See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is chapter 1 in a multi-chapter novella. The entire story is already written, and will be posted at regular intervals, inshaAllah.
Tiny Ripples of Hope
“You look how if you saw a white rabbit wearing a suit go down a hole, you’d go after him.” – Halima
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THE DOGS WOULD NOT STOP BITING HIM. Omar felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood. He was almost blind from the sting of it in his eyes, and tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.
ONE DAY EARLIER
Fifteen year old Omar Bayano shifted in his folding chair beneath the large awning set up for graduation day at the International Islamic Academy of Panama. He was impatient for graduation to be over so he could get to the banquet that had been set out. But first he had to sit through the speeches given by the best students from each of the four upper grades, as was customary every graduation day.
He wasn’t bothered by the broiling air, nor by the “drown while breathing” humidity. He was a native Panamanian and had grown up in this steam-kettle-for-air climate, unlike most of the other kids and parents at this graduation, who were immigrants from the Middle East, Malaysia, the USA and other countries. Those parents fanned themselves with paper graduation programs while muttering about the ridiculousness of holding this event outdoors. But IIAP was a small school, and the air-conditioned assembly room was not large enough for this event.
In spite of the heat, parents carried umbrellas in hands or purses. The sky was searing blue, but come late afternoon the clouds would roll in like a conquering army, thunder would erupt across the city, and the rain would cascade like the Red Sea closing on Firawn and his men.
One of the graduating 12th graders spoke first. She was a Yemeni girl, trilingual and a perpetual honor student. When she broke into tears as she talked about how much the IIAP meant to her, Omar had a hard time relating. Rather than sweet times of friendship and shared ideals, his days at school were ordeals to suffer through.
Tameem, an 11th grader, captain of the basketball team, and a bully who’d mocked Omar mercilessly for years, was next. The tall Palestinian boy was a terrible student and everyone knew it, but his father was a dollar-signs-for-eyes real estate developer who was putting up half the skyscrapers in Punta Pacifica. Somehow Tameem always got straight A’s, even though he couldn’t tell a Newtonian law from a Fig Newton. That was life in Panama.
Tameem spouted some blather about how the IIAP students would be the future leaders of the world. Yeah, Omar thought. You’ll put up more buildings with your daddy’s money. Or more likely just party and play.
Omar’s arch-rival Samia represented the 10th graders. Papaya-shaped, wide-nosed and with spectacles like glass bricks, she was an assertive Malaysian girl who took no nonsense from anyone. She was also as smart as a silicon chip.
Ever since first grade Omar and Samia had competed for the top honor roll spot. For years they had pranked each other relentlessly, all the way back to first grade. He’d shoot spitballs at her, she’d put jello in his shoes, he’d tape a “kick me” sign on her back, she’d put a fake spider in his backpack, he’d put a real slug in hers… By fourth grade their rivalry grew into genuine animosity, but by seventh grade it evolved into a mutual pact to ignore each other. Still, Omar couldn’t help respecting her.
Omar actually had the better grades than Samia this year, but considering he had a black eye and split lip, the principal thought it best to let Samia take his place at the podium.
In her best lecturing voice, Samia recited an authentic hadith that everyone in school knew, since it was one of the narrations they had memorized at morning assembly:
“The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.”
“We’re supposed to think of the Muslim Ummah as a single body,” Samia elaborated, “and to care when any part of the body is suffering. But sometimes it seems like every part of the Ummah is suffering. In China, the Uyghur Muslims are being persecuted terribly by the government. With Ramadan two weeks away, we are looking forward to being spiritually rejuvenated. But the Uyghur Muslims are not allowed to fast. At work they are required to eat lunch in public, so they cannot secretly fast. Communist officials visit their homes with ‘gifts’ of pork and watch to make sure they consume it.”
Samia paused as some of the children exclaimed “ooh” or “gross!”, then continued. “Facial recognition cameras and police checkpoints are everywhere. Wearing hijab, growing beards, having a copy of the Quran, or avoiding alcohol are all considered signs of extremism. Women are forcibly sterilized. The Uyghurs don’t dare say, as-salamu alaykum. If they break any of these rules they are taken to concentration camps. There they are taught the ‘126 rules’, which say, for example, ‘religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in the Communist Party.’ Prisoners are punished with electric cattle prods, or tortured by wearing 50 pound iron suits. They are subjected to medical experiments. Their organs and hair are harvested. Women are gang-raped by Chinese guards while others are forced to watch.”
A loud protest went up from the parents, and the principal, a short man with perfectly coiffed hair and an elegant linen suit, practically tripped over his feet in his rush to get to the podium. The microphone emitted a squeal as he snatched it away. His face was as red as a ripe mango as he stammered, “Thank you Samia, I don’t think we need to know all that. I apologize to our parents and guests. I did not know she was-”
Samia grabbed the microphone back. The principal tried to recover it but she held it away. The children laughed. Even though Omar was shocked by Samia’s description of the camps, he couldn’t help smiling as well.
“Okay,” Samia said. “I just want to say that what I described is one example of how Muslims are suffering. Hearing about these things can be overwhelming. You don’t know whether to be angry or depressed. You feel insignificant. It’s easier to shut off your feelings and act like a robot, or blow it off and live your life. But we can’t let ourselves shut down completely.”
At this point, apparently convinced that Samia was back on safer ground, the principal shook his head and retreated. Samia went on:
“So what do we do? Former U.S. President Kennedy said, ‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.. those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.’”
“A tiny ripple of hope. For those feeling burnt out, I propose that we think smaller. Let’s start with our school. This school is a body. There are kids here who are hurting.”
Samia paused and looked over the assembled students and parents. Was it Omar’s imagination, or did her gaze linger on him? He frowned and looked away, thinking furiously. Was there any way for her to know? He didn’t think so.
“Especially with Ramadan coming,” Samia went on, “let’s be kind to each other. If you know someone who is in pain, reach out. Forget about being a hero. Just be someone’s friend. Maybe by being a friend, you become that person’s hero without knowing it. Crazy, huh? As for those Muslims who are suffering overseas, hold a fundraiser, or donate your allowance to Islamic Relief, UNICEF or Justice For All. Do what you can. Tiny ripples.”
Again the principal tried to take the microphone from her, telling her she was over her time limit. This time she let him have the mic, but not before shouting, “Everybody say hasbun-Allahu wa n’em-Al-Wakeel!”
The crowd repeated the phrase dutifully. Allah is sufficient for us and is the best Protector.
Listening to Samia and thinking about their history of pranking each other had given Omar an idea. He sneaked away from the gathering, searched until he found what he was looking for, then returned as quietly as he had left.
Nadia Muhammad from 9th grade was wrapping it up with a talk about Muslim heroes of the modern world. She was one of the three Muhammad sisters, who were all identical daughters of Fijian Indian immigrants. Their father, Omar knew, owned a small used car lot. They were poor but never complained, and seemed like a fairly happy bunch.
The students received their diplomas, the principal congratulated them, then they all threw their caps in the air. Omar was not a “throw-your-hat-up” kind of guy, but he got caught up in the moment and did so anyway. His cap went awry and hit one of the third graders in the eye on the way down. The little girl started crying and Omar ducked his head and scuttled sideways, leaving the cap unclaimed.
A Harmonious Society
The crowd eagerly made their way to the tables laden with platters of chicken biryani, beef kebabs and stuffed grape leaves, along with traditional Panamanian dishes like stewed lentils, corvina in garlic sauce, and fried plantains. The kids as usual, ran to be first in line, and like every year Sister Mahfooza, the assistant vice principal, shouted at them to let the parents be served first. But it was well known that her bark had no bite, and no one paid attention.
Some of the older girls stood at the serving table, scooping homemade food from aluminum trays and glass dishes. The corvina, Omar knew, was his mother’s dish. He took a good sized helping. His mother always felt bad if any of her food was left over.
At the end of the line, Halima was pouring drinks. A tenth grader like Omar, she was a tall, lanky Syrian-Colombian girl. With her wide-set green eyes, high cheekbones and full mouth, she looked like a model even in her plaid school uniform and black one-piece hijab. She’d come to IIAP three years ago speaking no English, only Arabic and Spanish. Now her English was not half bad.
Omar gestured shyly to the Pepsi. Halima examined his bruised face as she poured a cup. “Oye parcero, I hope you gave them like you got. Your karate class is so rough. I could never do that. You must be very brave.”
Omar lowered his head and touched his eye. He knew Halima was not mocking him. She’d always been kind to him, and he never knew why. A short, dusky-skinned boy with unruly brown curls and a perpetually bruised face, he did not consider himself handsome, nor was he popular. And unlike the majority of the other students, whose parents were mostly highly educated professionals or business people from the Middle East, Pakistan, or India, Omar was a native Panamanian from a poor family.
Like many Panamanians, he was a mixture of ethnicities. His mamá was indigenous, while his papá, a Muslim convert, had been part European, part Jamaican and part Chinese. When people asked Omar what race he was, he didn’t know what to say.
“Well,” he stammered. “Don’t want to hold up the line.”
On cue, Tameem called out, “Get a move on, Punching Bag.”
Omar ignored him, but couldn’t help flinching.
“Hey,” Tameem went on, “I guess free food is the best kind for you, huh Patacon?” Some of the kids laughed.
Omar expected the worn out nicknames. “Patacon” in particular was a common barb, as it referred to the plantain, a popular food among the Panamanian poor. His father had been a security guard here at the school. Ever since Papá died four years ago, Omar had been a scholarship student. That was one of the reasons he competed so fiercely for top spot in his class. If he didn’t keep his grades up, the scholarship could be taken away.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Halima said fiercely. “He’s an idiot.”
“Yeah.” Hanging his head, Omar shambled out to the soccer field and settled in an isolated corner behind a wide-canopied acacia tree. A cicada let out a loud whine. Something moved on the trunk of the tree and Omar realized that what he’d thought was a large twig was actually an iguana.
He picked at his food and watched a double line of leaf-cutter ants. One line marched up into the tree, and the other came down, each ant carrying a chunk of leaf many times its own size. It was a perfect example of a harmonious society, all laboring for a grand purpose: the survival of the race. But humans weren’t like that. They sabotaged each other, letting their egos dictate their choices.
One more year, Omar told himself. One more year and Tameem would graduate from IIAP. Omar would never have to see him again. But one year seemed like a lifetime.
The only thing that made Tameem’s verbal abuse tolerable was that everyone believed Omar’s constant bruises were the result of sparring at karate class. That earned him some respect, in spite of Tameem’s teasing. And it was partly true. He’d been training in karate since he was five, and was one level below black belt. Though he was small, his body was compact and strong. Papá had trained along with him, but since his passing Omar took the bus across town by himself to attend class. He also taught the kids’ beginners class, which was why Sensei Alan didn’t charge him a fee.
Most of the bruises on his face, however, were not inflicted by his karate classmates. That privilege belonged to Nemesio, his piece-of-crap uncle who did not deserve the title of Tio, because to be a true uncle was to have at least a shred of decency and caring, which Nemesio did not. How could that man be Papá’s older brother? Papá had been loving and funny. Nemesio, on the other hand, was a vicious little rodent.
He heard his mother calling his name. She stood at the edge of the basketball court shading her eyes, a small figure shimmering in the afternoon haze. Her brightly colored pollera dress, traditional among Ngäbe-Buglé women, stood out even in the Panama sun. Had she heard the kids laughing at him? It didn’t matter. He wasn’t interested in talking to her. There’d been a time when the two of them were close. She used to take him to the canal zone to watch the massive ships rising and falling in the locks. Sometimes they’d climb the path up Cerro Ancon and look for monkeys and sloths, or go to the pedestrian mall on Avenida Central for ice cream. They hadn’t done those things in a long time.
Omar understood why Mamá had taken Nemesio in. When Papá died they were left nearly penniless. His mother had a job at the makeup counter at Farmacia Arrocha, but it paid minimum wage, which in Panama was barely enough to eat. Then along came Nemesio, with his Mercedes-Benz and Italian loafers. The brown knight, the self-important businessman, with his gas station on the Tumba Muerto. He paid the bills and put food on the table, so Mamá had no choice. The short, gold-toothed uncle claimed Omar’s room, and Omar slept on the sofa from then on.
As Omar grew older he came to understand that Nemesio hoped to marry Mamá, for she was a beautiful woman, literally a princess of the Ngäbe-Buglé, exiled for converting to Islam. At first Nemesio only watched Mamá, his eyes coveting her, but by the end of the first year he made his intentions clear.
Any woman would be glad to have him as a husband, Nemesio said. Women fought over him. What was the matter with her? She’d married his broke bum of a brother, who aspired to be nothing more than a rent-a-cop, but a real businessman wasn’t good enough for her?
Mamá, however, kept putting him off, and Nemesio grew angry.
The first time Nemesio struck Mamá, Omar flung himself in the middle, circling his arms around the little man’s legs and dragging him to the ground. And the second time, and the third, until Nemesio turned his wrath to Omar instead, beating him for any reason or no reason. Sometimes he’d come home drunk and in a foul mood because his gas station employees, according to him, were robbing him blind, the government was taxing him to death, the low price of gas was sucking away his profit; or because, he said, caring for Mamá and Omar was bleeding him dry. Though Omar couldn’t imagine why, since the cheapskate paid for nothing but the bare minimum. Regardless, no matter what was angering the man, the result was that he would beat Omar.
And Omar took it, in the beginning because it kept the man away from his mother, and because without Nemesio he and Mamá would be on the street, and because he was too small to stop it. Now, four years later, he still took it, and didn’t know why. It had gone on for so long he felt paralyzed in the face of the man’s wrath. Nemesio always said that Omar deserved it, that he was a useless delinquent, nothing but a burden to his mother. Part of Omar believed all that.
After all, if Nemesio was wrong, then why did Mamá not kick the man out? She didn’t need Nemesio anymore. Their situations had reversed over the years. Nemesio’s gas station had burned in a fire last year. He’d collected a large insurance settlement, but somehow, after a year of late-night excursions, the money was gone. From the “Veneto” matchbooks Nemesio used to light his cigarettes, and the way he reeked of perfume, Omar could guess what he had been doing: the Veneto casino, and the prostitutes who frequented it.
The rat didn’t work anymore, he would just lay on the sofa drinking beer day after day. Mamá, on the other hand, had started a business buying makeup products at the Colón Free Trade Zone and reselling them. She earned enough for their needs now. So why didn’t she evict Tio? Why did she let him continue to mooch, and to use her son for target practice? Was there something more going on between them? No, astaghfirullah. He shouldn’t think that.
Not for the first time, he contemplated running away. But where would he go? Panama was no place to be homeless. There were street gangs, dirty cops, Colombian cartels.
Once, he ran away to his mother’s sister’s apartment in El Chorrillo. Tia Teresa. She was the only member of Mamá’s family who hadn’t rejected her when she converted to Islam. It had something to do with Teresa’s strangely intense husband Niko, who had a soft spot for Muslims. He was a muscular man, emotional and affectionate, and prone to quoting poetry. The fact that he was confined to a wheelchair didn’t seem to slow him down at all – he could even play basketball in the chair. Even though Niko was not Omar’s blood relative, Omar was proud to call the man Tio, because Niko was exactly what an uncle should be.
Tio Niko often spoke of a North American Muslim named Zaid Karim who had come to Panama and changed his life. Though as Omar understood it, Zaid Karim had been responsible for putting Niko in the wheelchair. That was a sore spot with Tia Teresa, and she didn’t like them talking about it.
Sometimes Omar wondered if Niko wasn’t Muslim himself. He wore a kufi, and when Ramadan came around he fasted. But Niko merely said he was a man with God in his heart, and quoted a poem:
I thought I was drowning
but God was in the water
and I breathed
where I should not have been able to breathe.
I felt hands of flame upon me
stoking the embers of my soul
and I was baptized in rushing,
until I understood
that I must not take life for granted
and must neither fear death
nor greet it at the door.
Omar did not completely understand the poem but it made him think of either the moment of birth, or the moment of death. He’d asked Tio Niko to write it down so he could learn it, and Niko had done so. Omar loved the first four lines in particular, and sometimes recited them when he felt like life was inundating him in frustration and sadness. I thought I was drowning, but God was in the water, and I breathed
where I should not have been able to breathe.
Omar liked it there with Teresa, Niko and their kids. The eldest, Emanuel, was a few years older than Omar, and the two of them used to lift weights together using an improvised barbell set Emanuel had made from a bamboo stick and a pair of water jugs tied in place with socks. But eventually Teresa laid down the law by telling Omar that he must go back, as his mother needed him.
Did she, though? For what? They barely saw each other. Omar stayed away from home as much as possible, sometimes wandering the streets until just before bedtime, when he’d sneak into the house. He felt alone in the world, and didn’t know where to turn. Samia had said in her speech that he should be someone’s friend, and in doing so become their hero. But what if he was the one who needed a hero?
If only his father were still alive, everything would be different. No one would dare to bully him, and Nemesio would never have come. But it was more than that. His father had been his best friend. Whenever an Árabe Unido match was on, he and his father would set everything up in front of the TV. Nachos, fizzy water, Árabe Unido pennants to wave about, horns to blow. They trained in karate together, and went out onto the porch at night to look at the stars. And they talked. Papá had been his worldly mentor and his spiritual guide.
Actually, Samia reminded him of Papá a little bit in the way she spoke. Her fierce compassion for the suffering people of the world. The believers as a single body. Papá used to say such things.
But Papá was gone. One evening after work he’d been murdered while trying to stop a robbery on a microbus. A masked man boarded and demanded wallets and jewelry from every passenger. His father, the witnesses said, handed over his wallet. But then the robber pistol-whipped a woman who would not give up her wedding ring, so Papá attacked him and knocked him out, not realizing that the man had a hidden accomplice already on the bus. The second man had killed Papá without warning, shooting him in the back of the head.
Now all Omar had to remember him by were some photos and videos, and the copper bracelet he wore on his right wrist. It had been a gift to his father from the man who had guided him to Islam, a man named Abdul Qayyum who was one of the pioneers of Islam in Panama. The bracelet featured an Islamic star pattern, and the word “sabr” – patience – written in calligraphic script and cleverly worked into the design. His father in turn had given it to Omar on his tenth birthday, only a year before he died. Omar never took it off, except to shower, and during karate class.
“Oye, parcero, qué más? What world you are in?”
Startled, Omar looked up to see Halima standing over him, smiling.
“No estás prestando atención,” Halima said. “The ants is eating your food.”
He looked down and saw that she was right. The half-eaten plate of food he’d set on the grass beside him was being devoured by black ants, who’d made a little superhighway between his plate and an ant mound several meters away.
Omar smiled. “Waistcoat.” He was usually tongue-tied with Halima, but this was a subject he knew well. Alice in Wonderland had always been one of his favorite books.
“Wait for what?”
“No. The rabbit was wearing a waistcoat. And yeah, I would go after him.”
Halima gave a knowing look. “Mm-hm. Why?”
“I’d drink from a little bottle and shapeshift into a-”
“Pig?” Halima laughed. “Why would a Muslim wanna be a pig?”
He gave her a tolerant look. “No. Into the Jabberwock. Jaws that bite, claws that catch. Eyes of flame, whiffling through the tulgey wood.”
Halima threw up her long-fingered hands and switched into Spanish. “Paila, hermano! Sabes que soy Halima, no Samia, ¿verdad? No entendí una palabra.” Wow, brother! You know I’m Halima, not Samia, right? I didn’t understand a word.
“I definitely know you’re not Samia.”
“Okaaay. Anyway,” – back into English – “a bunch of us are taking the autobus to Playa Santa Clara tomorrow. Make a beach party to celebrate. You wanna come?”
“Is Tameem going?”
Halima waved a hand dismissively. “Who cares? But I tell you what. If you are scared of Tameem, forget Playa Santa Clara, I will tell my papá to take us to the cinema and we go, just you with me and my family. Black Panther is playing, we could see that.”
Omar’s face flushed. “I’m not scared of anyone. I’ll go with you to the beach.”
Halima flashed her white teeth. “Chévere. Hasta mañana.” She turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. “Didn’t the Jabberwock get killed?”
Omar nodded grudgingly. Indeed.
When the ceremony was over and people made ready to leave, Omar – still sitting beside the soccer field – heard Samia scream. He grinned. Some things never got old.
Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 2: Spiniflex Rubirosa
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.