ABOUT THE BOOK

Born to immigrant parents who escaped Estople’s civil war, Rowdin is a young woman who has grown up and built a successful career for herself in first world country, Westinia. When Rowdin’s grandmother dies, she is asked by her father to help facilitate the transfer of the inherited property in the deceased’s will.

This trip takes her to Estople where her life’s journey takes a new turn. From a standard day to day life to experiencing corrupt government officials to finding herself in the middle of a gunfight to along with other empowered women, becoming changemakers and playing a significant part with the new generation that brought peace and prosperity to her parents’ birthplace.

Rowdin’s experiences soon teach her that there is always more to life than what you know and see.The story suggests hope through education and innovative thinking for places that have been forced into systematic complacency by corrupt leadership and factional ideology.

All through the eyes of someone just like you or me.

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Rowdin Belhamany
Chapter 1
Chapter 1

The desk shook as a loud sonic boom filled the northern town of Kentoura in Estople.  Seconds later the whole house shook from several explosions a few kilometers away.  Hilmy was in the middle of grading his students’ research papers when it happened.  Already used to the bombs, he ignored the booming sounds from the numerous air raids coming from Estople’s northern neighbor, Iridia.

Iridians liked to believe that they owned the skies of Estople.  They believed that no one could challenge them, so the constant attacks were a reminder to the people of Estople that they could be punished any time.  Occasionally, Iridian fighter jets would bomb a target here and a target there, claiming they were hitting a terrorist base.  The truth was that there were no terror locations for them to hit; all they did was hit made up targets.  The raids were mostly to remind the people of Estople that until they submitted to Iridia’s conditions—which included giving citizenship to the more than half a million expelled Iridian refugees that Iridians had sent to Estople because they did not belong to a specific sectarian group—they would continue to be punished.  Estople’s total population prior to the influx of refugees was three million.  The Iridian refugees increased its population by more than sixteen percent overnight.

Iridia is the spoiled child country of the western world, one that had been propped up, subsidized, heavily armed with the most advanced weaponry, and allowed to spread mayhem with impunity in the surrounding region.  They used their so-called self-defense as an excuse to commit atrocities and to start wars, but the problem with this excuse was that no aggression or threat ever came from any of other countries.  Iridia was playing the same old “right to self-defense” game of justifying their atrocities against the civilian populations that were never a threat to it.

To maintain their internal sectarian superiority, the Iridians began a brutal campaign of what could be termed as sectarian cleansing.  Years earlier, they expelled whole sections of their own population to neighboring countries including Estople, leaving them to suffer as refugees in these countries, and absolving themselves of any responsibility for their crimes.  Currently, each of these refugees who ask to return to their home is labeled a terrorist by the Iridians.

A few years ago, Iridia suffered a major humiliation when two of its commandos were discovered and arrested by one of Estople’s northern area’s Civil Defense Group units for attempting to infiltrate the country and plant spying equipment to support their air incursions in order to improve bombing accuracy.  Using their powerful propaganda machine, Iridia’s government framed their commandos’ failures and capture as a kidnapping by Estople’s Civil Defense Group.  To pressure Estople into freeing the captured commandos—and with a clear green light from other western sponsors—they attempted to invade Estople with their superior air, land and sea weapons.  Fortunately, they failed due to the cowardice of their supposed elite soldiers and the surprising resilience of Estople’s northern Civil Defense Group which deprived these “world’s most feared elite combat units” of the ability to set foot in any part of Estople.  When they could take no more losses, the Iridian government urged their sponsors to help them negotiate an end to the war in a face-saving way that would not be humiliating to the Iridians.  By then, thousands of victims were left behind, and massive damage was also done to civilian property and infrastructure in Estople.  What the invaders failed to understand, however, was that no matter how powerful they were and who supported them, they could not intimidate the Estopleans.  Since that failure, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to intimidate these Estopleans into submission.  Unfortunately, the deterrence of Estople’s Civil Defense Group did not allow any more of these daily incursions.

Back in Estople, the war with Iridia had left many people, including Hilmy, with no family.  Growing up in a conflict-ridden zone forced Hilmy to get over his pain and sorrow.  Hilmy was a professor at the University of Estople.  Though the university provided him with accommodation, he liked to spend his weekends at his home town in northern Estople.  Hilmy had big dreams for the university but unfortunately, he was handicapped by many barriers.  Some of them were personal and others associated with the deeply corrupt Estoplean government.  So, for now, he continued his duty of trying to educate future generations as much as he could.  He hoped that by educating students, Estople, with its limited resources and almost non-existent global support would one day be able to thrive and prosper—and maybe even export intellectual riches across the world.  Today, however, was just another one of several other days when his focus was on surviving and focusing on his dream and duty as a messenger of hope through education.

****

Every Tuesday night in Westinia, Rowdin hung out with her childhood friends when she wasn’t on one of her numerous business trips.  Their weekly hangouts started when they were college students and The Beer Claw Bar became their favorite hangout.  At The Beer Claw, Tuesdays were ‘Crab Races and Beer Buckets’ night, where customers bet on their favorite crab, which would race through a short track, winning free food and drink for the customer.  The gathering soon became a ritual for them, one that continued even after they graduated.  Sadly, now that they were all busy professionals, it was not always possible to spend time together every Tuesday.

The friends had grown up referring to each other as cousins; this custom was not uncommon among immigrant families in Westinia.  They all came from immigrant families of the same region and their parents raised them almost as if they were cousins. Tuesday night gatherings were all about catching up on careers, money, family, love life and the latest gossip.  Rowdin looked forward to tonight’s gathering as her boyfriend Zaki had called to tell her that he would be at the meeting.  Rowdin loved it when Zaki joined her and her “cousins” as she hoped that he would blend in and become part of the group.  Her previous boyfriend did not get along well with the cousins, and it made it awkward for her to be around everyone.  Zaki was better skilled at blending in, and everyone—even her parents—seemed to like him.  A couple of times Rowdin’s father had even asked that she bring Zaki to family functions; that never happened in previous relationships.  Zaki also seemed eager to learn about Rowdin’s ancestral culture.  Occasionally, he had even confessed that he looked forward to visiting Estople.  In Rowdin’s mind, her love for Zaki and her family’s admiration of him were good signs for the relationship; she, however, continued to worry about the future of the relationship in light of their perceived cultural differences.

The couple met years ago at a healthcare convention.  They were both attending it as part of their job and knew that if they decided to stay together, get married and have a family, one of them would have to find a suitable non-traveling job.  In addition to their growing romantic attraction, their relationship was also based on similar attitudes towards philosophical, social, financial and political views of life.  They both enjoyed having in-depth discussions about these things.  They are both religiously secular and socially progressive.  Neither subscribed to any specific political current, but both agreed and believed that a highly educated society could make the world a better place.

Rowdin was excited to tell the group about her planned visit to her ancestral home in Estople.  She was going because her paternal grandmother had passed on, and she had to help her father settle the inheritance.  Her grandma owned a small house that her uncle and her father were to inherit.  Her father was currently recovering from an illness and could not travel to settle technicalities concerning the estate with his brother.  He had given Rowdin the power of attorney so she could stand in for him as his brother was willing to sell his share of the property.  The plan was for Rowdin’s family to have a place in Estople where the family could stay when they visited.  Having lived through several waves of xenophobia, her father was also determined to establish a backup plan of sorts in case he needed to relocate from Westinia.  Rowdin did not have the same grim view as her father did. Hers was a more positive outlook on the acquisition as she liked the idea of a readily available vacation home in Estople.

Rowdin had only been to Estople twice: once when she was five and again when she was eleven years old.  Aside from what she learned from elders discussing their relatives and the deplorable state of the old country, all she had were vague memories of contradictory scenes of modernity, backwardness and the remnants of the fifteen-year civil war.  Her recollection of Estople is that of narrow crowded roads, rife with noisy car horns.  There was an infinite number of actual cousins, an infinite number of family gatherings where everybody kissed everybody on the cheeks.  And there was her great uncle’s summer villa in the mountains where she played outdoors with her cousins; the villa’s second-floor balcony provided a 360-degree view of the mountains on one side and the capital’s skyline overlooking the ocean on the other; she remembered the summer air being crisp and pleasant.  Lastly, she remembered tall buildings: some new and modern, some old.  There were also buildings damaged by rockets and bullet holes. Even though the civil war ended a decade prior, no one seemed interested in removing or repairing these war symbols.  It was as if they were intentionally kept this way as a reminder of how badly the people of Estople had treated each other.  There, they continued living side by side with no winners, just losers.  They ended up in a country that went back a hundred years behind the other nations of the world, where necessities such as electricity and water are rationed to a couple of hours a day, a reflection of the current economic, social and political state of the country.  This was a country that used to export such basics to neighboring nations.  Rowdin tried to keep in touch with Lumiah and Tala, her cousins who were around her age, but the relationship with them did not evolve into anything more than exchanging pleasantries and holiday greetings.  It wasn’t for lack of trying that they did not get closer, but the distance and difference in time zones did not make it easy.  Had she had more opportunities to visit Estople, she might have had a better chance at nurturing these relationships.

****

She was the first one to arrive at The Beer Claw.  This time, she did not order the usual bucket of beers for the group as she did not know how many of them were going to show up. She purchased a pitcher of beer for herself, grabbed a bowl of shelled peanuts and found a table in the back with five high chairs.  You could already hear the people at the back cheering their favorite crab as it raced slowly through the eight-foot crab race track.  There was a time limit on each round, and the crabs rarely made it to the end of the eight-foot track.  With gambling being illegal in the area, the bar had a roundabout way of betting by having them purchase drink and meal vouchers which they assigned to a crab.  If you won, you would get reimbursed for your voucher purchase.  Rowdin was not paying attention to the race as she was preoccupied with her upcoming trip to Estople and was excited to tell her boyfriend Zaki and the cousins about it.

Esma arrived at the Beer Claw next.  Rowdin spotted her scanning the bar hall looking for the group.  They waved and smiled when they saw each other; Esma bought a drink from the bar and joined Rowdin’s table.  She stopped to answer a phone call, and Rowdin knew that it was from Esma’s fiancé, Samad.  Esma had been engaged to Samad for a few years and they hoped to get married as soon as Esma completed her education program and established where she would work as a high school teacher.  Samad was one of Rowdin’s older cousins who had served in Westinia’s various law enforcement branches, under different roles.  He was now a civilian who had used his law enforcement experience and connections to establish his own security company catering to high profile personalities.  Because of the nature of his work, he was always secretive about the details of his work.  Samad’s parents also emigrated from Estople and, like Rowdin, he was born in Westinia.

Samad and Rowdin’s boyfriend Zaki arrived shortly after Esma.  They spotted the girls’ table got themselves a drink and joined them.  Faraj and Matchi the other two cousins messaged the group telling them they will not make it to the Beer Claw tonight.  The four of them exchanged news as they enjoyed their drinks, peeled their peanuts and like everyone at the bar, threw the peanut shells on the floor.  Lately, no Tuesday night passed without members of the group riling each other about when they would get married.  Of course, Rowdin shared news of her upcoming trip to Estople. Samad, of course, expressed his wish to visit Estople again and told Rowdin that if he and Esma could manage some time off at the same time, they would visit Estople too while she was there.

Throughout the evening at the Beer Claw, Rowdin could not stop thinking about her upcoming trip to Estople.  Unlike local travel, overseas travel requires a little more preparation.  Her parents had told her uncle that she would be there in two weeks, and she also messaged cousins Lumiah and Tala about her visit.  Rowdin had one more business trip scheduled for the next week; after that, she would fly to Estople.

Chapter 2
Chapter 2

Rowdin’s alarm went off at 4 am on Monday.  The previous night, she had set it to remind her that it was time to head to the airport.  When going on business trips, she was usually very systematic with her travel routine.  This trip, however, felt different as she was going to be there for an extended period.  It did not help that she had never been there alone and she knew that she would be navigating a culture that though familiar from dealings with her family, would present several challenges.  Rowdin had grown up in an environment that was orderly and predictable.  Now she was going to be arriving at an environment that was not only unfamiliar but also chaotic and hostile by nature.

The last time she visited Estople was more than a decade ago when she was barely a teenager.  Then, all of the lodging, transportation, and plans for entertainment fell on the adults.  This time, she couldn’t rely on her “cousins” for help with her itinerary as they were all in the same shoes.  Instead, she had enlisted the help of her elders, the internet, her travel agent, and her actual cousins Lumiah and Tala in Estople with whom she had stayed in touch.

The car service she had arranged to take her to the airport called to let her know that they were waiting outside.  She checked her passport, ran a final check on the flight schedule and status of her upgrade to First Class through her Frequent Flier status.  Everything appeared to be in order and she was soon on her way to the airport.  On the way there, she debated on whether to call her boyfriend Zaki but decided against it.  It was too early to wake him.  Though they had spoken the previous night, she still missed his voice and wished it was a little later in the morning so she could talk to him one last time before her flight. She made a mental note to call when she arrived at Estople.

The amenities in the comfortable 1st class section made the long flight more bearable.  Rowdin was especially grateful for the alcoholic beverages which helped her sleep off and on through the fourteen-hour flight.  As she dozed off between meal services, reading, and watching TV, she had dreams in anticipation of what awaited her in Estople.  Would her Estoplean cousins who volunteered to pick her up from the airport like her? She had known and played with them when they were children, but a lot had changed.  Rowdin’s heart began racing as she wondered if she would succeed in settling her father’s inheritance.  Her parents had warned her that many of the Estopleans who stayed there during the civil war had an underlying sense of resentment towards the ones who emigrated; they felt that because they did not struggle through the war, they did not earn the right to be called Estopleans.  Her parents also believed that those feelings would not exist if the country recovered and began to prosper after the war.  Despite a couple of decades of peace, the country was not able to figure a way out of its political and economic woes.

From the last decade spent living in Westinia, Rowdin had come to understand what it felt like to be treated as an outsider and was prepared to deal with it.  Despite her fully assimilated lifestyle, from her dress-up to cultural, social and business etiquette, Rowdin was regularly seen as being different and was often treated differently.  This had become another regular discussion topic on Tuesday nights at The Beer Claw, but despite these experiences, Rowdin and her cousins regularly reminded each other that unlike many native-born Westinians, their grandparents and parents had paid dearly to become assimilated in Westinia.  Rowdin and her cousins believed that they were even more Westinian than the so-called native compatriots.  Rowdin had adapted well to the change and developed a knack for bypassing the xenophobic current to focus on moving forward and attempting to prosper in a society that was slowly turning hostile toward her kind. She had since grown used to being forced to live a life where she constantly put in extra effort to prove her assimilation.  Or to put it another way, all her years spent assimilating and contributing to society did not help her be accepted. So, though she was confident about dealing with being different in Estople, it still left her with a sense of having to make that extra effort again.

****

It was 4:15 pm when the plane landed in Estople.  Rowdin was exhausted from the long trip, and it did not help that her body was still running on Westinia time which was eleven hours behind.  The airport looked like it had once been a very modern and busy airport with efficient customs processing, advanced people-moving technology, and fancy restaurants, but now, it was filled with abandoned parking lots and many other amenities that were once highly advanced.  The story goes that after the civil war, investors poured in to build the airport.  However, when the country’s hope for prosperity failed to materialize, maintaining the airport became a low priority that resulted in its deterioration.  Operations continued but things were never really the same.

Rowdin got through customs with minimal issues.  She participated in her first chaotic country experience where people flooded the customs window with no regard for standing in line and waiting for their turn.  After the craziness there, Rowdin picked her luggage at the baggage claim and proceeded to the public area of the airport where after a couple of minutes she was greeted by Tala and Lumiah.  They were both yelling her name and calling to her in broken Westopian language.  When she got to them, they hugged and kissed as is the custom.  Then they walked to the car and dropped her off at the hotel. On their way there, she made an effort to speak Estoplean but she could only speak a broken version of the language.  Things soon grew very awkward as both parties could only speak broken versions of each other’s languages. Soon, they burst into laughter and spent the trip chatting animatedly.

The twenty-minute ride from the airport to the hotel felt like a five-minute ride.  Throughout, the ladies spent the time talking each other’s ears off.  After dropping Rowdin off to check-in and drop her luggage, the other ladies left to park the car.

Rowdin’s check-in process was seamless as she was staying at a global chain hotel.  With her upper-level membership in the hotel rewards program, the process moved very fast.  As she walked away from the check-in desk, she noticed a sign displaying the daily power rationing schedule as well as when the property is on generator power, which meant minimal availability for some amenities.  Rowdin was amazed to see that the sign showed when the hotel would be on generator power and when there would be no power at all. She had never seen a five-star hotel with power outages.

Tala and Lumiah were already waiting in the lobby when Rowdin returned from dropping her luggage in her room.  She was hungry and tired but felt obligated to meet with her cousins for a little while.  Besides, she wanted to talk to them as much as she could so she could learn what to expect when she made the acquaintance of other relatives.

When they invited Rowdin to join them for dinner, she had declined to go out to town but pleaded that they use the hotel’s restaurant so she could turn in early.  She reassured them that she was staying an extended period and promised to go out with them at a later date.

After an hour and a half of dinner and chatting with the girls, she was able to learn a lot about the cousins and relatives as well as the state of society in general.  And of course, as most conversations with girls were never complete until they talked about boyfriends and relationships, she eventually had to tell them about Zaki.  They were thrilled to hear that she had a fiancé who was waiting for her in Westinia.  She told them about her job and business travel adventures; she also shared how her social life revolved around the “Westinian cousins” explaining to them how these cousins filled the same role as the large families in Estople.

24-year-old Tala told Rowdin that she was engaged and working as a pharmaceutical technician in a retail pharmacy. She had gone to vocational school to get her certificate and did not have any interest in higher education. Her dream was to get married and have a family. Lumiah, on the other hand, also dreamed of getting married someday but preferred to advance her education first so she could be independent and a partner to her future husband. She was a few years younger than Tala and was currently studying to be an architect at the University of Northern Estople. Despite the different set of dreams and their upbringing, Rowdin’s cousins appeared to be very close friends. Tala was raised in a moderately conservative household and her behavior portrayed that. Her outfit, however, was the only flamboyant thing about her. Lumiah also came from a moderately conservative household, but her dress and demeanor reflected a more liberal and progressive attitude.

Before they left, Tala and Lumiah insisted on scheduling another get together with Rowdin. They liked her and wanted to spend more time with her. Both girls appreciated her candid attitude and told her that she was different from the other snobby Estoplean emigrant who visited and walked around with their “superior” attitude. Rowdin also felt more comfortable with them. Her worries about how she would be received suddenly seemed unfounded as they were so warm and welcoming. She felt like she had known them for a long time.

Back in her hotel room, she relaxed on her bed and looked around. Her hotel room looked like any other room from her other travels. Out of habit, she made an attempt to log in to her laptop, but she was too tired and decided work could wait, rationalizing that her colleagues knew she was on leave and should not expect her to be working. Rowdin had taken a three-month leave of absence from her job in Westinia as she did not know how long it would take to conclude all matters concerning the inheritance.

Extremely tired, she put away her laptop and went to bed. With this being a Saturday night, she could hear muffled conversations of what sounded like people going to a party or something similar. As she began to doze off, she began thinking about what she would be doing the next day but never got farther than planning to have coffee and breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. In seconds, she was asleep without thoughts of what lay ahead after breakfast.

 

 

Chapter 3
Chapter 3

She finally woke up to the phone ringing at 11 am. She had tried hard to ignore the incessant rings, and when she finally picked up, she was disoriented and barely recognized Lumiah’s voice. Her cousin was asking if she was ready for the various activities planned for the day.

“Oh no.” Rowdin rubbed her eyes and pulled herself closer to the phone beside her bed. “I think I need to get my coffee first before doing anything.”

“I think I know a perfect place for that. You’d love their coffee,” Lumiah said cheerily.

“Perfect! Just give me twenty minutes and I’ll be down at the entrance. Let me get this lazy body ready.”

The duo laughed at Rowdin’s joke. She hung up, shook the sleep from her eyes, and did a little stretching. She had promised Lumiah that she would meet them in twenty minutes, so she headed for the showers. It didn’t take long before Rowdin was ready. She still had a few minutes so she grabbed a coffee from the hotel restaurant, found a comfortable chair and called her parents to let them know that she had arrived safely to Estople. Luckily it was late at night in Westinia and she did not have to spend a lot of time on the phone. She called Zaki afterward.

“You had me worried about you all day,” Zaki stated with a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness you called,” he added.

“Looks like someone is missing me already. I’m not coming back any time soon, so you better prepare yourself for more time apart” she teased.

“And by the time you come back, I’ll be happily married to another beautiful lady.”

“Ha-ha, I’m hanging up now,” she said pretending to be unhappy.

“Oh! Guess who’s jealous now?”

There was silence on both ends, but Zaki broke it with a promise to never leave her. She smiled at his words and promised to be back as soon as she could. Looking out the window, she noticed Lumiah’s car pull over in front of the hotel. She informed Zaki that she had to go and would call later, then she hung up and raced down the stairs towards the hotel entrance and join her cousin.

“Good morning, cousin,” Rowdin greeted.

“You were quick.”

“Yeah, didn’t want to keep you waiting,” Rowdin said, turning to look for Tala. She looked at Lumiah with slight curiosity in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, but Tala won’t be joining us this morning. She’s got to go to work,” Lumiah explained.

“Oh, well then. Let’s go check out this perfect coffee place you promised.”

They drove off and soon arrived at the place. Rowdin knew that she had seen better coffee shops in the west, but The Rustique was a perfect picture of the kind of life anyone would expect in a place like Estople. It had that Eastern look and presented itself with a mix of both western and eastern cultural decor. It was set up like many coffee houses she had seen before with comfortable seating and a friendly environment. Another interesting thing about The Rustique was that it offered several of Rowdin’s favorite coffee drinks. Lumiah told Rowdin that her uncle had invited them to a welcome dinner at his house that evening. “He wants you to have a good first-time experience with the family, so, this is going to be more like a family reunion, except you’re going to be the one reuniting with the rest of the family.”

For some reason, that sounded funny to Rowdin. She almost spilled her coffee on herself. “So you mean he invited other family members?”

“Not the entire family! Just a few but enough to help you avoid having to make the traditional individual visit to each family.”

“The endless introductions and answering the same sets of questions over and over again can get exhausting.” Rowdin smiled.

Lumiah smiled back. “You are right. I remember when I had to come back after a long stay abroad. It’s just as you said. It was exhausting.”

They laughed as they continued with their coffee. Rowdin liked The Rustique so much that she realized that she wouldn’t be missing much of Westinia in that department.

****

Lumiah found a driver for Rowdin, she did not want to drive in Estople, it was too intimidating for her.  The driver Lumiah found was flexible with his schedule, able to work weekly and at a reasonable rate, too. They had a few hours before dinner at their uncle’s and could go meet with the driver to agree on the hiring terms. They also had some time to drive around town and get acquainted with the area. Rowdin planned to run by the house that her father was slated to inherit if time allowed for that.

On the way to meet the driver, they traveled through what Rowdin thought was schizophrenic neighborhoods. One minute she was looking at newly built luxury high rise apartment buildings, the next minute she was staring at old bullet-peppered buildings that seemed to have somehow survived the civil war. It was as if the city, though was no longer at war, and had never come to terms with its “peace”. Compared to Westinia, all the streets were narrow and heavy traffic never seemed to subside.

When they met with the driver, they agreed to a one week at a time arrangement as she did not want to commit to a long term contract. She was eager to avoid a situation where she had issues with the driver and wouldn’t be able to fire him. Plus, she was not sure how long she would be in Estople. After concluding their business with Sattar, the driver, they opted to go drive by the old house first. Sattar would resume at the job this coming Monday.

The house was located in an old neighborhood with a mix of residential buildings and commercial shops. The shops—owned by artisans—were located in plazas and the shops were clustered together by trade. There was a small art and craft market; there was also the metalwork shops. There were shops for sewing machine repair, knife and scissor sharpening, antique stores, auto parts refurbishing. A look at the buildings brought the feeling that you were stepping back a century in time, maybe around the era of the industrial revolution. Most of the shops were closed on Sundays, and Rowdin imagined that the streets would be quite busy during the week. The only place open was an old fashion traditional tea house.  Outside there were a dozen tables and chairs with men sipping on Estoplean coffee or black tea and playing a game of backgammon, dominos or cards, some were smoking water pipes or as some call it hookahs.  There was one server walking around with a charcoal container looking for any customer that required their hookah to be re-lit.  Another server with a tray carrying a teapot and a coffee pot refilling any customer with a raised hand.  The inside appeared to have the same setup, and you could hear the recording of old-style singers in the background.

Now, driving by the house, she could see a two-story brick house situated along a row of similar houses. It reminded her of the brownstone homes she was used to seeing in some of the big cities in Westinia. The houses were older and most not as well maintained. Here, the front of each house had a narrow walkway with the doorway and a window on one side. Those entryways had a four or five-step stairway that most likely led to a living room or a dining room. The second floor displayed two windows to what were most likely the bedrooms. The entry doorway and the sidewalk was separated by a small wrought iron fence and a gate that was more for decorative than security purposes. They were only intended to shame people into staying out.  On each side of there’s what looked like closed storefronts.  It was not clear if the stores were used or not.

Rowdin did not have the keys to the house, and since she was still jet-lagged from her trip, she asked Lumiah to take her back to the hotel so she could rest before going for the meeting in the evening.

Rowdin regretted taking that nap because she was still groggy and disoriented when she woke up. She struggled out of bed and went down to the lobby to grab some coffee.

As they got closer to where their uncle lived, the streets got darker. It turned out that this evening was that neighborhoods’ turn for the regular rolling electric blackout schedule. Even after more than a decade of calm, the country was still unable to restore electrical power back to normal. This was in no way due to a lack of resources but simple mismanagement and power play amongst the ruling politicians. Lumiah explained that the same warlord families who ran and destroyed the country during the civil war had managed to stay in power after the war was over. They continued to rule by instilling fear and mistrust among the population and the varying political and religious sects. Maintaining fear and mistrust was their key weapon for controlling the population and keeping it dependent on them. Each of these politicians ran their operations according to feudal tradition and/or instructions and allegiances to one or more major external forces. None had any allegiance to Estople or its citizens. Instead, their primary goal was to stay in power and do their foreign masters’ bidding and at the same time enrich themselves. By suppressing civil development, these politicians maintained a firm grip on the population, thereby preventing prosperity for the sake of maintaining power. In Estople, pretty much nothing moved without bribes and corruption—even things as simple as getting an education. Lumiah’s most passionate topic was her difficulty in getting her education. She explained how the cost of education was similar in many of the developed countries, however, compared to the living wages in developed countries, the cost was ten times higher and prohibitive to most of the population. Lumiah was lucky as she had a family capable of supporting her until she graduated; yet, even with the financial help, she still had to struggle through corruption channels to register for her classes.

They arrived at the apartment building where the uncle lived, and after going a couple of times around the block to find parking, they made their way to the building and began the climb to his apartment. There was no electricity, but the stairwell and parts of the building were lit with lights powered by a diesel generator assigned to the building. It was not strong enough to power the elevator, hence their inability to use it.

They were both winded and needed a few minutes to catch their breath when they reached the door. Rowdin’s aunt opened the door, hugged and announced them loudly while ignoring their apologies for being late. She dragged them in, began introducing Rowdin to all her relatives. Rowdin was elated to meet everyone. She had heard of some of them from her parents, but now, meeting them in person, she was beyond excited. Looking around, she figured that there were about thirty people in the house who together likely made up three or four generations of her extended family. She had never hugged and kissed so many people in her life compared to how many she did that evening. When the greetings finally fizzled out, her uncle took her by the hand and pulled her to sit next to him. He complimented her on how much she had grown and how beautiful she had become since the last time she visited Estople with her parents. She replied with several greetings from her father and mother. He apologized for the 7-floor sprint and the limited electricity in the house, then encouraged her to enjoy the evening and dinner with the family. Tomorrow morning they could meet up and begin the paperwork to process her grandmother’s inheritance. He assured her that he and her dad had taken care of most of the paperwork and that it should not be too complicated.

Her other cousin Tala was not at the gathering, and Lumiah assumed that she might still be at work. Lumiah, meanwhile, was busy conversing with a couple of youths who seemed to be around the same age. When she glanced at Rowdin, she immediately realized that Rowdin needed rescuing from the interrogations about her and her parents live in Westinia; the conversations were never complete without them inquiring about her love life and when she would be married. Lumiah grinned because she knew that most of the questions were also geared towards finding out if she would be a good match for one of their own “marriage-ready” boys. Seconds later, Lumiah approached Rowdin and gently interrupted her conversation with one of the aunts by telling her to come with her to meet the other cousins.

The girls managed to evade the grownups and spent the remainder of the evening hanging out with young adults their age. Rowdin noticed the variety in dressing styles, from the very conservative to the very liberal. They all sat under one roof and no one seemed to care. She thought of the misconceptions about Estople being a region where women were oppressed.  What she was witnessing was the opposite of oppression. Rowdin was having fun with her relatives, but on the other hand, she was anxious to get her dad’s inheritance business taken care of so she could spend some of her time off in Estople sightseeing and getting to know her ancestral home. She rushed back to her hotel when the party ended and decided to take a sleeping pill so her body could adjust faster to the eleven-hour time difference between Estople and Westinia.

The next morning, Rowdin woke up well-rested. She had a couple of hours to spare until the driver arrived to take her to her grandmother’s house where she would start the process of settling the inheritance. She spoke to her parents and Zaki again. After that, she checked her work email and status of the few things she’d been working on. When Sattar the driver called, she gathered her purse, slid her laptop into her briefcase and packed all necessary paperwork. Before leaving the room, she left a tip for the housekeeping staff as she’s always done when staying at hotels.

As expected, the traffic was heavy, which would have taken ten to fifteen minutes took more than an hour. She wondered how long it would take to walk the same distance and if it would be any different from driving in heavy traffic. Just like any heavily populated city in the world, parking was a challenge so Sattar dropped her off and they agreed that she’d call him when she was ready to leave.

She proceeded through the small wrought-iron gate which made a screeching noise as she opened and closed it. Her uncle appeared at the doorway. He welcomed her in while joking about the gate being her grandma’s alarm when someone was coming over.

Rowdin walked into a typical small foyer with a tall mirror on the left side and a tiny coat room on the right. To the right of the foyer lay the living room. Further away, you could see the large dining room. A passageway led away from the foyer to what Rowdin suspected would be stairs to the bedrooms. She made her way into a living room furnished in an antique style which reminded her of scenes she had seen in 17th or 18th-century movies. All around her sat wooden seats and coffee tables with meticulously designed flowery covers which time had not faded. The dining room looked like it came from the same era as the living room. The only difference between what she walked into and what she’d seen in the old movies was that these living and dining rooms were small compared to the lavish royal scenes from those movies. She followed her uncle’s directions to have a seat at the dining table. When he asked if she had had breakfast, she replied that she hadn’t. He offered some coffee which she accepted.

As she looked around the dining and living area, she could feel the history that the house had witnessed. On the walls hung several grayscale pictures of people in old-style clothes. Some of them wore military uniforms reminiscent of the first Great War. Those might be her great grandfather and grandfather, she thought proudly as she tore her eyes away to examine the rest of the house. On another side of the room sat a ground-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall bookcase with many books—some, presumably very old. From titles on the spines, Rowdin saw that some of them were written in Estoplean while others were in the Westinian language. Her favorite thing about the space was the rolling ladder attached to the bookcase. She wondered how many generations had passed through the house and how much history it had witnessed.

Uncle came out of the kitchen with the coffee tray, sat down and passed her the coffee which came in a demitasse and saucer (espresso-style). She also got a small cookie and a cold glass of water as is customary in Estople. He welcomed her again and inquired about her life and the life of the rest of her family in Westinia, after which he proceeded to tell her about his visits when she was a child. They continued with the family stories as she sipped her thick and sweet Estoplean coffee. Rowdin soon grew tired of the banter and was glad when the conversation finally led to the matter at hand. Her uncle expressed his happiness that her father opted to purchase his share of the house and hoped that Rowdin’s dad would keep the property in the family for as long as possible as it held many fond memories.

They pulled up the paperwork required to be submitted to the local government offices. He apologetically told her that he had paid off some of the workers there to expedite the matter as he knew that she had to go back to Westinia. He also let her know that after submitting all signed papers, the earliest that their transaction would be complete would be in six weeks. As she nodded, she began imagining what places she wanted to visit during the waiting period.

After the paperwork was done, her uncle pulled out the keys to the house from his pocket and handed them over to her. He advised that she keep the utility services in his name until the transfer was complete. After that, she could transfer the services to herself or her dad. He then proceeded to take her on a tour of the house.

Rowdin followed him around the three bedrooms, one of which was a study which she learned was her grandfather’s. The study was a classical old-style mahogany furnished room with hundreds more books. He used to read all these books and write his newspaper and magazine articles in the study. Her grandfather had not had a lot of formal education, but he was highly read.

A quick scan through the numerous titles on one of the shelves gave Rowdin the impression that at some point he was interested in learning about higher education systems around the world. She couldn’t wait to sift through these books so she could learn what her grandfather was like. As they continued the tour of the house, Lumiah called to find out what Rowdin was up to. She offered to take Rowdin and their uncle out to lunch. He was thrilled to spend time with his nieces when Rowdin asked if he was interested in going with them.

At lunch, the uncle recommended that Rowdin save her money on staying in a hotel and suggested that she move into the house instead. Lumiah, trying to keep a straight face, warned Rowdin that there was no internet service in the house. Plus, she said, with how slow things were, it would take several days to get the service activated. The uncle laughed, shook his head in disbelief at how the new generation could not live without the internet. They all laughed. Lumiah volunteered to help get the service ordered, and they decided that Rowdin would move into the house as soon as service is established. This would give her time to stock up the house with some essentials for the duration of her stay.

As they were getting ready to leave the restaurant their uncle asked the girls to wait as he wanted to tell them something. He told Rowdin how impressed he was that she had completed her education and had a prosperous career. He urged her to start giving back to her fellow youngsters by encouraging and helping them get to the highest levels of education they could reach. He believed that that was the only way for our society to bypass the mistrust and hatred, he continued by saying: “You are the sons and daughters of immigrants who have been given the chance and opportunities to prosper, opportunities that the youth in Estople rarely get a chance to experience. Now it is your moral duty to help others prosper by figuring out a way to allow them these opportunities”.

 

 

Chapter 4
Chapter 4

Rowdin’s parents always reminded her that contrary to the way her ethnicity was being portrayed as a backward, violent and uncivilized one, she was the descendant of a civilization that for centuries was the world’s greatest and only contributor to today’s modern society.

It is a known fact that societies that do not harness the power of education, sciences and the arts ended up stopping their evolutions, killing their innovation and falling behind in competitiveness.  Societies that embrace education in the sciences, philosophies, and arts, on the other hand, have high rates of economic growth and high per capita incomes.

Before the Westinian renaissance and for many centuries, Estople and other countries in the region enjoyed great prosperity, cultural, scientific and intellectual influence that spanned every continent.  It was the envy of the world.  Estople and its neighbors resuscitated the scientific and intellectual advances of the Greeks, Indians, Romans, and other historical civilizations then elevated them to the highest levels of innovation. Many of today’s technologies and scientific discoveries are the result of Estople’s contributions. It is even believed that these valuable contributions ranged from azimuth to zenith, from algebra to the zero, and even common nautical terms such as admiral, sloop, and monsoon. (Lyons, 2008)

Just like every great civilization that has come and gone before it, Estople became complacent, rich, entitled and content with living off the fat of centuries of enlightened living and began its descent. Education became a lower priority, and instead of projecting wisdom, technology, and intellectual inspiration, it took the easy route of greed, conquest by war and internal division. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the eastern region witnessed the age of occupation and despotism. Meanwhile, the Westinian world had awakened from its Dark Ages and taken over the torch of enlightenment, leaving Estople and its neighbors behind while they destroyed and weakened each other’s intellectual, social and economic infrastructures.

Every descending civilization became natural prey for occupiers and usurpers. Estople and the areas around it were no different. They became occupied and suppressed by a succession of regional powers and despotic regimes working for these powers. They were suppressed so harshly that even today when you are out there, you get that sad sense that the people have been living the same lifestyle for centuries. When Estople and its neighbors were given their independence a few decades ago, the occupiers installed regimes and constitutions based on corruption, sectarian mistrust, and authoritarian rules, which would ensure the societies of the area would remain backward societies for a very long time. The occupiers did not carry all the blame. The populations of Estople and the surrounding region’s countries were, for some reason, not able to recover from centuries of tyranny. It was like they’d been ruled a certain way for so many generations that they had forgotten how to rule themselves. And despite their so-called independence, they continued to idolize and envy their long-gone occupiers who had moved on to a new age of innovation and prosperity.

Estople and its neighbors produced nothing. It was a consumption-only society that survived at the mercy of corrupt and cunning rulers who learned from the occupiers how to maintain police states by planting seeds of discord among the population. They even initiated civil wars when necessary just to keep a hold onto their power. With the ever-present mistrust, it was easy for these rulers to suppress any attempt at actual self-governance and independence. All they had to do was generate a couple of “trigger” incidents, promote the incidents as deliberate attacks by one group against another or even a made-up external bogeyman, then sit back and watch the population’s out-of-control reactions of revenge and fury. In turn, the rulers would go to the streets under the disguise of maintaining peace and the rule of law. They then used that excuse to suppress the population by imposing more oppressive laws which helped maintain their grip on power. And as long as they could maintain the social, economic and sectarian mistrust, they can also maintain their profits and oppressive rule. Of course, as they ruled, they indoctrinated their children and grandchildren in the law of generational power succession. These rulers were so successful at holding on to power that they actually believed it was their natural and divine right to rule the population for the population’s own good. They treated their countries as their businesses and their countrymen as their subjects.

Generation after generation of citizens grew up believing that illiteracy was acceptable as long as they were protected by corresponding sectarian rulers and their regional power masters. These poorly educated generations had minimal options in life. To them, corruption became a cultural way of life. It ranged from personal, to business, corporate, government corruption and everything in between. Many truly believed that the current rules of the tyrants were cultural and that any attempt at self-rule and self-reliance was just some imported cultural philosophy from the west that was not compatible with their cultural, social and religious lifestyle. Worse still, some believed that self-rule and self-reliance was a way for outsiders to impose their culture on them. And of course, the rulers were happy to promote and accommodate such illusions.

Those who succeeded in moving up the ranks of the ruling tyrants’ support system thrived by serving the tyrants, while the rest of the population lingered and lived a life of subservience and quiet desperation (Thoreau, 1854).  Some learned how to game the tyrant system or they just paid the racketeering fees required to move their ventures forward. Many who lived in the fantasy world of this hopeless condition were under the illusion that it would eventually end on its own. To them, Estople and its neighbors would soon regain their glory days. As someone from Estople told Rowdin: “we have no choice but to keep any glimmer of hope alive.”

Occasionally, people of countries around Estople would attempt to revolt and establish self-rule, but they were usually suppressed and set back further. Sometimes, these same tyrants would go through the motions of developing phony constitutions and running phony elections to give the people the illusion of self-rule. Meanwhile, in the background, all they were doing was reshuffling a few personalities and installing new faces while maintaining the status quo of power, fear, intimidation and another cycle of oppression. These tyrants and warlords knew that they could never give up their power because if they did they would be called to account for all their crimes. Additionally, many were incapable of giving up power because they were owned and controlled by external regional powers.

These were primary reasons for the inability of the Estoplans and their neighbors to escape the cycle of stagnation. Most of the blame still lay with them for not taking the painful steps to figure out a way to bear responsibility for their own destinies.  They are responsible for bringing closure and forgiveness to decades of killing.  They are supposed to be averse to revenge.  They are responsible for finding a way to the reality that they will only survive if they understand that they are dependent on each other and that the only way forward is for them to learn to live, trust and love each other. They are responsible for keeping outsiders from injecting hatred and incitement amongst them.

For generations, they’ve somehow learned to accept themselves as victims of the way of the world which, in actuality, is an easy way to absolve themselves of the responsibility to learn to rule themselves. They have learned to equate subsistence and survival with actual living. They have forgotten about the beauty of the Arts, Sciences, and Industry; they have forgotten that it was their ancestors’ belief in self-reliance, education and intellectual curiosity that made them pioneers of progress, innovation, prosperity and the envy of the world many centuries ago. They are still proud of their ancestors, but they have forgotten how their ancestors got to their greatness.

Today the people of Estople continue to celebrate their “fake” independence from past occupiers, but they have never celebrated the end of their own civil wars. This could be because they were never allowed to do so and still believe that another civil war would rear its ugly head sooner or later. In Estople, you will see statues and monuments of independence figures but never monuments of the end of the civil war or its victims. There is no place to remind them how wrong it was for them to hate each other and how all of them were the losers in that war. They are afraid to bring closure because they are afraid of each other.

Meanwhile, huge numbers of the population keep finding ways to emigrate to more prosperous regions. There, they hoped to establish roots and get a chance to live the normal life they’d always dreamed about. Some of these emigrants would be able to assimilate and succeed and some would never assimilate. Many of them often found themselves back in their home countries where they grew more destitute and disillusioned than they were before they left.

Other emigrants’ children and grandchildren returned to their ancestral countries in the hope of applying the political, social, and economic rules of prosperity that they had learned in their adopted countries. Most of them failed in this quest as they were opposed by several forces. Some of this opposition was from their own people who never had a chance to leave the country and had gotten comfortable with living hopeless lives. They did not trust their newly arrived relatives and felt that since the returning emigrants did not suffer through the misery they suffered over the years, they could not empathize with them and therefore should offer no help. This, in turn, bolstered the case for opposition by the ruling families and the warlords who would accuse them of either being out of touch with the culture or worse, of being agents of Westinia. These leaders drew heavily on this same powerful propaganda machine of mistrust, fear, division, and intimidation. Thus, this cycle of misery and hopelessness continued.

However, it appeared that while everyone was busy worrying about accepting their hopeless situation in Estople, there were a number of young adults who had completed their professional studies and had no place to go. They had nothing to do but dwell and philosophize about getting out of their rut and moving westward to build a better life. This group of young unemployed professionals is a forgotten class of scientists, mathematicians, and artists who do not conform to the old traditional belief that prosperity is only possible with trade and commerce. They are taught that there is no room for industry in Estople and any of its neighboring countries as it is not possible to compete with other industrial nations and impossible to thrive. And if somehow they succeeded, it was because they’d succumbed to the racketeering of the rulers and are now serving these same rulers’ purpose.

For a while, the people emigrating to countries like Westinia were tolerated by their host countries and treated as a novel addition to their society, but only as long as they assimilated into Westinian culture. They were seen as novel additions because they gave the Westinians a sense of being tolerant and generous. This, in turn, helped absolve them of the guilt that their governments were the ones propping up those same tyrants and warlords causing the immigrants to emigrate in the first place. This was how Rowdin’s grandparents and parents emigrated to Westinia where she was born. She grew up just like any other Westinian kid, but with a slight Estoplean flavor. As she became an adult and witnessed the xenophobia around her, she grappled with how to formulate her identity. Was she Westinian? Was she Estoplean or somewhere in between? She knew her loyalty lay in Westinia as her home, but she also longed to embrace her Estoplean ancestry at the same time.

Chapter 5
Chapter 5

Before going to meet her uncle, the only memory Rowdin had about the old house was from an old picture in her parents’  living room at Westinia. In it, her grandparents and great grandparents were sitting on a well-crafted piece of furniture. Her father had told her that the chair still sat in the same place in the living room, and Rowdin remembered seeing the chair as she toured the house with her uncle.

She was eager to explore the house and hoped to find answers to some of her questions while locating items to take back to Westinia. She was also aware that most of the things she would find would be relics and nothing of interest to her Westinian culture, but if you were a true Westinian and understood life over there, you would come to appreciate their great interest in collecting relics and using them to appreciate the beauty of the days before the industrial and technological revolutions absorbed life out of nature.

When she went to the house the first time, she was still slightly disoriented from her trip and not well acclimated. This time, she was more alert and observant. As she rode from the hotel to the house, she grew skeptical when they pulled over in front of it. She suddenly wasn’t sure that she wanted to handle legal matters. If she were to choose, she would rather be the one playing in the background for her parents, but somehow, she was at the forefront of it all. Regardless of how skeptical Rowdin was, she was more afraid of failing than worrying about the hassle of getting the property back.

This time, as the car got closer to the old house, she observed that it was located near what looked like a neighborhood that had seen better days. It was now full of many abandoned shops, unmaintained streets and lots of ‘For Sale’ signs. Rowdin wondered who was going to buy some of the rickety properties displayed for sale. The street was comprised of artisanal and small merchant shops. The wooden billboards next to most of the shops advertised archaic services like scissors sharpening or silverware restoration. Inside the shops sat pictures of current politicians, the same corrupt and incompetent politicians running the country; a reflection of the paternal society often seen in current-day Estople.

Sitting inside the car, she admired the house’s exterior. It was nothing but a perfect representation of ancient architecture, one which she found more beautiful than most of the most recent designs that she had seen in Estople and even Westinia. What kept her in the car for a while wasn’t just skepticism; she was awestruck by admiration. She stared at the small house standing on a tiny piece of land enveloped not just by the small wrought-iron fence, but also by a natural fencing system from a combination of trees and flowers of different species. From the blades of glass in the tiny front lawn, that threatened to outgrow the fences and the dead leaves strewn everywhere; you could tell that the property had been abandoned for a long time.

After a while, she got out of the car, brought out her phone and began taking pictures of the house’s exterior. She wasn’t sure why she was doing that, but she hoped to use the shots for a before-and-after view if she ever had an opportunity to clean and fix things up.

Before her quest to claim the property, her father had told her how the house was acquired by her great, great grandparents. She had always been interested in learning about her ancestral home. Luckily, her parents were always willing to take her down memory lane as far back as they could go. All that she knew about her ancestors, she learned from her parents. She knew that her great, great grandfather did not purchase the house. He had won it as a prize for his humanity and selflessness. As a young man in those days, he was one of the few that took interest in nursing the old and the wounded. Peace was a rarity in Estople; when they were not at war with other nations, the people were at war with themselves. At 15, Rowdin’s great, great grandfather had led a group of young people who were interested in what he was doing. They would go from house to house taking care of old people who were left alone at home. Sometimes, he volunteered to help the local hospitals look after wounded patients. He also had other things he did to fetch him money. Sometimes, he served as a middle man between foreign traders and natives as he also had a knack for connecting unrelated people and finding common ground for them to work together. Other times, he supervised building projects because the owners believed that he was a man with integrity. One day, while they were on duty about their usual home services, a fight broke out between two of the most powerful families in Estople. It was a bloody clash in which innocent people lost their lives. Nardar, Rowdin’s great, great grandfather found a young man severely injured and unconscious on the road. Nardar took the young man to his own house, and there, he tended to his wounds until he recovered. The young man turned out to be Sunu, the only grandson of one of the wealthiest families in the region; he had been caught in the crossfire and left for dead. When the young man recovered, he couldn’t go back home because his father’s enemies were still looking for him. He remained in Nardar’s house while secretly exchanging letters with his grandfather.

As the clashes gradually ceased and peace slowly returned, Nardar took the young man back to his father. The other families got angry when they found out that it was Nardar who saved their enemy. In a retaliatory move, they burnt down Nardar’s house. Luckily, the people did not let them harm Nardar. Sadly, that was the last time Nardar saw his parents and three siblings. No one knew whether they survived the raid or not, but Nardar believed that they were still alive. Some also shared the belief that they might have fled the house before it was set ablaze; they claimed Nardar was lucky not to have been at home when the raid happened.

Broken by hearted, Nadar had gone to Sunu’s grandfather for help. Mr. Nuri took Nardar in and raised him as a second son.  Soon, he began supporting Nadar to help the aged and the sick. Nardar would have loved to become a doctor but he was taught a trade instead and he grew up to become good at it.

Ten years later, Mr. Nuri and his grandson Sunu died after being poisoned during a business trip. Before he died, Mr. Nuri willed his property to Nardar. His last words before he died were this: “My only regret is not being kind to people when I was younger. If I had been kinder, maybe I’d still have my family back. Now you are my only family. Please, don’t end up like us. Material possessions—no matter how much—can not equate a life. Do what you have to do to stay alive, even if that means being poor.”

Nardar understood what the old man meant. The old man had spent his life fighting one war or the other. He had lost his wife and children to inter-family rivalry and now his own life and that of his only biological heir were gone. It was clear that what took his life was the quest for material possession. Nardar knew this, so he made peace with the other families as he got married.

Sadly, whenever money is concerned, peace had a prize. He gradually lost the business and as an old man, decided to go back to nursing people. The only thing left of him was the house and a secret document hidden somewhere. He took his time to document everything about the house and handed them over to the bank before he died. After that, Rowdin’s great grandfather inherited the property and so it went until it got to Rowdin’s father. He was more interested in the survival and education of his children than in a family inheritance, so he left Estople to Westinia when he got the chance to.

Fifty- three years after he left Estople, his daughter Rowdin was back to claim the only thing they could call home. This property was the only one that had survived since before the first great-war; it was a true symbol of ancient artistry and wealth of Estoplean cultural heritage, but the man was not interested in inheriting such symbolic building. He would rather pass it on to the generation that needed it most.

Chapter 6
Chapter 6

“When in Rome, do as the Romans,” Sattar said to her as he dropped her off at the Department of Property Records.

“Why did you say that?” Rowdin responded with sheer curiosity.

“I think you’re about to experience more of your ancestral home,” Sattar replied, trying to be tactful.

Rowdin wasn’t certain what he meant and wished that he would be a little more specific, but the driver wasn’t a man of too many words. If she had the choice, she would have found herself a more adventurous driver. Sattar was engaging but only when Rowdin asked; she knew that he was trying to be professional.

The building in front of her looked like it needed to be renovated. Rowdin thought to herself that a building that kept the records of every property in Estople should be symbolic itself; it should be such that it makes you feel your property is safe, but this was not the case. What was standing in front of her did the exact opposite. Within her short stay, she had noticed that government properties were the least attractive and most poorly maintained properties in Estople.

Now, at the Department of Property Records, Rowdin was led into the building by an elderly man. He asked her a lot of questions that irritated her until she realized that he was wasting her time because he needed a tip. After she gave him some money, he led her to the front desk. There, she was given a form to fill in her details and why she was there. As she handed it to the lady behind the desk, she noticed that the lady was examining her.

“Did I do anything wrong?” Rowdin asked.

“Seems like you’re new here?” the lady retorted.

“Is it that obvious?” Rowdin asked rhetorically, not sure what she meant and where she was heading.

The lady smiled and shook her head. “Take a seat over there.” She pointed towards what looked like a reception.

“Thank you.” As Rowdin headed towards the reception, she hoped that the number of people she was seeing there had nothing to do with the person she needed to see, otherwise, it would be a long wait for her.

“Madam.” Rowdin turned and saw the lady behind the front desk looking at her. “Please, pay attention so you don’t miss out when you’re called.”

Rowdin nodded as she located a seat by the window. She sat beside an elderly man, probably in his late 60’s. He smiled when she greeted him and asked how her day was. Rowdin replied before she checked her watch. It was just 9:07 am and she was hoping that she would be out of there before noon as she wasn’t sure of the processes involved and how long they would take. As she sat down, she noticed that some of the people who arrived after her were being attended to. She didn’t find it funny but kept calm.

Two hours passed, during which the number of people who had come before her seemed not to have changed. Rowdin fidgeted with the zipper on her handbag as she tried not to show her agitation. When someone chuckled by her side, she turned to see the old man laughing. “You’ve been gone for too long, my child. Patience is the only spoon those like us are fed with.”

Rowdin was concerned about what he was insinuating but she ignored the old man and went to the front desk to ask the receptionist what was going on.

“Madam, when you wear fancy clothes and you are forced to smile at every person that walks towards you, you’ll understand,” the lady said with no interest in Rowdin’s complaint.

“But you’re paid to do this. If you don’t like the job, then, you should quit,” Rowdin snapped at her.

“This is not Westinia, madam. Here we take every chance that brings extra pay to the table and if that means keeping you here till tomorrow, I won’t mind.”

“What?!” Rowdin was boiling at the woman’s audacity. As she still didn’t understand what was going on, she went back to her seat and watched carefully. She noticed that those who were being attended to those were giving tips to the officials. It began sinking in, and she turned to the old man with curiosity. “Please sir, how many more offices do I need to go through if I were to get my property documents?”

“Oh! That’s why you’re here. Well, that means you have to go through three more offices before you can leave .”

Rowdin was shocked and angry that there were more offices to go through and she had already spent over two hours at the front desk. This is insane, she thought. It suddenly dawned on her that she was going to spend the rest of her day here.

“Three more offices if you do the right thing,” the old man added. “When you build a nation upon greed, even birth positions can be traded in the marketplace.”

No one needed to tell Rowdin what he meant by “the right thing” and the accompanying statement. She wasn’t willing to bribe her way through to get what she wanted, so she waited patiently until it finally got to her, but that was at 3:16 pm. Rowdin’s irritation was sky-high as she walked to the office she had been directed into. The offices would close at 4:00 pm, and she had to go through three offices before then, otherwise, she would have to come back the following day. Inside the office, she found a young man in his early 40s. He told her that the papers she was looking for would take months to be ready. Rowdin didn’t have time for that; she wanted it as soon as possible.

“Well, I can help you make it faster if you would pay a certain amount of money.”

Rowdin looked at him disappointedly.

“I’m sorry, madam. To get it for you as soon as possible, I’ll need to jump some processes and that would cost money. Call it a bribe, a tip or greasing some hands to make happen or whatever you choose to, but that’s the only way you can get what you want when you want it.”

Rowdin was beyond annoyed, but she realized that there was no way of getting through this wall of bribes. Instead, she negotiated the pay, gave him half of the agreed sum and promised to get him the balance once she had the papers. The man informed her she would have her papers ready within two weeks. She wasn’t okay with the time frame, but it was better than the months she had gotten initially. She finally left the office at 3:41 pm but not without persuading him to attend to the elderly man near her.

 

Chapter 7
Chapter 7

While they worked on the papers, Rowdin visited the house. The last time she saw her uncle, she had only managed a look at the house’s exterior, but this time, she gained access to it. The Department of Property Records had helped her clean up the surroundings, but it wasn’t without a cost. Rowdin did not mind. She was more than willing to pay so she could “legally” gain access to the house.  The money she paid the department was still reasonable compared to repair and maintenance pricing in Westinia. Plus, there was the issue of her rising hotel bills. She would have loved to move in immediately as her uncle had suggested, but she hesitated to do so without the complete papers.

That Tuesday morning, she had two major things planned for that day. One: she wanted to visit the property. Two: she wanted to move into an apartment with a weekly lease. Lumiah had helped her find an apartment that wasn’t far from the Department of Property Records.

Rowdin didn’t wake up quite early that morning; the previous day had been rough for her. Even though her alarm had jerked her awake, she managed to stay in bed tossing and turning while wishing that she hadn’t set the alarm the previous night. At 8:00 am, her phone rang. It was Sattar at the other end. He was already downstairs waiting with her coffee.

Rowdin was not the type to take too long to prepare for anything, not even when she was just waking up. Sattar only had to wait about twenty minutes before she flew downstairs. He caught sight of her at the front desk and walked to meet her; he was holding two cups of coffee. Rowdin grinned at Sattar. She had long noted that though he was a quiet gentleman, he was very attentive to details. In the two weeks since she had been working with him, he had already figured out her favorite foods, drinks, and even coffee.  Trading the coffee for her luggage, Sattar flashed her a smile before she hurried to the front desk to check out and pay her hotel bill. From frequent trips around the world, she knew that hotel attendants cheated customers by slipping in expenses that were never used. She had since learned to pay separately for any amenities used at hotels and not charge things to her room.

Now, looking at the bill, she was not surprised to see two bills for a restaurant that she had never been to. “No,” she said, pointing at the lines with the prices,” these shouldn’t be here. You have to remove them,” she said firmly.

The front desk attendant looked at it again and thinking that she was another tourist who did not have time or was too intimidated to challenge the bill, he insisted that the charges were correct. Rowdin refused to budge, and after a while, he apologized before handing her the correct bill. Rowdin paid and joined Sattar in the car.

On their way to the property, Sattar started a conversation with Rowdin. She was surprised because he usually did not talk much. He did speak Estoplean, but from his accent, it was obvious that he was not from Estople. Her Estoplean wasn’t much better than his, but she didn’t mind practicing so she could learn and improve her speech. Plus, they had been sharing the car for nearly two weeks now and she barely knew anything about him.

“Well, madam, I’m an immigrant from Phelonia,” he replied when she asked where he was from. “My parents were evicted from their own home there and moved down here back in 1967. They weren’t sure what might happen afterward,” he explained.

“Looks like we have something in common apart from the fact that your parents didn’t decide to cross over to an entirely different culture.”

“I guess I would have appreciated it more if they did.”

“Why is that?” Rowdin asked.

“There’s so much we still hold on to that shouldn’t be and it is killing us every day.”

Rowdin nodded. He was right and she was glad that someone shared her belief. “That’s another thing we share in common,” Rowdin said staring out of the window as they sped past the green landscape of the hotel.

“Here, you are in your ancestral home, but I may never get the chance to know what it is like back home in Phelonia,” Sattar added.

Rowdin gave him a curious look.

“My parents were considered traitors during and after the 1967 war because they refused to let the occupiers have their home. That was why they fled their country home and came here as refugees. Now, none of us can go back.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t mean to bring back memories.”

“It’s okay, madam,” Sattar said. “This is my home now. I was born and raised here. All I hear about my home country are mere stories that don’t mean much to me. The good thing is that my parents got a life here and we’re all doing fine.” He hesitated. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I’ve got a life here with this car, and I’m happy.” He smiled at Rowdin.

Rowdin knew that Sattar was just trying to keep her from feeling bad. From the tremor in his voice, she could tell that he would love to go back home, even if it was just for a day. Rowdin shared with him the story of how her parents left as refugees to Westinia. She wanted to encourage him by letting him know that they had the same kind of story. When they got to the property, Rowdin saw that it looked much better than it was the other time she visited. The lawn, trees, and shrubbery were trimmed. Now she could see at a glance what a symbolic building it was. Dating back to over 300 years, the building itself could pass as a tourist site if properly fixed up for the purpose. She wondered what the interior would look like now that she’s more awake than the last time she briefly visited it with her uncle. It had obviously been abandoned for a while, and even when her grandmother lived there before she passed, she was too weak and old to maintain it. Rowdin was sure that it had not been maintained for over a decade which suggested that the interior would be as much in need of renovation as the exterior. Rowdin was eager to explore the contents of the ancient landmark. There were claims that the house might have been built for one of the princes of the Ottoman Empire while some believed that it dated back to the Byzantine Empire and was seized after the conquest of Constantinople in the 15th Century, stories which are different from what her parents had told her. Whatever story was behind it, it remained one of the best things from the past that stayed her family. One thing she was sure of was that scores of generations had been housed by this landmark.

Rowdin’s heart soared when she flung the door open. Walking through the house, she felt like she was living in another era. The building was a treasure trove of books, pictures, trinkets, and other items that had her sliding down history’s memory lane. Pictures of her great grandfather in the Turkish army hung on the walls. A couple of books from the Arab enlightenment days sat on a shelf. Pictures of the old glory days of the country were littered with civil war pictures showing diffused unexploded ammunition from the war. There were also artifacts and paintings from celebrated Arab painters decorating walls and floors, most of which she did not notice on her first “jetlagged” visit with her uncle. Rowdin had only just arrived Estople, but she could see that some of the politicians in the old pictures were the same politicians ruling the country. From that, she could sense the reason behind the backward nature of the country. These politicians had become corrupt officials who had stuck with old traditions and only played tribal politics.

Rowdin took her time to explore the old house. Seeing as she didn’t want to disturb the historical symbol, she wasn’t sure if she would live in it or not. However, whatever happened, she was sure that she had to come up with a plan fast.

Chapter 8
Chapter 8

Rowdin wasn’t ready to sit around while she waited for the papers to be ready; she was not that kind of a girl. The country offered a lot of interesting sites so she spent the following day seeing sites suggested by relatives, some of whom she had visited briefly. Between Lumiah’s and Sattar’s suggestions, she decided to book a couple of dates with a tour company for all-day guided excursions. There were other tourist sites that she needed to officially write to for a visit, not as a tourist but as a researcher. Rowdin came up with a perfect plan and budget for each of the trips she would be making. It was going to cost a lot of money, but she did not mind. She had come prepared and had set aside a fun-money budget before she left Westinia.

Rowdin called her cousin Samad to inform him that her Estople visit was going to last for several more weeks.

“That’s great. I will plan to come to visit while you are there; it’ll be fun. I think it’s high time I showed my fiancée our parents and grandparent’s home.”

“Esma’s coming with you?” Rowdin asked in excitement.

“Yes, she’s been on my neck lately; it’ll be good for both of us.”

“That would be lovely. I can’t wait to see both of you.”

They both laughed and talked a little longer before hanging up. Rowdin had to plead with her cousin to make the journey sooner so she would have their company for a while before going back to Westinia. He agreed to make the trip in a week, but that timeframe also depended on how soon Esma could get an Estople visa for her passport. Rowdin informed him that she did not need a visa, as she could get her passport visa stamped at the airport when she arrived. She had done the same thing because she could not locate her Estople ID before she traveled so she ended up flying in as a Westinian citizen who was visiting Estople. She reassured Samad that the visa fee was minimal. She also gave him the name of the hotel where she stayed, “unless you want to stay at my uncle’s house,” she added sarcastically.

Four days later, Samad informed her that he and Esma had just arrived in Estople and that they were at the airport and to meet them at the hotel, she however insisted that she’ll pick them upRowdin chattered endlessly with Sattar as he drove her to pick them up at the airport, telling him about her cousins in Westinia. She was excited when she saw the couple and engulfed them in hugs and kisses.

On their way back, Samad, who was in the personal security business, told Rowdin that he wasn’t just in town to show off his fiancée to the rest of the family, he was also looking to explore business opportunities Estople had to offer so he could expand his business.

The trio got along quite well and had fun together. The visits to the families went as Rowdin had planned; there was suddenly less attention on her and more on Samad and Esma. Instead of her having to retell her story about her relationship with Zaki, the attention was redirected to Samad and Esma’s wedding date. Lumiah, of course, was more than excited to meet the two new arrivals. The four got along quite well.

Rowdin took Esma and Samad to show them the old house. She retold them the history of the house as they drove through the town on their way there. Samad and Esma were still in awe at the sight of how narrow the streets were and how crazy drivers acted in Estople. Rowdin also proceeded to highlight her initial observations of the contrast between the old civil war remnants of the building and the new modern structures that occupied the city. Samad commented on how he now understood what his parents and grandparents meant when they were telling them about the old homeland.

“Wow! This is completely amazing,” Samad exclaimed as they approached the house.

“I think this is the best thing I’ve seen so far,” Esma said excitedly as she whipped out her smartphone to take dozens of pictures of the house which she would share on social media.

Rowdin led the way as they explored the building together and took note of artifacts that they found useful. Predictably, Samad dived into finding out security details of the structure while mapping out the environment. He also found a complete map of the region and thought that it would be useful for his business. Both Esma and Rowdin made fun of him and asked him to take things easy as they were not on a mission.  Rowdin suggested he buys a more modern map instead, as the one he found at the house was most likely more of a historical map.

Halfway through the tour, Samad asked Rowdin if he could purchase some firearms which he would leave in the house for her safety. Though she did not object to owning firearms, Rowdin did not feel like she was in any danger and she told Samad this. They argued back and forth until Rowdin grew tired of arguing with Samad. Esma had thrown up her hands in exasperation when she saw what happened. “He can’t help himself! There is always an excuse to buy his toys,” she cried. They all laughed about it and began discussing the technicalities of acquiring a weapon in Estople.

Chapter 9
Chapter 9

The next morning, Rowdin raced to The Rustique to wait for Samad and Esma. She got a table for four and secured the spaces with her bag and some magazines. She checked her wristwatch and wondered why the couple had not arrived. She was about to call them when Samad’s call came in. Esma had caught a bug and he didn’t feel comfortable leaving her alone in the hotel.

Rowdin understood, but she was sad that they wouldn’t be joining her. A wave of loneliness descended on her immediately the phone call ended. She sat back, packed her magazines back into her bag. She was about to leave when she decided against it. The time alone usually helped her to clear her head. Rowdin ordered her favorite coffee and pulled out her phone. She called Zaki so she could give an update of everything that had happened thus far. As they spoke, she wished that she had invited him on the trip. With him around, she wouldn’t be so lonely. Of course, she did not tell him what she was thinking or she knew that he would start feeling sorry for her. She did not want that, so she skirted around various topics. After the phone call, she leaned back to finish her drink and figure out what she was going to do with the free time she now had.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Mind if I share your table?  There doesn’t seem to be any other seating spots available.  I promise I won’t be a bother to you.”

Rowdin turned to see a young man behind her. “Sure, of course,” she said. Since her partners were no longer coming, there was no need to hold on to the whole table.

“Thank you.” He settled down next to her.

Rowdin watched him carefully as he drank his coffee. He was concentrating on a TV program where a TV anchor was interviewing members of parliament who were discussing the electricity crisis in the country. The young man began shaking his head when one of the MPs began talking about buying electricity from another country. He turned to Rowdin and asked if she was listening to the discussion. She said that she was. He asked what she thought about the MP’s opinion. Rowdin told him that she was new in town and didn’t know much about the issues being discussed. He nodded sagely and began explaining how the MP was wrong.  The young man said that the available funds could be diverted into available technologies which could solve the energy problem. When he was done explaining, he apologized and introduced himself as Hilmy, a professor of Biology at the University of Southern Estople.  He also stated that his passion was to promote STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education and research in the country. He truly believed that a new generation of STEAM graduates as well as other professionals could lift the country out of its stagnation. These professionals would either help guide these old-fashioned politicians or make them irrelevant over time as all current-day politicians are relics from the pre-civil war tradition of sectarian rules and the rules based on citizens mistrusting one another.  Either way, the country would be better off. Rowdin was pleased to meet him and enjoyed hearing his views on several topics. As they talked, Hilmy shared his beliefs and plans with Rowdin. Rowdin could tell that he was not only a well-educated person, but he was also a rational thinker who believed that well-educated people were less likely to make decisions based on tribal, ethnic and religious prejudice. He also believed that they were probably less likely to resort to violence when expressing discontent. “I believe that critical thinking reduces emotionalism and leads to innovation while diminishing consumerism,” Prof. Hilmy explained. “We can’t be discussing research and development versus commerce and still hold on to the antiquated lawmakers you just saw on this screen.”

“How does managing the country’s electrical needs in such a manner help the people?” Rowdin asked rhetorically. ” It seems like they are tackling the issue with a temporary band-aid versus chasing sustainable solutions.”

Hilmy remarked that for many generations, the society had been built on the premise that trade and commerce were the only routes to prosperity. This had turned the country into a “consuming” one instead of a self-sustaining, “producing” one. It was on this premise that the MP based his solution. Hilmy believed that with a highly educated population, their society would be able to innovate and locally develop ways of solving such a crisis instead of importing temporary solutions.  An educated population would also have the capacity to prosper without infringing on other societies’ rights while at the same time not allowing other societies to infringe on theirs.

Rowdin recalled how her parents had impressed the value of higher education in her. This, therefore, put her and Hilmy’s beliefs in the same position. Rowdin was about to mention this when something struck her as odd. She reflected on the consistency of the messages on the need for education from her parents, then her uncle, Lumiah and now Hilmy, yet professional higher education was lacking in Estople. To help her understand, she asked Hilmy about this trend. Hilmy went ahead to explain how the current ruling elite’s priorities did not include the higher education of its citizens. They knew that educated citizens would see through the games that keep them in power, which would, in turn, lead to them losing out and not respond to their fear-mongering.

He also argued that every person who had been able to get some education and prosper should have a moral duty to give back and help others do the same; that was similar to what her uncle told her. He continued on to say that the country doesn’t need a revolution per-se, but if enough people did this, they would contribute to an exponential or a multiplier-effect-like phenomenon that would produce a generation of scientists and professionals who could propel society out of many of its ills. The scientist would innovate, the lawyers will act the swords enforcing the innovative solutions; then the other young and highly educated professionals would replace the current generation of incompetent street thugs running the country.  Rowdin had never thought of education from that angle but everything Hilmy was saying seemed to ring true in her mind and heart somehow, she felt a sense of excitement as Hilmy rambled on.   He convinced Rowdin to accompany him to the university where he worked so he could introduce her to the project he was working on.

Rowdin liked the idea of doing that. She figured that since she had the time, she could consider this one of her exploration activities. Besides, she was curious about college life in Estople. They traded phone numbers and agreed to meet again.

****

Days later, Rowdin and Hilmy found themselves in the middle of another discussion. This time, Hilmy told Rowdin that he was planning on moving to a neighboring state to start a department of Computational Genetics at one of the universities. Rowdin questioned the rationale behind leaving versus pursuing the project locally at the same university where he was already established and had several connections.  The more they discussed Hilmy’s plans, the more Rowdin grew interested in Hilmy’s educational quest.  Soon, their casual conversation spiraled into a series of planning meetings.

Over the weeks, they began thinking up ways to organize a meeting between them and key figures in the university. The conference was to persuade these figures to sponsor their Computational Genetics school project.  Hilmy reached out and some of them granted them an audience.  During the meetings, Rowdin and Hilmy pitched their project and enlightened the audience on its benefits. They both took turns to make their presentations, but it was Rowdin who spoke about these benefits. Though she was not in the sales profession, her job back in Westinia had revolved around convincing executives to back up introductions of new pharmaceutical products to markets as well as building relationships with clients so to create such markets.  Here she put her knack for presenting and bringing leaderships on board of whatever plan she had. Early in her career, she had learned that one of the primary causes for leaders rejecting something was the risk associated with them losing face—and their positions—if they supported a certain idea. In her presentation, she ensured that she covered those bases.

The initial reaction from most of the personnel was positive, and they were able to win over a good majority of the guests; however, when they left, Hilmy told Rowdin that something was not quite right. He wondered why the response was positive and there was barely any presence of the cynicism prevalent in Estople. Not wanting to discourage Rowdin, Hilmy suggested that they go celebrate their small win and discuss the next set of steps.

Rowdin declined the offer as her mind was still preoccupied with the house and numerous outings planned with her cousins. She had called Sattar earlier, and as she waited for him, she listened to Hilmy brief her about plans to get documentation papers out to all necessary parties.

 

 

Chapter 10
Chapter 10

“You have a good background and your plan is not a bad one, but you know that we have to tread carefully these days,” Munder said before flipping through the papers Hilmy had submitted. Munder was the son of one of the members of parliament and was serving as his father’s representative—or more like his gatekeeper. It was difficult getting an appointment with the MP, so Hilmy and Rowdin had decided to go through his son.

Hilmy nodded. “I understand, but you also know how important this is for the development of our country. I’m sure your father would appreciate such a valuable project like this.”

“Of course, he would! My father is a liberal empiricist who wants his country to move forward, even if it means losing his life or political career. But for me, I am a liberal realist who wants to ensure that he stays alive and achieves his dreams.”

Hilmy knew exactly what Munder was doing. This was how bribes were demanded, especially amongst the elite who would never outrightly say what they wanted. Munder’s reputation preceded him, and Hilmy knew that the young man gave the impression of being pro-education. He often posed as a supporter of the idea of improving the education system in Estople; however, it was all an act and his real goal, just like most of the politicians, was intimidation and suppression of any activities that did not benefit him and his family. “What are you trying to say?” Hilmy asked.

“If my father signs this, it will automatically give you the license to operate your school. But, on the other hand, it will threaten his career and his life. He’d be going against the current of every other parliament member and you know how these guys don’t like colleagues who stray outside the norms.”

“You must be heading somewhere with this, Munder. How is that a threat to anything?”

“Let me cut to the chase. To get my father’s consent and approval for your school, you would have to pay the required 75,000,000 Lira. You would also have to include me on the board of directors of that school.”

Hilmy sucked in his breath. He was surprised that Munder had outrightly asked for a bribe and was irritated at the amount being requested. “What? That’s an outrageous fee, Munder. 75 million Liras can help put two students through a complete post-graduate program at this university. Besides, this is not a big corporation we are talking about, and there will not be any profit in it.”

Munder narrowed his eyes. “Outrageous fee for the risk involved and the benefits that come with it? I don’t think so, Hilmy.”

“And I still have to include you as a BOD?”

“Having me on your board of directors is to ensure that you don’t get disturbances from anyone in government. Consider that your gate-pass.”

Hilmy wasn’t disturbed by Munder’s decision. He was beyond disappointed that the son of one viewed as an honorable MP would dare dabble in such corruption when it was against everything his father had ever campaigned for. Hilmy was so agitated that he left the office without reaching a compromise with Munder; he needed to discuss it with other faculty members who had expressed support in his department. He knew that some of them who had been in the university system longer would have creative ideas on how to overcome the “Munder” barrier.

As he headed back to his office across campus, he grew outraged at the whole Estoplean system and wished again that he lived abroad where things were done faster.  His mind went through many possible resolution scenarios and he began thinking of asking Rowdin for help. He hoped that she might know someone in Westinia who would be willing to invest in his endeavor.

Back in his office, he proceeded to ask the department’s administrative team to organize a meeting with the “supporters” of his plan so they could brainstorm on how to best handle the Munder issue. Hilmy also sent a phone message to Rowdin to brief her on what had happened.

 

 

Chapter 11
Chapter 11

Rowdin’s life in Estople was no longer driven by the inheritance that had taken her there but by the desire to give back to her ancestral home and help Hilmy get his department at the university. As she readied herself for her planned tour of the country, a message from Lumiah popped up on her phone. In it, Lumiah explained that the internet service she had ordered for the house would be activated today. For Rowdin, that was another exciting piece of news as she had grown tired of staying at the leased apartment.

Armed with her chargers, snacks, and wipes, she headed for the tour operator’s office. This day’s trip destination was to the southern part of the country.  They were visiting the south’s largest coastal city with its once rich and flourishing Phoenician town and its thirteenth-century sea castle. From there, they proceeded to the Roman Hippodrome.

Despite its past reputation from the civil war and regional conflict, Estople was blessed with beautiful beaches, magnificent mountain vistas, and ancient ruins from almost every civilization in history going back thousands of years. Surprisingly, the people were also very hospitable and her day was a pleasurable one. Rowdin was exhausted when she got back to her apartment later that evening. The next day, she planned to figure out when she would leave the apartment and move into the old house for the remainder of her stay in Estople. She began wondering if she should ask Samad and Esma to stay with her at the house. Their presence would make the stay more enjoyable, give her a little flavor of home in Westinia and, the couple could save some money too.

She sent a text message to Sattar to pick her up in the morning. Samad, Esma and her were to meet with Hilmy and go with him to the university so that he could show them around the campus and the building where he was hoping to have the School of Computational Genetics department.

They all met at The Rustique. There, she introduced Hilmy to Samad and his fiancée, Esma. They all got along quite well, faster than she had imagined. Rowdin asked Hilmy how the meeting with the other stakeholders went. “Well,” Hilmy began, “things started well with everyone proposing different approaches until Munder showed up to the meeting. He was angry and threw a subtle warning that nothing would move until we agreed to the conditions that he had set. The meeting ended abruptly and we decided to meet again, but this time, we would make sure the meeting be kept as low key as possible. Enough about me!” he said, shaking his head, “here these things take forever to get done. How was the day trip, Rowdin?”

As they talked about the progress they were making in their various plans, Samad told them that he had gotten a business partner whom his dad had introduced and recommended to him. With a huge smile on his face, he revealed that the partner was helping him arrange for his firearms license as well. Esma shook her head. “Men and their toys,” she said as everyone laughed. They chatted for a little longer while they drank their coffee, then they agreed to go ahead and drive out to the university where Hilmy worked. On their way there, Esma saw signposts for a jewelry bazaar. She immediately began begging Sattar to drop her and Samad there before proceeding to the university which was less than a 10-15 minute walk from the souk. Esma’s mom had told her about the jewelry markets in Estople and how she could get some nice pieces. She knew her mother would love to have some necklaces. The rest of the group wanted to see the market too so they alighted from Saatar’s cab.  Instead of making him wait, Rowdin instructed Sattar that they will walk to the university and that she’ll message him from where she is when they are done at the university.

After Esma found her gifts, the four of them made their way to the university on foot. They were walking and listening to Esma tell them how happy her mom would be when a truck pulled over at a corner. Five men jumped out of it with handguns and opened fire around the group. Rowdin ducked, looking around frantically to ensure that her friends were safe. They were all crouching behind a flower bush. Rowdin peeked from between the bushes. She saw that some of the men were still aiming at them, but the ones shooting were aiming at the sky. What was happening seemed unnatural, and Rowdin realized that the ambush was some kind of an intimidation tactic, not a plan to kill anyone. Glancing to the side to see if anyone could see what she was seeing, she noticed that Samad was holding a gun. He put his fingers to his lips, signaled for her to lie back on the ground. Immediately she did, he began firing. The men fired back.

“Hurry behind the car, and keep your heads down,” Samad shouted while providing cover for them.

He rolled over, dodging in time what would have been a direct hit to his head. Ever a quick shot, he fired at one of the shooters who was reloading his cartridge. The man staggered back as blood spurted from his chest. From where Rowdin hid, she saw that the shooters were trained but not well enough to beat Samad who was a professional. The men on the other end lacked aiming power. They left themselves too exposed, perhaps because they were not expecting a counter-attack from someone like Samad.

From the corner of her eye, she spied Samad looking for a vantage point. He crawled behind a vehicle from where he fired randomly to distract the men. After waiting for them to exhaust their cartridges, he paused until an unfortunate fellow had to reload his cartridge. Samad fired a direct hit at the mans’ head.

Rowdin heard footsteps racing in her direction; when she looked up, one of the shooters was running to where she Esma and Hilmy were hiding. Samad jumped on the vehicle he had rolled away from and fired at him. The man lurched forward and grabbed his right thigh. He fired shots at Samad who though thoroughly exposed, barely managed to roll down to the ground.

Rowdin peeked out as two final shots rang. Two men from the opposing team were on the floor; one was flailing helplessly as a member of his team dragged him away. Guns pointed towards them, the rest of the team rushed out and dragged all the men on the ground away. In seconds, their truck zoomed away.

Samad crawled out from where he was hiding. He was clutching his hand, trying hard to stem the flow of blood spilling to the ground. Esma grew pale when she saw him. A choked cry came from her, and she covered her mouth with her hand to stop the sobs. Rowdin looked at Hilmy who was frantically flagging a cab off the ground. One stopped and they all got in. By then, Esma and Rowdin were frantic and in tears. Esma was yelling tearfully at Samad for not taking cover from the gunmen. In the front seat, Hilmy was calm as he was used to being in the middle of gunfights.

At the hospital’s emergency room, Samad was received by the nurses. He was rushed in for x-rays, after which he saw several doctors. When he emerged, they learned that he’d been told that he could lose full use of his hand but with proper physical therapy, he might be able to regain partial use of it. Esma was frantic as she knew that Samad’s hand was important in his line of work. Samad, on the other hand, was quiet. He lay on the bed and stared at his hand incredulously like he didn’t understand what was happening; likely pondering what is going to happen to his life if he loses the use of his hand.

They stood waiting until Samad’s nurse arrived and began explaining the prescribed medications as well as the urgency in arranging for physical therapy as soon as possible. He signed the discharge papers and as he was getting up to leave his bed, the nurse put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Hold on, I have one more thing for you.” She picked up a small notepad and scribbled a name and address. Handing it to him, she proceeded to tell him about a small clinic that specialized in limb injury treatment across town. “I don’t know if they will be able to help you or not, but I’ve heard many good things about them. I highly recommend that you visit them as soon as possible, actually, you should go right away.  The sooner you get there the better your chances of saving your hand are. They are open now, so you will be able to make there  if you hurry and go now!.”

Samad was given some treatment to prevent the limb from being infected. It also helped to numb the pain while preserving the tissue until they got to the recommended place. Esma and Rowdin cried throughout the trip, but Samad and Hilmy assured them that things were going to be ok.

At the given address, they alighted from the cab and flocked into what looked like a residential building. The nurse’s directions sent them to the third floor and they hurried up, luckily the power was on and they were able to take the elevator up to that third floor. When they reached a door—the only door on the floor, they rang the bell. A female nurse let them in after confirming who had sent them.

The reception looked exceptional, like nothing they had ever seen in Estople. Liquid crystal display screens lit up the room, showing pictures of genes and DNA strands. When the nurse saw how surprised they looked, she explained that the place was an experimental laboratory established by a successful physician who had come back to Estople after immigrating during the civil war. They had been involved in restorative nano-surgical technology for many years and had started by helping patients hurt in the civil war and the other wars that followed. The clinic was very advanced but not known around the world as they were mostly only needed in this region. Their operations were kept a secret so that it would not attract the attention of corrupt politicians like the Munders of the world.

“We are here to visit Mr. Warteed,” Hilmy answered when the young lady asked which doctor they had been directed to.

“Welcome, come in and have a seat. Mr. Warteed will be out shortly,” said the girl. She pointed at couches that looked like they belonged to an average living room. Perched at the corners of the room were a couple of coffee tables and some simple decorations.

Samad looked alert but worried when Mr. Warteed walked into the room.

“What do we have here? How did you get that injury, son?”

As Samad tried to explain in his broken Estoplean, Hilmy jumped in and detailed the circumstances leading to the injury as well as what they did at the hospital. While Hilmy was explaining, Mr. Warteed was carefully examining Samad’s hand using what looked like surgical lenses worn over his eyeglasses. The lenses had red and green lights flashing from them. Everyone was quiet as Mr. Warteed examined the hand from every possible angle. When he was done, he exclaimed: “We can help you, son. Follow me. Oh and cancel any plans you have today and tomorrow because we are going to be busy. As for your friends, only one of them can come with you to the treatment room. Don’t worry about needing a translator, I can speak Westinian very well. I graduated from university there!”

Esma and Samad while holding his hand up with the other hand followed Mr. Warteed into the treatment room where something resembling a dentist’s chair—but with many more tools attached to it—stood in the center. Above the chair were big light fixtures similar to the ones found in surgical rooms.

“Have a seat, son.”

“Aren’t you going to X-ray my hand?” Samad asked.

“No X-rays needed in here, son. These are my X-rays!” He pointed to the lenses attached to his eyeglasses. “These things have already nano-scanned your entire hand using a combination of infrared and T-Rays which provided us with your blood type as well as all vitals like your blood pressure, pulse… etc. Right now, your hand is already being reconstructed on our computer in the back. Relax son, you will not be disappointed; we’ve seen and treated much worse cases than yours here. Are you in any pain, son?” From the look on his face, it was obvious that Samad was in pain, but his pride prevented him from admitting it. To keep them distracted from worrying and panicking, Mr. Warteed started telling them about the lab and about himself. “What you are witnessing here is technology developed locally by me and a team of students who were working on their post-graduate diplomas at one of the local universities. We never advertised it or sold it to anyone because we wanted to keep it local and non-commercialized so that it stays affordable and does not invite the opportunistic vultures in town. That is why we operate under the radar, like in this non-descript house. We don’t even keep any of our patients’ names here; we also do not want to politicize our treatment center. Hopefully, we can keep things low key so that we’d be able to continue helping anyone and everyone who walks in. As the computer reconstructs your hand, a laser-guided 3D precision printer is replicating the damaged part of it using a genetically cultivated Graphine composite bone graft that’s as strong as steel. This bone graft will bond with the rest of your hand within twenty-four hours. After that, if you accurately follow our post-treatment and physical therapy instructions, your hand will be as good as new or even better than before in two to three months.” He looked at a light blinking on the wall. ” I’ll be right back, son.”

Hours passed, during which Samad and Esma discussed the shoot out, the clinic, and everything in between. By the time Mr. Warteed walked into the room, they were anxiously waiting for him to return. They both stared at him in anticipation and sighed gratefully when he said that things were almost ready. Samad, relieved at Mr. Warteeds return, asked where he had lived when he was in Westinia and how he ended back in Estople. As Warteed was about to answer, he was interrupted by a visual and audible notification on the screen above Samad’s head. From the way he hurried out, it was apparent to Esma and Samad that it was time to apply the bone graft to Samad’s hand. Three other doctors trooped back in accompanied by Mr. Warteed. As they worked on his hand, Samad realized why Warteed kept his clinic secret. It was because he did not want people like Munder hovering over him. I will consult with him on how to bypass the “Munders” of the world, he thought, for now, I’ll let him focus on my hand.

During Samad’s surgery, Esma stayed to watch him. Before Rowdin left the clinic, she told Esma that Sattar would be available if they needed anything. Hilmy went back to the university to let some trusted faculty members know what happened while Rowdin went to her apartment to try to relax and recover from the traumatizing day. She had never been through anything like that in her life. To her, what had happened was something only seen in movies. Before that, her most traumatizing experience was one with a slight fender bender in her mom’s car a few months after she had gotten her driver’s license years ago. Now, sitting on her bed, she realized that she was afraid. She thought of packing her things and going home, but she wondered what she would tell her family and Zaki especially those who had been skeptical about her trip to Estople by herself.

Rowdin decided to take a nap to calm her nerves. When she opened her eyes, it was evening. She slept back and didn’t wake up until the next morning. When she picked her phone the next day, she had several missed calls and text messages from almost everyone she knew. They had all heard the news from Esma and wanted to know how she was doing. Esma had also sent her a message informing her that the treatment went well and Samad was recovering at the clinic. He was to stay “on observation” until the end of the day before they would discharge him. Rowdin was about to text Esma back when a call came in from Hilmy.

Chapter 12
Chapter 12

“Do you want to go see Samad and Esma?” Hilmy asked.

“I have a text from Esma telling me that Samad is doing well and is slated to be discharged tonight. I’m going to call her and see if they need us to bring them anything,” Rowdin replied.

“Ok. Call me back and let me know,” Hilmy said.

At the clinic, they were taken to the recovery room where Samad and Esma were camped with two other patients. The room had six beds. Samad was sitting up in one of the beds; his recently treated hand was bandaged and elevated. Esma looked exhausted, but she was smiling. She welcomed Hilmy and Rowdin. Despite all that had happened to him, Samad also appeared to be in good spirits. He pointed at Hilmy with his good hand and said, “I might have a solution to your Munder problem Hilmy” with a smirk on his face.

“Can we please let this go, Samad, you almost got killed out there and you still want to pursue this?”  Esma exclaimed.

“She’s right Samad” Hilmy replied.

“Let’s focus on getting you better for now”  Rowdin added.

“I will tell you later Hilmy, the girls think this is the end of the world.  We are all still here, we are all alive and we are going to make this happened for you.  You will see!”  Samad replied.

Finally, when they were all done hearing all about the treatment and the couple’s night at the clinic and how optimistic his recovery is, Samad was excited to tell them about his theory on the “Munder” problem. Now that they were all relieved about Samad’s condition, the three of them eagerly waited for him to start.

“Mr. Warteed has been operating this clinic for many years,” he began. “No doubt, everything is under the radar. He has helped hundreds of patients with minimal interruption or interference from any politician, and I’ve been wondering how he does it. I think we need to have a heart to heart with him to get the scoop on how he has managed this place all these years. Whatever we learn can be used to model Hilmy’s department at the university after. The next time he makes his rounds I’m going to ask him what he has been doing. Hopefully, it won’t freak him out.”

Hilmy was very excited and wanted to talk to Mr. Warteed right away, but Samad interfered and told him to relax so we would not spook the doctor. Seeing that Samad was doing well and almost fully functional, Rowdin decided to leave for a few hours and come back later to pick him up. Hilmy had to go with her as he had a class to teach that afternoon. Esma refused to leave; she wanted to stay with Samad.

On her way home, Rowdin called her cousin Lumiah, but she did not tell her what happened. “Hi, Lumiah. I missed you. Are you free to get together for a couple of hours? I’m planning to go to the old house and check on what I need before I move in.”

“Absolutely Rowdin, I’m done with my classes for the day,” replied Lumiah.

“Great. Sattar and I will pick you up and we can go.”

****

When Rowdin, Sattar, and Lumiah got into the house, they started looking around. Rowdin opened the old refrigerator and found nothing but some empty ice trays.”We need to get some groceries,” she yelled.

“You might want to get someone to help dust this place,” cried Sattar.

“Do you know anyone?” Rowdin replied.

“Not really, but I will ask my mom,” Sattar answered as he dialed his mom.

“Tadaaa! Your internet service is now activated!” Lumiah announced as she put away the packaging from the internet modem.

“You’re a real tech wiz Lumia!  What would I have done without you?” Rowdin clapped happily, as she rushed to fetch her laptop. Then she remembered that she had never gotten a chance to ask Samad and Esma if they wanted to stay with her so they could save some money on hotels. She called Esma, and in minutes, it was settled. The couple had agreed to stay with her.

Lumiah and Rowdin rushed to the grocery store. There, they shopped for groceries as well as other things that would make life easier in the house. Rowdin dropped Lumiah back at her house without telling her what happened the day before. After dropping the newly purchased items at home, she rushed back to the clinic to pick Samad and Esma. Hilmy was going to meet them there as well.

Mr. Warteed was leaving the recovery room when they walked in. Behind him, Esma was supporting Samad who was ready to go. He had to keep his hand elevated for another day, but to him, it was a small price to pay compared to the alternative of losing the use of his hand. He was given a bag with pain and antibiotic medications for seven more days; he happily took them. As for the cost of the treatment, the only thing Mr. Warteed’s assistant asked was that they make a donation they could afford. To keep things under the radar, they didn’t officially charge for treatments. They had been surviving on donations from anonymous philanthropists as well as donations from patients who benefited from their services.  Some of these patients continue to make regular donations even long after they’ve recovered.

On their way to drop Samad and Esma off at their hotel, Samad told Hilmy about how Warteed was able to start and operate his laboratory. He had similar beginnings to the one Hilmy was experiencing, except, Warteed was lucky to have been introduced to an MP’s daughter who secretly helped him get his clinic started. She was a young lady who saw through the corruption, incompetence, and dysfunction of the Estoplean government. Instead of fighting it outrightly, she had decided to use her father’s influence as an MP to help pass and facilitate projects similar to the clinic without any of the fanfare that usually accompanied such projects

“And!” Samad yelled, “you will be pleased to know that I got the lady’s phone number right in my pocket, sir!” Samad smiled proudly. Hilmy, sitting in the passenger seat in front of Samad, was so overjoyed that he lifted himself out of his seat, turned around, grabbed Samad’s bald head and started kissing it while telling him that he loved him. Everybody in the car was laughing except Samad whose macho masculine ego was bruised. He, however, tolerated Hilmy’s actions because he understood how much it meant to him.

When they got to the hotel, they dropped Samad and Esma off before heading to Hilmy’s place. Rowdin’s was the last person to get home. She was so exhausted that she made herself a cup of tea before she called her parents. After that, she called Zaki. They spoke for an hour before she retired.  Both calls were not easy for Rowdin, as she struggled to carry on conversations without telling them what had happened.  She did not want them to panic, especially now that Samad is going to be fine.

The next morning’s breakfast was at a nearby diner where she was going to be joined by Samad, Esma, and Hilmy. After all the excitement, they all felt like they’d known Hilmy much longer than they had. What was happening with them, Rowdin thought, was probably the same sense of camaraderie people got when they served in the army together. Even Sattar had become a “comrade” to them after this adventure.

Chapter 13
Chapter 13

Hilmy was the last to arrive at the restaurant. He didn’t usually eat breakfast but wanted to make sure he joined them as he was anxious to hear and discuss how they are going to engage with Nayla, the MP’s daughter Samad had told them about. After a few minutes of chatting about Samad’s condition, the couple’s decision to move in with Rowdin and a few other matters, Samad brought up the proposed solution to Munder’s intrusion.

“Mr. Warteed committed to introducing us to Nayla. Hilmy, he’ll be giving her your name and telling her that you will be in touch with her to discuss your situation. Warteed thinks that she’ll ask her father to talk to Munder’s father and have Munder back off and process your paperwork. You will still have to come up with the standard government listed fees though. They can’t and will not do anything about those fees as they are considered legitimate. This is what I know, but I will wait to hear from Warteed, who sounded encouraged and actually very supportive of your endeavor.” Samad finished.

A few days passed where they waited for Warteed to give them the green light.  For Hilmy it was one of the longest waiting periods he’s experienced, and despite Samad’s positive assurances, his attitude was one of wait and see attitude.  Meanwhile, Rowdin, Samad and Esma had time to check out of their places and move into the old house. Sattar’s mom had sent a housekeeper to stay with them for a few days until they settled in.

When it was time to meet Nayla, Hilmy insisted that Rowdin join him.  Rowdin had proven herself very articulate when it came to selling ideas to important people, as she did during their last presentation.   Hilmy had arranged to meet the MP’s daughter at The Rustique as he did not want to meet her at the university where Munder could find out about the meeting and cause another disruption. When Rowdin arrived at The Rustique, she saw Hilmy talking to a lady in her early 40s. She was elegantly dressed, obviously from a rich background. The young lady was very beautiful with an oval-shaped face and a long neck. Rowdin walked up to the table, greeted them and introduced herself in her broken Estoplean accent. Nayla introduced herself as Dr. Nayla and shook Rowdin’s hand.  In Estople apparently, people addressed doctors with Dr. followed by their first names.   Standing up, Rowdin saw that she was about 1.7 meters or five and a half feet tall.

Nayla started talking immediately when Rowdin sat down. She told them that Munder’s father was a chameleon; he was all but everything he preached in public. She proceeded to tell them about her undergraduate study in Westinia before she pursued her doctorate in Political Science here in Estople. Rowdin immediately felt a sense of connection with her when she heard about her days in Westinia, but she didn’t inquire further and just listened to what she had to say.

While they were discussing the school and how to move it forward, Nayla’s eyes turned to the large TV screen hanging on the wall. She suddenly stopped talking and focused on the TV screen; her hand was raised, a signal that they should stop talking. “Breaking news!” the commentator read, “assailants broke into the MP’s home and assassinated all family members in the house. There were no survivors.” The police statement said that there was no sign of forced entry and no signs of any struggle; the victims appear not to have noticed that there was someone there to harm them. “More to follow,” the teleprompter on the TV displayed. It was Munder’s family that was the victim, but it was not clear if Munder was at the house or not.

Rowdin was stunned and had a panicked look on her face, but Nayla dismissed the news and continued with her discussion. “It is most likely a revenge attack from a rival MP. Look, progress cannot wait for these losers. I am going to help you push your School of Computational Genetics, Hilmy. In a couple of days, the world will forget about these crooked members of our society.” Nayla sipped her coffee. “Let me make some calls. You should hear from my people in a few days after the dust has settled on these idiots. Good riddance and to our country’s prosperity,” she cried, raising her coffee cup in the air as she excused herself.

Rowdin was so stunned by what happened that she did not have the strength to get up and bade Nayla goodbye. She just nodded. Nayla smiled kindly. “Don’t worry, the longer you stay here, the more desensitized you will get to these things. In some months when something like this happens, you will not even think that it is unusual.” She smiled again before she left.  Rowdin could not believe how matter of factly Nayla was to the news.  “A whole household was just massacred and zero feelings expressed by Nayla”.

Hilmy nodded although he was conflicted. On one hand, he was thrilled to meet Nayla. On the other hand, he felt guilty about what had happened to Munder’s family and possibly Munder as well. After a few quiet moments, Rowdin looked at Hilmy and burst into tears. Her phone had started ringing. It was Sattar asking her if she wanted him to come over. Messages had also begun piling in her text inbox. Immediately she dropped Sattar’s call, Zaki called. He was yelling for her to come home. Sattar whispered to Rowdin in Estoplean, “Careful, don’t mention anything about the firefight.” She nodded tearfully.

On the short drive from The Rustique to the house, Rowdin tried hard not to burst into tears. They were approaching the old house when Rowdin noticed three muscled guys hugging Samad near the gate. With their typical Westinian military haircuts and full beards, their demeanor looked more like Westinians than Estopleans. She was about to point them out to Hilmy when her phone rang. Her father was livid when she picked. After yelling at her for staying put in a danger zone, he ordered her, Esma and Samad to go and stay with their uncle.

Sattar dropped Rowdin and Hilmy off and went to park the car. Rowdin had barely made it past the front door when someone jumped on her. It was Lumiah. “I already told Samad and Esma to get ready because you are all coming to stay with us,” she exclaimed as Sattar walked up the steps. Lumiah dragged her inside the house. Esma was sitting on one of the chairs and looking somber. When they entered, Samad stood to greet everyone. Lumiah was also calm as she was used to things like this happening all the time. Seeing how distraught everyone was, she went to the kitchen to prepare some Estoplean coffee. Minutes later, she came out with a large tray laden with coffee, cold water, and cookies.  Surprisingly, everyone drank the coffee— even Esma who did not like it. Hilmy sat in one of the chairs where he calmly smoked a cigarette. No one had seen him smoke before and at this point, no one paid attention to his smoking.

The atmosphere in the room was sorrowful, and they all felt like they were directly connected to the massacre on Munder’s family. About half an hour passed before Lumiah brought up the idea that it was safer if they stayed at a relative’s house. After they spoke, they saw that neither of them wanted to do that. They felt safer staying at the old house. Samad, confidently assured them that things would blow over in a day or two. Lumiah agreed but was still uncomfortable as she would be the one to tell her parents that their Westinian cousins wouldn’t be coming to stay with them. “My mom is going to freak out when I tell her that you guys are not coming. You don’t know how much of a drama queen she is,” she said.

“Do you think that it would be more appropriate if I called and told her, Lumiah? I don’t want to put you in an awkward position.” Rowdin smiled. “Believe me, I know all about Estoplean drama. I grew up with it, too.” Everyone burst into laughter.

“At least we won’t have to worry about Mr. Munder anymore,” Samad said. He was about to continue talking when he saw Rowdin shaking her head furiously. Samad realized, just in time, that he was about to reveal everything to Lumiah. Quick as a lightning bolt, he changed the conversation to how he had heard on the news that Munder was a criminal who was accused of human trafficking. Of course, none of that was true, but he managed to preserve the Munder secret for the time being. Samad needed something to distract them so he grabbed the remote control and turned on the TV. Unfortunately, the assassination story was still on every channel. Without thinking, everyone turned to the TV screen. The room grew quiet when the newscaster read out the names of the deceased. Munder’s name was on it. Esma, who had been quiet, finally commented on the news, “Just like in Westinia, this piece of news was heaven-sent for the TV networks. Every fucking analyst and pundit wants to put in their two cents, as they say in Westinia.”

She was right. The analysis and opinions soon flooded the TV networks. Many theories started to surface about the assassination. There was the part about vigilantes with old grudges, the usual territorial competition, a practical elimination of a potential opponent, disputes over major government contracts, or a secret warning to politicians from a group which had modeled itself after The Anonymous group in Westinia and around the world. There were also rumors of a team of commandos that were spotted leaving the country on a flight to Africa and who might have something to do with the incident.  They were all theories, no one so far could confirm exactly who did it, and probably never will know.

Finally, Samad stood up and asked Lumiah to turn off the TV for a minute. “Why are we all so down?” he said. “My hand is feeling better already. Nayla is going to help Hilmy. Rowdin just inherited this little gem of a house. Cheer up, people! If anything, I should be the one depressed amongst you. We have a School of Computational Genetics to open and you all are sitting around as if you are morning a loved one. There are many young kids eager to learn, and they are waiting for Hilmy and counting on him to give them hope. Hope. Just like the one we had growing up in Westinia. I say we all go to a good Italian restaurant and gorge on some comfort food, so we can get a distraction and start getting more objective and less emotional. Esma and I have a couple of days before we go home, and I will be damned if I’m going to spend them pouting. Sattar, help me out here, man. Go get the car and start calling us that you are waiting for us.” Everyone seemed to force a smile on their face but they seemed to agree with Samad.  Dinner was a very needed distraction for all of them, they barely spoke of the incident and instead spent the evening telling Hilmy and Sattar how they grew up in Westinia.  They also discussed educational systems around the world and how Estople’s education system can be improved.

They all spent the next day at the university where they helped Hilmy. Even Lumiah joined them for a little bit.  Her and Hilmy got along so well that Esma pointed it out to Rowdin. “Look at these two,” she said, “they seem to anticipate each other’s moves as they move the furniture around.”

“Maybe some chemistry will develop between them. Who knows?” replied Rowdin.

As they chatted, Esma told Rowdin that she and Samad were going on the same tour she took. They would leave the day after that. Rowdin felt a knot in her stomach when Esma brought up the topic of going home soon. On the one hand, she was emotionally spent from all the actions that had taken place in the last few days.  She missed home, her family, Zaki, her place, driving her car, and even her job.  On another hand, she felt that she had a couple of missions to accomplish; the first one was to complete the inheritance transfer, which was probably a couple more weeks away. She also felt obligated to help Hilmy get his school up and running. After all, they had been through, she felt a sense of ownership towards the school’s mission, a sense almost similar to what some returning war veterans felt when they left a foreign land in which they were fighting and they continued to miss the place for a long time.

 

 

Chapter 14
Chapter 14

Esma and Samad’s plane was scheduled to leave Estople’s main airport at 3:37 am.  Despite the early hours, Rowdin, Lumiah, and Hilmy insisted on going along to the airport to see them off, and Sattar volunteered to drive them even though it was outside his agreed service hours with Rowdin.

Sattar picked Hilmy and Lumiah up before calling Rowdin to let her know that he and the others were waiting for them outside the house. “Do they need help with their luggage?” he inquired.

“Yes, please,” Rowdin answered. “I don’t want Samad to decide to be a hero again and hurt his hand trying to lift any luggage.” Sattar sent Hilmy and Lumiah to assist with the luggage. He couldn’t leave the car as he was double-parked. On the way to the airport, they all harassed Samad until he agreed to stick with physical therapy. “He does not have a choice,” Esma added. ” I am going to be watching him like a hawk.” She then changed the topic and asked everyone to come to their wedding. She even offered to pay for Hilmy and Lumiah’s airfare and even invited Sattar.

Samad told them that he had created a text messaging group so they could stay in touch. He sent a text to ensure that they all got it. When they confirmed receipt, Samad excused himself for a few minutes. He returned with a two-hour pass to Mid Estople Airlines’ Platinum Frequent Flyer lounge. He had thought it a good investment since he and Esma’s journey—complete with two lay-over—would take twenty-six hours. They hung out for a few minutes before Esma and Samad started to hug, shake hands and kiss everyone goodbye. Lumiah and Rowdin grew tearful as Esma and Samad went through security to the terminal. They watched a while before they walked to where Sattar had parked the car. The commute back home was quiet.

Back at the old house, Rowdin invited everyone in for Estoplean coffee. She was sad but thought that a little warmth might cheer everyone up. It did. Soon, Lumiah, Hilmy, and Sattar were throwing jokes about how Rowdin had quickly adopted Estople’s thick and sweet coffee. Sattar sat in a corner. He was on this phone reading something while Hilmy and Lumiah engaged in an in-depth discussion of the plans for the school. A few minutes later, Rowdin returned with a big tray of coffee, water and egg sandwiches for everyone. They ate, chatted a little, and shared their plans for the week. Lumiah and Hilmy went back to discussing the various topics related to the new school. On the topic of financial aid for the students, Lumiah suggested that Hilmy consider partnering with, creating or modeling the financial aid department of the school after a small organization that she had interacted with when she was trying to get financial aid for her education. She suggested that he name it “STREAMS” for Science, Technology, Research, Engineering, Arts, and Math Education.

Several minutes passed before Sattar got up and announced that he needed to leave. He asked if Hilmy or Lumiah needed a ride home. They took Sattar’s offer. Lumiah was going to be very busy for the next two days. Before she left, she told Rowdin that she’d call her in three days. Hilmy told Rowdin to stay in touch.

As they filed out of the house, Rowdin grew slightly anxious from the thought of suddenly being alone for the next few weeks. Brushing it off, she went back to relax on the couch. There, she began thinking about the rest of her plans. It was 8 pm in Westinia and a good time to call Zaki and her parents. She started with her parents so she could catch them before they went to bed. This time she wasn’t in a hurry. She was homesick so she spoke with her mom for almost an hour. When she was done, her mind was at ease. She called Zaki next. She was careful as she relayed the day’s events to him. As much as she loved and missed him, she didn’t want to give him more information that would have him worrying about her.

Another hour passed after which she concluded her call with him. Every time he brought up his worries about her safety, she successfully redirected the conversation to other topics. One nice thing, however, came out of the call with Zaki. They decided to get married sooner than discussed and agreed to start planning the wedding immediately after she returned home. She wondered if Zaki would ever visit Estople and knew that she would have to convince him that the way the news portrayed her ancestral county was not accurate. After the second call, her spirits were lifted from the gloom of the past two weeks. She felt better already and dozed off.

For the first few seconds when she woke up, she wasn’t sure if she was home in Westinia or Estople. Looking out the window, she couldn’t tell if it was morning or evening. She reached for her phone; the clock there said that it was 5:30 pm. Settling back on the couch, she recalled her dream. She had seen Samad’s men at the door leaving the house, which made her think that Samad could be involved in the assassination of Munder and his family. It was not that she wanted to call him to account for his actions, but she was hoping that what she thought was not the case as she did not want to carry this guilt all her life. She decided to ignore the dream and let go of her suspicion. Everything about the house would be complete in two weeks; after that, she could go her way and forget all that had happened. What should be her priority was her figuring out what she needed to do with the house after she went back to Westinia. That was a conversation she needed to have with her parents, as, for some reason, they never did discuss what they were going to do. Maybe, she thought, she could let Lumiah manage the place. She could even suggest to her parents that they pay Lumiah for doing that. Yes, she decided, she would let them know that Lumiah was a student who would probably appreciate the extra cash.

Soon, her mind drifted to Hilmy’s school: how was he going to run it? Where would he find students? How were these students going to pay for that education? She recalled the gunfight, Samad’s hand, and the assassination. Those events made her feel like she had paid the price of admission to participate in the establishment of Hilmy’s school. Besides, she truly felt that what Hilmy was doing was for a great cause, one she could embrace even after she left Estople. Her mind suddenly went haywire with ways she could help Hilmy’s school. She could certainly contribute her scientific, operational and research skills in any way that can help.

Coming back to reality, she realized that nightfall was coming fast. Wow! Now that I’ve slept all afternoon, I hope that I’ll be able to sleep tonight, she thought. Well, it’s nothing that a sleeping pill can’t fix. In her few years of business travel, she had established an inventory of essentials that accompanied her on her travels at all times. She had thing like cold, headache, antacid medicine, a manual alarm clock, small scotch tape, small sewing kit, coffee and tea packets, electronics charger and a couple of standard cables, and, prescription sleeping pills for those nights when jet lag or anxiety about the next days meeting would not allow her to get a good night’s sleep.

With all the action taking place in the last few days, she hadn’t had a chance to check in on her job back home, so she fired up her laptop and started looking through various status reports from her colleagues, especially the reports directly related to her projects. She scanned her email inbox, saw that things seemed to be going fine at her job. Luckily, she did not need to get involved with anything. Rowdin sent an email to her director and team members to tell them when she would return. Finally, she closed her laptop, went to the kitchen and made herself a quick sandwich. Though she had slept all afternoon, she suddenly felt tired. Rowdin picked up her sleeping pill from the bag and retired to the bedroom.

At 6:30 am the next day, Rowdin used a  rideshare service to order a cab which would take her to The Rustique. She craved some Westinian coffee and hoped to get to the coffee shop early enough to secure a great spot, one where she could sit and reflect on the last couple of weeks before planning her way forward. Grabbing her purse and briefcase, she rushed off. On the way to The Rustique, she sent a text to Sattar not to show up at eight am as usual.  She would call him by ten pm.  Her first order of business was to head to the Department of Property Records.

At the Rustique, Rowdin began thinking of the events of the past few weeks. She felt like she was more invested in Hilmy’s school than she had thought and realized that she had grown disinterested in the sightseeing trips she had marked out for herself while she was in Estople. All she wanted to do was help Hilmy’s school through. On Tuesday, she planned on going to visit Hilmy at the university. Lumiah was going to be busy until Wednesday, so she would spend time with her then.

Rowdin began wondering how she could help. As she plowed through years of experience garnered at her company, she wondered if a type of Student Sponsorship package could help remove financial barriers to the students attending and completing their advanced education. Checking her time, she made up her mind to ask Hilmy if she could assist him after she left Estople; since the world was a global village, she would see if there were jobs that could be done remotely. Rowdin gulped her coffee down and sent another message to Sattar. He was to pick her up at The Rustique.

At the Department of Property Records, Rowdin found around forty people ahead of her at the reception. She turned to leave when the person in front of her said that the line was moving pretty quickly. “It is just the triage line,” he said, so she stayed and waited her turn which did not take long.

“Hello,” Rowdin said, smiling at the woman at the counter, “I’m here to check on a property transfer application status and if there’s any expected transfer completion date that they can give me.”

“No problem. Here’s the form. You need to fill out your name, the property owner’s name, whose name it is being transferred to and, if you have your application tracking number, it will make your life much easier. Complete the form and go give it to the gentleman at window seventeen over there. Looks like it‘s your lucky day; there’s just one person ahead of you over there. Good luck.”

At window seventeen, Rowdin was greeted by a middle-aged man who asked what he could do for her in a very pleasant way. Surprised, she greeted him back and presented him with the completed form.

“Excellent,” he said, “and you’ve filled in all the needed information, which makes your life and mine easier! I’ll be right back.” He returned minutes later. With a kind smile on his face, he addressed Rowdin: “Good news, Ms. Rowdin, it looks like your application is going to be completed by Wednesday.  This means that you can come back on Thursday to pick up the deed and any other paperwork that comes with it.  They might have you sign two or three additional forms.  After that, you’ll be done with our office and won’t see any of us again until you decide to sell or transfer the property. Congratulations, Ms. Rowdin.”

Rowdin had a big smile on her face as she turned to leave. She stood for a few seconds before turning to the gentleman. Reaching into her purse, she grabbed some cash and reached to hand him the notes, but he put his hand up and shook his head: “Thank you, but it is not necessary at this window, ma’am. I know it does not seem believable, but there are still some decent folks left in this town. Well, there are many of us, but you may not notice because the indecent ones make all the noise. I hope that you will still have faith in our town.”

“Thank you very much, sir. You have just made my day with this good news and your attitude.”

As she walked out of the property office, she asked the officer at the information desk if she needed to make an appointment for picking up her deed. “No, it’s not necessary,” the woman replied. “You’d still need to go through the triage line though, but you don’t need to make an appointment. Just come in after ten o’clock on Thursday. When you arrive, please go to that window over there.”

Rowdin was excited and exhilarated with the news that all her stress would be over by Thursday. For the past few weeks, she had felt like she was being held prisoner by the agency. She was happy that she would soon see Zaki and was tempted to call him, Samad and Esma to tell them that she would be home sooner than she had thought, but they would all be asleep over there in Westinia. Instead, she called Hilmy. Lumiah was busy at school and she didn’t want to bother her.

Hello, Hilmy?

“Hey, Rowdin. How’s it going?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I just want to talk to someone. Look, I’m finally going to finish the house’s paperwork on Thursday, and I’m so happy.”

“This is awesome! Hopefully, you’ll be able to go home if you need to and you’re no longer tied by this property. Congratulations, Rowdin.”

“How are things going with you and the school?”

“Oh, we know that the school project will be approved by all required parties. We’re making preparations, and I’m working with a couple of the faculty members and administration folks to put our business plan and curriculum together. It’s very exciting. Thanks for your help when we were presenting. They liked you and were asking after you! Now that you have a house here, maybe you can stay and help get the school going. I guarantee you that they’d love you here.”

“This is great news, Hilmy, and I’m flattered. I know you are sincere about what you are saying, but I have a life in Westinia that is waiting for me. My boyfriend is expecting me back soon so we can get married. You know, I still have a few days here and the best part is that I don’t have the burden of the house on my mind. So you’ve got free labor from me for a week or so. Let me help. Is there anything I can do?”

Hilmy sighed. “It is not as good as having you with us permanently, but we will take any help we can get our hands-on. We will find something for you; I promise. Whether you want to stay a day a week or you decide to stay here permanently, we will find something for you. I know you’ve got a lot to offer, so, I welcome your help.”

“Thank you, Hilmy.”

“This is great news, Rowdin, one that makes me very happy. I will see you tomorrow morning at school. Will that work?”

“By all means, I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”

Rowdin arrived at the university by 10:30 am the next morning. She was greeted by one of the faculty members. “Ms. Rowdin, welcome to Estople University. More importantly, welcome to our team. We appreciate you volunteering your valuable time to contribute to the future of many students. I hope that you don’t mind that we took the liberty to look you up on one of the business networking websites. We are pleased with your background and could use your help.”

It is taking Rowdin a few times getting called Ms. Rowdin instead of using her last name as is the custom in Westinia.  She cheerfully responded. “Thank you, sir, I wish all job interviews were like this.” He smiled and nodded agreeably, then with his left hand, he pointed her to his office. After introducing himself, he told her that Hilmy was finishing up a meeting and would be out shortly. “Can I get you any coffee or tea?” he asked.

“No, thank you. I just had some coffee before coming here.”

“Well, as I stated earlier, we reviewed some of your publicly available credentials along with Hilmy’s input and we’d love to have you help us with a couple of things. But before I present you with our proposal, I’d like to hear your perspective on how you see yourself helping us out.  This way, knowing where you stand I can direct how to best as for your help.”

Rowdin smiled. “I’d like to figure out a way to be able to help while I’m here and then when I return to Westinia, I’d like to try and help from there, but I’m not sure how yet.  For the time being, I’m not too particular about what I do as long as I’m contributing and being helpful to your school.”

“For now, we think we are covered with providing classes for undergraduate students. However, we will need assistance when developing our graduate and post-graduate programs into one that could be widely recognized and would improve our ability to attract industries associated with what we teach. Our long-term vision is that this school will be a repeatable model for us to introduce other types of scientific schools in the country. Where your role comes in is by helping us partner with and identify potential sister schools around the world. Most of Estople’s youth who are motivated and eager to get graduate and postgraduate education cannot go to places like Westinia to complete that education because of the cost of living and prohibitive visa restrictions. If we can offer the same quality education locally, the only expense they’d have to worry about would be tuition and books since they can stay here and live at home with their families. Additionally, if they are educated locally, they can contribute locally when they graduate. Many of the kids that go get their education abroad never come back and I can understand why, but this is our country’s brain drain, which we could minimize if we offer. I am sure you’ve heard of the term brain drain before. Additionally, when we have a pool of educated and motivated men and women, companies would be eager to open shop here where they will not have to look far for talent and innovation. Who knows? Some of these kids might turn out to be our innovators, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and leaders. My point is, when you help, you would be contributing to the next generation’s prosperity in your fatherland. I’m talking about all of our children, grandchildren and beyond our grandchildren. In my opinion, if we keep moving forward with similar schools, Estople would have the potential to become its own Silicon Valley with the most advanced and visionary discoveries. The scientists here will be able to research and innovate while the lawyers would clear the way for them and protect their innovations.”

Rowdin took down notes as the gentleman spoke. Everything he was saying reminded her of Mr. Warteed’s clinic where Samad got his hand treated. Soon, she began envisioning a town with dozens of similar establishments. Rowdin left the meeting with a sense of excitement which by the time she got home had turned into a panic attack. She soon realized that what she was looking at was a serious responsibility and not just Hilmy’s little pet project to support his school.

The next day she told Hilmy that she accepted the responsibility but with it being a larger mission than expected, she wanted to evaluate it thoroughly before committing to everything they were asking her to do. “I still have a full-time job back home,” she told Hilmy.

He agreed with her. “Of course they are going to ask you for the world. This is how people negotiate. Or should I say haggle as we say here in Estople? I would say that you tell them how you will help. Let them know that you will have to try out different things and see which you can deliver.”

 

 

Chapter 15
Chapter 15

In Westinia, Samad had arrived at and settled down in his house. In the two weeks since he began treating his hand, he had grown dedicated to physical therapy, despite his macho mentality. He knew very well that if he didn’t get better, he would never be able to work at his security company and would probably end up as its administrator. The thought of that annoyed him to no end, he was the type of businessman who enjoyed rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, not the type that sits in an office and orders people around.

The day after he returned home, he had visited Zaki. Zaki was still quite worried about Rowdin, and to quell the man’s dramatic antics, Samad had suggested that they call Rowdin. They chatted with her for almost an hour and she assured them that she was okay. Zaki felt much better when Rowdin told him that she was coming home the following week.   Then Zaki asked Samad about his hand and Samad told him that the driver Sattar inadvertently shut the trunk while he had his hand in there, but it was not serious.  Good thing he thought of this story quickly, except now he’ll have to call Rowdin again and warn to corroborate his story if or when Zaki asks her about it.

After that, Samad took Esma along for a visit to Rowdin’s family. The visit ended up as a social one where the family quizzed them about plans for Zaki and Rowdin’s wedding. Samad and Esma were amused, but they kept mum on issues surrounding Rowdin’s life. There was an unwritten”code” amongst the cousins not to divulge information to each others’ parents.

Rowdin still had three weeks to go back to work when she returned home. She decided to only take one week off so she could recover from jet lag before taking some time to truly evaluate how much she could do for Hilmy’s “not so little” pet project. Besides, she knew that it would take some time to stop Zaki from complaining about how she had gotten him worried.

Earlier, she had promised Hilmy and Lumiah that she would stay in touch. She admitted to herself that Lumiah’s developing relationship with Hilmy was a major reason for staying in touch. Plus, there was gossip that she wanted to keep tabs on. Whatever she learned would make for great conversation at The Beer Claw gatherings on Tuesdays.

Rowdin visited The Beer Claw a couple of weeks after she returned from Estople and had gotten her work and life routine back in order. Before she could talk about Lumiah’s romance, Samad and Esma announced their wedding date. This piece of information shrank Lumiah’s story, causing the rest of the conversation to be dominated by questions about the wedding. This went on until Zaki interrupted everyone. Raising his drink in the air, he stood. “Hold on, you all,” he said, “I have an announcement to make, too.” When everyone was quiet and staring at Zaki in anticipation, he got on one knee in front of Rowdin and pulled a ring from a pocket in his jacket. “Rowdin, I can’t wait any longer for the right moment to do this! I’ve been holding back for weeks, and now, I want to ask. Rowdin Belhamany, will you marry me?”

Samad, Esma and a couple of the tables near them were all quiet, waiting for Rowdin’s reaction. They were all staring at Rowdin and heaved a sigh of relief when she screamed and jumped up from her seat. “Sure, Zaki! I will marry you!” The occupants of the bar burst into claps which heightened when the bartender arrived with two complimentary bottles of champagne, one for Esma and Samad and another for Rowdin and Zaki.

Much later, as they walked out of The Beer Claw, Rowdin reminded Zaki that the engagement could not be formalized until he formally asked her mom and dad for her hand in marriage. “My parents are very traditional, and I can only truly accept your proposal after they give us their blessing.”

He nodded.

****

The first mission from Estople arrived in Rowdin’s email two months after she returned to Westinia. During the taxi ride home from work, she had pulled her phone out and started her usual routine of checking her social media accounts and personal email when she saw Hilmy’s email. He sent news about how much progress he had made in getting his Computational Genetics school ready to accept graduate students. The curriculum was ready and good enough to be accepted by the university’s board of directors. He has also been able to secure three dedicated classrooms by negotiating sufficient space at the far end of the university campus. It was not ideal or convenient but it would have to do for now as it was going to be just for graduate students anyway. So far, the more involved component of the school was the research lab, but now, the tough part was securing needed instrumentation. At this part of the email, Hilmy pleaded with Rowdin to help him.

He informed her that he had attached a list of required instruments, along with the required specifications.  When they were to be to exported to Estople, they needed to be listed as “donated and used medical laboratory equipment” to avoid drawing attention. Hilmy wrote: We are hoping that you could help get the funds for the acquisition and shipping of these important instruments. The school has full faith in you. We hope that you will be able to secure them. Our target is to have a grand opening this fall, five months from today. If we can get them then, we’d be able to start offering the laboratory part of the curriculum by winter. Without these instruments, we can teach all we want but we would not be able to produce any Computational Genetics scientists and professionals. In other words, we might as well shut the whole thing down.

By the way, I hope that you will approve of what I am about to tell you next, Rowdin. Lumiah and I started dating officially! She started helping more and more at the school, and we both discovered the chemistry between us. I truly hope that you would not be opposed to it. I know you and Lumiah have become close, and I promise to treat her with my deepest love and respect, especially out of my great respect for you.”

Rowdin could barely finish the letter as she was beside herself with happiness. She and Esma had agreed that Lumiah and Hilmy would make a good couple, and she couldn’t wait to tell Esma about it. As for the job Hilmy laid onto her, she felt the same exciting and anxious sensation that had hit her after her meeting with the faculty member in Estople. At first thought, it gave her a knot in her stomach, one that felt like she was on an overwhelming mission. “I hope that I am not biting more than I can chew,” she wondered. However, she consoled herself with what she had learned from her current job: there were always tough challenges whenever a great product was being developed and launched. Schools were no different. What Hilmy was doing was a wonderful thing for the university and for the Estoplean youth. “Getting the instruments for them is no different from my other challenges at work,” she whispered to herself, ” and I am going to treat it that way. I am a resourceful professional and I will find a way to deliver these instruments to them.”

At home, she grabbed a quick dinner and started re-reading Hilmy’s email on her computer. She perused the list of instruments and took note of their details and manufacturers. She grinned when she recognized the manufacturers of the first two instruments; these manufacturers were the same ones who supplied instruments to the drug research labs at her company. She also recognized the manufacturers of the last two instruments but did not think that her work dealt with them. As she jotted down ideas, she made up her mind to contact the manufacturers’ sales rep tomorrow. She also hoped that the manufacturer for the first two objects had some kind of Corporate Social Responsibility department that she would reach out to. To get the last two pieces of equipment, she would have to reach out to hospitals and clinics. If that didn’t work with them, she would try to get the pharmaceutical sales reps she worked with to search them out.

Rowdin also wondered if crowdfunding would work. She heard about how it usually paid for a patient’s medical bills or how some raised funds had saved a small clinic. With that in mind, she hoped that people would be gracious enough to help out with Hilmy’s project.

Over the next few days, Rowdin began reaching out to the vendors. The first attempt was met with rejection with the most common response being that her requests were not in the year’s budget. Rowdin thanked them graciously, but she was not deterred. She had been taught by her parents that rejections were normal and meant nothing other than to test how serious a person was with whatever they wanted. Rowdin kept trying until she eventually secured a donation for the first two instruments. With that came the agreement that the university would purchase a three-year maintenance agreement from the vendor, which they would have purchased anyway.

Getting the first two instruments boosted her confidence. She was grateful for that, especially as she realized that obtaining the remaining instruments were going to be a much more difficult task. This time, she would even have to secure funding for the instruments.

For the next two instruments, she reached out to sales representatives at her workplace to ask if they could use their network with medical staff at various healthcare organizations to connect her with someone who knew a key person in these organizations’ clinical laboratories. Rowdin hoped that access to these key people might open doors for her to get the last two instruments. On her end, she started calling and emailing contacts whom she thought could commit some funds or refer her to someone who could. She soon felt the same way she did during her college days when she had volunteered as a campaign staffer for one of the politicians running for a government office. Things got easier after that realization and she got help from another colleague who helped her set up a crowdfunding account to “support graduate and postgraduate education in Estople”.

Time was running out and with one month left to the delivery deadline, Rowdin realized that she had only seventy percent of the funding commitment. After a few panic attacks, she decided to continue fighting and ask the manufacturer to help with a long term financing arrangement, which after tough negotiations, she was able to secure.

The instruments were barely delivered on time, but in the end, Rowdin was a favorite to the University of Estople’s School of Computational Genetics. She accomplished it all by working two hours per week every month so she would not be distracted from work. For each set of thanks she got, she realized that she enjoyed the thrill that came with helping Hilmy. She felt great about it and wondered if this was something she could do long term.

****

Rowdin was reading a book when she flew off her couch. She had just realized that Esma and Samad’s wedding was the next week and she’d forgotten to tell Zaki about it. She hoped that he wouldn’t get mad, but she knew that he would be able to make it. Zaki never worked on weekends.

Rowdin settled back down on the couch and tried to get back to her book, but try as she could, a little niggling thought kept tugging at her mind.  Since she returned from Estople, she had felt uneasy every time she thought about Samad.  She was reminded of her suspicions, especially with the assassination of Munder and his family, and she wondered why she couldn’t let that go.  Springing up again, she picked the phone and dialed Zaki’s number.  They exchanged pleasantries, after which she asked if he would be able to attend Samad’s wedding.

“Of course! How could I miss Samad’s wedding? Of course, I will make it, love! Even if I had something to do, I will cancel it. I like Samad a lot. Plus, he’s your cousin and I’m going to be family soon, so I want to be sure that I build a good rapport with your family,” Zaki exclaimed excitedly. He paused before continuing. “Speaking of family, Rowdin, we’ve been engaged for a little over five months. I want to marry you now, my love. Look I can’t wait any longer and it is killing me, Rowdin. I love you more than anything in the world. Let’s set a date and do it soon! Besides, I want to have a good reason to go with you to Estople if or when you go next time. I am not letting you go by yourself.”

“Wow, who’s the emotional one here? I thought I was supposed to be the one.” Rowdin laughed. “Of course I will marry you, Zaki. Let us talk about it when we are together. I’d prefer it if we spoke in person about it, not on the phone.”

“At Samad’s wedding? Oh, that would be perfect! We could announce our date to everyone then!”

“No way, Zaki. We can’t do that to them.”

“What do you mean?” Zaki asked.

“Are you trying to steal their thunder? This is their day, not ours!”

Zaki was quiet. “Hmm, point taken. Anyway, I’m excited to talk about it. I have to get back to work, but I will call you when I finish tonight.”

****

Samad’s wedding took place at Samad’s parents’ house. There, they had a large yard that could accommodate their guests. The white arches and decorations were lovely, and Rowdin could not help thinking that she would like a wedding setup like that. Every time she looked at Samad, the suspicions welled up, but she tried to keep them at bay. She began distracting herself by walking around to chat with people while eating some of the delicious pastries on display. Her fears were almost quelled until she slipped into a conversation with one of the wedding guests and Zaki. The man exclaimed about how much he loved the decorations. Smiling slyly, he noted that he liked the idea of a low key, private wedding.

Of course, Samad has always wanted a low key wedding, Rowdin thought as she struggled not to slip into another bout of suspicion. As she tried explaining to the guest that Samad had always been a private person and that arrangement had nothing to do with saving costs, Rowdin realized that deep down, she was trying to convince herself of Samad’s innocence. “What if I am wrong?” she muttered.

The guest asked if she was talking to him, but she shook her head.

****

After work on Wednesday, they met at Zaki’s place to talk about getting married. Zaki reminded her that it had been a year and a half since she visited Estople, and Rowdin was surprised. With how busy she had been, rallying for Hilmy’s equipment, she had not taken note of how fast time was going.

Zaki calmed her down and told her that he had realized that she was preoccupied so he had started making plans. She thanked him and agreed to accept any plans he had. She was barely done talking before Zaki objected to letting her know that he had begun suspecting that she really did not want to get married. Rowdin chuckled when he finished. “Sweetheart,” she began, “unlike most females, wedding festivities, fanfare, and the-knight-in-shining-armor narrative do not do much for me. I’m a practical and pragmatic girl who prefers lifelong love, stability, and contentment before wealth, fame and pomp. I love you with all my heart Zaki, and I want us to share a lifelong love, stability, and contentment, regardless of whether we have wealth, fame and pomp. Zaki, I want to have a family with you! As for our wedding plans, I am agreeing with whatever you decide because I am sure that I will like them. Again though I’m a woman, I lack most of the romantic creativity that most women have. That’s why I’m trusting your ideas about our wedding.”

She was barely done when Zaki swept her into his arms. He kissed her all over her face as he apologized for ever doubting her. She reciprocated by kissing him before they folded up on the sofa to watch a movie.

****

Rowdin’s second mission arrived in another email from Hilmy. Thankfully, it was nothing as tough as getting instruments. This mission was more about building the reputation of the school abroad, and with Rowdin becoming their unofficial “volunteer ambassador” in Westinia, she got the job.

The school’s faculty instructed her on what to do to accomplish that mission. First, they wanted her to track down universities with schools or departments similar to their Computational Genetics school. When she found such institutions, she was to establish “sister school” relationships, where they exchanged professors, shared knowledge and provided mutual accreditation of each others’ classes, thereby making credit units for the classes transferable to both schools. They presented her with a few other suggested actions, but Rowdin liked the first one best.

Hilmy’s letter also informed her that he and Lumiah had gotten engaged and that their wedding was set for next fall, a few months after Rowdin’s wedding. Rowdin was excited when she responded. She wrote: “WOW! Everyone we know is getting married this year! What is going on? Is marriage at risk of becoming illegal and yet, everyone is rushing to do it?” She accepted the new mission but warned Hilmy that this might take her a little more time to accomplish as her plate was full for the next few months due to wedding preparations. She added that she and Zaki would be attending the wedding and they would schedule their annual leave to fall within that period so that they could spend quality time with him and Lumiah. Ending with the usual email greetings, she sent it off.

Between her job, the mission, and the wedding preparations, Rowdin was highly stressed out and barely managing to keep herself together. Since she started reaching out, only one school had agreed to work with Estople. Rowdin knew that she was not truly focused on the second mission and felt guilty about it. She did not like the idea of disappointing the school faculty in Estople. As important as her wedding and job were to her, deep inside, her mind was obsessed with the success of the School of Computational Genetics. Her and Zaki followed Samad and Esma’s example of a low key wedding; neither she nor Zaki cared for a big expensive wedding, anyway. They took a short honeymoon to the Caribbean as they wanted to save their vacation times for the trip to Estople where they would be attending Lumiah and Hilmy’s wedding. From there, they planned to meet Rowdin’s extended family after which they would spend time at the old house before doing some sightseeing. After the honeymoon, Rowdin moved in with Zaki. His place was located thirty minutes away from her family, and it was large enough for them to start their own family.

As the days flew past, Rowdin realized that although the stress from wedding preparation had passed, she did not feel relieved.  Going to work every day was becoming harder for her, and she had grown tired of her dream job.  Instead, thoughts of her mission on behalf of Estople’s school began consuming her waking hours.

****

Rowdin and Zaki went back to Estople on the same flight Rowdin took when she traveled years ago. For as long as she could stay awake on the long flight, Rowdin tried to spend time chatting with Zaki about some of Estople’s cultural and etiquette basics. Zaki was both anxious and excited to arrive. Rowdin was excited to see Lumiah and Hilmy again, she also looked forward to going into the old house. As she dozed off and on, she also thought of how much she suspected Sanad and her constant struggle of letting the suspicion go away. She wondered why he and Esma did not come to their wedding.  If felt like Samad was maybe trying to avoid her so he doesn’t open himself up to questions about the matter. Also whatever happened to Samad business in Estople? He never spoke about it since they returned from Estople. Oh, Samad, why don’t you leave me be?  She thought

Chapter 16
Chapter 16

In the last two years, her now-retired parents had visited Estople and stayed at the old house several times. Rowdin could see her mother’s signature home organization style as she walked around the house. In the bedroom, she recognized the familiar way her mother tucked the duvets into the bed frame. She smiled when she saw the books decorating the coffee table. Her dad had, of course, laid claim to the “main” chair in the living room. Rowdin knew this because she found a technical book on the coffee table next to the chair. Only her dad could be interested in that kind of literature.

Unlike when she stayed in it the first time, today the house felt like her home; that was a comforting and relaxing feeling for Rowdin who showed Zaki around. Like her, he was just as taken by the old house’s history and uniqueness. They spent the evening wandering around and looking at little knick-knacks that filled the house.

Rowdin loved the way his eyes sparkled when he spied something he liked. She wanted to show him all of Estople and hoped he was game for a short trip to one of her favorite places. She would, of course, want him to meet some of her friends, but she had decided against doing that on their first day as she wanted them to spend some time alone in the old house. In this vein, Lumiah had not been informed of their arrival as she would have arrived to take them out.

Around 5:30 the next morning, Rowdin woke up to find Zaki yawning near her. “Someone is hungry,” she teased. “We could go out to eat something. Well, we have three choices. We could either take Estoplean coffee with a glass of cold water and a cookie or we could get coffee and a sandwich from a street vendor. I could also introduce you to The Rustique where you can feel at home with coffee and snacks.” She smiled. “Notice how there’s coffee with every meal.”

Zaki smiled back. “Let’s go to The Rustique. I can see that this was your plan all along.”

Rowdin chuckled as she picked her phone to order a ride from a ride-hailing service. On their way to The Rustique, Zaki was quiet. Rowdin didn’t say a word either. Instead, she watched as he took in all the scenery that she had told him about before they arrived. She wondered if she should call Sattar and book his services for the next two weeks, but she decided against that. When the cab got to The Rustique, she tapped Zaki’s arm as she alighted from the cab. Pointing, she showed him the tiny building hidden in plain sight.

Zaki’s eyes lit up. “This is almost like the standard local coffee houses we have at home.”

Rowdin nodded as they found a table outside. Zaki stayed outside, watching Estople as it woke. Before him, the streets got busier and car horns honked louder by the minute. A few minutes passed and Rowdin came back with the drinks and snacks. “Why on earth does everyone have to sound their horn constantly?” Zaki asked.

Rowdin laughed. “You will get used to it in and start tuning it out in a couple of days. You will also be seeing other “odd” things in the next few days! Brace yourself, Zaki.”

It was 6:45 am, and Rowdin knew that she should start contacting friends and relatives in the city. She knew that Lumiah would scold her for not letting her pick them up from the airport, but she was still excited to see her cousin. Her uncle would be awake by now so she decided to call him first and work her way to Lumiah.  When she spoke to her uncle, she promised to bring Zaki for introductions but she begged him not to have a party for them.  She didn’t want her uncle and aunt to stress themselves especially as they were getting advanced in age.

Next, she called Lumiah. “Good Morning, cousin!”

“Rowdin?”

Why aren’t you at the Rustique, Lumiah? Zaki and I are here in Estople.  We arrived last night and we’ve been waiting for you since six am.  It sure doesn’t look like you missed your cousin.”

“This is how I know you are a true Estoplean. You are trying to guilt-trip me before I’ve had the chance to guilt trip you for not letting me pick you up from the airport! Why didn’t you tell me so I’d pick up both of you? I’ve been waiting for two years to meet your man and see you again!” Lumiah cried.

“How about you? Sneaking out behind my back and hooking up with your man Hilmy. I had to pry the news out of Hilmy instead of hearing it from you first. How is that for making you feel guilty, Lumiah?” Rowdin replied jokingly.

Lumiah chuckled. “Are you at the old house? I’m skipping class to come to see you.”

“How about we get together in the afternoon, we’re going to go grab some groceries and get a little sleep for a couple of hours. This way you won’t miss your classes either. Win/Win!”

“Shall I come to the house later then? It doesn’t matter as long as I see you. Call me when you guys are awake and ready, I’ll be over in a short time. Gotta run to class. Love you, cousin!”

Rowdin smiled as she looked at Zaki. He was now more relaxed. She knew that his perception of Estople and how it was portrayed in Westinia did not match what he was seeing. The town did not look like a battleground, with everyone around trying to kidnap him because he looked slightly different. No one seemed to even notice him or care. Instead, all he saw was the standard features of an overcrowded city, with the heavy traffic and noise. People’s appearances ranged from super stylish to the ultra-conservative, but most notably, no one seemed to care about these things here as he’s been lead to believe back home.

****

The doorbell had barely finished ringing when Rowdin flew out of the entryway. She opened the door and welcomed Lumiah with the standard hug and multiple kisses on both cheeks. Zaki was sitting in the living room, struggling through a cup of the local thick and sweet coffee and attempting to look like he was enjoying it. When Rowdin introduced him to Lumiah, he got up and extended his hand, but Lumiah proceeded to hug and kiss him as customary. He followed suit. “I could get used to kissing the ladies all day long,” he joked.

“Haha, Zaki,” Rowdin replied.

“Sorry, I’m taken already, Zaki,” Lumiah added. “Besides, no woman holds a candle to Rowdin.”

Rowdin grinned. “Lumiah, why didn’t Hilmy come with you? Now that you two are tied to the hip and inseparable.”

Lumiah nodded. “You heard right, but he’s been a busy boy with the graduate school thing, but things are starting to get easier as the school becomes more organized and integrated into the university. You will not see the old worried Hilmy any more. He is now the master positive attitude projector. You should hear him! You might mistake him for one of those motivational speakers that you see on TED Talk shows these days. Thanks in part to you for helping him kickstart the school, Rowdin. He always tells me how grateful he is to you for helping out even though you had no vested interest in his schools.” Turning to Zaki, she smiled. “Careful Zaki, you might have some competition here in Estople, but don’t worry, in a couple of days he will be mine and I will keep him away from your girl.”

The group burst into laughter.

“What are Esma and Samad up to?” Lumiah asked. “I miss them, but they seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth after they left here two years ago.”

Rowdin shrugged. “Well, you know Samad.  He’s always up to something unusual. Plus, he’s been busy with married life and growing his security company, which is expanding nicely for him.  He and Esma seem to be happy; we still get together occasionally at that bar I’ve told you about, but with everyone now married and busy with life, we don’t meet often anymore, unfortunately.”  She was almost tempted to bring up her suspicion but Zaki was there and he had repeatedly warned her to knock it off and let the matter go as he was tired of hearing about it. Besides, he and Samad had become good friends now and she knew that Zaki was only trying to be a supportive buddy.

Lumiah nodded. “Well, after you left, I continued to volunteer at Hilmy’s school. Thanks to you for inspiring me to do it, Rowdin. And before we knew it, Hilmy and I grew closer and closer. Here we are now, getting married in two days. Don’t expect a big wedding, though. We’re even using the school’s gymnasium, just so things are kept low cost.  Plus, Hilmy’s family is very small and they live up North. Only his mother and father will be at the wedding.”

****

The wedding was a representation of diverse sections of the population. To Zaki, the one thing that struck him was the mix of ultra-liberal to ultra-conservative people from various sects of society. It amazed him that in such a gathering, no one was paying attention to such diversity. What he was seeing was a complete contradiction with the image of intolerance he had grown up hearing about Estople and its neighboring countries. It dawned on him that the only ones who were pushing and inciting intolerance were Westinian politicians and their propaganda media arms. After a couple of local Ouzou drinks, Zaki was feeling pretty relaxed. He left Rowdin to socialize with her extended family and snuck to the other side of the reception where he began chatting with another group of Estopleans whom he did not even know. He seemed to be having a good time and Rowdin enjoyed watching him blend in. She knew that his disposition could be the calming effect from the Ouzou, but regardless, she was happy to see him that way.

After the wedding, Lumiah and Hilmy took a honeymoon trip to one of the mountain resorts located about two hours from the capital.  They had decided to do this as they could not afford an extended honeymoon and both had work and school commitments.

While they were gone, Rowdin and Zaki spent the next few days visiting tourist sites as well as the key historical locations.  They also managed to take a day trip with some tourists herded by a tour operator. Rowdin’s worries about Zaki were proven wrong as he had a great time throughout the trip.  One highlight of the vacation was when Rowdin discovered that she was pregnant.  Zaki was beyond elated.  Just like any new father, he grew overwhelmed with anxiety, worry, and excitement at the same time.

They spent the remainder of their two weeks in Estople sightseeing, relaxing at the old house and hanging out with Lumiah and Hilmy. They called Esma and Samad a few times. During one such call, Rowdin, as a joke, told Samad that some guy called Munder had come asking for him. Zaki looked at her disapprovingly and Samad replied: “That is not funny, Rowdin.” She quickly let the conversation go and continued with less touchy topics like her pregnancy.

“Samad,” Zaki chipped in, “it looks like we are going to beat you and Esma in this department. You are going to have a niece or nephew soon. When are you two going to start a family? I bet that Hilmy and Lumiah are busy working on it, too. You don’t want them to beat you guys too, do you?”

Samad smirked. “Yeah, yeah, yeah! Zaki, you are just trying to show off and score some points with Rowdin. What happened? Did you do something to embarrass her in front of her family?”

Rowdin laughed along with the boys. She loved the way they bonded and interacted. And she suspected that outside his love for her, the friendship was a major reason for Zaki easily adjusting to and accepting many Estoplean ways.

The school faculty invited Rowdin to their weekly meeting where progress reports concerning happenings at the School of Computational Genetics were given. They also addressed current topics and the future of the school.

Rowdin learned that the school had progressed well. The team seemed to be well organized and focused, with many quality controls established as part of the school operation. The core principles of the school were to establish it as a model for other advanced higher education establishments that over time would contribute to creating new industries while promoting scientific and professional “high tech” investments in the country. However, their most important objective was to ensure that the school’s operations would forever be free of corruption. And that, according to everyone she spoke with at the dinner, was the toughest battle they were fighting. In the two years since the school started, more than thirty students had enrolled and were well on their way to becoming doctoral candidates. Another thing that was mentioned during the meeting was that all students came from middle-class families who could afford the program and that students from lower-income families were being left out. The topic of student financial aid and sponsorship was a major topic during the meeting. They wanted to be sure that they would be able to become an inclusive school, affordable to people from all social classes. They realized that they were not there yet, but if they did not make that happen soon, they might not survive. The school program, on the other hand, was in constant evolution. In a couple of years, they hoped to become a stable and inclusive school, one that would open the way to other schools from other disciplines to be established. The meeting ended on that note, and as a show of thanks to Rowdin’s contributions, the meeting ended with a light dinner hosted in her name.

****

Zaki was not invited to the meeting and had no interest in attending anyway. He planned to stay at home to catch up on personal business and work, but halfway through that, he grew bored. Zaki decided to test his Estople navigation skills and called the ride service for a cab to The Rustique. To him, it seemed like a safe area, one where he could explore the surroundings while waiting for Rowdin to join him when she was done with the meeting. He sent her a text message with his plans.

Zaki bagged himself a spot outside The Rustique, he did not care much for the inside of it as it was very similar to the coffee houses in Westinia.  Sitting outside gave him a more realistic feel for the town. Looking around, he noticed that it was in one of those three or four-block promenade type areas with various shops and restaurants and one movie theatre which, surprisingly, was showing the latest movies currently playing in Westinia. Again, Zaki noticed how easily the religious, cultural and social class mix blended.

When Rowdin joined him later, Zaki inquired about the strangeness of the social mix and the reason it was portrayed so negatively in Westinia. Rowdin explained her views which she cautioned might be non-conventional. She told Zaki about how in 1492, a geographical zone was conquered by Western and Spanish forces. This conquered zone contained many generations of highly intellectual social and religious people, but the conquerors decided that this group in the East should never be allowed to prosper or have the ability to supply the world with enlightenment outside the scope of Spanish and religious thought. They did not want to allow philosophical, scientific and social enlightenment to interfere with and deprive them and specifically the church of their power to dictate and control what was morally, religiously and rationally acceptable from the enlightened community. They went on a sustained decades-long campaign to destroy any existence of the previous civilization by burning their books and tearing down many of their intellectual and religious structures. On the other hand, the nations of the east did not help themselves either as they had become complacent and abandoned their quest for perpetual enlightenment. Instead, they had chosen to adopt the morals of corruption, and incursions, raids and destructive conspiracies, thereby taking themselves back several hundred years. Zaki said that he understood.

Before they went home to Westinia, Rowdin attended another meeting at the school. Because of her contributions and her agreement to continue helping with various tasks, she was made a formal volunteer and was handed several mission objectives for her to evaluate and decide how she could help. For the time being, she was to resume work on “Mission No. 2” which she had started on in the past. She pledged that she would try her hardest to expand the visibility of the school through partnerships, professional exchanges and school credit transferability with other universities.

On the flight home, Zaki expressed how happy he was to have visited Estople. Rowdin was elated to hear this. She kissed Zaki, congratulated him for blending in well with her family and friends. Rowdin was grateful to him for being supportive during the visit. Although she was eager to go home, she was sad about leaving Estople. She was not sure when she would have the opportunity to come back again, but she knew that whatever chance she got, she would take it. As the plane descended in Westinia, Rowdin’s mind flooded once more with thoughts of how she could ensure the school’s success.

 

 

Chapter 17
Chapter 17

Six months into her pregnancy, Rowdin developed complications from being stressed out. She immediately opted for her maternity leave so that she could take better care of herself and her baby. Additionally, she and Zaki decided that after she had the baby, she would work part-time so that she could take good care of the child. Her parents also committed to helping as well.

It was a healthy baby girl whom they named Alya. They had planned to name her Roweida which was Rowdin birth name before she adopted her Westinian name Rowdin, but at the last minute, they had decided against it. Rowdin had gotten her present name during her high school graduation ceremony when the speaker announcing the graduating students’ names mispronounced her name as Rowda. She could not remember exactly how the name evolved into Rowdin, but she kept it. Now, many years later, even her parents call her Rowdin.

As Rowdin’s resumption date approached, she realized that she dreaded returning to work.  And just like any other mother, she was struggling with having to leave Alya alone.  She’d read somewhere that was a common and appropriate struggle which most working mothers experienced in varying degrees.  But for Rowdin, her need to stay away from work was not solely about the baby.  She wanted to attend to her mission at the graduate school. For the past few months, that had become the central thought in her mind.

When she presented the idea to Zaki, they debated for many days how her new stance to be a stay at home mom would affect their finances. It was only possible if they curbed their expenses. They were a couple who preferred eating out and buying things on a whim, but Rowdin’s decision caused them to re-evaluate their spending and several other habits if they were to be able to move forward with the “stay at home” idea.

Rowdin soon began experimenting with some cooking of her own. With the help of shows on TV, the internet, and her mom, she began to get a hang of cooking. Between helping with Alya and numerous cooking sessions, mother and daughter soon developed a close relationship, which wasn’t there before. When Rowdin was a teenager, she and her mother rarely saw eye to eye. The tension had eased when she started working, but then, she barely had time to visit. Now, with the circumstances cropping up, they could be found laughing heartily and joking around the house.  Alya’s addition to the family was the best thing for their relationship, Rowdin began seeing her mom as her mentor and confidante and not just with the child-rearing.

With the job out of the way and Alya growing more manageable by the day, Rowdin had a little more time to think about herself and her mission. She began taking stock of her actions and accomplishments for the school in Estople.  She realized that outside the single partnership she had initiated months earlier, she still had not done much to help Hilmy. Whenever she spoke to him and Lumiah, their conversations about school never went past generic superficial talk. She began feeling sad as she realized that she had practically abandoned her friend Hilmy and cousin Lumiah.

With her mood dipping seriously, she decided to ask her mother if she could help babysit Alya for an extra two hours. Rowdin planned to use the extra time to get back to helping the school. At first, her mom suggested that her time would be better spent on her home and family, but when Rowdin insisted that times were a little different now and that she needed some activity to help her feel like a contributing member of society, her mom reluctantly agreed to help babysit Alya.  Rowdin was elated, but she did not dwell on that lone victory as she knew that she would also have to sell the idea to Zaki. Knowing her husband, she did not think it would be an issue as he had always been open to more involvement with her family, especially since the few family members he had, lived far away on the other coast of Westinia and he was not close to them.

She decided that she would tell him that helping out the school in Estople would help her stay engaged and in touch with her family in Estople and give her a daily sense of purpose. Armed with this, she was almost sure that he would not object. Rowdin wanted to ensure that she would have the support of everyone for this venture because she knew that she needed them for the long haul and not just a few days.

With everyone’s blessing secured, she began planning how to help the school. She stopped herself from calling Lumiah and Hilmy to tell them that she was ready to get to work and focused instead of making strategic and long-term plans that could help accomplish the mission. She no longer wanted to be an honorary volunteer at the School of Computational Genetics, instead, she wanted to be a Changemaker. This was a term she learned at an office team-building retreat where they brought in a business celebrity or motivational speaker to discuss various topics. Rowdin’s understood that a changemaker was anyone who plants the seeds for change. She also learned that change did not happen overnight and that though ideas may come from one person, they are not solely implemented by that one person. It was the culmination of positive ideas and a purpose that turned those ideas into a cause that could be spread by other individuals with similar mindsets. A changemaker is a visionary who can help others understand the benefits of their vision well enough that they would agree to collaborate and pursue it themselves.

Based on that understanding, she set out to put together her vision for an educational foundation whose general objective would be to promote graduate and post-graduate education in the sciences, technology, math, art, engineering and other advanced professions to students in Estople.

Days went by during which Rowdin was clueless about what to do. She spent her mom’s breaks brainstorming and planning for her foundation, and as the weeks passed, she accumulated a huge amount of ideas that began overwhelming her, especially as there was no action happening.  Rowdin soon grew impatient because it seemed like there was no progress.  She needed some small wins to stay motivated.  She began putting together a list of some short-term goals she could easily accomplish to feel a sense of progress as she planned her long term view.  It took some time to sort through things, but she was soon back on track.

Her first plan was to start a targeted crowdfunding campaign which could provide one grant to a single Ph.D. candidate from Estople.  Rowdin saw this as a test which if successful, could be repeated.  The crowdfunding was the easy part of the process.  Identifying and tracking students for the duration of their sponsored education was the trickier part.  As she researched her idea, she discovered that there were a couple of organizations in Estople whose purpose was to provide financial aid to college-bound students from all levels of education and disciplines, the one she felt could help her identify and track student candidates was called Leapers. Since her crowd-funded grant would be dedicated to a qualifying Ph.D. student, she figured that this would not be a very difficult task and then she would be able to partner with “Leapers” to track students’ progress and commitment to their post-graduate program.

She picked a deadline before deciding on the amount needed, it turned out the funds needed were not as great as is the norm in Westinia.  The student candidates in Estople, generally lived with their families and their largest expense would be the school tuition, fees, supplies, and books.  Crowdfunding turned out to easier than she had thought.  She enlisted the help of Lumiah and Hilmy in order to establish a partnership with the Leapers organization.  Through them, she was able to identify one of the Ph.D. candidates who met her foundation’s principles.  He wanted a postgraduate education in Applied Mathematics, and they could help with that.  The award was transparently publicized to encourage more crowdfunding campaigns.  Additionally, and in order to ensure even more transparency, they convinced the student to make their graduate program progress publicly available to the donors.

Helping one student at a time was not problematic, Rowdin’s second goal was tougher. She wanted to figure out a way to have the capacity to expand her financial aid on a much broader scale if her program is to make any dent in Estople.  So we went on to identify several business owners and executives in Westinia who could sponsor students on a long term commitment.  At first, she thought to enlist the help of her cousins, but she decided to hold off calling in such favor for later. Besides, she did not want them to start avoiding her for fear that she’d start asking them to help her foundation grow and have them suspect her of running some pyramid scheme. She figured that it would be better to keep friendship and business separate for now. Rowdin chose instead to used her business and social contacts to locate sponsors. She had a website that she had originally started as a personal blog. Turning to that, she began using that website to advertise the need for volunteer executives to help support higher education. Her social media handles were also used to direct inquiries to her advertisements and calls to action. Rowdin‘s ad mentioned that the executives would be co-sponsoring a student while the financial aid organization in Estople would handle the student identification, qualification, and award as well as the management and monitoring of the receiving student. She reckoned that having several sponsors for one student would minimize the risk of disrupting the sponsorship if one of the sponsors decided to withdraw. Meanwhile, even after finding sponsors, she resolved to continue recruiting sponsors who would either be able to sponsor another student or be a backup when an existing sponsor backed out.

A year passed during which she was able to sponsor a few students. That was enough to keep her going, but, her main goal was to figure out how to continue helping students while setting up a process that was self-sustaining and could support a long-term operation. Now that she had a working system for her mini-wins, it was time to go back to her original idea and pursue the establishment of the actual scalable foundation.

Things soon ground to a halt when Rowdin found that she was pregnant again.  With a new baby on the way and barely enough time to handle all her activities, she began wondering if it was time to give up her foundation and focus on raising her children. Was her mother right when she asked her to stay home and focus on her own family? Rowdin knew that she didn’t want to do that.  The argument took center stage in her mind until, during one of her regular phone calls with Lumiah, she told Lumiah what was bothering her. “It is not always black and white, Rowdin. Just relax,” Lumiah said. “Have your baby first and wait a few months until you get your bearings. After that, you can re-evaluate if you’ll be able to do this or not.  Though it is your passion to help Estople’s students is it not your responsibility alone. With you not working, you will always need a break from your “stay at home” routine. Unlike our mothers, we’re a different generation, and in this day and age, we have to have our own identities outside of the home. So, don’t give up so easily. You will know when it is time to get back into things.  Besides, if you are not well centered and are constantly worried about your personal matters, you would not be much good to anyone else.”

Chapter 18
Chapter 18

It is Alya’s first day at Kindergarten, and Rowdin was already very anxious as she dropped her off. She had never left her daughter with strangers. Alya’s brother, Nuri, was hanging on one arm as she hands Alya’s backpack to the teacher with the other. Rowdin lingered until the teachers began assuring her that they would be sure to take care of her daughter.

At home, Rowdin slowly began to realize that she was less busy. Being around two kids for twenty-four hours a day had kept her occupied all the time, despite her mom’s help.  As the hours slipped by and her anxiety waned, she began to realize how much she had missed her ‘Me time’.  Zaki had been working long hours trying to move up the ladder at his job; recently, they haven’t had much time together either.  But with Alya in kindergarten and mom agreeing to help with Nuri a couple of hours a day, Rowdin realized that she could finally spend some time with her husband.  It was a nice relief for her.  With little free time, she started reconnecting with Esma, Samad, Lumiah and some of her other acquaintances.  Over the next few weeks, she started feeling like the old Rowdin who had endless energy and liked to work on tasks that stimulated her brain was starting to wake up.  The “foundation” and her need to contribute started cropping up in her head.  Being a stay-at-home mom was good for her and her family but not enough to satisfy her need to be productive.

Over the next few weeks, she started digging up her old notes related to the foundation. Slowly, her dream of becoming a changemaker became an obsession again. Hilmy, meanwhile, had solidified the “school’s” relationship with one of the high hyperspectral imaging and nucleic acid diagnostics companies.  The company had even begun setting up a research and development branch in Estople.  They decided that at first, they would bring in their own scientists first but would eventually begin recruiting newly qualified ones graduating from Hilmy’s school.  Additionally, the company and the school agreed that any products developed locally and as a result of the branch’s R&D would be branded and marketed through the company’s global reach as an Estople-developed product. The company also agreed to offer students who were taking educational loans and post-doctoral fellowship incentives to come work with them. In turn, each month, the companies would pay additional amounts to help them pay their loans down, a model widely used in Westinia. That was all Rowdin needed to hear to reignite her passion for the foundation.

“If I can help in the expansion of Estople’s ability to continuously supply scientists, mathematicians, and professionals, they would, in turn, be able to replicate the School of Computational Genetics model many times over. Imagine how such a phenomenon could change Estople for the better. This time I am not going to do this alone. I will start recruiting a few volunteer executives whom I would ask to dedicate a couple of hours a week to the foundation. I will need one volunteer each for accounting and finance, fundraising, operations, legal, sales, scientific and tech visionary, sales and marketing roles. It would be a formal non-profit organization with a charter, bylaws, business plans and all the other formalities that would make it into a well-run, solid organization. But before any of this, I need to come up with a clear mission statement that I can declare to any potential volunteers and sponsor.”

Her first try at the mission statement read: “An educational foundation whose general objective is to promote graduate, post-graduate and professional education in science, technology, math, art, engineering, law and other higher professions to students in Estople.”  Of course, she understood that just having the statement did not automatically convince people of an idea.  She needed something to sell them on the idea first to get their attention, a sales pitch.

She began cold calling executives whose names appeared to be from Estoplean backgrounds. That, she combined with social media broadcasts and ads through her blog. She also reached out to her network of friends, and colleagues. As the weeks flew past, she began convincing and was able to get the executives and volunteers she needed on board. The effort was exhausting and frustrating, especially as it took eight months to get the team together; interestingly, they were all women. It was interesting that in this overwhelmingly patriarchal world, she was only able to get women volunteers on her team. That went a long way in showing that maybe the illusion of society being patriarchal was an illusion. All the ladies had worked in industries and, to various degrees, worked as activists in social and women-based empowerment driven groups and organizations. They already had the passion to play an active part in making their world a better place, therefore it was easy to get them on board.

These volunteers were scattered across Westinia so they held their meetings via web and teleconferencing. Their skills did not all match the specific roles they would be playing, but they were all professionals and had enough enthusiasm about the work that it was good enough for Rowdin. One of them had participated in activism associated with social improvements in the areas around Estople, so what Rowdin pitched was not new to her. The addition of the professional ladies gave Rowdin a nice boost of confidence and hope.  She was younger than them and had the drive to take the foundation further, and they had the experience and wisdom to get her through the journey.

Instead of the few hours a week she was able to dedicate to her vision, she now had an additional ten hours committed by the new partners; she did not have to do everything herself anymore.  As she did not want to be their leader for too long, she hoped that initial meetings would focus on ironing out each others’ understanding of Rowdin’s vision until they could come up with and agree on the entire vision.  The second phase would be for each of them to agree on what role they thought would be the best fit for them. Lastly, they would develop an implementation plan and divide the work according to the agreed-upon roles.  The most important and unspoken role for her was to ensure that all five of them were driving towards the same goal of providing higher education opportunities to young students from Estople and its surrounding areas.

Rowdin enlisted Hilmy as well as the local Estoplean student financial aid organization she had learned about to help her and her colleagues identify and assist potential student candidates.

They had a chaotic start in the beginning but within a year of each member was contributing their time and some also contributing their own funds, they were able to establish a legal non-profit entity.  As they began to develop relationships with various donors and sponsoring students, they needed to expand their staff to accommodate the administrative workload that came with managing student sponsorship programs.  It was also time to begin the campaign for crowdfunding the organization itself.  They used various social venues to increase awareness of what they were doing and to ask for donations. Asking potential donors to help fund an organization was much more difficult than sponsoring a specific student, so they ensured that their financial records were clear and transparent. Precautions and checks were put in place to prevent any incentive for corruption and greed as wherever money flowed greed and corruption would always attempt to creep in.

Another year passed, and it was just as chaotic as the first one.  The six women remained committed and continued to recruit management and administrative volunteers as well as some paid employees.  Their sponsorship pool began expanding from individual donors to grants and scholarship support from philanthropic organizations, Westinian colleges, and universities, research and development arms of various scientific, pharmaceutical, chemical, and energy companies.  All parties contributed to a consistent flow of support to several students seeking advanced graduate and postgraduate education in fields from science, math, engineering, technology, the arts, and other high-level professions.  One of the by-laws of Rowdin’s educational foundation was that every student who successfully graduated with the help of the foundation would commit to sponsoring other students with resources like coaching, mentoring, personal time and funding.  This was not a legally binding commitment but more of a moral duty instilled upon them by the ones who sponsored and mentored them in achieving their educational goals.

Meanwhile, back in Estople, Hilmy’s model of the School of Computational Genetics partnership with scientific organizations was being replicated in other universities in Estople and the neighboring countries.  Every one of these new schools experienced varying degrees of the same barriers Hilmy had experienced when he was launching his first school; however, more Mr. Warteeds and Ms. Naylas were being identified to help smooth the way for the expansions. Most of the “Munder” style barriers were slowly disappearing as fewer and fewer people cooperated with them.  On the other hand, with every new school launch, the lessons learned from the previous launches were applied. And with coordination from local financial aid organization and assistance from the foundation that Rowdin had started, slow but consistent progress was being made. Outside the launch of new schools in Estople and surrounding regions, more locally started research and development laboratories from all disciplines were popping up. Now, a branch of Rowdin’s organization was being established in Estople as a pilot for future additional branches. Rowdin preferred to call these branches Chapters.

The chapters operated independently, with only visionary and advisory oversight from the original foundation. The independent operation was intentional; each chapter had the same vision or mission as the original foundation, but, depending on the chapter’s needs and location and conditions on the ground, their methods of operation could differ to suit the cultural and financial environment they operated in.

Though it had only been a few short years and the various schools were beginning to graduate highly educated professionals, the positive impact that would be expected from them had not started to translate visibly in the everyday lives of the people in Estople. The graduates were still a minority and needed a few more years before their efforts would come to fruition. Gradually and slowly some of the graduates were well on their way to prosperous careers and personal lives. As the regimes in Estople and other surrounding countries were busy trying to figure out how to stay relevant by continuing to spread the same old suppression, fear-mongering and mistrust techniques as before, a parallel world was being established quietly, practically under the radar and away from eyes of the regime’s old-timers.

Over the years, the foundation evolved from sponsoring students to offering various services such as career mentoring, study abroad services, regional student exchange programs, as well as targeted, region-specific scientific research.  With the student exchange, unlike the past where students did all they could to never come back to Estople after graduating from studying abroad, the majority are now happily returning home.  They are returning because they are beginning to see the potential for prosperity in their own homes.  They, in turn, contributed their learned knowledge and expertise to their native lands while repeating received mentorship and sponsorship cycles with other upcoming students.  Soon, the foundation had enough volunteers to that they could designate some of them as student coaches, mentors and progress monitors for each student they sponsored.  One of the mentors and coaches’ most important job was to ensure that they instilled the same morals and duties of helping other students after they graduate.

Their children were growing and Zaki began spending more time with Rowdin as he’s reached a point in his career where he no longer needed to struggle up the corporate ladders.  One evening as he and Rowdin were in the kitchen preparing some snacks, Rowdin overheard the word ‘Estople’ on the TV news in the other room.  The mention was a rare occurrence as Estople was a tiny country that was only relevant because it bordered the south of a western allied country. Her attention immediately turned to the TV screen, and after watching for a couple of minutes.  A squadron of fighter jets from Iridia had been on their way to attack some typically made-up target in Estople when inexplicably, they turned around and bombed an industrial target in Iridia instead.  No other details were offered and many attributed to a possible technical error in the fighter planes’ navigation systems.  A few weeks later, Rowdin found out that the incident had been the work of a unit of the Estople’s Civil Defense Group. The group, in collaboration with the Estoplean government, had developed jamming and interference technology that sent signals to the pilots of the attacking squadron of stealth fighter jets to target their own country. This revelation raised alarms all over the western world. In Westinia, the news was framed as a terror attack by some made-up terror group; a popular propaganda analyst portrayed the failure on the pilot’s part as a technical error again. However, and very quickly, despite the great damage and loss of life at the industrial complex in Iridia, the story was smothered to minimize panic amongst Iridia’s population. The Iridian government was not ready for the news to spread that they no longer possessed their air superiority and would not be able to rule the skies with impunity any longer.   The story died very quickly, but on the other hand, the daily incursions into Estople’s air space stopped.  Only the people of Estople noticed the end of daily incursions and indiscriminate bombings, as this type of news is suppressed in Westinia and Iridia’s allied nations.

 

 

Chapter 19
Chapter 19

Several years had passed since the foundation started. Rowdin and most of her original volunteers had become board members.  More importantly, they were no longer its administrators but its guiding lights.  Their job was to ensure that it continued to stick to its mission and objectives, and that is of graduating a continuous and increasing number of professionals from Estople and its surrounding countries while requiring a promise or commitment from them to do the same onto other students.  The foundation continued to grow its volunteer corps and expand its independently run foundation chapters across Westinia and around the world.

Rowdin’s parents had retired and begun visiting Estople a couple of times a year. Every time they went, they stayed a couple of months on every trip. Alya and Nuri are now almost teenagers.  With Rowdin busy with her work at the organization and Zaki busy with his career, they could not take extended vacations for more than a week or two at a time. Their children had hopped on a few vacations to Estople with their grandparents, giving them a broader perspective on Estople’s culture and helping them stay connected with their extended family there.

Rowdin missed the country and had been yearning to go herself.  She missed Lumiah and Hilmy; she missed the busy streets of Estople.  “Would The Rustique still be there?” she wondered. She wanted to see how Hilmy’s school had evolved, and she was growing increasingly nostalgic about Estople.  Every time she drove by an old “brownstone” style house, she remembers the one in Estople.  It brought back memories of the smell of Estoplean coffee mixed with cardamom while waking up to the sound of blaring car horns.

Rowdin kept pining for Estople until one day, she told Zaki about her desires.  He smiled, asked if she wanted to visit it in two weeks, during the Christmas break.  Rowdin screamed with joy and agreed.  When she asked what would happen to his job, Zaki reminded her of his annual leave.  He had not taken it in three years and this time, he could roll everything into one.

It had been fifteen years since she last landed at the airport in Estople, but unlike fifteen years ago when the airport looked neglected, this time, it was a bustling airport with a modernized look and redesigned passenger flow.  The immigration booths were well-staffed and allowed for fast and smooth passage through customs lines. Gone were obvious and disrespectful undercover security personnel.  The security team was still there but they had been replaced with staff that acted like courtesy greeters, nicely dressed and gently asking how their flight was, welcoming them to Estople and tactfully asking typical security questions about their trip to Estople without sounding intrusive.  Even Zaki noticed and mentioned the difference.

The kids seemed oblivious to Rowdin and Zaki’s surprise as they had been to Estople many times and were used to the changes and they really never experience the previous conditions anyway.  Teenage Alya was not thrilled to have to travel with her parents. Like most teenagers, she was already acting up by throwing tantrums about everything around her. She complained about the crowds, the weather, the culture, the traffic, being away from her friends and not knowing anyone here.  Before they left, Rowdin had vented to her parents about Alya’s protests which started after they told the kids about the trip. Her parents had advised her to visit one of their relatives who had a daughter that was Alya’s age, one whom she got along with nicely on their previous visits. Rowdin had resolved to try their suggestion immediately after they got to Estople.

The taxi ride from the airport to the house seemed shorter than the last time. Something was slightly different about the streets and the traffic.  Rowdin noticed that many streets now bore signs saying “Pedestrian and bicycle traffic only”.  Their taxi passed a parcel of land that she remembered as being an abandoned field where she sometimes saw kids playing football on the dirt ground using makeshift goalposts.  The field has been converted to a park with shade trees, picnic benches, barbecue pits and well-maintained restroom facilities on one side.  The other end of the field turned into a combination basketball/football field.  The field was fenced in to keep the balls from landing on park visitors or passing cars in the street.

When they arrived at the old house, Alya and Nuri already knew where they were sleeping as Rowdin’s grandparents had set up a permanent space for them upstairs. They put their luggage away and came back to the living room. There was no need to set up electrical, water, gas or internet service. Everything would now be taken care of with the flip of the main power switch in the back of the house. The taxi driver also informed Rowdin that the days of electricity rationing had ended five years earlier. Most of the new twenty-four-hour electricity service is usually supplied via non-fossil energy production was now the norm.

Rowdin and Zaki discussed some of the activities that they had planned. Most of them would take place after they had taken the kids to spend time with the cousins they had gotten to know on previous visits. They planned a few sightseeing trips, as well as family visits. One such visit included a trip to meet Lumiah, Hilmy and their children. While the kids were away, Rowdin also planned to visit Hilmy at the school and meet with the other staff.

When Rowdin arrived at the School of Computational Genetics, the secretary informed her that Hilmy was waiting for her, he called Hilmy to let him know that Rowdin was here. When Hilmy emerged, they both yelled excitedly when they saw each other. Hilmy hugged her and asked her to follow him as they walked down a long corridor. Rowdin was amazed at the change which had taken place in the years she had left.

Fifteen years ago, there was no school office or secretaries. The skeleton staff had consisted of Hilmy and a couple of other faculty members. Now, walking down the hallway, she walked by several office doors. One said Philanthropy, another Outreach,  other offices held the names and positions of various professors. Rowdin chuckled when they passed a door that read: Dean’s Office. She looked at Hilmy with a smirk and said: “What! You’re not the dean after all the work you put in?”

“I never did want the position and would have done a terrible job doing it anyway. I prefer to teach as well as enjoy the hustle and bustle of dealing with our partner companies and schools. That, to me, is where the fun is and where I feel like I’m making a difference.”

They spent two hours catching up in his office. Much later, Hilmy called Lumiah to inform her that they were coming over.  She was beyond elated when she heard Rowdin’s voice.

As they drove through town in Hilmy’s minivan, Rowdin noticed several big-name global manufacturers, pharmaceutical and technology company signs and logos.  Hilmy could tell that she was wondering about what she was witnessing. None of this was here the last time she was in Estople.  He explained how after she had helped them establish relationships with the companies where she had gotten them the instruments, they learned to develop partnerships with other companies and get them to establish a presence in town.  Things had grown from there.  It was surprising how helpers similar to Mr. Warteed and Ms. Nayla began crawling out of the woodwork to push for the set up of other schools and institutions of higher education.

Hilmy was quiet through lunch. He chose, instead, to let his wife and Rowdin catch up. They stayed out for hours before dropping Rowdin off at the old house. The three of them agreed that Rowdin would bring her family over for dinner later that evening. Rowdin declined at first because she had forgotten that in Estople, people ate dinners late in the evening. Having to work the next day did not prevent them from staying up late the night before either. She later consented as she did not have to get up early the next day.

Rowdin and her family spent the next few days visiting with relatives and taking the sightseeing day trips. Alya connected back with her cousins and stopped complaining as she hung out with them for most of the days.

The tours were fun, more entertaining and luxurious compared to when they went on their previous visit. Tourism was returning to Estople, especially to the beaches and mountain resorts. This time, they were not the primary source of revenue for the country. They mostly served as attractions for Estople’s citizens as well as for tourists and professionals visiting on scientific, art, and technological conventions taking place year-round. Estople used to be a tourist-based country from which most revenues came.  In the past, tourists in from neighboring oil-rich countries.  Now it continued to cater to them as well as to global entrepreneurs, industry leaders, innovators, visionaries and artists from most modern industries in the world.

When traveling through the country, Rowdin saw that small-scale research and development labs covering a wide variety of scientific sectors were scattered everywhere, clustered in Estople. Some of them sat in fancy buildings while others situated in older repurposed commercial buildings.  They were all over Estople and not just in the capital.

Later one evening, Lumiah, Hilmy, Rowdin, and Zaki gathered at The Rustique coffeehouse.   It had remained the same over the years. As they chatted, Rowdin inquired about what happened to all the old warlord families that used to rule the country.  Lumiah replied, ”  They are still around but most are no longer involved in politics.  Now they’re just on tabloids and TV shows as entertainment gossip topics.  Some of their younger children who became more educated have left the old post-civil war style politics and embraced the path of peace, education, and innovation instead.  True, the warlords were never called to account for their corruption, the people of Estople opted for the peaceful transition.  What you see now is mostly young members of parliament who come from truly professional backgrounds. You might have heard about how they replaced the president’s office with an executive branch comprised of representatives from the various sectors of the population, with a rotating but powerless and symbolic presidency. The seats of government are no longer dedicated to specific sectors, and, with the strict term limits, a career in politics is no longer a guaranteed lifetime job for the politician and his family. Today a politician can hold office for only one term and if they want to run for a second term, they’d have to skip at least one term before running for election again. Plus, they are only allowed two terms in their lifetime. Gone are the feudal style laws. We are a long way from turning into a highly modernized nation, but the general sense of the population is one of optimism, pride and a commitment never to go back to the sectarian style of living or to allow outsiders to influence or dictate how they lived. The best part was that this change took place gradually and peacefully without any of the old-style sectarian firefights. And on the issue of border security, ever since the incident where the enemy fighter jets bombed their own target, Iridia’s intimidations have magically ceased.”

“In fact,” Hilmy said, adding to Lumiah’s statement, “our government is currently negotiating and offering our northern neighbors a truce trial period.  The deal includes getting Iridia to begin repayment for the past rent, housing, and sustenance of the refugees sent to us many decades ago, next for the Iridian government to begin the repatriation or the facilitating of providing the refugee with options to immigrate and settle in other countries other than Estople.  The second phase will include mutually beneficial trade agreement as well as negotiating Iridia’s compensation for the twenty-two years that the Iridian armed forces occupied and brutalized the people of northern Estople.”  If phase one and two succeed, the third phase will begin the gradual process of normalizing relations between Estople and Iridia.

Zaki was staring in shock. “That is a very ambitious plan there, Hilmy! Do you think the government of Estople can pull it off?”

“No one knows, but with the current deterrent strength of the Civil Defense Group which is now a formal division of Estople’s defense forces, the politicians seem to believe that they can set some of their conditions and agenda for peace with our northern neighbor. This is not an arrangement that is unheard of.  The same arrangements have taken place after the second great war where the aggressors continue to pay compensation until today. Estople’s northern neighbors had committed greater atrocities than what took place during the second great war. The best part of this is that hopefully there will be no armed revolt or armed conflict. It is like there is a leaderless movement growing organically out of personal initiatives on the part of Estopleans, and it is becoming contagious amongst the population. Several independent social, economic and urban development organizations are popping up without government interference. They all seem to quietly agree that the time of conflict is over and it is now time to build, but no one is promoting this phenomenon publicly. And if the push for advanced education continues, we will witness prosperity that would rival that of any of the first world countries’ prosperity and modernity. In my opinion, all we have to do is continue our mission of educating generations of professionals, scientists, artists, visionaries and innovators.

Rowdin loved what she was hearing. She felt a sense of belonging like she was part of the progress being made. She suddenly felt more committed to the foundation that she and her partners had birthed years ago and thought of how lucky she was to have a supportive husband. On the plane ride home from Estople, he expressed even more support and encouraged her to take a more active role now that the kids were older and did not need all-round attention. They both agreed that they would visit Estople often, especially since they already have a home there. “Soon, we will start competing with your parents for the house,” Zaki said jokingly.

Chapter 20
Chapter 20

In the coming years, Rowdin and Zaki spent many vacations at the old house in Estople. They also had Samad and Esma join them on several occasions. Samad never pursued his business venture in Estople, and now, Rowdin often reminded him of how she still suspected him in the Munder family incident only now it is in a humorous fashion.   When referencing “Munder” she always ends the mention with: “one day we’re all going to get Samad real drunk and find out the truth”.  She stopped being suspicious a long time ago, and that was probably due to Zaki’s persistent reminders as well as all the good things that were happening in Estople. On the visits to Estople, Zaki had learned enough of the language to manage on his own in any situation.

As for Estople itself, everywhere you went, you saw and heard various civic messages asking people to keep their town clean, convert to non-fossil energy, encourage their children to get a higher education, participate in elections and so on.  These civic messages have replaced the messages of fear, hatred, suspicion, and incitements of the old guard and their masters whose messages today get placed in the tabloid and gossip sections of the media whenever they say anything.  All that was to keep the society engaged in their country’s quest for prosperity and independence.

The strengths of the educational organizations and the supporting foundations such as Rowdin’s had resulted in the establishment of one of the best educational systems in the region, possibly matching and in some areas outperforming those of first world countries.  Today, and only about twenty-five years after Hilmy’s School of Computational Genetics, education is free and mandatory across the board. It is mandatory for every child to be educated up to a minimum of an undergraduate college degree or a vocational apprenticeship.  Graduate and post-graduate education were also free for students who qualified and wanted to pursue it.  The parents of any child who does not complete such mandated education are held to account by the government.

Healthcare in Estople is still a work in progress, but it is no longer a product only available to politicians and the wealthy.  For now, only preventive medicine is free to every resident of Estople.  With the advent of local research and development establishments, many medical treatments including medications are slowly becoming available and affordable to the average Estoplean.

Today’s Estople laws treat corruption as a crime as serious as murder or treason. The citizen education movement constantly emphasizes that as well. Today’s Estople has also become a beacon of tolerance amongst its multitude of sectarian groups. In the news today, Estople’s news outlets report and discuss cases for improving and implementing modern social topics such as healthcare, living wages and retirement of its citizens, as opposed to the old sectarian propaganda of the old warlords.

Relationships with neighboring countries are becoming more based on trade, healthy competition, exchange of knowledge and, collaboration on regional energy and environmental matters as opposed to the old vitriolic posturing of war and occupations. Even Estople’s relationship with its old nemesis Iridia is now based on these principles.  Gone are the days of military entanglements between neighbors.  Though military budgets continue to take up a large chunk of the economies, these budgets have slowly continued to diminish in comparison to increasing research, development and innovation budgets.  A typical competition between Estople and Iridia is in healthy medical and technological competition.  Today, these third world countries, work on strengthening peace through interdependence on each other, not through interference and hegemony.  The governments of the old superpowers which used to dictate political, economic and military policies of Estople and its neighbors, now negotiate economic and social partnerships with them instead.  Within three decades, these countries have gone from consuming and dependent ones to producing countries that the western wold actually competes to cooperate with them instead of influencing them.

These developments have also enhanced Rowdin, Samad and the other “cousins” relationships with their extended families in Estople.  They continued to live in Westinia which they consider their home, but now, they are not afraid to reveal their ethnic background.  Because today, they are view by the Westinians as a respected ethnic group and not as a group to be suspected.  Alya and Nouri, Rowdin’s children, along with Samad’s and the other cousins’ children more aware of their heritage, but naturally not as attached to it as their parents and grandparents.  However, their attitude toward that heritage is one of pride, just like many of the other well respected ethnic groups in Westinia.

 

References
References
Lyons, J. (2008). The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. London: Bloomsbury Press.
Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.