Envy no man, because you don't know where he has been, or where he is going.
It was last June, not a year ago, that I stood in the Hyde Park living room of Amer Ahmad and watched him and his family pray.
I was writing what was on its surface a simple article: I wanted to look at Chicago Muslims, not through the context of controversy, but through the five prayers that a devout Muslim says every day. The story would start in one place—Fajr, the first prayer, at 4:30 a.m. at the Muslim Education Center in Morton Grove—then jump around the city, meeting Muslims at various prayer times. In the process it would look at Islam in Chicago, and say something about the normality of a faith that still seems strange to many Americans.
I had been to prayers in public mosques, suburban and downtown. I wanted to get inside someone's home. I happened to be talking to the mayor's press secretary, complaining, as I usually do, about their unhelpfulness. "How about a Muslim city worker?" I asked. They must know of one—hook me up with someone.
They served up Ahmad, the city comptroller. We had a pleasant conversation over the telephone—an open, intelligent man—and a short time later, one evening after work, I visited his luxurious Hyde Park home: newly rehabbed, tasteful, huge. I met his lovely wife, Samar, and their three adorable young children. Looking around, I felt a pang of envy: THIS guy obviously had life figured out. Cultured. Traveled. He had been to Mecca. A rising star. Obviously money somewhere. HE got to live in this swell house in the heart of Hyde Park, across from the Kenwood Academy. While I'M exiled to my decaying ruin of a suburban farm house, hoarding pennies.
I don't want to overstate the case. I didn't gnash my teeth and shake my fist at the sky. More like a sigh, standing on the sidewalk after. Some guys have life figured out...
Within a month he was at the center of scandal, and had quit his $165,000 a year job. Of course I thought of my visit to his house. Perhaps a connection to write about. And I did have the observation that seemed, perhaps, worth sharing. The question arose last summer: did City Hall know this guy was under suspicion? It seemed clear that the mayor's office probably didn't know he was dirty or they wouldn't be dangling him under the nose of the media. But that seemed pretty thin gruel, and, frankly, I didn't want to draw attention to his being Muslim, because that is irrelevant. There are crooks of every faith, in Islam as in all others, but there are people who would try to make hay with this specific situation, and why toss them fodder?
Ahmad pleaded guilty to money laundering and a receiving kickbacks in Ohio. He is facing 15 years in prison. It seemed to unhinge him. Since he surrendered his passport, he tried—his wife alleges—to get her to get him a fake passport, and is now on the run, with a warrant out for his arrest. His wife, pictured above, said he has become violent and abusive and has taken out an order of protection because she's worried he'll kidnap their children and flee to Pakistan, where he has family.
I don't envy him any more. I hope he turns himself in, finds a way to salvage his life. He seemed a smart man, the hour I spoke with him, explaining how he permitted his daughters to lead the prayers, contrary to strict tradition, but in keeping with the new tradition he was pushing toward. Family was important to Ahmad. I liked him.
The house did seem perhaps too nice for a city employee. I wondered about that. But I figured people have money somewhere, from their families. And besides, he was a money guy. Money guys do well. In his case, I guess the house was paid for with the graft money from Ohio. Which meant that I was gazing appreciatively at the tangible manifestation of the ill-gotten gains that would soon destroy his life, and didn't even know it.
Stealing was a bad choice, running worse. We all reap the fruit of the choices we make. I hope Ahmad chooses to stop running, report to the authorities, serve his time, and begin the slow crawl back to whatever new life awaits him. Hard work, but it is still possible. Life is a long time, or can be. Me, I'm going to try to remind myself, next time I cast a covetous eye on someone else's glittering lot, that all is not what it appears, and better to put that energy into paddling my own canoe and being content with what I do have, which is plenty and should be enough. Many ills flow from discontent. Better to envy no man. Because you never know where he has been. Or where he is going.
Update: As of 2021, Amer Ahmad is serving a 15-year prison sentence at Terminal Island, a federal prison in Southern California.