Petitioning the president

Sabah Algazali sounds frazzled when she picks up the phone, but she often does. Speaking in a soft flutter, the region’s most unlikely victim’s advocate—a devout Muslim grandmother who has spent the last dozen years fighting on behalf of her father’s killer—Algazali, now 41, needs me to write a letter to President Obama.

This isn’t anything new. The flinty Stockton resident often makes big requests. In September 2012, after seven years of petitions, parole hearings and, yes, letters to Obama, Algazali helped win her uncle’s release from state prison for a broad daylight murder 20 years earlier. The murder of Algazali’s father.

In the nearly five months spanning that parole decision and Governor Jerry Brown’s right to overturn it, Algazali hectored the governor’s office with regular phone calls, online petitions and asked me to get her a meeting with Jerry himself. I didn’t, but it didn’t end up mattering.

In February, when Brown’s office let her uncle’s parole decision stand, Algazali—not her uncle, his lawyer or prison, and certainly not me—was the first one to find out.

She was the first to find out a lot about this gripping tale of legacies and blood.

In 1993, when her mother’s brother shot Algazali’s father dead outside of a Pine Grove gas station, Algazali set off on a decade-spanning journey into the heart of her family’s—and native land’s—internecine history. Flubbing patriarchal rules of decorum, she traversed the remote Yemen villages she left at the age of 10, knocking on doors and resurrecting the past until she finally unearthed the root of the blood vendetta that crossed oceans and invaded her life.

In 1974, her uncle Hafed Mohamed Thabet watched Algazali’s father, Ahmed Ali Alharsami, gun down his own dad over a marriage dispute when he was a boy, then flee the country. Nineteen years later, urged on by the demands of his culture and the expectations of his family, Thabet tracked Alharsami down to a rural hamlet in the northern California foothills and restored his family’s honor using an old revolver he bought in New York.

Then he went to prison.

Algazali had every right to hate Thabet. In fact, she was raised to. Her father trained her how to handle a pistol when she was a child, and described the men he feared were coming for him. Equally volatile and charming, Alharsami married four times and fathered seven daughters before meeting his end at the age of 41. But his first child was Algazali, and much was demanded for that privilege.

Pulled out of school at a young age to work her father’s general store, Algazali also inherited a more serious duty. Her father knew a violent death was imminent—either at the hands of Thabet’s family or others he crossed during a stormy life—and expected Algazali—the closest thing Alharsami had to a son—to avenge him. To carry on the blood feud between two families forever united by marriage and gunfire.

But Algazali did what her uncle couldn’t: She rejected a creed forged in the lawless tribal villages of Aldakalah and Dakhla. She forgave her father’s killer. Then she forgave her father. She battled to codify that forgiveness in the law, through Thabet’s release, but found an unlikely antagonist in the American justice system, which rejected Thabet’s first three requests for parole. The multi-year moratoriums, sometimes for dubious reasons, prolonged the feud and agony. Algazali hoped Thabet’s release would release them all.

Only that hasn’t yet happened.

When Thabet’s parole was granted, he waived his right to a deportation hearing that would have given him a sliver of a chance to remain in the United States. As a convicted killer, it would have been a long shot, but Thabet told me at the time he missed a homeland he hadn’t seen since he was 19. More than that, he missed a mother who sacrificed everything for him and his siblings after her husband was killed. Thabet didn’t give his impending deportation a second thought. He was excited to go back home and restart a life that was frozen in amber the day he pulled a trigger and felt his arm buck.

He wanted to marry, start a family, apply the education he got in automotive repair to start his own business, and speak out against the kind of eye-for-an-eye vengeance that cost him two decades of his life and threw his niece’s family into turmoil.

His parole jacket was packed with the letters from relatives promising to provide him a home, a job and money to make those dreams come true. But four months into his homecoming and Thabet is miserable. He’s still living with his mother and sister in a four-story home. Promises by his older brother and cousins to get him a job, car and his own place haven’t been acted on.

“You know what’s sad? He misses prison,” Algazali told me after returning from a May visit. Twenty years in Mule Creek State Prison westernized him. At least there he had friends and a job. At least there he had rules.

“Over there, there are no rules,” Algazali said.

Thabet regrets signing the agreement that blocks him from returning to the U.S. He’s written a letter to the president requesting a pardon and a reversal of the agreement. Today Algazali asked for my help.

Agreeing to pen a letter describing the story my colleague Scott Thomas Anderson and I have spent more than a year following, I suggested it might be more likely for Thabet to consider emigrating to Canada or the United Kingdom. Wherever he goes, Algazali stressed that it won’t be an Arab country. In truth, Thabet no longer has a country of his own. He left Yemen as a teenager and spent most of his adult life in a California prison. He is neither Middle Eastern nor American. He is an unmoored soul searching for what he lost.

But her uncle needs money to start over and, as of right now, has none.

In the meantime, Thabet has at least been able to be the voice of reason to some of his cousins. After his father’s death almost 40 years ago, someone from the Alharsami family killed one of Thabet’s uncles, something that has never been adjudicated in the courts. The cousins were getting impatient and thinking about getting some old-world justice. Thabet counseled against it. So far they’ve listened.

Now Thabet prays the president will.

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