In search of a nation

Man who avenged his father's murder deported to Yemen

Dressed in a forest-green jumpsuit with his thinning black hair combed forward, Hafed Mohamed Thabet casts a relaxed gaze through the oily jailhouse window. In a few days, the 42-year-old convicted murderer will be deported to his fractious home country of Yemen—never to set foot back on American soil again—and he couldn’t be happier.

In 1993, Thabet emptied a secondhand revolver into the back of Ahmed Ali Alharsami at a country gas station in Amador County, 50-odd miles east of Sacramento. The broad-daylight crime rocked the wooded hamlet but was a long-time coming for Thabet, who watched Alharsami pump his father full of machine-gun lead when he was just a boy.

At the time he pulled the trigger, the 23-year-old Thabet knew little about the American justice system—hell, he didn’t even speak the language. He just knew the courts back home had sentenced this man to die, and that it was his sacred duty—even 18 years after the fact—to mete out that justice.

Thabet spent nearly 20 years in Mule Creek State Prison before winning a parole date in September 2012. It took four appearances before state parole commissioners to squeeze out that decision, and another five months to learn whether the governor would overturn it. Thabet discovered the answer to that question when he called his niece, Sabah Algazali, in Stockton one Saturday and heard traditional Yemeni wedding music blasting through the prison payphone.

“I asked him if he wanted an arranged marriage or was going to wait for true love,” giggled Algazali. Thabet’s initial response, she recalls, was one of skepticism: “He said, ’Are you tripping?’”

Thabet’s home for the past month has been a small cell on the sixth floor of the Sacramento County Main Jail, where he’s floated in limbo with all the other immigration holds of indeterminate fate. But unlike those poor, huddled, arrested masses—Mexicans, South Americans and at least one Australian—Thabet knew he was going back. He just wasn’t sure when.

The accommodations have been less than stellar. Unlike that state prison in the bucolic foothills, this cramped tower of pods downtown offers no daylight or programming. Inmates can receive emails but not letters, and can send letters but not emails. Evening phone privileges are suspended. But Thabet’s mind is elsewhere.

His pending release has reawakened tensions between two interconnected families. Algazali is the eldest daughter of Alharsami and Thabet’s older sister; she has tried to bring peace to both sides by advocating Thabet’s freedom and putting an end to the 40-year-old feud that has seen at least five casualties.

But members of the Alharsami family have focused their anger on Algazali, who broke with cultural tradition by speaking out about the families’ internecine history.

The 40-year-old grandmother hopes to visit her sickly mother in Yemen some time this summer, and speaks casually about the possibility she might not make it back.

“If this is what God wants, it’s already been set,” she said.

Thabet, meanwhile, worries after the niece who reached out to him during his darkest moment. He has other concerns, too. Thabet was 19 when he left home, and spent his entire adulthood in the California penal system. If the man who is neither American nor fully Yemeni can’t build a home in Yemen, he’s already thinking of where he might try next. Egypt, Syria—the nations he once considered are buried in their own revolutionary chaos.

“The old, historic buildings in Syria are mostly gone now,” Thabet reflected.

He doesn’t know if he has a home yet, but it won’t be long before Thabet finds out.

Early Tuesday morning last week, a couple of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents put Thabet on a plane bound for the Yemen capital of Sana’a. He touched down Wednesday night. When his mother—who fell from a three-story roof when she learned of her husband’s murder—set eyes on her long-gone son, she fainted. Thabet worried their reunion was too much for her.

“I didn’t think me seeing her would kill her out of happiness,” he told Algazali.

Once his mother regained consciousness, however, the Thabet family—finally intact—celebrated into the dawn.