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“I wish it was different.” – Omar
Through the Gate
HALIMA COVERED HER FACE AND BEGAN TO CRY. Water dripped from her soaked sleeve dripped onto her chest, beading her gray sweater. Hani, lost in rage, lifted his hand to strike her again.
Omar felt the blood rush to his face as he was seized with fury. He could not bring himself to strike Hani, but he stepped forward and seized the man’s shirt, driving him backward toward the gate. Hani was bigger and stronger, but Omar had the advantage of surprise. Hani shouted in confusion before he found his footing and put hands on Omar in return, taking Omar’s throat in one hand.
Omar’s air supply was cut off. He gagged, but pushed Hani even harder, forcing him a step back. One of Hani’s feet caught on the edge of the footpath that led from the driveway to the front door, and he crashed to the ground, landing flat on his back. From the way the big man was gasping for air, Omar knew he’d had the wind knocked out of him.
Instead of helping him, Omar strode quickly to the gate, unbolted it and flung it open. Then he returned to Hani, gripped one arm and pulled him up. As the bigger man gasped for breath, Omar dragged him out onto the sidewalk, then slammed the gate shut before bolting it.
As Hani banged on the gate, Omar strode into the house, grabbed Hani’s suitcase, wheeled it out to the entrance and called out, “You better catch your suitcase! It’s coming over the top.” With that he hefted it to his shoulders, and with an effort threw it up and over. From the grunt and ensuing thud, he guessed Hani had caught it, then fallen to the ground again.
He was done with Hani. He knew that already. No investment, no friendship, no nothing. He didn’t care that he’d known him since childhood, didn’t care that the man had helped to save his life once. He had zero tolerance for abusers. It was an absolute, utter deal-breaker.
Halima stood staring at him with mouth agape.
Breathing hard from the fight and the adrenaline, he considered what to say. It was obvious from the casual rage with which Hani had struck Halima that it was the first time he had done so, and would surely not be the last – unless Halima herself chose a different path. However, his own experience told him that people who were abused tended to stick with the abuser, whether out of fear, misguided loyalty, or a twisted understanding of the concept of love – at least until they experienced an event so terrifying that it outweighed all that. And he knew, having lived through abusive situations in the past, that you couldn’t force the right choice on anyone.
“I’d like you to stay with us for a while,” he said at last. “As long as you like. But I can’t compel you.”
Halima shook her head slowly. “He’s my husband. My place is with him.”
There it is, he thought, resisting the impulse to shake his head in disgust. That wasn’t what Halima needed. “Your place is where you are safe. A man who beats his wife doesn’t deserve her loyalty.”
“And that safe place is with you? Maybe Hani was right. Maybe you want me for yourself. Just because I wrote you a letter ten years ago-”
“No,” Omar interrupted firmly. “I do not. I am happy with Samia. If that’s what you think then I could pay for you to stay at a hotel.” As soon as he said this he knew it sounded bad, like he was offering her to be his mistress. He rushed on: “Or I have a better idea. You could stay with my mom. She and her husband have more room than they need. You work as a house cleaner in Colombia, right? You could work for my mom.” That sounded all wrong too, like he wanted her to serve his family. SubhanAllah, he was making a mess of things.
Halima began to weep again, clenching her hands into fists and pressing them to her temples.
Omar felt as if his heart were sinking into his feet. What should he do? “Hold on,” he said. “I’ll call Samia.” But when he turned toward the door Samia was already there, feeling her way with her cane as she walked toward them.
“It’s okay,” she told him. “I heard everything. You go inside.”
Breathing a sigh of relief – Samia would sort it all out – he hurried inside.
He nearly tripped over Nadia’s kids, who were sitting on the floor in the foyer, supposedly putting on their shoes but really having a shoe fight, wearing the shoes on their hands and boxing. Fairy hit Jameel on the head, and he began to cry.
“That’s enough,” Omar said. “No more shoe fighting. Fairy, apologize to your brother.”
“Sorry,” she said insincerely, sticking out her tongue.
Nadia was in the kitchen, totally ignoring her kids as she packed up a tray of food to take home.
“Heck yeah. My Fijian heart can’t take any more excitement.” For no reason that Omar could see, she raised her voice to a shout: “IT’S GETTING LATE! IT’S TIME FOR EVERYONE TO GO HOME!”
Omar stared. “You’re going mental, Nads.”
Nadia whispered fiercely as she pointed toward Nur’s room. “The psycho is in there with your boy.”
Shaking his head at Nadia’s drama, he headed to Nur’s bedroom. He found Ivana and Nur sitting on the boy’s small bed, playing what Nur called bouncy ball. This was the game, known to children everywhere, where you bounced a ball against the wall and caught it. Ivana tossed the ball, it bounced, and Nur caught it. Berlina sat on the floor wagging her tail and moving her head back and forth as she tracked the ball.
“That’s twenty in a row,” Ivana said.
“We’re getting so good, aren’t we auntie?”
“We could be in the bouncy ball Olympics.”
“Papá ,” Nur said. “Wasn’t I good today?”
“Yes you were.”
“What reward do I get?”
“My love and affection.”
“Okay.” Nur tossed the ball to Berlina, who proceeded to gnaw on it, growling victoriously. The boy came to his father and wrapped his arms around his waist.
Omar was touched, and for a moment felt his eyes grow wet. “Hey, I’m kidding. What reward would you like?”
The Malaysian pancake. “We don’t have any, but there’s ice cream in the freezer.”
“Yay! Come on, Berlina.” Nur bounded off his father’s lap and ran to the kitchen with the dog on his heels.
“Don’t give the dog any ice cream!” Omar called after Nur.
Sitting on Nur’s bed, elbows resting on her knees, Ivana watched him go. The strange, profoundly sad look on her face caught Omar by surprise. He had never seen her display any emotion besides anger, boredom or sarcasm.
“What is it?” he asked.
Still looking in the direction Nur had gone, she said, “He reminds me of my son, Vladimir.”
Omar blinked in surprise. “You have a son?”
Ivana met his gaze levelly. “I did. He died of pneumonia when he was four. Before I met Fuad.”
Omar was taken aback. “I’m sorry.”
Ivana held up a hand. “I don’t need sympathy. Anyway I heard your loudmouth friend. I will leave now. I’m trying to be a better wife to my beautiful love. I really do love him, you know.”
Omar shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “That’s good.”
Ivana snorted. “Restrain your enthusiasm. You better come with me to get your car. You can’t leave it overnight, they’ll tow it.”
Omar was tired and his shoulder wound was throbbing. But she was right. “Just let me pray Maghreb.” He went upstairs to pray, and on the way out saw Samia and Halima praying together in the living room. Nadia was still trying to get her gremlins to put on their shoes.
Omar nodded to Ivana, and they headed out.
Ivana took the surface streets and left the window open. The wind blew her black hair about her head. It was a muggy tropical night, and Omar thought it might rain. He was exhausted, but found himself thinking about Ivana’s son. What a frightful thing, to lose a child. And her boy had been the same age as Nur! SubhanAllah. The thought gave him chills, in spite of the warm weather. No wonder she knew how to play bouncy ball.
It was crazy how you could think you knew someone, when in reality you had no idea what battles they’d been through, and what scars made tracks across their hearts. Maybe that was why the sages said that if you encountered something from your brother or sister you did not like, you should make seventy excuses for them.
But… she’d shot him.
Could Ivana’s history explain her insane behavior and emotionalism? Omar wasn’t a psychologist. But as he thought about what Ivana had said, something didn’t add up. Ivana was four or five years younger than him and Fuad, he knew that. She was twenty three, maybe twenty four. And she’d met Fuad years ago. How could she have had a four year old son back then?
“So Ivana,” he said as casually as he could. “You met Fuad what, like a year after you won Miss Cuba?”
Ivana gave him a hard, flat stare, and said, “You are thinking about my son. I was raped by my uncle when I was thirteen, and became pregnant from that. I entered Miss Cuba the year after he died, when I was nineteen. The contest managers did not know. All Miss Cuba contestants must be unmarried and childless. The advantage of living in a country where nothing is computerized. I met Fuad a few months after the contest. I was working as a salesgirl at a store when he came to buy a suit for his graduation.”
Omar sat with his mouth open, shocked into total silence. What did one say to a revelation like that? Finally he said, “Does Fuad-”
“No,” Ivana said, cutting him off. “He does not know.”
Omar was abashed. “Then why did you tell-”
“I see the scars on your face, arms, neck, everywhere. They are faint, but one who knows pain sees pain. You know what it is to be torn apart, then put yourself back together. And you are a man of God, like my beloved Fufu.”
The conversation ended there. When they reached Ivana’s building she departed with a mere nod of the head.
Omar did not go up to see Fuad. He got into his car, and headed to Farmacia Arrocha to fill the prescription Fuad had given him, and to buy a painkiller. His shoulder felt as if a rogue cowboy had branded it with a hot iron. The air had grown even more humid, and Omar knew it would rain soon. The air had that charged, ozone scent. A thought came to him. Ivana, being Catholic, had unburdened herself to him the way the Catholics confessed to their priests. Whatever was said in the confessional booth, he knew, was inviolable. He was no priest, but he would take her secret to the grave. He would tell no one, not even Samia.
Once he had the medications he took them immediately, swallowing the pills in the car with a bottle of water, then headed home.
Samia was in the kitchen, rinsing dishes and stacking them in the dishwasher. Omar gave her a kiss, and began to help.
She was right. He felt like a dented robot with an almost-drained battery. He prayed Isha’ in the living room, then went to Nur’s room. It was an hour before Nur’s bedtime, but the boy was asleep, still wearing his pants, dress shirt and bow tie. Omar would normally have changed the boy, but he couldn’t do it with one arm. He settled for removing the bow tie, pulling a blanket over him, and turning off the light. Instead of leaving, he climbed into the little bed, bending his knees and tucking his elbows to squeeze in beside Nur, who turned and snuggled against him.
His eyes wandered over the bookshelf that stood against one wall. On the top shelf, plastic dinosaurs were arranged into fighting groups like little platoons. The other shelves held classic children’s books. He couldn’t identify them in the dark, but he’d read them to Nur countless times: Sesame Street books, Dr. Seuss, Go Dog Go, Alice in Wonderland, some illustrated Islamic books, and even some books in Malay.
Omar had suggested more than once that the family move to Malaysia. They’d visited three times and he adored it. Samia’s mom had returned to her homeland four years ago, and last year had remarried Samia’s father. Most importantly, Omar loved the idea of raising Nur in a country where the adhaan rang across the sky five times a day.
Strangely enough, it was Samia who vetoed the idea. Puro Panameño had been good to them, she said. Omar’s mother had trusted them and changed their lives. It wouldn’t be right to abandon her.
Whatever. His mom could replace them in a second. And… he couldn’t explain it. He loved his mother, but there was a part of him that did not trust her, and never would. Did that make him a sinner? He treated her well, he was a dutiful son. But he always held a part of himself back. He wasn’t even comfortable having her living across the street. On the other side of the city would be better.
Everything considered, though, he was tremendously blessed, and he knew it. Allah had been kind to him, and had given him a sweet life.
The mattress of Nur’s little bed was firm, and even with the split AC humming quietly in the corner, the room was warm. Nur’s body was like a heater pressed against him. He drifted in and out of sleep, until he heard Samia’s soft voice: “Honey? Are you in here?”
“Lying on Nunu’s bed. You must be deep in thought.”
“What do you mean?”
“You only sleep here when you’re trying to work things out in your head.”
Was that true? Omar had never realized that.
“Come on. Let Nunu sleep.”
Omar rose wearily and went with Samia to the living room, where they sat on the sofa, Samia snuggling into him. With the high ceilings, this room was always the coolest in the house. Samia smelled of the papaya shampoo she used, plus food scents and a bit of sweat, but it was not unpleasant.
“Halima’s gone,” Samia commented.
“I see that,” Omar said sourly. “Let me guess, she went back to Hani.” Of course she did. Didn’t women always stay with their abusers? This fact baffled and angered him.
“I don’t understand,” he went on, “why anyone would allow herself to be treated that way. Why would she allow her children to be treated that way?”
“What are you talking about? Halima doesn’t have any children.”
Omar frowned. Why had he said that? “I know, I mean-’
“Anyway, that’s not what happened. She went with Nadia. She’ll stay with her for a few days, then she’s going back to Colombia, but to her parents, not to Hani. She said to thank you.”
“Did she tell you I fought with him?”
“Honey, I know you very well. Whatever you do is what needs to be done. Are you finished with Hani now?”
She did indeed know him well. “Yes,” he said.
“Permanently? What if he changes? Gets anger therapy, or makes it up to Halima somehow?”
“I don’t care. I’m done with him.”
“You’re an odd duck.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some people you forgive, even if they mistreated you, like Tameem and Mahboob. Others you never forgive. You nurse that grudge like a baby.”
“No I don’t. Like who?”
“How about your mom?”
“I don’t have a grudge against my mom. Anyway I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Why are you smiling?”
It didn’t surprise him that she knew he was smiling. She’d told him before that she could hear the saliva crinkling in the corners of his mouth.
“It’s a sad smile. I wish it was different between Hani and Halima.”
“Of course.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I asked her how she and Hani got together. She dodged the question. Said something about running into each other at a cafe.”
“Maybe that’s what happened.”
“Back in high school everyone thought you and Halima would end up married.”
Omar shook his head. “I’m sure no one thought that.”
“Yes, everyone did. You two had chemistry.”
Was she serious? Omar pressed his lips together, examining her face. “Why are you saying this?”
“Do you have any regrets?”
SubhanAllah. Some other time he might have silenced her with a kiss. But he perceived that her question was serious. “You know that ayah in Surat an-Najm?” he asked. “‘Fabiayyi aalla’i rabbika tatamaaraa’?” Ever since she’d recited this surah to him in the hospital, after the dog attack, it had been one of his favorites.
She nodded. “Then which of your Lord’s blessings do you deny?”
“Right. I deny none of them. Just before you came into Nur’s room, I was thinking about how blessed I am. The greatest of all those blessings is you. I wouldn’t choose anyone else in all of this great, blue earth. You are a treasure.”
She made a soft, surprised sound, then kissed him, running her fingers through his hair, taking care as always to avoid his ear. “I’m worried about your injury. You should go to the hospital tomorrow. I can’t believe that lunatic shot you. When I think about what might have happened…” Her voice caught, and Omar knew she was about to cry.
“Hey.” Omar rubbed his hand in a circle on her back. “I’m fine, alhamdulillah. It really is quite shallow. Hey, by the way, where did those flowers come from? The heaven lotuses?”
“Is that what they are? SubhanAllah, they’re strong. Señor Melocotón brought them.”
Omar grinned. He’d been back many times to visit the owner of the Reymundo is My Guide shop, since that day twelve years ago when he first met him. The day the two women had tried to mug him. Everyone in the neighborhood called the old man Tio Melo, and it was funny to hear Samia call him Señor Melocotón. Mister Peach. Like a character in a Roald Dahl book.
During these visits they’d play weiqi, the Chinese board game Melo had begun teaching Omar the day they met, and talk about football, politics and food. Tio Melo always asked about Omar’s family, and enjoyed hearing stories about Nur. Occasionally Omar brought Melo one of Nur’s drawings, and the old man taped them up inside the shop. Tio Melo had spent some time in China when he was young, and sometimes he talked about that. But aside from that, the old man was reticent about his personal life, and Omar didn’t push him.
“Did he say what they were for?”
“For your father’s birthday.”
Omar’s grin faded. Was today his father’s birthday? He wasn’t actually sure. This was not the first time Tio Melo had brought gifts to the house. He sometimes brought flowers for Omar and Samia’s anniversary, and cupcakes or small toys for Nur’s birthday.
“Omar,” Samia said seriously. “Why don’t you just ask him?”
He knew what she was referring to. His own father’s father abandoned the family when Omar’s father was two years old, and was never seen again. Even though Omar had met Tio Melo by seeming chance, the man had named his shop after Omar’s dad, and showed an inordinate interest in Omar and his life. He’d been generous with Omar from day one. The kind of interest and generosity a grandfather might show to his grandchild.
Furthermore, he was the right age to be Omar’s grandfather, and he had the right look. His skin color was the same as Omar’s father, as was his lean, wiry form.
“I did, once. He said that he’d never wanted kids. He was too much of a wanderer.”
Samia grunted. “That’s a non-answer. Exactly what a man might say who had abandoned his child. What about the name, though? Don’t you know your grandfather’s name?”
“Of course. His name was Santiago Francisco Bayano Benjumeda. But that’s all I really know. I know plenty about my grandmother, though. Her name was Mei Zhang, and she was the daughter of a Chinese merchant. She was ostracized by her family for marrying my grandfather. Papá claimed she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She spoke four languages, she played a traditional Chinese instrument called the pipa, and she personally made all the family’s clothes. But she never spoke about Santiago. Papá said she had a terrible sadness that deepened as the years went by. She died when he was nineteen. The doctors called it a heart attack, but my father always believed it was heartbreak over her husband’s disappearance.”
Samia stroked his arm. “That’s sad. Maybe it’s best to leave some mysteries unsolved.”
Samia was ready for bed, and told him to come as well. But he wasn’t ready to sleep. She departed with a whispered admonition not to stay up too late.
Omar sat in the darkness, thinking. Samia might be right about leaving mysteries unsolved. Right now Tio Melo was a friend. But if he was actually Santiago Francisco Benjumeda Bayano, then he was the man who’d abandoned Omar’s father, and left his own wife to die of heartbreak. Omar didn’t know if he could continue being friends with such a man.
A distant peal of thunder rolled by overhead, reminding Omar of the mountain elves bowling in Rip Van Winkle – one of the books on Nur’s bookshelf.
What did he need a grandfather for, anyway? He had a wonderful life. In fact, his life was so good it sometimes frightened him. He feared he didn’t deserve it, and that some unexpected disaster might come along and take it all away. Or that on Yawm Al-Qiyamah, when he was resurrected to stand in judgment before Allah, the Almighty would ask him, “What did you do to earn the blessings I gave you? In a world where so many suffered, how did you justify my gifts?”
The Harpy Returns
Thunder again, louder now. The sound rolled across the sky like a heavenly bulldozer, then faded.
He remembered long ago when Sensei Alan had said, “If you end up happily married with kids, you will still be you. So who are you, alone, in the universe that is your soul?”
How would Omar answer that now? He was a Muslim, husband, father, and a marketing executive at a makeup company. Was that good enough? The world didn’t need more makeup. It needed saving. The world needed lions of Allah, walking the path blazed by the sahabah, the righteous mujahideen, the truth-telling ulemaa, the ascetics and the callers fee sabeel-illah. It needed front line doctors, refugee care workers, human rights activists, environmentalists, teachers. The world needed men and women willing to sacrifice everything. What had he sacrificed? There was his karate class for the Centro youth, in which he sacrificed time and effort to teach these kids to defend themselves and their families. But was that enough? He felt a deep unease when he considered these things.
A supercharged flash of lightning shone through the windows, casting a pale illumination into the house. Uncomfortably close, that one. A second later a massive crack of thunder split the sky. Samia and Nur would sleep through the storm, Omar knew, but Berlina would be anxious.
Pattering noises sounded on the roof as a spatter of rain fell. The patter became a steady timpanic rhythm as the rain thickened, and then a full-throated orchestral roar. Even inside the house Omar could smell the rain: earthy, charged and sweet. He loved that smell. The wind rose, and whined through the eaves.
He heard the padding of feet, and Berlina came down the steps alone. She usually slept at the foot of the bed, beside Samia, but she nuzzled his hand now, seeking reassurance against the storm. He rubbed her head and ears, and the gentle animal curled up atop his feet, her body warm and compact.
He thought about the Venezuelan refugees camped in the field across from the Centro. The old man with the cane, the proud woman, the thin black-haired woman with the boys and their deflated soccer ball. How would they cope in this rain? Would their tents and lean-tos hold up? What a frightening thing not to have a proper roof over your head in a storm. On impulse, he raised his hands and whispered a dua’ for those Venezuelans.
“Wheeoooooooh! Wheeoooooooh!” A high-pitched screeching came from outside. Like a combination of a whistling being blown and a child screaming, it was like nothing Omar had ever heard. Berlina raised her head and pricked her ears, and Omar felt the hairs on his arms stand on end.
Berlina was on her feet, growling, and Omar too was up instantly, heading for the front door. Though the sound frightened him, he felt compelled to discover its source. What if it was a creature or person in pain?
He snatched a flashlight from the windowsill above the kitchen sink, and Berlina’s leash from the coat rack by the door. Snapping the leash onto Berlina’s collar, he opened the front door. The gusting wind pushed him back as a liquid wall of rain drenched him from his curly hair to his bare feet. Nevertheless, he pushed out into the tropical thunderstorm.
Barefoot, his feet slipping on the rain-slick grass, he shined the flashlight through the downpour, looking for any sign of what might have caused the sound. He saw nothing but wind lashing the mango and guava trees, and rain splashing in the fountain and on the walkway. The flashlight illuminated the drops as they fell, making them look like thousands of tiny diamonds, each visible only for an instant.
Berlina did not bark – she was too well trained for that – but she pulled on her leash, leading him toward the single towering eucalyptus at the front of the yard.
He aimed the beam of light up into the tree, playing it along the branches and through the leaves. As he moved past a high branch, he spotted a shape – an unusually large shape – then lost it in the blackness. What was that? A man hiding in the top of a tree, on someone else’s property, in a thunderstorm? That would be insane. He moved the beam back and found the shape again. Yes, a short, wide-bodied man huddled in the deep gloom, wearing a gray mask and a black cloak pulled tightly around himself. Omar’s body stiffened in a rush of fear. Was it a jinn, come to visit him like the spectre of his own tortured past?
Then the man turned his head slightly, and Omar saw his – no, its – full profile. Jutting forehead, sharply hooked black beak, crest of tall dark feathers atop its head.
It was a harpy eagle.
He recoiled, taking a backward step. Everything his mother had once told him about this strange creature came back to him: the águila arpía was the sorceress of the forest. Her cry was a harbinger of the approach of war and death. If she looked directly at you, it meant you would face a terrible trial. Maybe you would survive, maybe not.
As if responding to his fear, the harpy let out a frightful, piercing cry: “Wheeeeeeeoooooooh!”
For the first time in many years, he was transported back to those horrifying, agonizing moments on the Santa Clara road, when two enraged dogs had tried to tear his body to pieces. Not again, he thought. I can’t go through something like that again.
Except that the harpy was not looking at him. It was looking across the street, in the direction of his mother’s house, with a fixed and seemingly purposeful gaze. His mother’s house.
Maybe in response to the eagle’s cry, or maybe sensing Omar’s fear, Berlina could not restrain herself any longer and began barking furiously. The bird shook itself, sending water flying. Then it spread its wings, hopped off the branch and soared into the cascading sky.
Then came a sound like a cosmic gun being fired in a battle beyond human understanding. The thunder nearly deafened him, the sound booming across the city relentlessly, following nature’s imperatives with neither forbearance nor rage. The thunder was a Muslim, following the lightning as it was commanded to do.
Barefoot in the sheeting rain, and with Berlina at his heels and her leash in his hand, he dashed across the street toward his mother’s house.
Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 13: Never Be Your King
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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.
Source: Muslim Matters