They say Cambodia has the most beautiful sunsets in the world. I personally believe it’s Los Angeles. The sky turns blood red as the dynamic of the city shifts. As Satan proclaims his territory. It’s not the type of sunset that takes your breath away, not the type that makes you see the beauty of this planet. It’s one that instills fear in your heart. One that makes you run towards your lord. An inevitable reminder that our days in this world are limited.
I made my way home from track practice. I took little notice to my surroundings other than the tinted red sky. Not wanting to miss the evening prayer Maghrib, I sped walked through the neighborhood. I let my thoughts wander back to my days up north. I was happy to be in LA though these projects weren’t much better than the ones in East Oakland. You don’t get many opportunities in life to start completely over; to reinvent yourself. Passing by a group of kids playing ball I felt a pang of jealousy. How blissful it is to be ignorant, to not see every detail for the sign it is. I approached the bland grey apartment complexes I now called home, they stood tall and the paint was chipping off exposing concrete brick. The battered coiled fence tilted sideways, on the edge of tipping over. The sight oddly comforted me, to have a battlefield of America’s war on color right outside my front door. I turned my key into Apartment 219 and was met with the strong aroma of malawax.
“Mohamed? Is that you?” my mother asked from the next room. She stood tall at 5’8 and youth gleamed from her face. At thirty-seven years old she didn’t look a day over twenty.
“Yes Hooyo, it’s me,” I walked into the open kitchen.
“Come eat sweetheart, how was your first day of school?”
“It was fine” I responded composedly.
Pausing her cooking she took a long look at me clearly trying to read my expression.
I softened my tone “school was good and thank you for cooking. I’m going to pray first.”
Maneuvering around empty boxes I was surprised my mother was able to finish unpacking and still have enough time and energy to cook. The move to LA was good for her, ever since my brother’s shooting she seemed hollow and the change of scenery was clearly impacting her for the better.
“I saw you, you know” Samira’s voice came lurking from the shadows of her bedroom.
“why are you hiding in the dark?” I asked amused.
She came into the bright hallway; her footsteps making virtually no sound, “I’m not hiding I happen to enjoy being in the dark.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I was glad the move didn’t affect my little sister’s strange behavior.
“I saw you.” She persisted nudging my shoulder.
“Saw me doing what?” I asked confused.
“Saw you with that girl on the field.” She replied with a smirk.
I hadn’t thought about Kayla since I got home. I intentionally tried to keep my mind off her, she was incredibly gorgeous and had a keen understanding of things; she was the first girl that really caught my interest. She was fitnah.
“I have to pray Samira,” ignoring her remark and making a mental note to later question why she was at the field I walked into the bathroom to make Wudu. The cleansing prayer ritual is one of my favorite parts of my day. To focus so intently on the application of water that you are forced to be completely present. Comprehensively in the moment. A feeling of shame overcame me like stone in the pit of my stomach as I made my way to a meeting with my lord. Late. I prayed for forgiveness and I prayed for my mother’s happiness. I prayed for Samira and I prayed for Aden. I prayed for heaven and I prayed for guidance. Cross legged on my prayer mat, having completed my salat I sat not wanting to break the after-prayer trance. The bright stars lit up my otherwise dark room as dusk took over the night.
“Mohamed?” Aden voice called out from the room over.
“Yeah, hey.” I responded entering his bedroom. He lay sprawled in bed; wheel of fortune playing on the tv.
“Is Hooyo making malawax?” he grinned ear to ear. With sparkling eyes and tousled hair, his youthfulness was quite apparent.
I nodded, “yeah do you want me to take you?”
The relief of not having to ask was clearly showcased on his face. “Will you please?”
I hesitated as I pulled the wheelchair out of the closet. Overcome with sadness I walked over to the bed to pick my brother up.
“How was school ya? Any baddies?” Aden asked with a chuckle as I wheeled him towards the kitchen. It was surprising to me that even after everything he went through his cheeriness was unchanged and his optimism remained unhinged.
“I didn’t notice any.” I responded.
“You know Samira already filled me in,” he stated with a raised eyebrow.
“Filled you in on what?” My mother asked while leaning down to kiss Aden’s forehead.
“Nothing.” I quickly interjected.
I examined my family as we sat down and ate dinner on this rickety dining room table. After everything we were still able to sit down and enjoy a meal together. Growing up I often took these meals for granted. I was always so caught up in my own world, in the nothingness up in my head. I thought back to how I felt earlier when I saw the young boys playing basketball; how for a moment I wished I could be in their place. I was wrong as jealousy so often is. Being aware is the greatest of gifts; the most humbling of gifts. Alhamdulillah.
After dinner, once the table had been cleared, the laughter had winded down and my siblings had gone to their collective rooms I decided to pray Isha at the local mosque. I quietly got dressed and headed out not wanting to wake my mother snoring peacefully on the living room couch. Ever since the night of Aden’s shooting she gets anxious whenever I leave the house after sundown. I hate causing Hooyo stress, but I yearned for the feeling of praying in the masjid. I felt at peace and at home. I walked through the dimly lit streets. The night whispered shadows and the roads were empty which was strange for a Friday night in Los Angeles. I approached Khadijah Mosque and felt calm take over my soul. The two weeks I had been teaching there taught me the true meaning of fulfillment.
The mosque was modest in appearance. From the outside it looked like a typically banal building. Enclosed by two convenience stores to an outsider it didn’t strike one as a place of worship. I entered the dual door and removed my shoes. The vast red carpet and beautiful Islamic scriptures on the wall made up for the outer shabbiness. I rushed to join the already in progress prayer.
“Allahu Akbar” the imam leading knelt in prostration.
Praying in groups is more beneficial than praying alone, I never understood why that was the case. My faith was always my own; my personal relationship with God. However, as I got to know the brothers of the masjid I realized the reward in praying together. Our mutual love for God has connected our journeys and our motivation to succeed continuously bounces off each other inspiring us to continue our individual missions of obtaining eternal peace.
“Salaam brother,” a local at the mosque named Yonas approached me.
Yonas and I had briefly been acquainted the day I moved to LA. He offered me the teaching position after hearing my recitation. I hadn’t seen him since.
“As-salāmu ʿalaykum brother, how are you?” I shook his hand and was surprised to feel the cold of his touch. Examining him closer I saw he had bags under his eyes as if he hadn’t slept since I saw him. He looked pale and feeble, his face sunken in and his eyes darkened.
“Alhamdulilah, I am good. How’s teaching treating you.” His response was dry like he was looking past me.
Glancing around the mosque it dawned on me that the usually cheery atmosphere was missing. The mood was somber, and the men stood or sat in small groups quietly chattering.
“Brother, let me talk to you. Come take a walk with me.” Yonas beckoned at me to follow him.
“What is it?” I asked puzzled.
“Life is interesting isn’t it?” His expression was a dazed one.
“I guess.” I replied as I followed suit in putting on my shoes.
We walked outside to the neighboring convenience store. The flickering lights of the decrepit “Al-Baba’s” sign lit up the sidewalk. The bell sounded as we entered.
“Salaam, just a pack brother.” Yonas nodded at the man behind the counter. He was a short and meaty Arab man in his 40s. With an open beer bottle in one hand he tossed a pack of Marlboro’s to Yonas with the other.
“Jazāk Allāhu Khayran.” Yonas waved his thanks as we stepped out on the bright sidewalk. Leaning against the wall he lit up a cigarette and a blanket of smoke draped over us.
“Do you want one?” He extended the pack of cigarettes out to me.
“No, I don’t smoke.” I replied casually.
“Smart kid, don’t start it’s a nasty habit.” He said distastefully.
“I don’t plan to.” I was confused why he called me out here to smoke with him.
The loud ding of the bell went off as the door to Al-Baba’s was opened by a woman. Wearing a tight red leather skirt and a matching red shirt that came up to her midriff she strutted into the store with her high heels and dangly earrings.
“Disgusting… absolutely disgusting. This is the type of world we live in, we raise our children in. A world where woman walk around with no shame. Back home we would’ve stoned that hooker.” I was taken aback by the anger in Yonas’s voice.
“It our job to lower our gaze brother,” I responded cautiously not wanting to set off a fuse.
“We are surrounded by sin. Every corner of this city there is something that spits in the face of Allah,” His tone was softer now. He stroked his beard as he puffed on the cigarette.
“Do you ever think about why we were put on this planet Mohamed?”
“To be righteous and do as Allah has commanded us. To pass or to fail the test of life.” Still baffled by his strange behavior I responded quietly.
“Yes, that is why we mankind were put on this planet, but do you think about why we individually were brought to this world. Do you ever think about your life’s purpose?” His darkened eyes lit up and the undertones of excitement in his voice were easily detectable.
“Umm… No not necessarily. I don’t spend much time thinking about this life I focus on the hereafter.” Something about the way he was speaking gave me a bad feeling and I answered hesitantly.
“You have the light brother.” Yonas’s voice was like a whisper.
“Take a look around the world you live in. Does God smile down on the streets of Los Angeles? With their Hollywood stars, and propaganda they feed our children. We live in Satan’s playground my brother. Does God smile down on us if we do nothing?” He continued, it was hard to read him.
“What do you suppose we do?” My heart sank to my stomach. His words touched on extremism. The bad feeling intensified.
“Come. Let me show you something.” He put out his cigarette and walked purposefully into Al-Baba’s. This time he didn’t acknowledge the man sitting behind the counter and headed directly towards the back room. I followed him cautiously. What was he going to show me? Why was every one of my instincts telling me to run?
Inside the back room was a small office. Apart from a muddled desk piled up with papers, an open laptop in one corner, and a small fish tank with murky green water in the other the office was empty. On the wall was agiant metallic door. It reminded me of the comics I used to read as a young boy where a supervillain would rob an important vault. Yonas grabbed the handle to the vault like door; he paused before opening it to take a long look at me.
“Are you a servant of Allah?” He asked me firmly.
“I serve Allah and only Allah.” I responded softly.
Yonas opened the door to reveal a freezer room, lined along the walls was raw meat used for the kababs they sell in Al-Baba’s. In the middle of the room was a bulge covered with a thin white cloth.
“What is this?” I let curiosity get the best of me as I ignored my instincts to leave.
Yonas smiled, “It is time brother. It is time to claim our life purpose as servants and soldiers of Allah. It is time to teach Los Angeles a lesson. Shaytaan will not play anywhere a Muslim lies his head to sleep. Allahu Akbar.”
He moved the white cloth to expose a table. The table was filled with materials I had never seen before. Different rods and white buckets labeled ‘CHEMICALS’ I took a step back trying to process what was in front of me.
“What is this?” I asked again this time with a whimper.
Yonas’s face was replaced with boyish excitement. “This is C-4.” He picked up a brown brick and tossed it from hand to hand. I immediately ducked expecting a detonation.
Yonas laughed, “don’t worry brother this bad boy needs a lot more energy to go off.” He continued circling the table labeling the items.
“That’s TATP, unlike the C-4 it will go off so don’t get too close.” Yonas warned casually.
Suddenly hit by the reality of the situation I found it difficult to inhale. The cold air was making me feel dizzy. I needed to get out of here.
“There’s a blood moon eclipse at the end of this month, insubordinates from all over will gather at Griffith Observatory to view it. That is when we will carry out our mission.” Yonas was speaking to me but was intently staring at a large map on the wall.
“Carry out your mission? As in blow it up?” I was shocked. This couldn’t be real. As a Muslim I grew up hearing about terrorists, I had even been accused of being one countless times. I had always believed that Islamic terrorism was something that western governments created to spin a false narrative of Islam. I couldn’t believe that someone who read the Quran and understood the context of being a Muslim could willingly harm another being. I thought about 1st period English and how Mr. Ashkani addressed terrorism. Was that just this morning? It seemed like a lifetime ago. I never believed that terrorists could actually believe what they were doing was the will of God, yet here was Yonas a man I had prayed with, a man who had gotten me a teaching position because he sensed I needed redirection. A man who knew the Quran and hadith inside out, who lived and breathed Islam. Here was a man who was ready to kill.
“People will die?” I whispered.
“Dying for the sake of Allah, dying in Jihad is the most blessed way to die.” Yonas stared at me long and hard.
“And the innocent women and children at the observatory?” My voice cracked.
“They are not innocent, they worship false God’s and strut their insubordination in the face of Allah!” Yonas roared.
Noticing my fearful expression, he took a deep breath. “Will you join us Mohamed? Will you take your place among the ranks of Allah’s favored?”
Before I could answer, my cell phone vibrated causing me to jump. The screen read ‘Hooyo.’
“I have to take this call brother.” I turned around to step out of the freezer.
“We have a meeting next Friday, you will come and meet the other brothers.” Yonas’s tone was stern. I knew better than to dispute with him right this second. Walking out of the tiny office the luminous light of the convenience store blinded me.
“You boy, come here.” The man behind the counter beckoned to me.
He was now onto his second beer bottle and was apparently intoxicated. His breath reeked of alcohol and there were donut crumbs intertwined in his beard.
“What is your name son?” He asked with a belch.
“Mohamed.” I retorted.
“Welcome to the cause brother!” He laughed as my phone vibrated again now reading “Samira”
“Hello?” I answered stepping out of the store still out of sorts over what just happened.
“Mohamed! Mohamed! Aden had a stroke!” Samira cried.
“Meet us at the emergency room.” I felt numb. Stroke? What was happening. Was God punishing me for some reason. Rushing to the hospital as fast as I could Yonas and his explosives replayed in the back of my head.
At midnight the hospital was practically empty. My frantic footsteps echoes off the marble floors. Did she say room 40 or 41? I tried thinking back to the nursing assistant’s directions. My brain was a jumble of looping sentences. Yonas’s words blending with Samira’s. I felt my heartbeat accelerating and I felt nauseous. What was happening to me? Why was the room spinning? All of a sudden, the hospital was blurring away and before I knew it I was on the floor.
“Mohamed?” My mother kneeled over me. Attempting to sit up I felt a searing pain in my head.
“Don’t. You took quite a fall and you probably have a concussion. It’s better to not make sudden movements.” A nurse in her late 60’s approached me to take my blood pressure.
“Your vitals are all okay, you probably fainted from lack of food. Did you eat today?” She continued.
“Yes… I fainted?” The last thing I remembered was looking for Aden’s room number.
“Aden! I have to see him”
“He’s fine Mohamed. He’s stabilized now and sleeping.” My mother looked over at me with sad eyes.
“I want to see him.” I got up ignoring the nurse’s protests and walked down the hall to room 41. Samira lay curled up in a ball fast asleep; the room was silent other than the beeping of the monitor and Aden’s deep breaths through the ventilator. He looked so fragile.
“The doctor’s said the medication for his legs caused it.” Samira said with a yawn.
“They said that he’ll be fine and they’re switching his meds, but this is bullshit we should sue the doctor who prescribed those medications in the first place.” Her anger was justifiable, but I could barely process her words.
“Hush Samira, say Alhamdulilah.” My mother quietly entered the room giving her only daughter a stern look.
I was numb. My entire body on autopilot. I wanted to cry and scream but nothing came out. I looked at my 14-year-old sister who was stronger than I ever could be. I looked at my resilient Hooyo who was being weakened every second she watched her disabled son on a hospital bed. I was overcome with emotion, yet my expression remained blank.
“Mr. Jama, there’s someone here to see you.” A hospital attendant peaked her head into the room and motioned at me to follow her. Walking out into the fluorescent hallways she led me to the waiting room where Yonas was sitting patiently reading over a newspaper.
“Ahh Mohamed.” He set the newspaper down and beckoned at me to sit. I remained standing.
Raising an eyebrow Yonas stood next to me. “I am sorry to hear of your brother’s accident.” His voice was cool.
“How did you find me?” I retorted. My head was pounding, and his presence was fueling me with anger.
“Your neighbor. Dismal old lady smelt of pork.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“My neighbor told you I was at the hospital because my brother had a stroke and you have the audacity to show up here?” I replied through gritted teeth.
“Actually, she said heart attack.” He let out a chuckle and I lunged at his neck.
Grabbing him by the collar all rational thought escaped me.
“Listen brother relax, Allah is the greatest of planners. If he wills it your brother will live, breathe, maybe even walk again; and if he wills it your brother will take his last breath in this world. We all die Mohamed. There’s no use fighting me on that.”
I released his throat and he rushed to fix his shirt.
“Now that we are being civilized I understand you are going through a rough time with your family, may Allah ease your pain, but Sadiq wants to see you.” He cleared his throat regaining his usually cool demeanor.
Puzzled by my silence he continued, “He wants to see for himself your loyalty to the cause, to Allah.”
In that moment anger engulfed me. The type of anger that bubbles under the surface, the type of anger that forces you to keep a calm composure or you’ll burst into flames.
“Leave. Now. Before I go to the police.” My tone was ice. Yonas sensed now in a public hospital was not the time and place to continue this conversation.
“What a shame…” He whispered.
I watched him walk out of the hospital doors and suddenly felt weak. Tired and still processing shock I went back to Aden’s room. I spent the night staring at the wall millions of broken conversations floating in my head. Who was Sadiq? What would happen now that I refused? Will they harm me or worse my family? Should we move? Would Aden be okay? It was all too much and for the first time in a long time I broke down.
“Mo, he’ll be okay.” Samira knelt beside me embracing my arm.
For a while we just sat there in silence listening to the ventilator and Hooyo’s quiet snores.
At half past 5 I went to the hospital’s prayer room. I needed to ask God for direction; for strength. Finishing my salat I looked over the multi-faith prayer space. I needed to get my family out of Los Angeles. It wasn’t safe. Deciding that I would confide in my mother in the morning I headed back to the hospital room eventually falling asleep on the cushion less sofa.
“Mohamed wake up now!” Disoriented and forgetting where I was I rolled off the sofa on to the floor.
“What?” I snapped at Samira.
“Look at your phone! It’s all over the news.”
I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and looked at the notifications. “CNN BREAKING NEWS: TERRORIST ATTACK AT DODGER STADIUM.” “FOX NEWS: MUSLIMS ATTACK BASEBALL GAME.” “DAILY MAIL: DODGER STADIUM TERRORIST ATTACK WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR.” “THE NEW YORK TIMES: 32 CONFIRMED DEAD AT DODGER STADUIM.”
Under the news alerts was one green notification from an unsaved number. “Your refusal to serve Allah has sped up our journey of jihad. May you gain inspiration from our martyrdom. Allahu Akbar! – Y.”
Flabbergasted I looked at Samira who had tears in her eyes. How did this happen? Feeling nauseous I swallowed the urge to puke. 32 people? 32 innocent lives taken. Those lives were on me.
“In the main waiting room watching the news.” Samira answered through sniffles.
The waiting room was packed with people in groups hugging and crying. The nursing attendants were handing out Kleenex, everyone hovered around the tv. Noticing shifty eyes and dirty looks I embraced my mother.
“WE ARE SORRY TO DISRUPT YOUR REGULARLY BROADCASTED PROGRAM. THIS IS AN ANNOUNCENMENT FROM THE UNITED STATES PRESIDENT.”
The tv screen went black before President Trump’s face appeared. He looked flustered, as if he had just been awoken from a nap. We listened quietly as he spoke. The entire hospital silent. There was a synchronized gasp as President Trump announced he wanted to round us all up like dogs.
“Mohamed what is he saying?” My mother whispered.
“He wants to lock us up.” My answer was emotionless. I was stunned. This whole thing felt like a dream. Oh, Allah save us. Oh, Allah protect us was the only thing going through my head.
A woman with a baby approached us; holding the child in one arm she embraced my mother with the other.
“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry. This is not our America.” She cried.
Together they burst into tears as many more people approached us to offer their condolences. I didn’t hear them. I couldn’t breathe. What was happening?
“Mrs. Jama, follow me please ma’am.” The doctor that was treating my brother lead us back towards the hospital room. He motioned us inside and quickly shut the door.
“Aden is stabilized now, we usually wait a week before we discharge patients but due to recent events we believe it is in your best interests and for your overall safety to discharge him now. I will accompany you to set up an in-home ventilator and monitoring system, I will stop by every few days to check his progress. I’m sorry… I’m so sorry.” He looked ashamed.
“You’re discharging my brother because we’re Muslim?” Samira asked hotly.
“Samira hush. Thank you, Dr. Williams. We will leave as soon as possible.” My mother nodded as Dr. Williams exited the room.
“Samira!” My mother cut her off harshly “It safer for all of us to be in our home.” Her tone was final.
I still was having trouble breathing.
“Mohamed you must not return to that mosque. They will be questioning you since you teach there.” The tears on Hooyo’s face were replaced with the grim look of a solider.
It was war and every Muslim household across the nation was in preparation.
Follow Author @ Safia Malin