

With an exasperated sigh, Omar opened all the car windows – it would turn into a sauna otherwise – and went into the store. A half hour later he emerged with a cart laden with five-liter water jugs, cooking oil, canned foods such as tuna, sardines and beans, an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a scattering of hygiene products like toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap.

If One Day I Am Shipwrecked

He parked across from the Centro Islamico, directly beside the lot where the Venezuelans were camped. It must have rained last night, because the field was sodden with mud. The scene was much the same as last week, except that in addition to the tent and lean-to that had been here, two new tents had sprung up. One was olive green and appeared to be military issue, while the other consisted of nothing more than a tarpaulin hung over a clothesline strung between the wall of the property bordering the lot, and a stake in the ground.

The toothless old man with the ball cap still sat out in the sun. The thin woman with frizzy hair that he’d seen last week was cooking on a hot plate plugged into an extension cord that ran through a hole in the wall to the property next door. Omar wondered if the people who lived in that adjacent property were donating electricity, or if the refugees were stealing it. Not that it was any of his business. There was no sign of the two children who’d been playing football, nor of the weatherbeaten woman in her forties to whom he’d given the money. A tall teenage boy with brown hair cut close to the scalp was limping around the field with a black garbage bag, collecting discarded bottles and cans.

Omar exited the car and went around to the trunk to unload the goods. From inside one of the tents a woman was singing in a voice as clear and sweet as spun sugar, yet with an undertone of deep melancholy and pain:

I carry your light and your scent on my skin.
I carry the foam of the sea in my blood
and your horizon in my eyes.
And if one day I am shipwrecked
and a typhoon breaks my sails,
bury my body near the sea in Venezuela.

As Omar stood listening, the teenage boy spotted him. The youth dropped his bag, shouted and began running toward Omar with a hitching gait. The singing cut off abruptly. Omar watched, puzzled. When the boy was within seven or eight meters he reached down, scooped a handful of mud and flung it at Omar.

Muddy fieldThe mud struck Omar in the chest. It was wet and soft, and stuck to his shirt. He looked at his chest in shock, and when he looked up and opened his mouth to protest, the boy had already flung another handful. It hit Omar in the face, some flying into his mouth and down his throat. He gagged and bent over, coughing. Another gout of mud hit the car, splattering the side windows, and Omar heard Nur’s muffled voice crying out.

The fact that this punk was scaring his son enraged him. He straightened up and strode toward the teenager, who was bending down to scoop another handful of mud.

“Stop that!” Omar shouted. “Are you crazy?”

In response, the boy let loose a string of insults in a reedy, quavering voice, and chucked the mud. This time Omar sidestepped, letting the mud fly past, and a second later he was on the punk. He gripped him by the front of his t-shirt, lifted him onto his toes – the kid weighed practically nothing – and bellowed in his face. An instant later the older woman – the one he’d given the money to – was there, pulling on Omar’s arm, saying, “Let him go, please, he thought you were here to hurt us.” Only then did Omar’s mind register the bruises discoloring the boy’s face, and the wide, dilated eyes. The kid was terrified. People had emerged from the other tents and lean-tos. They were all women and children, and all looked frightened.

Omar released the youth and stepped back, breathing hard. His anger drained away. As a reward, the boy made a fist and hit Omar in the face. The punch struck his cheek, but there was no power behind it, and it felt like a flick from a fingernail. Omar looked at the boy and said calmly, “Don’t do that.”

The older woman gripped the boy’s face. “Stop! This man is a friend!” She turned to Omar. “I apologize. Some men attacked us two nights ago. They threatened to burn our tents. My son tried to stop them and they beat him. He thought you were with them.”

Samia called out behind him. Omar turned to see her approaching, swinging her cane back and forth. Her pant cuffs and nice Oxford flat shoes were stained. Behind her, Nur sat in the car, his face pressed to the window.

“What’s happening?” Samia called out. “Leave my husband alone!”

The appearance of a blind woman feeling her way across the field seemed to take the aggression out of everyone’s sails.

“I’m fine!” Omar called to her. He jogged to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “It was just a scared teenager.” He led her back to the mother and son, and introduced her.

The woman, who had been reluctant to give her name last week, now smiled and took Samia’s hand. “I am Graziela. This is my son Chiki.”

Omar explained that he had supplies in the car. Graziela called out a few names, and two women in their twenties appeared and accompanied Omar to the car to unload the goods, as Samia remained talking to Graziela.

Later, on the way home, Samia told him that while Graziela had been grateful for the supplies, she’d said that what they really needed was legal residency so they could get jobs. Some of the refugees had left children behind with grandparents or aunts, but could not bring them over without papers. “One man from their group went back to Venezuela,” Samia went on, “but Graziela says most of them were starving there. And the violence was terrible. Graziela was robbed ten times in the last year before she left, including twice in one day! But no one here will help. A UNHCR rep came by, took their names, and never returned.”

Listening to this, Omar knew that he had to help these people. But he didn’t know where to start. He looked at Nur in the rear view mirror. The boy was biting his nails, something Omar had seen him doing more often lately. “Hey Nunu,” he said. “You weren’t scared by what happened back there, were you?”

Nur shook his head. “No. But I thought you were going to beat the boy up, and I didn’t want you to.”

Omar let out a ragged breath. The thought of his son thinking of him, Omar, as a bully, shook him. He gripped the steering wheel tightly. When he glanced at Samia, she was not listening to Quran. Instead she seemed to be looking right at him, though he knew she could not actually see him.

“It’s okay, honey,” she said. She put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all going to be okay, inshaAllah.”

Escaped Convict

When he pulled up in front of his house, there was a police car parked along the sidewalk. It was unmarked, but possessed the telltale identifiers: long antennas, bull bars on the front, and a spotlight attached to the passenger’s side window. Celio Natá stood beside the front gate, arms crossed, talking to two men in suits. Omar opened the gate by remote, drove in and parked. He told Samia he’d be right in, thinking that this was one of those moments when he was glad she was blind. Then he felt immediately and powerfully ashamed for having such a thought, and said several istighfar.

He strode out to see what was going on.

When he introduced himself as the homeowner, one of the suited men flashed a detective’s badge, and asked if he knew Celio. Omar had the impression that they were about to arrest the old man. When he told them that yes, Celio was his uncle, they seemed disappointed.

One of the officers gestured casually toward Omar’s face and shirt. “What happened to you?” He was a big man with an oversized belly and a heavy shadow of beard growth.

“Oh.” Omar looked at his mud stained shirt. “Stupid teenager.”

La Joya Prison, Panama

La Joya Prison, Panama

“Huh. Anyway, there’s a riot going on at La Joya prison.”

“I heard about it on the radio,” Omar said. “So?”

The detective shrugged. “Some convicts escaped. One was a man named Nemesio Bayano. Do you know him?”

Omar stared at the man. “Nemesio escaped? How could that happen?”

The detective lifted his bottom lip as if to say, Meh. Who knows?

“So you know him?” said the other cop, an equally tall man with a muscular physique and military haircut.

“He’s my paternal uncle, and he’s a piece of garbage.”

“He hasn’t contacted you?”

“No. Why would he?”

“Because -” The detective took a small notebook from his breast pocket and flipped it open. “According to inmate Bayano’s case manager, he is known to have made repeated statements about wanting to kill his nephew, Omar Bayano. He is, quote, pathologically obsessed with murdering his nephew, and has stated his desire to dismember him and feed his body to dogs.” The man looked up, his face as impassive as if he’d read a weather report.

Omar didn’t know what to say. He looked up and down the street, as if expecting to see Nemesio advancing up the sidewalk with an axe. Only then did he notice another police car – this one marked as such – parked across the street.

“What are you doing about it?”

“Everything,” the muscular detective replied. “Half the police in Panama are pursuing the escapees.” The man handed Omar a card. “We’ll leave a car out front. Call us if your uncle contacts you.”

Omar watched the detectives drive away. He’d hoped never to hear Nemesio’s name again, let alone possibly have to confront him. So the man had been sitting in prison all these years, blaming Omar, stewing and filling with hate, while Omar almost never even thought of the man. What had the detective said? He is pathologically obsessed with murdering his nephew, and has stated his desire to dismember him and feed his body to dogs. Despite himself, Omar felt his skin crawl. He was not afraid for himself. But what about his family? Should he get out of town for a while? But he’d already missed a week of work. And what about his mother? She would have to be told.

Hot Chocolate

Celio cleared his throat. Omar turned. His uncle wore a gray suit with a black shirt and no tie. He had a scent to him, something that made Omar think of tree smoke. For a second he wondered if it was something Puro Panameño could distill and sell, and he had to consciously silence that part of his mind. Not everything was a marketing opportunity.

The old man’s clothes looked like they’d come off a thrift store rack, which Omar considered a mark in his favor. Any leader of a nation who bought his clothes off the discount rack was clearly not in it for the money. And that’s just what Tio Celio was, a leader, even if his people were not sovereign and did not have a seat at the U.N.

But that didn’t mean Omar was happy to see him. “Tio Celio.” His tone was brusque bordering on rude. “What can I do for you?”

“Perhaps I can do something for you.” Celio did not uncross his arms. He possessed a stillness that spoke of power coiled and waiting, in spite of the advanced age apparent in the lines on his face. “I will bring a man down from the comarca to act as your bodyguard.”

Omar snorted. “I don’t need that.”

“Of course not.” Celio’s face was unreadable. “Because how could an illiterate Indian protect you?”

Omar looked at the man askance. “What did you just say? That is not what I was thinking. What do you want anyway?”

“May we talk inside?”

Omar found he could not say no. How do you tell a jaguar to walk away and leave you alone? How do you argue with a mountain? He sighed. “Sure.”

At the door, he told his uncle to wait, and ducked inside. Nur was at the kitchen table, opening a box of colored pencils, and Samia was making him a peanut butter sandwich. She was still wearing her hijab.

“Cariño,” Omar said, using the Spanish word for sweetheart. “We have a guest.”

“Who is it? Should I make something?”

“No, don’t bother.” Omar fetched Celio and ushered him in, bypassing the kitchen and taking him to the living room. “You want something to drink? Guava juice? A Pepsi?”

“You have hot chocolate?”

Omar nodded. He went upstairs and washed his face and hands. His hands were shaking. It wasn’t fear. There was too much going on, and it was overwhelming him. Ivana shooting him, Tio Celio’s crazy demands, his illness and the terrible dreams that had accompanied it, this business of Tio Melo’s DNA, almost beating up some poor refugee kid, and now, of all things, Nemesio – the man he despised most in the world – loose and coming to kill him.

He took off his socks and made wudu’, imagining the water carrying away his sins, along with his stress and anxiety. By the time he was done, the shaking had stopped. ‘If one day I am shipwrecked,” he whispered, “and a typhoon breaks my sails, bury my body near the sea in Venezuela.” The words were longing and mournful, but they somehow comforted him.

After changing his clothes he went to the kitchen to prepare the chocolate. Samia was seated with Nur, who was telling her about his drawing. “It’s a city with buildings all on fire. The people who live inside are made of stone, so the fire doesn’t bother them.” The boy’s description set off an echo in Omar’s mind, and though he could not think of what it reminded him of, he shivered. A dream he’d had, maybe.

Hot chocolateHe set the water to boil. This was not a common drink here in sweltering Panama City, but he knew it was popular on the chilly mountain slopes of the comarca. His mother used to make it all the time, and he kept some for her visits. Not the store-bought brands, but genuine dark cocoa powder, ground from Panamanian cocoa beans. He made two cups, adding milk, sugar and a touch of chili powder.

“Honey,” Samia said quietly. “Who is that?”

“Nobody. Just… Nothing.”

“What do you mean, nobody?”

Omar did not answer. He returned to Tio Celio, setting the cups on the living room coffee table, which was oval-shaped. There was no sharp-cornered furniture in the house, for Samia’s sake. Celio was on the love seat, and Omar sat on the sofa facing him.

“This is good chocolate,” Celio said, taking a big gulp. “You made it Ngäbe style. I’m surprised.” The old man’s eyes settled on the eight stunning ceramic tiles hanging on the living room wall, one row of four above another. They were blue, and carved in the shapes of varying geometric patterns. “Those are Moroccan. Berber, I would say.”

Omar was surprised. “How did you know that?”

“I have been there. I met with Berber leaders to discuss the common cause of indigenous autonomy. I have been to many nations, many continents.” Celio studied Omar’s face. “This surprises you. You think I am a backward Indian. An illiterate savage.”

Omar’s face grew hot. “I do not think that. How dare you come into my house and -”

“You do. Maybe you don’t realize it. But I saw the loathing on your face when the krägä bianga was treating you. I saw the scornful look you gave the girl, Maura. And I heard what you said to your wife just now. That I am nobody, nothing. This is why you refused my offer. You look down on us indigenous people, as so many do. You deny this part of your heritage. You might know how to make Ngäbe chocolate, but that’s as far as it goes. Your blood is empty. You are a bigot. Yet it is not us you are ashamed of, but yourself. I am not angry with you, but I am sad. Anyone who is prejudiced against his own genetic code deserves only pity.”

Omar was shocked beyond words. He set his chocolate down on the table, hard enough that it sloshed over the side. “Don Celio,” he said, and though he used the man’s honorific – why had he done that? – his voice was as sharp as a knife. But he found that he didn’t know what to say. Deny that he was a bigot? Was there any point to that? Apologize? He’d done nothing wrong.

Before he could conjure anything meaningful, Samia appeared, her face tight with anger. “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but it’s time for you to leave.”

Celio nodded slowly, considering this. For a moment Omar feared the man might refuse. But Celio stood and bowed to Samia, perhaps not realizing that she could not see him. “My apologies for the disturbance, señora. I will let myself out.” He strode toward the front door, then turned. “Child Omar. Your Malcolm X said, ‘We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.’ Ask yourself. Do you accept every part of yourself?” With that, he departed.

Blaming the Victim

Samia rounded on Omar. “Who was that? Why did he speak to you that way?”

Omar glowered. “I don’t want to talk about it.” He was deeply troubled by what Celio had said. Was it true? Was he a racist? Did he hate the Ngäbe part of himself? Discrimination against indigenous people was a nearly universal Latin American phenomenon. Was he infected by it? He felt like he’d been struck in the chest by a wrecking ball. But Samia knew very little about his mother’s side of the family, and he didn’t feel like getting into the whole mess right now.

“I see.” Samia tapped a finger on her forehead, then came to him, finding him unerringly. “Lie down. Time for a massage.”

“I don’t want to.”

She pushed him down. “Do it.”

Omar let out an exasperated breath and lay on his stomach on the sofa, turning his face sideways so that his cheek pressed against the cushion. Samia half-kneeled beside him, one knee pressing into the sofa cushion beside his hip, and began to massage his shoulders. She worked on the upper part of his shoulders and neck first, alternately applying pressure with her palms, and digging in with her fingertips.

She’d learned to do this from a sister named Sawdah, a Panamanian who had studied some kind of Japanese massage in New York. Sawdah held seminars in her home for women only. Samia had proven an apt pupil, and ever since then she often used her skills on Omar.

“I got this new gadget at work,” she said as she used her knuckles to dig into a particularly tight spot above Omar’s left shoulder blade, “called a line reader. It’s the size of a computer mouse. I run it over any printed page, and it reads the text out loud. It’s fantastic. It can read a spreadsheet, a letter, anything.”

Omar grunted. “So you could use it to read Islamic books too?”

Samia’s fingers ceased their work for a moment. “SubhanAllah. I never thought of that. I can read books again! Although the device’s voice sounds like a woman on opium.”

She worked lower, using her elbow to dig deep into the large muscles of the middle back. Omar found his anger at Hani, his shock and indignation at Tio Celio’s words, all fading with each dig.

“You must be pretty upset with Halima, huh? She’s a terrible person.”

He frowned. “No. She’s a victim.”

“But she went back to her abuser. So stupid, right?”

He knew she was baiting him, but he couldn’t help it. “Yes. It is stupid. But it’s her problem. It’s like a drug addict, you can’t help them unless they want to be helped.”

“So you think she wants to be abused?”

“She must.”

“Did you?”

Omar sat up. “Excuse me?”

“You were abused. Your uncle used to beat you. Did you want that?”

“I was a kid.”

“You were a teenager. Teenagers run away all the time. Plus, you were a karate student. You could have fought back or called the police. You could have told people, told your karate teacher, Principal Suwaylem, your friends’ parents.”

Omar leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. He hated talking about this. Finally he said, “I didn’t think I could do all those things. I felt… I don’t know.”

“Try.”

He kept his eyes on the floor. “I felt trapped and ashamed. I thought people wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t know who to trust. I didn’t want to abandon my mother. I didn’t know where to go. I even thought that if I left, Nemesio might come after me and find me, and hurt me even worse.”

Samia reached out and cupped the back of his neck, squeezing. “I understand.” She didn’t have to say anything else. He understood the unspoken message: It’s the same for Halima, and for every other victim out there. Don’t hate them for their weakness. They are no more to blame than you were.

He sighed and relaxed, reclining into the sofa. “You’re right, cariño. Nunu did say that you know things.”

“Did he? He just knows who makes the apam balik around here.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 15:  DNA Doesn’t Lie

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

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

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

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Podcast: Damage Control With Digital Dinosaurs – On The Fiqh of Social Media | Omar Usman

Muslim Matters - 12 January, 2021 - 05:33

The internet shapes our interaction with the Muslim world, but how does Islam shape our interaction with the internet? Join Zeba Khan as she discusses this with Omar Usman, digital dinosaur and author of the Fiqh of Social Media.

The internet shapes our interaction with the Muslim world, but how does Islam shape our interaction with the internet? Click To Tweet

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media.

“People assume that because they have access to the information, that it translates into understanding. So it’s almost like “well now that I can search Sunnah.com and access all that hadith, that means my fiqh is stronger than Abu Hanifa’s because he just didn’t have access to all the hadith. So I know more. My opinions are going to be more correct.””

“You can’t turn everything off and create your own bubble where you’re unaware of any type of atrocity happening in the world, but at the same time you do have to pick how deep you can go in on each one.”

 

The post Podcast: Damage Control With Digital Dinosaurs – On The Fiqh of Social Media | Omar Usman appeared first on MuslimMatters.org.

Violence At The US Capitol And Hateful Ideologies

Muslim Matters - 11 January, 2021 - 19:18

Charles de Gaulle, the French President who led his country against Nazi Germany once famously said,”Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

This stark contrast between patriotism and nationalism is now more apparent than ever, with the latter resurgent around the world in a way that calls into question the sentiments millions of people who love their respective countries, races and religions have for each other. Is it love for “our people,” or hate for “others?”

The events at Capitol Hill on January 6 have been called an assault on democracy by a riotous mob and a fascist act incited by a rogue President. While these descriptions may be accurate, they do not identify the emotion that motivated hundreds of people from around the country to assemble at Capitol Hill, to engage in violence while on camera, and to put their own lives and livelihoods on the line in order to prevent what they were led to believe was a grave injustice. That underlying emotion was one of hate and indignation, and it was building up long before Donald Trump became President. Trump only accelerated its growth, serving as a catalyst to help it reach a tipping point until it found expression in the violence last Wednesday that claimed five lives.

The Capitol Hill attack, while rightfully considered as a dark chapter in US history, did not happen in isolation. The mainstreaming of far-right ideas once espoused only by fringe groups, is part of a global pattern of several countries gravitating towards virulent forms of nationalism. From the popularity of the rabid Hindu nationalist government in India and the rise of Buddhist “nationalist” forces cheerleading the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Ku Klux Klan finding common cause with the US President, hundreds of millions of people around the world are now increasingly identifying with (and voting for) a narrative that involves somehow restoring a “national glory” whose loss can be attributed to the “others,” usually immigrants, minorities and people of color.

The fact that millions of Trump voters continue to believe the election was rigged is not unrelated to the fact that the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, regarded by the FBI to pose a domestic terrorism threat now has their first elected representative to the US House of Representatives. Like the canard perpetuated by Hindu nationalist forces that 200 million Indian Muslims are “traitors” to their country, some of whom were marrying Hindu women as part of a “Love Jihad” campaign to subvert Hindu society, the QAnon movement has managed to get an online following of people who believe Trump is up against a cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles that is running a global child sex-trafficking ring. In the age of fake news and social media, the megaphones of falsehoods and smear campaigns are louder and more powerful than ever, and they threaten not only law and order, but the very idea of what is meant by popular will.

Should we be intimidated by the support that “strong men” like Trump and Modi enjoy in their respective countries, or question the underlying falsehoods that catapulted these men to power?

Is Aung San Suu Kyi’s tacit support for the Rohingya genocide, including a defense of Myanmar at the International Court, somehow less alarming because she continues to be extremely popular in Myanmar?

In so much as these leaders came to power through democratic elections, with each having an ardent following of millions willing to take to the streets for them, they represent the will of their supporters. In that sense, even the shameful assault on the Capitol was, in the words of John Harris of Politico, “a perverse expression of democracy.”

There is one thread that is common to all nationalist movements, from Nazism in World II Germany and Hindutva in India to the white supremacist forces in the West.Click To Tweet

However there is one thread that is common to all nationalist movements, from Nazism in World II Germany and Hindutva in India to the white supremacist forces in the West. It is a reliance on narratives that weaponize real or perceived grievances, on a revisionism of history that holds the “other” responsible for practically everything that ails the Republic and that falsely claims that the solutions to the country’s complex problems are predicated on a subjugation of its minorities.

Unfettered social media has amplified these hateful ideologies that have each been built around a web of lies and deceit. While these have varied causes, the effects on their victims follow very similar trajectories. Alienation, discrimination, demonization and far too often, horrific mass violence. Hate speech may be as old as the human race, but the means to amplify and disseminate it to a global audience have never been as powerful and its effects never as lethal as they are today. There exists ample evidence in the public domain that incendiary rhetoric online, especially by influential groups and individuals, has led to actual violence that has destroyed countless lives in India, Myanmar and other countries. It is not surprising that the “aggrieved” majorities in these countries are joining hands, as outlined in a New York Times article in 2014 titled “Deadly Alliances against Muslims.”

While people of conscience around the world agree on the need to challenge these false narratives, it is important we discuss the terms of such a challenge, if it is to even make a dent in the trajectory of these hate movements. To say that the rioting “nationalist” mob at Capitol Hill last Wednesday was driven by sentiments of hate is stating the obvious. The harder question is how we can rise above hating them! To retreat into our safe spaces where our perspectives are driven by a shared set of facts is easy. To confront the larger problem, of how fake news and the widespread abuse of social media are pushing false narratives which in turn fuel hate and anger, is hard.

Thanks to exposes of Facebook’s corrupt handling of hate and Islamophobia, two of which were published in the Wall Street Journal and one in Time, the public is now aware of the multiple failures of ethics and legality at the social media giant. However, this is not even scratching the surface in terms of how false narratives are purposefully disseminated over time, in ways that they become part of the discourse. A massive study of fake news undertaken by MIT found that falsehoods consistently dominate the truth on Twitter. The study analyzed 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users over 10 years. “We must redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century,” declared a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars in an essay published in Science.  

There are no winners when hate and falsehood become pervasive. The genocide of Rohingya has not brought prosperity to Myanmar, and the demonization of Muslims in India along with countless lynchings has not helped the country avert a record fall in its GDP.  It is therefore important for people of conscience around the world to rally around the goal of defending every citizen’s right to the truth. Fake news, social media and hate are a lethal combination, and left unchecked, they can collectively devour everything that defines our humanity, including our God-given mandate to discern truth from falsehood.

Hating and demonizing those who attacked Capitol Hill may help some of us let steam out in order to deal with the trauma of recent events. In the larger scheme of things however, it is our ability to strategize around long term initiatives and effective coalitions and to use our limited resources in ways that can have the most impact that will determine how this challenge to humanity is ultimately defeated. In other words, it is our tenacity in defending the truth and courage in taking on falsehoods that is facing a test.

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Muslim In Germany: European High Court Legalizes The Banning Of Halal And Kosher Animal Slaughter

Muslim Matters - 10 January, 2021 - 23:39

Just a few weeks ago, the Highest Court of the European Union ruled that member states can ban halal and kosher animal slaughtering; or allow it only under the condition that the animals have been stunned before their throat is cut (which is the requirement for slaughtering animals for food in both, the Muslim and Jewish religions). The case came up to the highest court of the Union because Belgium (Flanders) had passed a law banning this type of ritual slaughter in spite of protests from both religious communities who say this is a deep infringement of their right to follow their own religious obligations.

This ruling might affect Muslims living in Germany even more than before. It should be known that banning kosher slaughtering had been first put into law at the beginning of the 1930’s, i.e., as a part of persecution of the Jewish minority (there were almost no Muslims living in Germany at the time). It either made Jewish life difficult for those wanting to live kosher, or forced practicing Jews into breaking an official religious obligation. The latter was one of the intentions of the ruling towards starting the legal persecution of Jews.

Of course, this law was among the first to be abolished after the end of the 2nd World War, and until late in the 1990s the topic was more or less no point of discussion despite a growing Muslim community. A community whose members increasingly sought to slaughter their own meat and sell in their own shops – a right that would have otherwise not been possible during the first decades of immigration, as opening shops was not allowed to new immigrants. Animal protection societies were still interested in the topic, but -owing to the fact that any protest in this direction would go against Jewish communities-, not too energetically.

With growing enmity against Islam and Muslims in general — although during the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s it was more a general xenophobia – which expressed itself most loudly in the debate about hijab, the question of halal slaughtering also came up. In 1995, slaughtering without stunning was forbidden, and it was necessary to apply for special permission not to stun animals before slaughtering. It was never questioned when a permit was required for kosher slaughter, but was more often than not refused to Muslims. Long fights at court ensued, and only the German constitutional court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) decided at last in 2002 that of course the Muslim slaughter of animals also had the right to this permission.

In reaction to this in 2006, an amendment was added to the German constitution (Grundgesetz) to declare the protection of animals as a main national objective. As a result, the authorities pretended this would negate the decision of 2002 and that they could again refuse this permission. Following more legal fighting, the current status stands that again the highest German court has decided that a special permission has to be granted if it is proved that the religious law is mandatory not to stun the animals first, and that the meat will only be sold to those members of the religious community who also hold on to this belief. Currently it can be observed that it is nearly impossible to slaughter for the halal market under this condition, with the authorities putting up more and more obstacles when a permission is applied for.

Close up shot of the goat with bunch of green lush grass on the summer meadow

Meanwhile, there were two ways to procure halal meat for the market in Germany: either import it from neighboring states where halal slaughter was not a problem, or follow the opinion laid down in some fatwas from different scholars that stated that meat could be considered halal if the animal was only put to sleep in a way that this would not kill it (unlike the shots animals get in German non-halal slaughterhouses) and, if the throat was not cut it would wake up unharmed. The Jewish communities however, declared this as not kosher, which meant that this regulation would restrict them to slaughtering completely.

This is a question of Islamic Law that I cannot decide, but it makes it very difficult for the average Muslim to know what they are buying or eating, even if food items are marked “halal” and/or are sold by Muslims as such. Whoever does not share the opinion that this is halal meat, must inquire doubly and triply when sourcing their meats, and invest in buying more imported goods from countries where you can be guaranteed of a more reliable certificate.

The new decision will not change too much in German law, but it leads to growing suspicions that the highest authorities in Europe consider religious laws and living as less important even than the rights of animals.Click To Tweet

The new decision will not change too much in German law, but it leads to growing suspicions that the highest authorities in Europe consider religious laws and living as less important even than the rights of animals. This might often give the strongly atheist, the right-wing (but not only) eagerness and help when they want to push against other facets of Muslim life. Keep in mind that the ban of niqab is legal according to this court (although not all countries want to get ridiculed for making laws against a two or three figure minority of Muslim women) as is a ban on hijab in schools, and like in France, for teachers and other government employees, etc. Discrimination against visible Muslims -again, mostly muhajjabas- is common, and getting jobs and finding housing are two of the most common problems, besides a rising number of attacks. Praying at a workplace is often as good as impossible, or at least a known reason for mobbing. All of this will be encouraged by decisions of high courts who treat Muslim laws and lifestyle as irrelevant.

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Who is, and who isn’t, a terrorist?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 8 January, 2021 - 20:24
Picture of a youngish white man with a mostly bare, hairy chest, dressed in a furry headpiece which drapes partly over his chest, which has horns; he has tattoos on his arms, his face has US flag paint and he is carrying an American flag. Behind is a bearded, long-haired white man wearing a police body shield (whether legitimate or stolen is not clear).One of the mob who invaded the US Capitol on 6th Jan. Taken from police PDF (see bottom of this entry).

Earlier this week a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters, whipped up by Trump’s baseless claims of ‘fraud’ in last November’s presidential election, invaded the houses of Congress in Washington, DC, with the apparent help of some of the police who should have been guarding the place, as the Congress met to certify the result of the election. They rampaged through the building, opening desks and strewing files over the floor, took pictures of each other in the offices and chambers, and removed artefacts; five people died, one a police officer, one of the mob who was shot, and three others from “medical emergencies”. In the aftermath social media was abuzz with complaints that the mob were not labelled as terrorists, a label that would have been applied had the rioters been Muslims, Black Lives Matter or anyone except White supremacists (along with much more stringent security and, very likely, lethal force); the White man who killed himself in a car bombing in Nashville over the Christmas period was also not referred to as such. This has been countered on Twitter by Muslims who suggested that expanding the use of ‘terror’ lingo might come back to haunt Muslims; Hoda Katebi suggested calling them “white militia” or “racist scum” instead.

While I agree with Hoda Katebi’s assessment, there is a simpler reason why the term ‘terrorist’ isn’t used for acts like this week’s invasion: they aren’t. The traditional definition of terrorism, as opposed to the official one that might be used in some government departments, is the use of spectacular acts of destruction or violence that are aimed at forcing political change to the benefit of the perpetrators by causing harm to members of the public and making the public fear for their lives. Such acts typically include bombings and massacres; they typically rule their populations by fear, running protection rackets on local businesses and murdering or maiming individuals presumed to be ‘traitors’ or ‘spies’ or those who publicly oppose their aims or methods.

Political actors have tried to stretch the definition to include activities which are merely disruptive, or intimidation which does not cause fear for one’s life or personal safety, or sabotage which is designed to avoid injury or loss of life to innocents. Such activities include the intimidation by animal rights extremists of people who breed animals for experimentation, which has included vandalism of vehicles and utilities but no personal harm, and the destruction of aircraft and other military equipment intended for use by an oppressive regime or in a civil war. Meanwhile, activists call for other things to be lumped in with ‘terrorism’ when, although an individual may be intimidated, the public are not. Domestic violence, for example, is not terrorism. A workplace or school bully is not a terrorist. Similarly, they demand that things are called what they think they are, regardless of facts; a certain type of feminist will demand that the word ‘rape’ is used for any age-of-consent breach, for example. There’s an old-fashioned word for harassing or intimidating people on the road and making them fear to travel, and that word is ‘banditry’. It’s not used enough, and there are plenty of bandits in US law enforcement.

The reason the Nashville suicide bomber was not called a terrorist in the media is because he wasn’t one; he had no political aims but just wanted to go out with a bang. In 2004 a man parked his car on a level crossing in southern England and sat there in front of an approaching high-speed train which derailed; the crash killed him, the train driver and five of the train’s passengers (including two children) and injured 66, twelve of them seriously. The man’s aim was not political; one matter of interest was that he was awaiting the results of an HIV test, but this was in fact negative. Both men were white.

‘Terrorism’ is being used as a pejorative term for any political activity that involves disruption or violence. Its use is being taken as a sign that something is being taken seriously; people are disappointed when it is not used, much as there is disappointment and distress when a war crime is deemed not to be genocide, as action is not mandated at UN level and penalties are lighter. The problem is that too much that people call terrorism, or insist be called that, really has little in common with the real thing and if we expand the definition of terrorism, it will be used against people who are already liable to be accused of condoning terrorism, or being “unindicted co-conspirators”, or being somehow “linked to terror” because of a tenuous personal connection or because of having a similar or distantly related ideology with an actual terrorist group that they have nothing to do with (as organisations and public figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood commonly experience, not only from American pundits and politicians but from the authorities in some Muslim countries).

It’s not right or just that anyone be accused of terrorism because of such associations, or for illegal acts such as sabotage or computer hacking that are not designed to cause death or injury to innocents but perhaps even to prevent it. And if we do not want this done to our own people, to our personalities, activists and imams, we shouldn’t be clamouring for things we don’t like to be called terrorism when they are not or people who are hostile to us to be called terrorists when they are not, or at least are guilty of other things. There were many crimes committed by the people who invaded Congress; it was at least a coup attempt or a threat to the constitutional order from people who did not like the result of an election. However, not every politically motivated crime is an act of terrorism.

Image source: District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, via Wikimedia.

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Day of the Dogs, Part 13: Never Be Your King

Muslim Matters - 6 January, 2021 - 05:01

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

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12

“Who names their kid after a fruit?” – Omar

Good Dog

Car headlights in the rainOMAR GRIMACED AS HE SWUNG THE GATE OPEN. His shoulder was sending out pulses of pain, as insistent as a reggaeton beat. Grasping Berlina’s leash, he was about to dash across the street toward his mother’s house, but the dog planted her feet, stopping short.

A car blared its horn and rushed by in the darkness, its headlights blazing a path in the rain. He had not even seen it coming. Berlina had saved his life.

“Good dog.” He rubbed her neck with a shaking hand. Looking both ways now, he jogged across the street, his feet slapping the asphalt. From somewhere far off he heard a drawn-out cry that might have been the harpy eagle again, or a car skidding on the wet streets. He was filled with a directionless panic. He knew it was stupid. A harpy eagle was a bird, that was all. Nevertheless, his stomach felt like he’d swallowed a live eel.

He pressed the buzzer on the intercom at his mother’s gate, and a moment later the speaker crackled as Masood, his mother’s husband, said, “Who is it?” His voice was – as always – as mild as a pigeon’s coo.

“It’s me, Omar.”

The gate swung open. Omar hurried up the tiled white walkway, which rose in broad steps. Unlike his own lush garden, his mother’s yard had an open design consisting of mossy groundcover, boulders, and several strategically placed security cameras. It was a space to pass through rather than spend time in, and was arranged to make sure the cameras had an unobstructed view. He couldn’t fault her for the emphasis on security. Criminals had broken into and looted the house three years ago. Luckily his mom had slept at the factory that night, in an upstairs bedroom that she used when she worked late.

The exterior of the home looked like three massive, rectangular white blocks pushed together, the sheer surface broken only by vertical, heavily tinted windows. It was a weird play on traditional Panamanian homes, which tended to be made of brick, with small windows to minimize the sun’s heat. From the outside, the house seemed to say, proceed with caution.

Just like his mother, who had never been one to share her feelings about anything. She had not wept at his father’s funeral, though he knew she had loved Papá more than anything in this world. She had not wept when Omar lay in a hospital bed, ravaged by eighty seven dog bites. The only time he’d ever seen her panicked was when the harpy eagle had perched in the tree outside their home, all those years ago. What had she thought the eagle’s visit could mean? What could have been worse than all that had already happened? Though he knew the answer: she feared the eagle’s visit was a portent of my own death.

By the time he reached the front door Masood was there, dressed in his usual evening wear: leather Arabic slippers, cargo shorts and a polo shirt. The smell of fried rice and beef wafted out of the doorway.

A short, portly and balding Panamanian of Syrian descent, Masood had kind eyes, a full mouth and a chin as round as a ping pong ball. He was a perpetually mild-mannered man who was completely unlike Papá. You’d never find him practicing karate or stopping robbers on a bus. But you wouldn’t find him shouting, drinking or hitting like Nemesio either. He was neither brave nor cowardly, and that was fine. He was simply the man Mamá needed and relied on.

“How is Mamá?” Omar blurted.

Looking Omar up and down, Masood frowned. From Masood, this was an expression of great alarm. “What happened to you? Come. Ximena was just going to call you.”

Omar blinked, so unused was he to hearing anyone use his mother’s given name. Everyone else in the universe, from Puro Panameño employees to government ministers, called her Señora Bayano.

“Why? How is she?” Without waiting for an answer, Omar strode into the house with Berlina at his heel. Like the outside, the interior was wide open. White tiled floors, a high flat ceiling, a collection of white furniture here that represented a living room, a mahogany table and chairs over there that defined the kitchen.

Krägä Bianga Traditional Ngäbe dresses

Two Ngäbe girls wearing the traditional nagua dress.

He found an unexpected scene. Mamá – looking perfectly healthy – sat at the kitchen table, wearing a blue nagua dress with yellow triangular patterns along the edge – the triangles were called dientes or teeth and were ubiquitous in Ngäbe design – and a red hijab. At the table with her was a group of four Ngäbe-Buglé elders and one youth – two men and two women. The table was littered with the remains of a Chinese takeout dinner.

Omar recognized his maternal uncle Celio Natá, a man of about seventy years with hard black eyes, white hair, a face as wide as the head of a shovel, and a scar that ran from his cheek to the corner of his chin. He was dressed all in black: black jeans, a short-sleeved dress shirt, and an antiquatedly wide black tie. His feet were bare, as all the visitors had left their shoes at the door.

Though officially he was governor of the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, unofficially Celio was no less than king of the Ngäbe-Buglé people, whose lands ran along the highlands of Central America from Panama all the way to Nicaragua.

Seated beside him was Anibel Guerra, the krägä bianga. She was the same medicine woman who had sung over him after the dog attack. He’d seen her a few times since then, the last a few years ago when Mamá had malaria. She was very old now, her face a mass of wrinkles. But her hair was still pure black, parted in the middle and hanging to her waist.

The other three he did not know. A dignified, straight-backed woman in her thirties or so, a fortyish man with broad shoulders, and a teenage girl in a yellow nagua.

Normally he would not be surprised to see these people here. Though Mamá had once been excommunicated from the tribe, that had long since been rescinded. She was, after all, one of the wealthiest of her people, and had been a benefactor to the tribe over the years. It was not unusual for the elders to come to ask a favor or consult about tribal matters. A few of the tribespeople had even converted to Islam, as a way of honoring her. But why was the krägä bianga here? Someone must be sick.

“What’s wrong, Mamá?” he asked. “I saw-” He stopped himself, not wanting to say what he had seen. Who knows what these Ngäbes would make of it.

His mother took in his grubby appearance, including the wound on his shoulder, which had begun bleeding again. Her eyes widened. “You are hurt!”

The next several moments were a blur. Omar was pushed into a seat at the kitchen table with the krägä bianga standing over him. The tiny woman stripped off Omar’s wet shirt, then gave the teenage girl commands in Ngäbebere, of which Omar understood not a word.

The girl opened a leather satchel and took out small earthenware pots sealed with cloth and rubber bands. From one pot the krägä bianga scooped a vile smelling green paste that she smeared on Omar’s wound. He winced, expecting it to sting, but the effect was soothing. On top of that she layered an ashy brown substance, then covered it with a regular sterile bandage secured with medical tape.

While all this was happening, Masood towel-dried Berlina and began feeding her bits of leftover Mongolian beef while Omar was forced to explain what had happened. His mother’s eyes narrowed in anger, but Omar could not tell who she was angry at, or what – if anything – she meant to do.

Finally the krägä bianga crushed a handful of agave leaves into a pot and lit them on fire. As the acrid smoke filled the room, making Omar’s eyes water, the medicine woman began to sing. Omar gritted his teeth. He’d never had patience for these rituals, but he’d mellowed over the years, and had learned to tolerate the Ngäbe ways. As Señora Anibel sang, the other Ngäbes rocked forward and backward in their seats.

When it was over, Masood brought him a pink polo shirt that fit like a circus tent. Then, seeing as how his mother was fine, and he didn’t need to be involved in this pow-wow, he rose to leave.

The Black Knife

“Stop,” his mother said. “Don Celio wants to talk to you.”

Dam in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca

A dam in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca

Omar sat warily. What could Celio want? The man was a notorious figure. Back in the 1970’s he’d led the Ngäbe-Buglé in the fight against natural resource exploitation on their ancestral lands. When the government wanted to build a hydroelectric dam that would have flooded a dozen Ngäbe villages, Celio fought it with lawsuits, protests, and barricades.

When all that failed, and the dam was 95% complete, Celio blew it up. The government hunted him all over the mountains for years, caught him, and imprisoned him for a decade.

When he was released he learned that his teenage daughter, who’d been working for a wealthy Panamanian family as a maid, had been raped by the master of the household. The man was a real estate tycoon; not only was he not prosecuted, the police would not even take the report. Someone broke into the man’s house, somehow getting past his alarms, slit the man’s throat and got away clean. The government arrested Celio, but because there were no witnesses or physical evidence, he was released.

One of the newspapers gave him the name Black Knife, and it stuck. He became known as a man not to be crossed – the Ngäbe-Buglé’s secret weapon.

He’d been instrumental in pushing the government to establish comarcas or semi-autonomous reservations for the indigenous tribes, which had finally been granted to the Ngäbe-Buglé in 1997.

Since then he’d continued to battle for indigenous rights, and was known for sabotaging any roads the government attempted to build in the comarca, because where roads went, mines and dams followed. As a result there was not a single paved road in all of the comarca. Most of the reservation was so steep and rugged, even horses couldn’t manage it, and the only way in was on foot. The downside was that the comarca was totally undeveloped, with no modern technology or amenities.

“I want you,” Celio said in his husky voice, “to become the governor of the Kädridri District.” He gazed at Omar evenly, having apparently finished what he had to say.

Omar stared at the man. The Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, he knew, was divided into three districts, of which Kädridri was one. It included two towns and scores of villages. It was also – like all the comarco – ridiculously remote and primitive.

“You’re joking.”

Omar’s mother reached out to touch his arm, as if to remind him to be respectful.

Celio merely said, “Why should I be joking?”

Omar held up his hands. “Seriously? I’m only twenty eight years old, I’ve never lived on the comarca, I’m only half Ngäbe, I don’t speak Ngäbebere, I’m not Christian, I have no experience in politics or administration.”

Celio held up a closed fist with swollen knuckles and began answering Omar’s points, extending a finger with each point:

“Many of our youth become parents at the age of fourteen or fifteen, and our lifespan, is low due to alcoholism, malnutrition and lack of medical care. So twenty eight is an elder in the comarca.”

“That you have not lived in the comarca is not a fault. We need someone who knows the outside world and can function as a bridge.

“That you are half Ngäbe is a problem, but we can deal with it.

“It is not necessary that you speak Ngäbebere, as all the men of the comarca speak Spanish. Regarding religion, some of our people follow the old ways, and many follow Mama Tata, our indigenous religion. Most will not mind that you are not Christian.”

“As for administrative skills, you can read and write, and you are familiar with technology, which puts you in the top one percentile. You are one of us. We need you. The matter is finished.” He closed the fist and dropped it on the table hard enough to rattle the dishes and silverware.

Seventh In Line

Omar wanted to say, ‘In a pig’s ear,” but this was not a man one spoke to that way. So he said, “Tio Celio. With all due respect. Why me?”

Mamá spoke up. “My brother has passed away. Your uncle Dominio. He died of liver poisoning.”

“Oh.” Omar was taken aback. Then a thought came and his breath caught in his chest. The harpy eagle. Someone had died after all. Get a grip, he told himself. You don’t believe in any of this stuff.

“I’m sorry. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’oon. To God we all return. My sympathy for your loss.”

“So now you understand why he wants you?”

“No.”

“You are now seventh in line for the throne.”

He considered. His mother was one of seven children. Celio was the eldest. Of the others, one had drowned as a youth. One, Amistad, had moved to New York many years ago. There was Tia Teresa, of course. There had been Dominio, who had been impotent and never fathered any children, and had been killed in an alcohol-driven brawl during a Ngäbe festival. And Maria, who lived in a remote area of the comarca. Out of all of them, the only ones he’d ever met were Celio and Teresa.

Omar pointed out that there were many still in front of him.

“Not me,” Mamá said. “I can’t leave my company.”

Celio nodded. “You are correct, Omar. I have five surviving children. They come before you. Amistad does not wish to return to Panama. He had three sons, but one was killed by a gang, and one is gay and alienated from his Ngäbe identity. The other is undecided, but we are including him. He is also before you. Teresa…” He cleared his throat. “We excommunicated her in the past, when she married Niko. It was a mistake, in an earlier time when we were less… open minded. We have offered her and her children to return to the royal lineage, but she refuses. Maria is younger than Ximena. She and her children come after you.”

“So… that’s still a lot of people before me.”

“Yes. But our people die young. There is a chance you will inherit the throne in your lifetime. It is best to prepare you. Amauro here -” Celio nodded to the wide shouldered man of the group, who had spoken little – is the current governor of Kädridri. He will teach you, then step aside. You will also take Maura” – he nodded to the teenage girl – “as a wife. So that your future children will be more purely Ngäbe. Her mother is here to give approval.” The mother, apparently, was the dignified looking woman, who had not spoken at all.

Omar looked at the girl, who smiled shyly. He turned an incredulous gaze to his mother.

Mamá shrugged and held up her hands. “Islam allows polygamy, and so do the Ngäbe.”

Omar restrained the urge to laugh. This was unbelievable. The visitors, however, were quite serious. This was no trivial matter to them.

A home in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca of Panama

A home in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca of Panama

He had nothing against the Ngäbe-Buglé people. Their lives consisted of struggle from beginning to end. They’d been exiled to the least arable mountain slopes in Panama. There were 220,000 of them scattered across a sprawling region, and they lived mostly by subsistence farming. Some of the men made hats, or worked in the cities as laborers, while the women sold handmade necklaces and plant-fiber bags on the roadsides.

Like Bayano, the rebellious African Muslim who had refused to be enslaved – and whose name Omar carried – the ancient chief of the Ngäbe-Buglé, Urracá, had fought the Conquistadors bitterly for seven years, finally dying a free man in 1531. Celio, though born four and a half centuries later, was a man cut from that cloth.

Omar understood that these were desperate people. But… they had excommunicated his mother because of his father. Because they found his father unacceptable. His father, who had never done anything but try to help people, and who had died a hero. Well, Omar was his father’s son. So if Papá wasn’t good enough for them then he wasn’t either, no matter how much they might come kissing up to his mother now. And this matter of taking a Ngäbe wife in order to have more “pure-blooded” children. It was an insult to Samia and Nur, as it implied that they were impure. Celio claimed to be more open minded now, but nothing had changed.

The Ngäbes awaited his answer earnestly. Even his mother seemed to be drawn into this insane spell. Only Masood was apart from it all, the barest hint of a smile gracing his fleshy lips as he rubbed Berlina’s neck and ears. The dog wagged her tail happily, oblivious.

He looked the Black Knife in the eyes. The man’s gaze was confident, even arrogant. He was a powerful, dangerous man. He was not a man used to taking “no” for an answer.

“My answer,” Omar said, “is no. That’s final. And I will never be your king. You can skip over me to Maria and her kids, if it comes to that.” He stood and nodded to Anibel Guerra, the krägä bianga. “Thank you for the treatment. Buenas noches everyone. Berlina, come.” Instantly Berlina was at his side. He took her leash and began to walk toward the door.

A Lonely Old Man

“Omar!” His mother’s voice was sharp. He did not even look back, just kept heading for the door. He had almost reached it when his mother seized his arm. Omar winced and exhaled sharply.

Mamá gasped. “Sorry! I forgot. But Omar, what is the matter with you? You cannot speak to Don Celio that way. You did not even consider it. To be governor of a district! It is an honor.”

Omar rounded on her. “What is the matter with you? How could you imagine I would accept such an offer? You think I’m going to take Samia and Nur to live on some windswept mountainside to be treated like strangers and half breeds? You think I’m going to marry a twelve year old?”

“Lower your voice! She is fifteen.”

Omar’s face went flat. He felt suddenly, completely drained. His interest in this subject dropped to absolute zero. All he wanted to do was lie in bed and sleep. There was one question, though, that he could ask his mom, since he was here.

“Mamá,” he said. “Tell me about Melocoton. What do you know about him?”

She frowned. “What does he have to do with the subject we are-”

“This is a different subject. What do you know about him?”

His mother shrugged helplessly, as if Omar were a ship’s captain sailing into iceberg-ridden waters without a map. “He was your father’s friend. Reymundo tolerated him. Melocoton was a lonely old man who needed companionship. He had crazy stories of traveling around the world. You could never tell what was true and what wasn’t. Why are you asking about him?”

“What’s his real name?”

Mamá held up a hand in puzzlement. “It isn’t Melocoton?”

“That’s not a name. Who names their kid after a fruit?”

“I’ve heard stranger names. Why are we talking about this?”

“We’re not. Goodnight.” With that, he opened the door and stepped out into the rain.

Fever Dreams

By morning Omar was coughing and shivering. His mother came over to watch Nur and Berlina, as Ivana and Fuad picked him up – wrapped in a blanket and covering his mouth with a handkerchief – and took him and Samia to the hospital. Tests showed that he had pneumonia. He was given medication and discharged.

Back home, in bed, he lay alternately shaking like a wet cat on an ice floe, and burning up like a man in the Sahara. He saw things, and most of the time did not know if they were hallucinations, dreams or real. He was lost in a world where rules no longer applied, and where the past was no precedent.

Red boxing spiderIt was raining spiniflex rubirosa. They fell from the sky like flecks of red ash. Omar ran down the middle of the Corredor Sur, all the traffic stopped around him, people huddled in their cars. Other cars were abandoned, their doors thrown open. Smoke rose from the city. Explosions sounded. Melocoton was beside him. “Take this!” the old man shouted, thrusting a yellow umbrella at Omar. But when Omar took it, it caught fire and burned his hands. The spiniflex fell onto his arms and face, and began to burrow…

Someone pressed a wet cloth to his forehead. It sounded like Samia, but her face was made of light, like the face of an angel. He recoiled, trying to pull the blanket over his head. “Hush, my love,” the strange Samia said. “You’ll be okay. Everything is fine.”

Spiniflex spiders the size of human beings had overrun the city, killing everyone. Omar was a giant as well, ten times the size of a man, and unafraid. He strode through the streets with a flamethrower, torching the spiniflex as Melocoton and Hani cheered from a balcony. The spiders tried to scurry away, but the flames enveloped them. The burnt carcasses were piled high, the stench of roasting flesh choking the city. But when he passed a building with reflective windows, he saw that he was not a man at all. He was a giant spiniflex spider, and the ones he was burning were human beings…

A spoonful of warm soup was tipped into his mouth, and he swallowed. Samia recited to him from the Quran as she fed him. Her face was a hovering blur, but her voice was soothing, and Omar was comforted.

The city was in chaos. Omar stood in the center of his living room as a mob of criminals – killers and looters – smashed through the boards and barricades he’d erected. Melocoton, Tameem and Basem stood with him, the four of them back to back and holding golden handguns, though Omar wondered how Tameem would perform with his throat cut like that, and Basem with his head caved in.

The mob charged, screaming curses, wielding axes and machetes. Omar fired his gun again and again, carpeting the room with bodies, filling the air with gunsmoke, until the ammunition ran out and the gun clicked dry. Berlina leaped between him and the invaders, snarling and baring her teeth, holding them back. He turned his head to ask for ammo, but his companions were gone. They had deserted him. Instead, Nemesio loomed behind him, massively muscular from years of lifting weights in prison. The man grinned and raised a machete to strike – and Samia came out of the shadows, dressed in leather armor and wielding a scimitar. She swung the sword in a blur, and cut Nemesio in two like a rotten fruit…

Four Days

He sat up in bed. The sheets were soaked with sweat, and he felt as weak as a baby hamster, but he was clear-headed. The fever was gone. Sunlight streamed in through the bedroom window. He could smell his own body odor. Berlina lay on the floor, her chin resting on her arms. Seeing him sitting up, she raised her head and cocked her ears, watching. Her tail began to wag.

He looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was an old-fashioned analog clock with arms. It had no cover or case, so that Samia could tell the time by feeling the position of the arms. The time was was ten in the morning.

A small pitcher of water and a glass stood on the nightstand. Omar reached for the pitcher, but it felt unaccountably heavy, and he was afraid he would drop it. He tried calling for Samia but his voice emerged as a hoarse rasp. Berlina gave a yip, then jumped up and ran down the steps.

A minute later Samia came up the stairs, wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, her long black hair hanging free. Her movements were slow, her eyes lined with exhaustion. She came to him, reached out. Feeling him sitting up, her face registered alarm.

“Lie down honey,” she said. “You’re sick.”

He shook his head. “Water.”

Samia filled the glass. Omar drank, then said, “It’s over. Alhamdulillah. I’m better now.”

Samia opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly her eyes filled with tears. She threw her arms around him, sobbing into his chest. He patted her back, returning the soothing words she had given him, saying, “It’s okay, mi amor. It’s fine.”

“I was afraid,” she said when the tears stopped. “You’ve been out of it for four days.”

He was shocked. “Four days? All I remember is you standing beside me, feeding me and comforting me. Even in my dreams. Now help me up. I need to go somewhere.”

She pulled away, her face scrunched up in incredulity. “Are you crazy, buster? You’re not going anywhere. Where do you want to go anyway? Work? I spoke to your mother. Your assistant Belem is managing, though just barely. The guy called a half dozen times with questions about Adwords and Doubleclick and I don’t know what.”

Omar smiled. “What did you tell him?”

“That I have no clue, and he should Google it.”

“It’s not work I need to go to.”

“What then?”

“I want to see Melocoton.”

She frowned. “I’ll call him to come here.”

“Tio Melo doesn’t believe in phones. Says the radiation turns your brains into a Gongbao stir fry.”

“What’s that?”

“No idea.”

Samia huffed. “That guy. Fine. You can go see him in a couple of days, when you have your strength back. What do you want from him anyway?”

“His DNA.”

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 14:  If One Day I Am Shipwrecked

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

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