April 18 2012 09:58 AM

A writer's chance encounter with the daughter of Shaima Alawadi hits an El Cajon murder case and international incident from a previously unseen angle


On March 21, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old mother of five—a Muslim, an Iraqi refugee—was found severely beaten in her suburban El Cajon home next to a note that, according to her family, read, "This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist." She died at the hospital three days later. The timing and location were perfect to touch off an international incident. El Cajon's been fighting for years to wash the stain of white supremacy and racial tension from its image, especially in light of the fact that it contains one of the largest populations of Iraqi refugees in the country. With Trayvon Martin shot dead in his hoodie just a few weeks prior, the alliteration was too easy to pass up for a news cycle that feeds off viral Internet trends: "Hoodies and hijabs" has become indelibly wedded as symbols of outrage against hate crimes.

Except Alawadi's murder may not have been a hate crime. On April 5, the El Cajon Police Department accidentally released a search-warrant affidavit to U-T San Diego that revealed that Alawadi's 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, had been caught in a car with a 21year-old Chaldean man some months prior.

The affidavit also said that after Alawadi was called to pick up Fatima, the daughter leapt out of the car while it was moving at 35 mph. The affidavit also states, "Police were informed by paramedics and hospital staff that Fatima Alhamidi said she was being forced to marry her cousin and did not want to do [sic] so she jumped out of the vehicle."

Media sources such as Time, Salon and The New York Times have begun to speculate whether the so-called hate crime isn't actually an honor killing in disguise, and conservative blogs such as Jihadwatch.org have seized on the opportunity to criticize the values of the Muslim community.

As executive director of So Say We All, a local literary-arts nonprofit, I'm spending most of 2012 focusing on "The Far East Project," an endeavor that aims to tell a people's history of San Diego's semi-rural and marginalized East County, of which El Cajon is the heart.

Of the 34 stories "The Far East Project" has collected so far, one of them came from Enrique Cervantes, a student at Grossmont College whose account is consistent with the details revealed in the search-warrant affidavit. Enrique's story, "Breathing," was written and submitted to So Say We All several months before Alawadi was murdered.

"Breathing" reveals interesting points that may apply to the unfolding criminal case, but what the story provides that we haven't seen before is a human perspective on the community in question. It gives an honest account of a town whose stereotypes may have been manipulated to try to detour a murder investigation. It contextualizes a human drama that has entirely overshadowed a cultural battle and the unknown results of a ongoing police investigation.

Cervantes' story follows in its entirety. More stories from "The Far East Project" will be made available through sosayweallonline.com throughout the year.

—Justin Hudnall

To read and watch an interview with Enrique Cervantes and Justin Hudnall, click here.

The rancheras woke me up—Mexican folk music. That and the three or four little brown kids running around outside my window chasing their dogs and laughing. They were pleasant noises, though, even with a hangover. They were summer noises, better than an alarm. I threw on a shirt and my old gym shorts from high school; it was my day off. I went into the living room where my brother was shooting cops and stealing cars on the Playstation and his girlfriend was flipping through a Cosmo magazine. I took out some tortillas from the fridge and turned on the stove. Mom was at work, so I had to flip them myself. It always hurts my fingers a little when I do it, so I have to flip them quick, in one swift motion. Sometimes I just use a fork. I watch my grandma or my mom do it and they don't even flinch. I asked my grandma once if it burned her fingers. "Ayyy mijo despues de tantos años," she said; after so many years of flipping tortillas, she didn't feel the burn.

We live on a small street off of Mollison, so we don't often have cars parked in front unless they're ours. It's not the worst neighborhood in El Cajon, but I guess it depends on what you're used to. The tweakers and homeless who fall asleep on our front yard every once in a while don't shock us anymore. The occasional helicopter or cruiser sparks little interest. The days when our older friends would chase people out of our neighborhood with bats are gone.

I flipped my tortillas and squinted out the kitchen window. A new-looking car was parked in front of my house, and I could see bodies in it, rocking around, the car shaking back and forth. Shit, and it's not even one o'clock, I thought. I'm no fan of the police, nor a stranger to backseat romance, but it was a little too much for people to be spending time in the backseat while the neighborhood kids are out riding bikes and playing tag. I told my brother, and he came to look out the window, too. I called my pops to ask what I should do. I always called and asked him what he wanted me to do when tweakers would come to the dead end to do their thing or whenever I noticed something suspicious. Kids would come to the dead end to smoke cigarettes where their parents couldn't see them. Tweakers would come smoke their crystal. Couples would come fuck and throw their condoms out the window.

"Go and tell those putos to leave" was my dad's most common suggestion.

I dialed his number; he was out fixing cars. That's what he did for a living. Business has been bad, though. The Chaldeans have set up businesses of all sorts, including repair shops. I've heard my dad on the phone talking to my uncles. Carnal, he says, they've taken 70 percent of my business. They're trying to run me out, these people.

"Hey, maniac, there's two people in your parking spot; they're in the back seat," I told my dad.

He told me someone had probably called the police by now, and if not, then he would if they didn't leave soon. He was sick of people doing shit in front of our house. I hung up the phone. Fuck, I thought, poor guy's probably just trying getting laid. I thought about the times I'd been in handcuffs, the way the pudgy officers laughed and asked questions they already knew the answers to. Are you old enough to be drinking? You know it's illegal to carry one of these? What do you bang? I was never in a gang, but when you're young and colored with a few tattoos, some police have a hard time relating.

The author, Enrique Cervantes
Photo by Silvia Valentino

My brother and I went outside and approached the car. The guy saw me coming and adjusted his pants. The girl pulled a blanket over her legs and smiled, her cheeks blossoming into red. What the fuck? I almost said out loud. She was wearing one of those things on her head that Muslims wear. It was light purple; it looked nice on her skin. Her skin was brown like mine. It looked nice with that shade of purple, like an Egyptian princess. I'd never seen a girl like that in a situation like this. I never saw girls like that at house parties or at the bars. In fact, I only see them rush by at school or walk down Main Street, South Mollison or First Street. Those are their neighborhoods. They have businesses with signs in their own language, and instead of tweakers roaming around, it's old Chaldean men crossing the street with rosaries and whole families walking around going to Amvets or Foodland.

The guy had the flashy clothes that a lot of the Middle Eastern kids like to wear, like black shirts with tribal-looking designs and studded with plastic jewels. His arms were hairier than mine, which says a lot, considering that I brush mine with my hands sometimes so it all points in one direction. The girl wouldn't look at me. Man, she's pretty, I thought, trying to look tough, puffing out my chest and licking my lips.

"Hey, man, you guys need to leave before the cops show up," I told the guy in the sincerest way I could muster. They laughed. She still wouldn't look at me.

"All right, bro," said the guy in the car, in a way that made me regret trying to help them.

My brother came out, too. 

"We're not playing man; someone's probably called the cops already," he said. I started to get irritated. My face started feeling warm. I could feel my fist clenching, my teeth grinding. Allowing myself to be laughed at like that isn't the way my dad brought my brother and me up. In middle school, these Chaldean kids, recently  arrived from Iraq, would make fun of me and my brother. My dad would take us to school in his mobile service truck since he had early-morning jobs.

"Nice car!" they would scream. 

"It's better than a fucking camel!" my dad would scream back and tell us not to fight in school. So we didn't fight in school. We called each other names and made threats. One day I saw two of the kids walking in front of my apartment. I told my friend Shane, a poor white boy who spent all his time on the streets, to back me up. We chased them down. I caught up to one by grabbing his backpack and throwing him down to the ground. I climbed on top of him and banged my knuckles on his face until I realized he wasn't fighting back. I got up and saw Shane pinning the other one down. The boy was crying; he saw his big brother get his ass whooped. It didn't bring the satisfaction I imagined. I got up, and, out of breath, inhaling and exhaling, Shane and I went back to our complex.

The guy in the car doesn't know the cruiser will be there any minute. Fuck it, I tried, I told myself. We went back inside.

I went back into the house and straight to the kitchen. They'd started to get close again when the cruiser pulled up. I could see them frantically trying to adjust their clothes. I grabbed my tortillas, eggs and some salsa and sat down to eat my breakfast. I didn't need to see what was going to happen. I'd been there plenty of times: 16 years old behind Grossmont High School with a white girl whose dad frisked me on our first date; 17 years old in a Target parking lot sweating and sweating on a summer night; 18 years old at Parkway Plaza in the parking lot, then walking circles in the mall with a James Cagney grin and stains on my pants. Sometimes the backseat is the only option, I know that. If he just would have listened to me and left.

After 15 or 20 minutes, I heard screaming. No, not screaming. Wailing. Angry wailing more suited for a news reel of an Iraqi woman whose child is trapped in a building that was bombed by insurgents or American forces than my neighborhood, where hip-hop and Mexican music usually dominate the sound waves. I peeked outside; it was the mother of the princess girl, I assumed. She wore a thing on her head just like the girl. She was crying and throwing her hands up in the air. If I isolated the woman from the scene and pictured her in a desert setting, with Romans and robed peasants, she could've been playing the Virgin Mary the way she was weeping and moaning. The girl didn't even try to argue back. She took the screaming, took it like cold  water in December. The mom and daughter sped off in the family car. The door bell rang. It was a police officer.

"What's up, officer?" I asked him, studying his face and trying to remember if I'd run into him before in less-desirable circumstances.

"You guys the ones that called?" he asked.

"Yeah, I think my dad might have," I told him.

He asked about what we had seen. To my memory, he mentioned that she was 17 and he was 21. He mentioned that the mother's anger might have been because the man her daughter was with was Chaldean and not Muslim.

My face got a little warm, like the comal we put tortillas on to heat them up. I knew that was bad news. I can't really tell you how I knew; I just did. Maybe living in El Cajon my whole life, in grade school hearing the Chaldean kids bad-mouth the Muslim ones or the Muslim ones bad-mouth the Chaldean ones, or how some of the Muslim kids would take the pepperoni off their pizza, and some wouldn't. 

The few neighbors and people outside talked about how back home in Iraq, people get killed over things like this.

"I need to know exactly what—" the officer began to ask when his radio crackled.

Fuck. To think I was somehow involved in this. I bit my lip. The dispatcher said some numbers and things I couldn't understand. The cop took off without a word, jumped in his cruiser, flipped the siren on and sped off toward Mollison. Someone must have called for backup, I thought as I sat down on the front steps to take in some sunlight and watch the neighborhood breathe. This neighborhood is a little quieter than the other ones we've lived in. In our old neighborhoods, a few different ones on Mollison, you didn't see kids out playing. There were too many hookers out and gangsters roaming around, too many winos stumbling on the sidewalks, too many tweakers twitching around.

The neighbors' kids were riding tricycles, skateboards and scooters up and down the sidewalk. There were a lot of them. I think three or four families live in the house next to ours. A little Chicana with a messy ponytail asked me if I wanted to play with them. "Alrato," I told them. "Later." On real hot summer days, I used to hose them down in the front yard or show them tricks on my skateboard. We didn't have pools.

A few minutes passed by, and the officer came back. He said he needed to ask some questions about what exactly we saw.

Sweating and smoothing down his hair, he said we'd stirred up a big storm. He apologized for having left so abruptly. The girl had jumped out of the car on her way home with her mom going 30 or 40 miles an hour. I think he said she might have broken an arm or fractured some ribs and that she probably lost consciousness. We speculated on why she might have jumped. Maybe she was scared of how her father would react, or her brothers, or her family in general—scared that they would see her actions as shameful.

I don't remember him leaving. I don't remember much of what I did with my day off. I remember floating, feeling dizzy, my face feeling hot. I remember seeing nothing but the girl's shy smile and red cheeks wrapped up in that purple thing, trying to avoid my eyes. Her skin, brown like mine. I could have tried to imagine her face slamming and skidding across the black pavement on Mollison, or I could have imagined the slaps like thunder her limbs made as they hit, or maybe the sounds that came from her mouth as she rolled, deep grunts coming from the stomach. I could have imagined the silence that swallowed everything when she came to a stop, traffic going by, birds chirping on the few trees there are on Mollison.

But I didn't want to imagine all that. I was having a hard time breathing.


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