Captives of Fate

Abdullah, 28, got married about a year ago, and he and his wife are expecting their first baby. They still live in his family home, as Abdullah hasn't got a hope of scraping enough money together to rent a place of their own. They live in a small flat with Omar – Abdullah's brother – and his wife, who might also be expecting.

Not that Abdullah experiences the inside of the flat that much. He has two full-time jobs – mornings 8 until 2 and evenings 5 until 10 – and he is trying to fit in English classes in the afternoons in the hope that one day he'll get a better job. Like most of his countrymen, neither of his current jobs pays enough to cover the bills.

He's a nice guy; he doesn't smoke or chew, which saves a lot, but he's up to his neck in debt to relatives who helped pay for his wedding, and has to give back a little each month.

Abdullah prays five times a day. He visits the graves of his parents every Friday to pray for them – to make sure that they are allowed into heaven. He greets people as he walks along – there is a tradition that each greeting earns him extra blessing. He is always kind to children, and gives as much as he can to beggars. Yet despite all this good work, God still feels distant and life is still hard.

In need of blessing, Abdullah decided to go on the Hajj to Mecca this year. His evening job is at a travel firm, and they gave him a very generous discount. It felt good to be doing what the prophet commanded. Praying in that esteemed place, he could almost feel God to be close.

But life is still hard. Abdullah believes that all of life is a test and then we face judgement. All his efforts to earn God's blessings seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Fatima Fatima was worried to death about Faaris – her 15-month-old. He hadn't been putting on weight properly since he was born. His twin sister seemed able to feed all right, but Faaris just wouldn't suck properly. She'd tried all the food options: her own mother had told her to give him water to drink instead of breast milk; her neighbour had suggested mixing water and baby rusks and giving these to Faaris in his bottle.

He had become so weak that whatever he did eat he vomited. And then there was the constant diarrhoea. The stress was beginning to affect her other children too.

When he was six months old she had taken Faaris to see an old midwife who advised heat treatment – multiple small burns on his abdomen and buttocks to release the evil. It didn't work.

The foreign doctor had been useless – he just gave advice. She would have taken Faaris to see the real witch-doctor, only he was too expensive. Perhaps he was being affected by Genies. Perhaps someone had cast the evil-eye on him when he was born – the power of the jealousy of an aunt or neighbour could inflict this sort of problem. Perhaps Umm asSubyan, queen of the Genies, or some other controlling spirit was involved. A good witchdoctor could solve these problems.

Fatima was doing all she could. She had started praying five times a day and she would fast once a month – perhaps this would earn her God's favour. She hung a tiny copy of the Qur'an around Faaris' neck to protect him from evil spirits, and recited the bits of it that she had memorised whenever she was with Faaris. She would lie him down so that he was facing Mecca – if he should die, at least he would be facing the right way.

How difficult it felt. If only she had some way of controlling her destiny, and his.