By Dennis Taylor
The fairytale ending she was aching to add to her autobiographical romance novel, “Silent Love Across the Ocean,” became a chapter of profound sorrow for Salinas author Martha Lopez-Rahali. Her romantic dream met with unimaginable real-life tragedy on Feb. 22, 2019.
That’s the night that Abdelwahad Rahali, her husband of four years, was murdered on their front porch in the 1200 block of Granada Avenue near East Laurel Drive, as he sat enjoying a glass of wine. It was the first homicide of 2019 in Salinas, a random shooting by a lone gunman. Abdel did not know his slayer.
Eight years earlier, Martha Lopez (“Ana Mary” in her novel) had been a real-life empty-nester, divorced and profoundly lonely. She discovered the allure of social media in 2011 and began chatting online with a handsome and charming man 6,600 miles away.
“My son — my last child at home — had found the girl he wanted to marry, and he had moved out on his own,” she said. “Suddenly I was alone, with nobody left to cook for, no one to provide for, and my mind wasn’t right. I felt so severely depressed that I was thinking, ‘I want to die. I have no one left, no reason to work, no reason to do anything anymore.’”
Her new internet friend, Abdelwahad Rahali, 20 years younger than Martha, lived in Tunisia, where he, too, was dreaming of a better life — not only for himself, but for his family.
“He wanted to help his nieces and nephews open a coffee shop in Tunisia, and he wanted to remodel his mother’s home, especially the kitchen, because he loved her cooking,” Martha remembered. “He loved his mother. He was a very good man.”
“I turned and saw him down on a knee, and he asked me to marry him.” Martha Lopez-Rahali
They became close friends through their online chats and Skype video calls, which induced separation anxiety whenever they went too long without communicating.
“If I couldn’t find him, I felt desperate to know where he was. That’s when I began to think I had fallen in love,” she said. “And he did, too. If we went too long without talking, he would be upset and say, ‘Where have you been?’”
She came to call him Habibi (Arabic for “my love”), a nickname so sincere that she offered to join him in Tunisia.
“No, my love,” he told her. “I’m the one who is coming to you.”
“When?” she would ask with a laugh.
“Tomorrow,” Abdel would answer playfully.
Their long-distance relationship was so romantic that Martha was inspired to describe it in a novel, one of five books she has written.
Abdel’s promise to come to America took more than three years to fulfill, but Martha was waiting at Amtrak Salinas when he arrived.
“I had been working at Taylor Farms that day and was still wearing my work helmet when he got off the train,” she recalled. “He didn’t recognize me for a moment, but when he did, he lifted me up, sat me down on my car, and gave me a big kiss.”
Four months later, they were in a San Francisco jewelry shop, helping choose the rings for her son’s wedding. Martha was staring into the glass case when the elderly clerk suggested she turn around.
“I turned and saw him down on a knee, and he asked me to marry him,” she said. “The old man and everyone else in the store were all around me, telling me, ‘Say yes! Say yes!’ And I said yes.”
Martha and Abdel were married two months later, sleeping together for the first time on their wedding night. By then, she had learned much more about him. Abdel, who spoke four languages, was a man with a plan.
He had applied at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey to become a translator. While he waited, he accepted any job he could find — laborer, security guard, office worker — to supplement the income his new wife earned from the multiple jobs she worked.
He was good-natured and genial, making friends easily.
He also was naïve about the dangers of their neighborhood.
“We were trying to move out of that house because we always heard shooting in our neighborhood,” Martha said. “I would tell him, ‘Be careful! Don’t do this … don’t go there!’ But he was naive.”
“I remember seeing the flowers he had given me for Valentine’s Day. They just seemed to die in front of me..." Martha Lopez-Rahali
Martha came home late on Feb. 22, 2019, nursing a severe headache after a long day standing in the sun as a security guard at a Carmel Valley school. Abdel walked across the street and bought shrimp from a meat market, but Martha wasn’t hungry after preparing the meal and went into their bedroom to lie down.
“I was lying in bed, holding my head, and all of a sudden I heard gagagagaga!” she said, mimicking the sound of rapid gunshots. “We heard gunfire all the time where we lived, so I wasn’t really worried about it.
“But this time I got up, walked out of my room, saw our roommate on the sofa, and said, ‘Where is Habibi?’ He said ‘I don’t know,’ so I went out to the porch.”
When Martha pulled her front door open, she saw her husband lying in a pool of blood, his jacket covering his head. She remembers trying unsuccessfully to drag him into the house, staying low to protect herself as she tugged at his heavy body, then racing back through the living room, shouting, “Call 911!”
She ran to her bedroom, called the police, then returned to her stricken husband, who was still on the porch.
“I was looking at him, but I couldn’t go back out there — my legs felt so weak, and my body didn’t respond. I called my sister, called my family, and fell to my knees, praying to God to keep my husband alive,” she said. “I remember seeing the flowers he had given me for Valentine’s Day. They just seemed to die in front of me, and I had a bad feeling that my man was not going to be alive.”
A niece who is also a police officer accompanied her to the police station, then to the emergency room, where a doctor delivered the news: “She told me, ‘Your husband was shot to death,’” Martha said. “’He is dead.’”
A 17-year-old was arrested and a judge ruled he should stand trial on murder charges as an adult about seven months after the death. The suspect, Mextli Velarde of Soledad, is awaiting trial.
Writing the story of her love for Abdel and his tragic death was cathartic, Martha said, but difficult.
“I had nights when I couldn’t sleep. I had days when I couldn’t eat,” Martha said. “But as I was writing it, he came to me in my dreams. He would come all the time, sit beside me on the bed with a big smile on his face, and watch me sleep.”
When she finished the book, he came no more, she said.
Martha said she draws strength today from caregiver duties she has performed for more than 20 years as a Certified Nursing Assistant.
“I’ve known people through that job who wanted to die, and now I tell them, ‘That’s how I felt when I was alone,’” she said. “But now I have you. I don’t want to die anymore because I have someone to take care of, and that fills my life.’”
Visit amazon.com to find books by Martha Lopez-Rahali, proceeds from which will be sent to her late husband’s nieces, nephews, and mother to help fulfill his dream.
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