Ramadan Mubarak

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Ramadan Mubarak. For those of you who have found my little corner of the internet, I want to say thank you for reading. I cannot wait to bring new characters and stories to you in September. For now, I point you to a wonderful Ramadan Reflection by Imam Khalid Latif on supporting the Muslim Artist. Please enjoy it by clicking here.

Best,

SAR

Aisha: Part I

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Assalaamualaikum- Peace be upon you! I have had what I hoped would eventually become a novel, Insha’Allah, on the back burner for quite a while now.  After recently reading it again I have fallen back in love with these characters. Over the next few posts I would like to share with any readers out there a few (very) rough drafts of excerpts from Part I.  The novel is structured in three parts. Part I tells the story of the Aziz family, Part II of an estranged cousin and Part II delves  into the history of two brothers.

My story begins in Ramadan.

*********Aisha********* Part I

Fatimah was awake first. While the rest of the Aziz family held onto their last moments of sleep before fajr prayer, Fatimah would sit up; turn off her alarm before it had emitted a sound and place her narrow feet on the bedroom rug. An older abaya, maybe tattered along the sleeve or hem or faded two shades lighter than its original black or blue, was always thrown across her desk chair. The abaya was no longer nice enough to wear outside but it was perfect to throw over pajama pants and a tank top to make herself decent to pray. Kneeling, where the edge of the area rug met the wooden floor, she would grab any scarf from her plastic scarf bin, slide her feet into her slippers and slip quietly through the half opened bedroom door into the upstairs hallway. Fatimah did this all in the dark.

On this particular Friday morning, Fatimah Aziz was up an hour and half before fajr. It was 4am on a  surprisingly humid early November morning. It was nearing the end of the third week of Ramadan. Fatimah quickly descended the stairs into the living room. Before she walked towards the kitchen she glanced to her right noting that her parents’ bedroom door was still shut. Entering the kitchen she flipped on the light. After tying her scarf loosely around her head she washed her hands. Five bagels were sliced and put in the oven. She cracked a dozen eggs, added salt and pepper, whisked them quickly and then left them to sit on the counter next to the stove. Gently, she peeled slices of turkey bacon from their package and set them into a hot oiled pan.

On the long wooden kitchen table she set a bowl of rinsed grapes, cold water and orange juice, and finally eating utensils, plates and cups. She stepped from the kitchen into a large room that was painted soft blue. On the walls were golden framed pictures of Arabic calligraphy. Two tall bookshelves stood on one side of the room. On the very top of each bookshelf sat a Qur’an. The room was furnished with only a sofa and love seat. Fatimah turned on the two standing laps. She laid five prayer rugs on an angle on the floor. Before she left the kitchen to return upstairs she turned over the sizzling turkey bacon, turned off the oven and set another frying pan out for the eggs.

She woke Anais up first. It only took a simple shake of his narrow shoulder and he sat up straight.

Assalaamualaikum Anais, it’s time for suhoor. Go wake ummi and abbi. Turn the bacon off. Then scramble the eggs.”

Walaikumasalaam.” he replied.

Anais rubbed his eyes and lifted his narrow fourteen year old body from the bed. He was tired but consoled his self with the fact that there was no school today. For two more weeks until the fast ended he would get to work at his parent’s store. Yes, his mouth would be dry as he placed new books on Islamic adab on the shelves, but anything was better than facing Ustadth Ali’s narrowing eyes as he stumbled over the juz that all of the other students seemed to learn so much faster. 

Fatimah had already left Anais’s room and prepared herself for the final mission of the morning. She inhaled deeply and opened her bedroom door. She flipped on the light and focused her eyes on the bed directly underneath the only window in the room. A person unfamiliar with the room that Fatimah shared with her younger sister Asma might not describe what Asma slept on as being a bed. Because  clothes, scarves, notebooks, toiletries and other miscellaneous objects sat in piles around the bed, it was difficult to discern the bed from the junk. An eye unaccustomed to the mess that was Asma’s side of the bedroom, would not only fail to see any signs of a mattress but might also mistake the body that now slept underneath a funky yellow, black, orange, and red graffiti inspired comforter as another inanimate part of the mess.

Yet, Fatima’s eyes narrowed on the body that lay underneath the comforter and even more intensely on the huge tumbling crown of tightly curled dark brown hair that peeked out of the very top of the funky graffiti print. The older sister knew how to navigate through the piles of Asma’s belongings so that she did not trip on a bright purple platform shoe or slip on a silky Turkish scarf. Fatima’s mouth opened wide and snapped audibly shut as she spotted the sleeve of her own maroon, pink embroidered abaya buried in one of the mountains. Asma had borrowed it to go out to a young adult social at the masjid only a week ago. Aisha would never stand for this crap, thought Fatimah as she finally made it safely to edge of the bed. Well, I’m me and Aisha is Aisha, Fatimah quickly answered herself. She was now staring into the light-brown, round face of her younger sister. At nineteen, Asma’s face still had traces of girlhood throughout. It was not just its roundness but it was evident in the sleepy almost smile that stretched across her soft lips. Despite the arched newly waxed eyebrows that Asma obsessively kept tidy since she was seventeen, there was something in her pretty face that made her sister pause before shaking her awake. Fatimah felt extremely protective over Asma so much so that when Aisha demanded that she not have to sleep in a room with a “slob” like Asma, Fatimah quickly agreed to move into the room with Asma and let Aisha take her room. Even now, with Aisha in campus housing for most of the year, she stayed in the room with Asma.

Anyway, the older and younger sister had decided that when they both started nursing school in the spring it would be great to be able to quiz each other from their beds until they exhaustedly fell asleep.

“Asma…wake up…wake up. We only have thirty minutes left to eat!”

Asma did not move. Fatimah let out a breath. Fatimah was not annoyed. This was indeed a morning ritual. She only needed another tactic.

“Asma  There’s chocolate chip pancakes this morning. I made them from scratch.”

Oh, but it was bad to lie, even if it was a silly lie, during Ramadan.

Finally, in Arabic, she said, “Prayer is better than sleep. Prayer is better than sleep Asma.” She said it firmly while shaking her sister back and forth. A smile spread on Asma’s face and her eyes opened. Even this early in the morning there was a light that seemed to dance in Asma’s dark, almost black, eyes.

“I know it is. I know. You lied about the pancakes didn’t you?”

Fatimah laughed a little and nodded yes.

“Ooooh! Fatimah during Ramadan!” Asma said in a mocking serious tone.

Moments later both of the sisters hurried downstairs. Fatimah still in her abaya and Asma in her bright pink pajamas. Their parents and Anais were just finishing their food.

“Assalaamualaikum! Ramadan Mubarak!” their mother called out. She had on her housecoat and her long brownish dred locks hung down her back as she grabbed a few grapes while smiling at her daughters. Her voice,  at five in the morning was surprisingly energetic. She smelled like the oils they sold at the family store.

The daughters paused to greet their mother and then their father before loading their plates with food. Their father, a dark-brown, tall man with a neatly trimmed beard and black framed glasses sat down the watch he was trying to fix and smiled at Fatimah.

“Shukran Fatimah for getting suhoor together” he said.

“Oh Alhamdulilah!” Fatimah said. The father and the daughter exchanged smiles. Smiles that were undoubtedly similar in faces that shared the same deep brown skin tone and large deep set eyes framed with long midnight black lashes. The daughter’s face had small traces of the mother in less noticeable places but from her shy, yet bright smile to her soft speaking voice she was her father’s child.

Later in the pale-blue room where the family prayed, Fatimah finally relaxed as her father began the first ayah of Al Fatiha. Her right baby toe touched her mother’s and her left touched Asma’s hot pink painted toe. Her lips moved as she recited along with her father. She was soothed by his slow deep recitation and she breathed in slow and steady.

  It was Friday. There was Jumuah prayer. Anais, Fatimah and their father Malik would leave at seven to go open Al Ikhlas Islamic Book and Clothing Store which they would close at a quarter of one in  order to attend Jumuah. Khadijah Aziz and her daughter Asma had shopping to do because they had invited the Abdullahs over to break the fast tonight. By eight o’clock all of the Aziz’s were out of their house and moving about in the outside world.

(continue to Part II below)

Aisha: Part II

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Part II

Aisha Aziz knew she would be late for Jumuah. She knew because she was moving slower than she normally did. Her mother Khadija would say she was moving so slow because she had not eaten suhoor before she had hurriedly prayed fajr because she only had fifteen minutes before the sun would be up. She could hear her mother’s high frantic voice telling her that Allah did not want to burden his servants that it was a blessing and mercy that we had suhoor. The problem was that Aisha had woken up too late to join the other Muslim students for suhoor for the entire first two weeks of Ramadan. Her roommate and friend Maryam’s bed was empty. Maryam and the other students, at the exact  moment that Aisha was running frantically down the hall of her dorm to the bathroom to make wudu, were already salaaming each other goodbye and beginning to return to their dorms. Maryam had wanted to wake up Aisha before she left, she wanted to walk with Aisha across campus to the cafeteria where the other Muslim students were eating together, but she didn’t. She didn’t because Aisha had told her that she would eat and pray alone in their room. She had a banana, a muffin and juice for the morning. The night before, Aisha had set the food  across her desk in a neat row after telling Maryam not to bother waking her up, in order to non-verbally stop Maryam from pleading with her to join her. So instead, with her paisley scarf pinned neatly under her chin, and modestly covering her chest and black jilbab, Maryam had walked with another girl across campus.

Aisha was now scribbling a note to Maryam saying that she was going home to Masjid Muhammed to pray jumuah. Insha’allah, she wrote, I will see you at my parents for iftar, Love Ai. She could have waited until after Maryam’s last class to catch a ride but Aisha had decided to take NJ Transit and then Septa home to Philadelphia. Before leaving the room Aisha carefully put on a dark blue square scarf. She pinned it underneath her chin and then wrapped the longer side around her head. She pinned it again with a black straight pin on the right side of her head so that a small piece of the soft material still hung beyond the pin. In this style when the wind blew the material would lift slightly. This was Aisha’s favorite way to wear her hijab. She felt that it made her look both serious and feminine. Not feminine in the same way as Maryam or her sisters but feminine in her own way. She stared at herself in the mirror. Her brown skin was lighter than Fatimah’s but she was not as fair-skinned as Asma. She had Asma’s large round oval eyes but Fatimah’s longer nose.

Her mouth was her own. It was large and typically set in a soft semi-smile. She had on a long dark jean skirt although  at school Aisha favored jeans and long  shirts. It had always been a struggle for Mrs. Aziz to get Aisha in abaya, a dress or a skirt so she simply accepted that Aisha liked pants. She slipped on a pair of black leather loafers. She tossed her copy of Pride and Prejudice in her bag for her literature class, the Cornell West book she was reading for African-American studies and a notebook in her already packed duffel bag.

Aisha could not wait to be home and although it would only be until Sunday it would feel like a month long vacation for Aisha. It was her first trip home since Ramadan had begun and she needed to be with her family. Although much of the weekend would consist of early mornings and late nights going to the masjid to make the special night prayers for Ramadan, Aisha would have her room. She would lay in her own bed and stare out the window where she could see, in the distance, the top of both the Islamic school she had attended from kindergarten to twelfth grade and the masjid that had been hers for her entire life. These thoughts comforted her as she walked across the campus listening to Hussary recite Suratal Rahman on the digital Qur’an her teachers had given her when she graduated from high school. She was nearing the bus stop that would take her to the train station and she looked up as she crossed the street. Two girls were already standing there. One of the girls had a purple scarf around her head and the other girl’s head was uncovered. Immediately, she recognized them from the Muslim student group. Aisha felt a hot blush seize her face. She swallowed deep and the concentration that she had been applying in listening to the surah seemed to float away. She could no longer hear Hussary’s recitation. She only heard the frantic beating of her heart as she crossed the street and stood a good distance away from the two girls.

The panic that had seized her was not visible. Instead the two girls, eyes wide, while not giving away that they saw her, had watched the tall girl walk confidently across the street, her head held high with that typical smirk-smile on her face. They looked at each other and the one with the scarf arched an eyebrow knowingly. The other girl smiled slightly. They did not say a word beyond these knowing glances the entire time but Aisha, without looking, imagined them to be whispering and giggling. A bus approached and Aisha was relieved to find that it was her bus. She walked towards it and finally looked at the two girls.

“Assalaamualaikum”

She said it loudly, almost enthusiastically, with a small smile but with great dismay recognized that she had never said it so insincerely or with such calculation.

“Walaikumasalaam!” the girls said with equal intensity. The words were like daggers that collided mid-air. They fell without penetrating either party.

Once on the bus Aisha turned off the recitation and leaned her head against the bus window. The coolness of the glass was a balm to her burning face. She shut her eyes afraid to see the faces of the two girls who still stood on the bus stop as she floated past them towards her home.

**

Masjid Muhammed sat in the middle of a line of red-brick row homes on a Philadelphia block. It stretched across three row homes. Two joined together to create An-Nur Islamic Academy and one was dedicated to prayer. The masjid was five houses down from a small-white African Methodist Church on the corner of the block that was distinguished by a small placard that said “Jesus heals the weary.”

On this Friday afternoon the doors of the church were closed as two young men stood talking excitedly on the sidewalk in front of the church. They wore matching black hooded sweatshirts and long white tee shirts that hung at least a foot below where there sweatshirts ended. One of them inhaled deeply on a cigarette as the other continued to talk rapidly about the issue in debate. Neither could be more than twenty-one years old. This was the corner that they met on everyday since they had graduated high school. In between small time hustles, jobs with cousins or uncles or small bids for possession they stood there debating who should have won the fight, who should get traded from the Sixers or who was locked up.

On Friday they would step aside for the women walking towards the masjid. They stepped aside for women in long black abaya, black gloves and black niquab covering their faces as they walked together discussing the topic for the next women’s halaqa; they stepped aside for a mother in a simple navy blue abaya, her jeans visible underneath her over garment, as she pushed a double stroller with two twin boys rocking back and forth inside of its satin lined interior as she carefully navigated an uneven part of the sidewalk; and they stepped aside for the college student hurrying to cover her blond-highlighted micro-braids underneath the black scarf that she had stuffed in her book bag before she left for her early morning Calculus class.

On Friday afternoons, in particular, the block would take on the smells and sounds of Masjid Muhammed. The smell of heavily seasoned roasted and curried chicken would waft from the area where vendors lined outside of the masjid causing corner-dwellers to dig in pockets in order to come up with enough money to buy a platter filled with curry, steamed cabbage and rice to share. One West African vendor typically had at least ten of his over twenty varieties of incense burning all at once while his brother vendor blasted the khutbah from the week before or a favored recitation of Juz Amma.

These were the typical sounds of a Friday on the block where Masjid Muhammed stood but on this Friday there was a stillness; there was a quiet in the air. The incense burned and the recitation registered as familiar on the ears of the worshipers and as strangely melodic to the people who passed by to simply get to the bus stop or to the bodega. Yet, there was not the typical gathering of masjid members outside talking in loud animated voices about children, bills or sports. The smell of food did not fill the air although bean pies, fig-filled cookies and honey-drenched pastries were there to be purchased in order to be consumed once the sun set.

The women entered through a door on the left and the men entered through another door. Each group would descend down a similar hallway that eventually led to a large square room with a floor covered by a plush green rug. The women sat in the back and the men sat in the front. The room was quiet except for the occasional cough, a whispered greeting, handshake or hug; or the sound of a man or woman turning the page of a Qur’an as their lips moved while they whispered the words that they were reading.

As the musulla began to fill with more worshippers the familiar sound of the adhan caused people who were walking leisurely down the sidewalk outside to quicken their pace in order to find a spot on the rug. Two women got up from the rug to help a young woman carrying a  toddler, whose pregnant stomach strained against her tunic, ease into a chair behind the women who sat on the floor. About two years before the same women had painted this newlyweds hands  with henna during her mendhi ceremony which was held in the adjacent school building. The bride at that time, a new convert in the community, had been overwhelmed by all of the preparation for her marriage to the Egyptian man she had met while working in the graduate school office of one of the local universities. At that time, there had been some hurt feelings over the fact that Abdur-Rahman, a member of the masjid since he had immigrated 5 years previously, had sought a woman outside of the community. Some had even wondered why it seemed that all of the Arab brothers married lighter-skinned Latinas before they would marry the black women who attended the masjid.

Yet, once the sisters learned that the  new bride’s parents had died when she was  young, that she had practically raised her younger brother on  her own, and that she had no issue with wearing hijab, the hard feelings quickly went away. The sisters who had previously felt bothered were soothed by the fact that they would not have to watch another new convert bride of one of the brothers refuse to cover or carelessly throw one of those handkerchiefs on their head still revealing bangs and inches of hair.

Soon the prayer area was completely quiet except for the guest katib who began to deliver his khutbah which highlighted the rewards of fasting during the month of Ramadan. This guest speaker was one of the younger men who had spent time studying overseas and now returned to his home community eager to teach the Qur’an and Arabic. His voice was soft yet passionate and he seized on the concentrated quiet, which many felt came along with the fast, to get his point across.

He was twenty minutes into his speech when Aisha finally jumped of the bus at the corner where the church stood. She practically ran down the block and into the women’s entrance of the masjid. She still had to make wudu and she prayed that she would  at least get to make the congregational prayer. As she splashed lukewarm water up and down her arms, first the right and then the left, she whispered supplications. As she slid her wet hand down her left foot, she let out a sigh of relief that she could still hear the voice of the katib. She recognized that it was not the voice of Sheikh Ali and remembered that    he liked to visit other congregations during Ramadan. She carried her shoes down the narrow corridor that led to the pray area and she felt intensely at home as she let her free hand touch the wall as she walked. She was not surprised to see that the musalla was packed. It was always packed during Ramadan. That was the running joke. Where did everyone go after Ramadan? Back to jobs and busy schedules that would not allow them to attend jumuah.

At the very moment that she entered, every ones heads were bowed as they made the dua that separated the first part of the khutbah from the second. Aisha found a spot on the rug and began to pray- her hands open like a book; the right hand rested slightly over the left. She prayed for God’s forgiveness; she prayed for her family and for all of the believers; and finally she prayed that by the end of the weekend she would feel like herself again. Completing these prayers, she ran her hands over her face and looked around for her mother and her sisters. With so many similarly covered heads, she could not see them at first. Thank God for Asma, she thought as her eyes settled on her little sister’s black and neon-green striped hijab. Leave it to Asma to stick out. All the teenagers were wearing 80s inspired clothing, dressing like Salt n Pepa and Asma was no exception. Aisha’s eyes slid over the backs of her family. Her mother sat in the middle her usual simple solid colored scarf covered her long locks. Fatima sat next to Mrs. Aziz in a light blue scarf accented by small lilac flowers. Her erect posture made Aisha sit up straighter. Fatima sat with her head slightly bowed and she nodded silently to the faith-affirming sentences that filled the room. Watching Fatima engrossed in the khutbah alerted Aisha to the fact that she was not really paying attention. She quickly turned her attention back to the front of the room and tried her best to not let her mind float away.

After the congregational prayer Aisha quietly slid out of the prayer area and down the flight of stairs outside to the cool air. Her mother would be annoyed that Aisha had not stayed to greet the sisters but Aisha, at least today, did not feel like answering the litany of questions: How is school? How are your grades? Have you declared your major? Is it Islamic Studies? Instead Aisha opened the door to the

 madrassa and climbed the steep steps to the second level where the older students met every day from morning to afternoon. She passed quickly through the first room. A small room, whose original designer probably intended to be a child’s bedroom, was now the Language Arts room where Ustadha Safiyyah first taught Aisha her colors in both Spanish and English. Sister Safiyyah was Aisha’s favorite teacher. A large women who wore long two piece khimars that fell loosely over her chest and almost to her waist, she helped Aisha to memorize poems by Emily Dickerson for the sixth grade class’s poetry presentation for the Fall Open House. That year there were only eight students in Aisha’s class. Three boys and five girls. Aisha now stood in the center of the room trying to remember the sandy-haired boy who had only spent a year in her class. He had been very quiet at first but by the end of the year everyone liked him.   Yet, the following year his parent’s put him in public school and another new boy, Hashim, took his place. Hashim ended up staying through twelfth grade and now was in Egypt studying.

Aisha walked quietly around the room reading the sample assignments posted on one clip board. There was a short story by a fifth grader about a class trip to the Art Museum.  Aisha smiled as she recognized one of Ustadha Saffiyah’s signature assignments. Today I AM/Tomorrow, Insha’Allah, I WILL BE. In this assignment you were supposed to think about who you are and then demonstrate how you would achieve your dreams for the future. Of course, everyone was made to understand that no amount of daydreaming, or scheming, would allow for you to succeed. It would take hard work and most importantly dua; and complete faith in, as well as obedience to, God. She moved into the next room and sat down at the table. She knew that she would have to go downstairs soon to insure that she would get a ride home with her family but for now she was content to sit at her old table and remember the hours she spent pouring over her Arabic grammar book or her color-coded Qur’an. She was ten years old when people began to compliment her on the tone and precision of her recitation. It was when she was twelve that she began to feel like she was doing more than just reciting words in a beautiful, melodic way. She began to feel something move inside of her. So that at this very table, she had recited surah Yaseen and felt her voice quiver. Tears had poured down her cheeks and when she was done she looked up to see her entire class crying including Ustadth Ali who brushed the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand and said quietly “Alhamdulilah, Alhamdulilah.”

She had always felt proud to be a part of her small school. The class of eight grew up together. They swapped jokes and learned how to do impressions of all of their teachers. They were known in the community as good kids. The three boys were deeply protective of the five girls. While the Aziz family lived just a few blocks from the school and masjid, Hashim and another boy, Bilal, would walk Aisha, Fatimah and Asma home. The sisters would walk in front, Asma chattering the whole way, while the boys walked behind them. There was never a concrete feeling of danger in the few city blocks that separated the school from their house but there was an unusual allure to three pretty girls in hijabs and abayas walking a Philadelphia street. Hashim and Bilal playing basketball near their house had heard too many guys on the court talk about “getting with” a Muslim girl because they were exotic, or loyal, or most likely innocent. All of the kids had heard stories about Muslim girls who had stopped being home schooled, gone to public school, took of their hijabs and ended up pregnant by a non-Muslim boy. It always happened in that order. There were also stories of good Muslim boys seduced by short-skirt wearing girls. It was a public school thing. The last she had heard Hashim had met  a girl in Egypt and intended to marry her.

 Aisha realized that she had been sitting at the table for quite awhile. She quickly stood up and made her way downstairs. She was afraid that she would miss her mother and sisters. She exited the school building and came face to face with Fatimah.

“Aisha! Assalaamualaikum!” her older sister said with a smile.

“Walaikumasalaam”

They embraced and Fatima pulled back from Aisha with a questioning look on her face.

“I thought I saw you after prayer. Why did you disappear so quickly?”

Aisha shrugged. She was not sure what to say to Fatimah. The jumuah crowd was dispersing quickly; most likely hurrying home to rest or to begin to prepare iftar. Aisha was also ready to go home to rest in her bed.

“That’s no answer-Isha!”

Fatimah with a bit of exaggeration imitated her sister’s relaxed shrug and  Aisha rolled her eyes. Fatimah, you’ll make a wonderful mother one day, Aisha thought bitingly. Quickly she tried to push her internal sarcasm away by reminding herself that it was Ramadan.

“I just wanted to see the school building. That’s all.”

Fatimah nodded her large dark eyes still narrowed inquisitively.

“Well, I’m glad I saw you. Asma and Ummi already left for home with Abbi and Anais. I’ve got mommy’s car. I just need to make a quick stop at the fabric store for some material.”

Aisha held in a sigh. It would be hours before she would get home. Fatimah’s quick stops were more often full blown events. If only she had caught her parents. She tried not to show the agitation in her face as she began to walk down the wide block to the parked car.

“You know that Maryam’s coming with her family to iftar tonight? So we’ll need to help with the preparation. I’m working on a skirt for Sister Zainab’s daughter. She’s very tall so I wonder if I should have charged more…but Alhamdulilah. I’ve got four skirts to make by Eid! I just pray that I’ll get them done and then this other sister wants a tunic…”

Aisha nodded quietly to her sister’s words and then hooked her arm through Fatimah’s. She leaned her head on her shoulder.

“Aw! Isha I missed you too!”

(read Part III Below)

Aisha: Part III

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 **** Part III*****

Asma could still remember a time when Ramadan simply meant a big breakfast right before fajr prayer and an equally impressive dinner with slow-cooked stews, soups or meat dishes coupled with deliciously sweet fruit salads or pastries from the bakery. Before she began to fast, the end of Ramadan meant that her already full cheeks were eventually stretched to their limits. Her new Eid outfit, sometimes sewn by her mother or selected from her father’s inventory, stretched across her rotund stomach as she tried to get Aisha’s or Fatima’s attention as they sat giggling with a group of teenage girls dressed in similar embroidered abayas or hijabs.

Luckily, the group of girls was too distracted to see Asma finishing off the half-eaten cake or cookies that they had left on small paper plates. This is how Asma got the name “The Hoover” as a kid. It didn’t bother her until she came to understand that a girl being nicknamed after a vacuum did not make her the most delicate feminine creature on the block.

    If there was one thing that Asma longed for, ever since the moment that she discovered the brownish-red stain of her first menses in her underwear at eleven years old, was to be considered a beautiful (Muslim) girl. She obsessively observed the attention that a young single sister, dressed in an elegant, yet simple, jilbab received from a highly sought after single brother. In between bites of bean pie or Ma’amoul cookie she watched as a sister, pretty face encased by soft fabric, lowered her eyes to answer a possible husband’s questions. Typically the sister kept her small hands folded in her lap and a soft shy smile on her lips. Asma was instantly entranced by these innocent flirtations that took place during the Eid.

   She was equally romanced by the world of music videos, teen magazines and R&B crooners. Although, her father was not fond of popular music, the only music that met his standards was jazz and some classical, he did not totally forbid music from the household like other more strict families. So, on most nights, she fell asleep with her headphones plugged into her radio listening to different voices, male and female, sang about the trials and triumphs of intense love. And while she was taught to love all of the Qur’an, she listened more intently to her mother as she read to her about God’s mercy and love. Her interest peaked at the descriptions of love between mates; and, when reading about the Prophet she was inspired by his relationship with his first wife Khadijah. Thus, during her pre-teens, in her own household, she went from being described as “The Hoover” to being known for her dreamy, infatuation with the romantic. In her mind the romantic mostly involved a tall, handsome man sweeping his lovely (small) lady off of her tiny feet.

The paradox was that this fantasy ultimately excluded its creator. Asma was neither small nor delicate. Her pre-pubescent chubby body evolved into a curvy woman’s body almost overnight. By the time she was fourteen her hips propelled her into a size 14 and  into an ample C cup bra.

“Asma you need to fix your hijab! Drape it lower because your boobs look huge!”  This was typically Aisha’s insistent voice before school or on the way to a family outing.

“Shut up Isha! I can’t help it! You just wish you had a small dab of what I’ve got!”

Asma knew how to fight back against Aisha’s comments about her shirt being too tight or how the cut of a certain skirt emphasized her belly fat. Yet, often her eyes filled with tears because she was so much bigger than her two thin sisters and, indeed, her chest strained against a shirt that a year before had fit her properly.

“Shh! Both of you. Aisha you need to worry about yourself. Come here Asma. Don’t be upset. I’ve got the perfect scarf for you. Come here.”

Of course this was Fatima leading her into her room and pulling out a huge piece of fabric that she expertly pinned to cover her little sister.

 Asma recognized that she was not delicate like Fatima or thin and tall like Aisha. She did not have a gentle, soothing voice like Fatima or the perfect frame for abayas made for bodies like Aisha’s. Instead, by the time she was sixteen she started to embrace her own style. So she went from being Asma the romantic to Asma the outrageous. If the newest look was 80s inspired she found a way to make it modest. Her mother had a policy that the girls could do what they wanted to their hair as long as it was covered so there was a small period when her hair was died pink and twisted into curly coils that framed her face. She wore her full hair naturally curly and as she got older it grew thicker and bigger. Her hijab could barely tame it.

She stood now in the kitchen, her big hair pulled back into a puff, chopping tomatoes for a garden salad. Anais worked on the cucumber and her mother put on a large pot of rice.

“No Anais, smaller. Boy, you need more practice in the kitchen!”

 Anais ignored his older sister and continued to cut his cucumber in thick slices. All of his sisters thought they were experts in something and that he needed each one’s instruction. If it was not Aisha correcting his recitation, it was Fatima suddenly taking the vacuum cleaner out of his hands and demonstrating to him how to achieve the perfect lines in the rug. Who really cared about lines in a carpet or the thickness of a cucumber? All that really mattered was that the rug was clean and that the cucumber tasted good with Ummi’s homemade Italian dressing. As far as his recitation, Aisha corrected his tone more than anything as if she knew what it was like for your voice to squeak when you wanted it to sound deep. But his sisters were know-it-alls and there was nothing he could do about it. When he was little he use to complain to his father, but he was told some line about them using him as practice for when they would be someone’s mother. “But I’ve got one ummi, I don’t need four. Dang!”

Everyone laughed at this underestimating the extent to which ten year old Anais felt that he couldn’t take anymore direction from his older sisters or he would scream. Luckily there was his room, his comic books and his drawing pads where he could write stories where there were no girls (at least there were no bossy sisters) and no schools. His own room meant freedom and he had it because he was the only boy. He finished chopping the cucumber (his way) and began to leave Asma to finish the salad.

“Anais! I want you to finish your reading before we break the fast!”

“Alright”

He had planned to go up to his room to finish off his X-Men comic and his own picture of Wolverine but instead he went into the prayer room to read Qur’an. His father already sat on the sofa and he took a place beside him letting out a breath.

Asma and her mother finished preparing dinner quietly each lost in her own thoughts. Mrs. Aziz was thinking about the chicken breasts roasting in the oven. She had placed lemon slices and fresh herbs underneath the thin skin of each one before drizzling a small amount of olive oil over the roaster pan. She prayed that there was enough for both families and then thought that she should have made the tilapia filets also just in case. Just in case, she whispered now, hurrying to the refrigerator now, and taking out the paper wrapped fish.

“What did you say?” Asma asked with a jump. Her mother’s whispered sigh had startled Asma out of the nervous thought that occupied her as she peeled oranges for the fruit salad. She registered her mother’s reply of “Nothing” barely because she was speedily peeling the fruit. She needed time to pick what she would wear to the iftar. She had to find something that she did not have to iron. She slid the knife through the orange and began to hum to herself. Suddenly, she visualized herself in a simple purple tunic and an extra wide silvery scarf that she had never worn. She would wear it with her simple black indoor slippers. She could imagine herself coming downstairs just as the call to Maghrib prayer was made. She would enter the kitchen, where everyone stood waiting to break the fast. She would greet everyone and then smile at Mrs. Abdullah. Would he be looking at her? She would not know because she promised herself that she would not let her eyes wander. She would simply see the dates set out, round and plump, in a serving bowl ready to be devoured by the two families, first one, then another and finally the third.

From inside her room, Aisha could hear the voices of the women in the kitchen. Anais was already playing in his room with Maryam’s brother Jamil. What she didn’t hear was her father’s voice or Mr. Abdullah or Maryam’s older brother Habib. They were probably in the prayer room waiting for the finishing touches on the meal Or perhaps they has stepped outside onto the porch to talk about her father’s latest shipment. Aisha wanted to stay in her room until the very last moment. She sat on her bed, with her hair uncovered. She had slipped out of her jean skirt and into a more comfortable pair of sweat pants right after prayer. She had arrived home with Fatimah just in time to make the prayer after quickly swallowing her dates. She was downstairs just long enough to greet Maryam and her family, then she discretely made her way to her room. It was the smallest room in their home but Aisha managed to fit her twin bed, a dresser lined with pictures and a desk still covered with old books ranging from Charlotte’s Web to the third Harry Potter.

She had stopped at the third book after going to a lecture with Maryam where the sheikh had irritably dismissed “people celebrating some teen wizard messing with magic. May Allah ta ala forgive us.” It wasn’t hard for Aisha to give up Harry Potter, she had never quite been able to allow her mind to go to the faraway places, or configure the  far out creatures and people, that populated Harry’s world. It wasn’t until she began college, and started taking English courses, that she understood that she had a slight leaning towards realism. She grew accustomed to being the quiet black girl with the scarf on her head in a class room full of white kids. Somehow these kids had access to a vocabulary, a world of books, which had escaped Aisha. They knew names like Elliot, Stein, Ginsberg and Woolf. In these books  things were always unraveling and people seemed to have no direction. They just seemed to float in a world of despair-yet they embraced this despair, this confusion, and seemed to celebrate it. The language, the words, was all that seemed to matter. Aisha was moved by the language but it was the emptiness, the meaninglessness of it all, which was so strange to her.

Aisha had been secretly delighted when her professor talked about T.S. Elliot’s conversion to the church. She could understand that at least. After reading The Waste Land Aisha could understand why this poet needed to find God. Even if he was wrong in thinking that Jesus was God. Yet, her professor had just shook her head with this look of contempt and disappointment as she talked about Elliot’s conservatism. The thin, red haired guy with a deeply freckled hand that sat next to Aisha had said “Damn, he fucking sold out!” This declaration was met with a huge round of laughter. The professor had also laughed nodding her bobbed hair cut up and down with approval. That was another thing that Aisha didn’t get. Why did everyone think it was so wonderful to sprinkle their sentences with profanity? Especially in her English classes.

 It was just another thing to add to the list. Another thing to laugh with Maryam about in their dorm room as they talked about the silly things that happened at college. The two girls  had to compartmentalize. There was the information that you could take and use without a doubt and then there were the attitudes, the misguided opinions that rubbed harshly against their faith that could not be internalized.

The two girls had learned this technique most intensely when attending their first Friday night halaqa in one of the campus centers with the other Muslim students. It had felt, immediately, like a safe haven. The two girls had walked into the room full of other girls with scarves on their head. While there were, of course, girls who did not cover, the majority did. Most of the girls were sitting on the right side of the room and the guys were on the left. While a few people sat in mixed groups chatting the room was clearly separated by a clear, yet invisible, line. Aisha scanned the room and quickly registered that there was only one other black girl and two other black guys. Then she quickly checked herself. This is a room full of Muslims, Aisha, we are all Muslims, she told herself.

The brother speaking, on that particular night,  was  a graduate student in engineering. His beard was neatly trimmed and for most of his talk his eyes were fixed on the left side of the room. Not once, did he let his deep set eyes, glance on the side where Aisha sat. While the brothers offered up low murmurs of approvals, most of the girls just silently nodding their heads. The talk was about seeking knowledge but remembering that pleasing Allah must come first and that his boundaries were clear. His words reminded her of her mother’s words as she helped her pack her bags the summer before her first year. Remember who you are Aisha and don’t worry about what other people think, Mrs. Aziz had said with a small smile. Then she had laughed knowing that her strong-minded middle daughter had never really had a problem with speaking her mind or standing her ground.

There was Isha prayer and then snacks after the first halaqa. Maryam and Aisha befriended the other freshmen girls right away. There was Rashida and Roohe, Pakistani twin sisters who lived in the dorm right next to their dorm. They were there with two other girls who they knew from their high school. While they stood in a small circle chatting Aisha’s eyes began to scan the room again. She glanced at two sisters, faces veiled with niquab, only a couch away laughing together. On the couch next to them was a group of five girls. Each one was exquisitely wrapped in a stylish rectangular scarf-only one wore the typical square scarf that Aisha almost always wore. There was one with ivory skinned and almond shaped eyes perfectly outlined in eyeliner. She wore a long sweater belted with slim fitting dark jeans and heels that matched the sweater. Each of the girls looked like they had walked out of one of the  fashion magazines that her parents brought back for Asma after staying in Egypt after making Hajj. At the center of the group was the black girl that Aisha had noticed when first entering the room. The other girls were nodding and giggling at whatever the girl was saying. She talked mostly with her hands which were long and thin and a chesnut brown like her face. She was gorgeous and the most stylish in a purple tunic embroidered with gold thread. On her wrists she wore gold bangles that Aisha could hear clattering with each movement of her hand. Somalian, probably Aisha had thought noting the girl’s high cheekbones and small heart shaped lips.  Aisha glanced back at her group noting how young they looked compared to the group that she had just been watching. There was Maryam in her signature overgarment (she did not wear pants or skirts) with her tightly pinned scarf. The four other girls did not cover their heads. Both of the twins were delicately thin with matching ponytails and black rimmed glasses.

By the end of that first semester Aisha knew that the beautiful girl’s name was Amna and she was a Junior with a Political Science major. She also was Eritrean. Finding this out, Aisha had rushed online to discover yet another country where there were Muslims.  Aisha did not learn this from Amna directly but from one of the twins, Rashida.  Rashida knew everything about everyone who was a part of the Muslim students group including: what country they were from, if they were from the United States originally where there parents were born, what they were majoring in and where they lived on campus.  Rashida and Roohe were also members of the Pakistani Cultural Club and the Pre-Med group. That was another thing almost everyone seemed to know -what there major was going to be. Even Maryam knew that she had come to study Elementary Education so that she could teach kindergarten. Aisha contently took her electives hoping to find something that made sense to her.

 Unfortunately, as a first year, her schedule was not entirely up to her so she found herself attending her World History Class at eight am on one of the campuses that she had to get to by bus. The class was half full when she arrived and she sat in the fifth row of the lecture hall. She was early so she busied herself by writing the date on the top of her notebook in big bubble letters and then retracing the letters over and over again. She heard someone entering her row from the other side but she did not bother to look up. It was only when she dropped her pin and it rolled towards the black and white Adidas clad foot that she looked up to see the brown hand grab the pen and the lanky sweat shirt clad body make its way over towards her seat.

“Assalaamualaikum. I think this is yours.”

Aisha, surprised to be offered the greeting, looked up into a face that seemed to be vaguely familiar.

She returned the boy’s greeting and said “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

It wasn’t until twenty minutes into the class that she remembered where she had seen the face before. Although the Muslim student group had a  location for Friday prayer and meetings on one of the campuses, on the main campus, where most of the students had classes, there was no central place to offer their prayers. Instead, they had claimed a small study lounge where you could make your afternoon prayers behind a display case that served as a privacy wall. A few times before Aisha had spotted the boy getting up from his prostration and hurriedly putting on his sneakers just as she was arriving to pray. She had also seen him talking to Amna once or twice at the Friday night meeting before leaving abruptly right before the discussion began. It would be weeks before she learned that he was Amna’s brother, a sophomore and that his name was Rafiq. This information was, of course, contributed by Rashida in a hurried whisper into Aisha’s ear when he appeared after a meeting waiting for Amna with an impatient look on his face. Although he greeted Aisha every Monday and Wednesday morning of the history class for the first month of class it would be a chance meeting in the same aisle of the library, looking for the same book for their first paper assignment that they would formally meet and become study partners.

This first official meeting was just beginning to play in Aisha’s head, for what she thought was the thousandth time that week, when a faint knock was heard at the door.

“Isha it’s me Maryam.” a soft voice said with a hint of hesitation.

Aisha jumped off the bed and quickly grabbed her scarf off of her dresser. She wasn’t quite sure why she was hurrying to cover her hair before she told Maryam to come in-but she did.

When Maryam did enter the room Aisha was agitated to see that look on her face again. Maryam had been looking at Aisha that way since a week before Ramadan started. It was the first time that Maryam had ever looked at Aisha like she had no idea what to say to her.

“Your mom wanted me to tell you that everyone is ready to eat now.”

“Okay…” A table full of people was so much better than having to be one on one with Maryam anyway. She had avoided being alone with her for more than five minutes, which was extremely difficult being that they shared a room a little bigger than the small room that they stood in together now.

Maryam looked at Aisha again her green eyes full of both confusion and doubt. Maryam wanted to know what to say-she willed herself to find the right words. Aisha was studying the green eyes. If Maryam had been light skinned they would not have been so startling. But it was the way in which they seemed to flash at you against her tree-bark brown skin and jump out from her small frame that made them truly beautiful. Aisha could remember a time when her sisters and she said that if they could have anyone’s eyes they would be Maryam’s. This always made Maryam beam.

“Isha…” Maryam was willing herself to say it finally.

Aisha was still for a moment.

“They will kill us girl if we make them wait another second and I’m starving too!”

With those words she smiled broadly and Maryam could not resist a smile.

(read Part IV below)

Aisha: Part IV

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********* Part IV************

The first moments of an iftar are always silent. As much as the eaters try to restrain themselves, as much as they try to remember not to smack their lips too loudly, or that it is in poor taste to pile your plate when others have not yet made theirs, there is an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction knowing that the food in front of you can be eaten. If you are lucky you might have spent your fasting day around your own home or in the company of other people observing Ramadan. Yet, for many the fasting day has been spent watching a co-worker gulping down a Big Mac, large fries and a shake in less than ten minutes. Or reminding your boss, who offers you a peppermint from her candy jar that you are fasting today to which she replies that a peppermint is not food. This is then followed by your reminder that you cannot have anything to eat or drink while you are fasting. No gum, she says.

You shake your head. No water. You shake your head again, conscious that you have worked for this person for over five years and had this conversation at least three times. The conversation always ends with her saying “Hmmm. I don’t know, sis, that’s a little too darn strict for me!” Followed by a long hard suck on the peppermint candy. This is the same woman who practically begged you to take a sip of her wine at an office luncheon a month again exclaiming “One sip ain’t gonna get you drunk, girl!”

So when the iftar spread is in front of you and you can finally eat you are glad that there is that moment of silence when you can just enjoy the way in which a rightly cooked string bean snaps in your mouth or that a perfectly roasted  bite of chicken breast seems to melt against the tongue. Maryam’s mother was savoring the sweetness of the carrot in her salad, at the Aziz’s dinner table, after a long day processing new employees’ paper in her job’s human resources department. When the two other woman who shared her office space had come back into the office, during lunchtime, with steaming platters of brown-stewed chicken Darcy Abdullah had quickly snatched up an envelope that needed to be mailed and hurried out of the room. After twenty-six years of fasting she knew when she had to get some non-aroma filled air.

Darcy now sat in between her daughter and her daughter’s best friend Aisha. At the opposite end of the table was her husband who had broken the much needed silence with a boisterous laugh  and a celebratory comment about the fish. Darcy suppressed a small sigh. Her husband, Bilal, could not stomach silence. Well, mainly he couldn’t stomach it if there was a crowd. She had gotten used to the fact that if there was ever to be a gathering she could pick her husband’s voice out. It so often soared above the typical murmur of collective conversation. Perhaps this was because his male voice did not carry much bass-no there was no Barry White in Bilal. He was all tenor, and sometimes, Darcy thought, he even hit a soprano if his polemic moved him there. Without any feeling of guilt, she prayed that the conversation would remain mellow, perhaps even banal. How many times did she listen to someone, mainly a brother, offer a khutbah after the khutbah. Even the Prophet, peace be upon him, knew when it was time to play, to eat or to rest. What was more unbelievable to Darcy, was the sharp, almost bewildering, difference between her husband in the outside world and at home. In fact, it usually began in the car, right after an outing. Bilal became quiet as a mouse! The children, especially when they were smaller, could be practically killing each other in the back seat, and all he would offer was a “Hey…hey, now.”

At home was no different. It was almost as if the fire that had kindled all of the jokes and debates was reduced to the tiniest spark. Darcy could not say that this bothered her much. They so often retreated to their different spaces within the small row home. Nowadays, she typically sat in Maryam’s room trying to teach herself to knit. It was an activity that she thought would come easily but after three weeks she had only managed misshapen baby booty. Two floors below, Bilal sat on an old stool in the unfinished basement that often filled with the strong smell of the oil that was burning. In between reading about how to convert from oil to gas he worked on the color tv he had promised his youngest son. The television that he had spotted while delivering mail in Chestnut Hill. It was the same neighborhood that he had found the almost new rocking chair which his wife sat in now as she pulled at a piece of purple yarn. The television was perfect except for one thick black line that cut vertically through the crisp, clear picture.

Bilal Abdullah began the conversation with what had become a typical topic  for most Philadelphians gathered in groups of two or more. After a summer full of shooting after shooting, where a three year old was shot in the face while playing in her living room, the stray bullet penetrating the bay window of her home, there was an overwhelming feeling that the violence would destroy the city.

“Yeah…these latest guys robbed a bank and shot the security guard right in the chest! Caught two of them and did you know what their names were…yup you know it…Radee Muhammed and Mustafa Abdur-Rahim! May Allah have mercy on us. Both of them not over 21 years old.”

Malik Aziz let out a slow breath and shook his head slowly from side to side. It was news like this that had motivated him to install a buzzer system in the store recently. Yet he felt silly looking at the monitor and then cautiously letting people into the store. What was he looking for anyway? Almost every face was brown or tan that came into his store. If it wasn’t a new Muslim eagerly searching for an English Qur’an or new modest clothing, it was one of his customers that he had known for decades.

 His lifetime residency in the city had made it impossible for him to summon the right amount of suspicion and fear. At least for himself. He made sure that Anais was in the house or with him after school. His wife had always kept a tight rein on the girls. He was the one who had to convince her to let Aisha leave home to attend college. It wasn’t until they had walked the shaded paths of the campus together, and Mrs. Aziz had spotted a group of Muslim girls walking together, the she finally agreed to let Aisha join Maryam at the New Jersey school. He looked at Aisha now.

She sat with her fork held firmly in her  right hand chewing quietly. Unlike his other daughters who were busy chatting with each other and Maryam, Aisha sat  thoughtfully engaged with Maryam’s father’s words.  She reminded him of his mother. Beyond her smile, she sat with the same straight back and walked like his mother. Every time  he spotted Aisha walking some distance from him, he could see his mother gliding down the street towards the Temple, a handkerchief tied loosely underneath her chin. She almost always wore the whitest, starched handkerchief that framed her flawless chocolate skin. The neighbors talked about her in the usual terms reserved for a woman who was perceived to act with a little too much pride. Who does she think she is…Cleopatra? Even Cleopatra had a man, though! Why she always got something tied around her old nappy head? He could still remember Charles Gibson telling him in seventh grade that his mama told him that Malik’s mother worshiped the Moon God! 

The accusations only seemed to make his mother walk straighter and tie the fabrics around her head in a more elaborate manner. Yes, Aisha took after her grandmother although they had never met. He looked now at Asma who was unusually quiet. It was confirmed in his head that his youngest, most talkative child, had been struck silent by the young man sitting diagonal from her.  

Habib Abdullah was quieter than his father.  His large six foot four frame was that of a linebacker but he had never played a real game of football in his life. Instead he had spent the majority of his time competing in math or chess tournaments. Four years ago during his senior year at the school he had represented the masjid on the youth board of an inter-faith committee. He had been popular with the Christian and Jewish student representatives- quick with a joke and easy in his tone as he explained the Muslim stance on this issue or that issue. He was fast approaching his graduation from Drexel University-nearing the completion of his degree in Computer Engineering. He was already working in the university’s tech department. Living with his parents had allowed him to put money aside for the apartment he was moving into after Ramadan in University City.

He set down his fork and listened to his father offer a few last words on the city’s crime statistics. He felt relieved when his father became, once again, consumed with his eating and Habib turned to Fatimah who sat next to him.

“So have you decided if you’re applying to the nursing program at Drexel?”

He had caught Fatimah mid chew. She held up a thin finger with a small smile as she managed to chew the fish and swallow. She took a sip of her water and smiled.

“Sorry” he said with a laugh.

“It’s okay. We’re not sure yet-me and Asma. We’re still looking at Temple’s program. Um Sister Zakiyah got her degree from there.”

He nodded quickly glancing at Asma then back at Fatimah.

“Well they’re both good. Drexel’s been great for me. Not all of us gotta leave the city to get an education like the uppity twins over there!”

His shot at the two best friends who sat together across from him did not elicit their usual eye rolling and quick replies. Aisha stared mainly at her half eaten plate. Maryam just shrugged at her older brother’s verbal jab.

“So any ideas on your major yet, lil’ sis?” Mr. Abdullah asked Aisha readying himself for a conversation about the cost of education.

“Not yet. I thought it was English. But I’m not really sure.”

“Those degrees are mighty expensive these days for a subject like English, right brother Aziz?”

 Aisha’s response had been quiet and now she barely heard her father’s response. The conversation floated beyond her and she stared at the lace table cloth.  She traced her finger along a small yellow stain. She guessed that it was from Anais. Years ago he could never keep his food on his plate. He didn’t like this vegetable or that meat. So he would just push the plate’s contents around and around creating a saucy whirlpool that always led onto their mother’s table cloth.

“I’m going to lay down.” She told her mother.

“You don’t want to go to taraweeh prayers with your father. They’ll be heading out soon.”

Mrs. Aziz was surprised to see her daughter shake her head no, give the still chatting diners farewell greetings and leave the dining room. Out of all her children Aisha loved the long Ramadan night prayers the most. Since she was twelve she would accompany her father back out to the masjid even when her sisters stayed behind.

Tonight was indeed a reversal as it was Asma who ran upstairs to change into her abaya while her father, Habib, Mr. Abdullah and the boys waited in the foyer for her. Fatimah was already putting food away in the kitchen and beginning to soak the dishes. The two Abdullah women sat chatting with Mrs. Aziz until Asma swept into the room in a green over garment.

 Moments later, the worshippers descended the porch steps hastily and Mrs. Aziz shut the door with a sigh. She secured the bottom lock and let out another sigh as she untied her headscarf laying it on the back of a dining room table.

“Ya Allah. I’m tired!”

“Don’t worry about the dishes ummi. I got it!” Fatimah called from the kitchen. Her mother walked through the narrow passage and watched Fatimah scrubbing away at a roaster pan.

 “Oh Fati- that was not meant for you. I’m definitely not leaving this mess on you baby.”

“Most of the food is gone.” Fatimah said with a laugh.

“Ramadan.”

They both laughed and Mrs. Aziz grabbed the broom. She swept slowly.

“Is something bothering Isha, Fatimah?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“She didn’t seem strange to you today.”

“Aisha’s like that during Ramadan. Quiet, I guess.”

Her mother nodded sweeping the small amount of dust on the floor into a pile.

 “Ask Aisha if she wants to join us for prayer?”

Fatimah took the stairs quickly, stretching as she walked the narrow hallway towards her sister’s room. The door was shut and Fatimah lifted her hand to knock when a slight noise from within the room stopped her. It sounded like a deep gasp. She listened not moving and another sound followed. This sound was a whimper.

Aisha was crying. Fatimah stood frozen not knowing what to do. She could not remember the last time she had heard her younger sister crying. Yes, when Aisha was angry she would sometime wipe away hot tears from her eyes but this sounded different. Her first instinct was to open the door and demand to know what was going on. Then she heard a few whispered words. A pause was followed by more quiet mumbles only interrupted by more crying.

She was talking to someone. Fatimah backed away from the door. She had never wanted to eavesdrop more in her life but she couldn’t do it. She could still hear Aisha’s quiet voice as she moved away from the door.

Downstairs Mrs. Aziz laid out the prayer rugs and placed a burning incense stick in its holder.

Iddah

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For quite some time Meredith lay across the bed watching the light sneak through the spaces between the bedroom blinds. The Qur’an that she had read after fajr prayer lay open on her nightstand and the penetrating sun seemed to highlight select words in the surah. She lay across the bed still in her prayer clothes-a long purple skirt too warm for the late June weather paired with a gray long sleeve tunic. After her reading she had tossed her scarf onto a pile of clothing stacked ontop of the corner armchair.

She had quietly made wudu tiptoeing past Bashirah’s room. Later her daughter would complain: “Mommy, why didn’t you wake me up?”

Her reply would of course be a half truth. It would not satisfy the eight year old’s demanding eyes. Those eyes which seemed to relentlessly push for answers and detailed explanations. Those narrowing eyes that seemed to know when her mother was substituting the truth with simple half-hearted phrases meant to dismiss and avoid. She’s too much like . . .Before she let herself complete that thought she spring off of the disheveled bed, grabbed a towel off of the top of the hamper and headed towards the bathroom.

In the shower, with warm water cascading over the tense muscles in her shoulders, she visualized her day. Pancakes for Bashirah. Reading for school. Lesson plans for her class. Lunch for Bashirah. A quick stop to buy a present for her niece Luisa’s birthday party. Then the birthday party with the looks and sympathetic pats on the arm. Perhaps her brother Ricky would make another comment about coming to his church. And what would she say back to him? Whose words would she use to brush him off this time?

No. Not today. Her mother would understand her dropping Bashirah off early.

After the shower she stood facing herself in the mirror her black hair hanging limp around her shoulders. When she had turned thirty one she began to spot fine black hairs growing out of odd places under her chin or on her pale neck. Since then she had kept tweezers in the cup holder in her car, using the natural light of the sun to find hairs that she could not see in the muted bathroom light. Her headscarf wrapped tightly around the bottom of her chin had allowed her to keep her battle with facial hair private.

Yet two months ago she had taken to only wearing a thin bandana tied at the nape of her neck. She would wind her ponytail into a bun so that most of her hair was hidden underneath the triangle of fabric. But the change also meant that the tiny bumps that marked the spots where she ruthlessly plucked hairs were apparent. In her lesser head covering she thought she looked like the tiny Greek lady who had walked up and down her street when she was a kid. She always wore black even in ninety degree weather. Sometimes she would give Meredith a piece of fruit other times she ignored Meredith completely-muttering under her breath in Greek.

She smiled broadly at her reflection. Then just as quickly she let her mouth fall into a non expressive line. She heard Bashirah now, padding down the hallway towards her empty bedroom. With a sigh, she wet her toothbrush and reached for the toothpaste.

In the kitchen Bashirah was already pouring herself a bowl of cereal and adding milk. Meredith walked quietly into the small space and picked up a banana from the fruit bowl on the counter.

 

“Do you want banana Bashirah?”

 “Uh-uh.” her daughter offered never lifting her eyes up from the faded cartoon covered bowl she was eating from. As she ate, she ran her tan finger along the back of the cereal box she was reading. If Anwar was here, Bashirah would read it outloud to him and he would sit next to her-his large frame dwarfing his daughter. He would nod without any type of feigned interest, offering a laugh when appropriate or an approving head nod when the box described a fact about the rainforest or math.

 Meredith would watch comparing her husband’s dark skin to his much fairer daughter. While he did not offer melanin to Bashirah’s complexion he could be seen in the tightly coiled brown hair. When Anwar’s sister saw Meredith’s attempt at braiding a three year old Bashirah’s hair she doubled over laughing.

 “Meredith! You can’t just put those big old uneven plaits in this child’s hair. Look how it’s pulling apart in the back and so dry. What did you put it in it?”

 Meredith noticed that all of the other women, packed in the women’s section of the mainly Nigerian masjid, were staring-most with amused smiles on their faces. A warm blush was making its way up Meredith’s neck.

 “I didn’t put anything in it. I just used some kid’s shampoo!”

 “That’s the problem right there. This child doesn’t have white girl hair. You’ve got to moisturize it. Put some coconut oil or olive oil. Twist it. Don’t worry Bashirah. Auntie’s going to give you a nice hairdo after prayer.”

Right then and there Meredith decided that she would never be corrected on how to do her own daughter’s hair. She learned how to condition it, to detangle it and even how to cornrow into neat even rows. She could laugh at the memory now but at the time she had wanted to snatch her tiny daughter off of the prayer rug and march back down the stairs.

“What’s wrong mommy?”

 Bashirah was done eating and Meredith realized she still stood with her hand touching the fruit in the bowl.

 “Nothing sweetie. I think you’re going over to Nana’s early today.”

 

The traffic on the 42 freeway to Atlantic City was horrendous. Meredith had expected nothing different. Somehow it calmed her to be sitting perfectly still in a line of inching traffic. The air was warm but she sat with the windows down- no air conditioner. She was playing one of her favorite games since childhood. Simply listening to the snatches of music and conversation that erupted from the cars that she slowly inched by or that crept pass her. She listened to a snippet of music and then visualized what the passengers in the car next to her would look like. Eminem or Jay-Z almost always meant a car full of frat boys that she refused to make eye contact with-a trick that dated back to college. No it would be more accurate to say she learned it from coming into her house after school.

 The living room would be smoked filled, MTV music blaring, and Ricky would be surrounded by an entourage of his pot smoking friends. She kept her eyes down. Although her stomach was growling-craving a snack from the kitchen, she, instead, headed straight up the steps to her bedroom. Adolescent male voices followed hers.

 “That’s your sister, huh Rick?” said with a snicker.

 Her brother was silent.

 “Uh, she’s…she’s.”

 “Yeah, she’s a wideload!” Her brother always finished their description.

 The girls in the car next to her sounded like college girls. Rihanna’s nasal tones were background to their laughter. A foot decorated with hot pink toenail polish dangled from the backseat. A foot dangler. Meredith rolled her eyes. Her roommate from college’s voice rung in her ear.

 “What is up with your people and dangling their old pink feet out of the car?”

Rashida spent most of her time criticizing the peculiar things that white folks did. Meredith thought it was funny. At first she was quiet; but after three years of friendship she asked Rashida questions about her people, too.

 “Okay, Ra-but what about your people. We might keep ours in the stroller a little too long but why yall make the babies walk so quick and get all bowlegged? What about that?”

Rashida was quiet for a minute, her face a stone, and then she keeled over laughing. She laughed so hard that the white triangular scarf that she had pinned with a safety pin almost slid off. Rashida was the one who taught her how to pray. When Meredith came to her during junior year and told her she was ready to take shahada she gave it to Meredith. She even held a tiny celebration for her in the dorm lounge. It was Rashida who introduced her to Anwar at the Muslim Student Association’s spring picnic. Rashida was married now with three children and living across the country. Meredith hadn’t spoken to her in five years. Suddenly she wondered: How did I lose touch with the one person who understood me?

She did not know where she was going. She didn’t particularly like the beach or Atlantic City but the pungent sea salt smell somehow fit her mood. There was no parking close to the boardwalk. Her Volkswagen fit perfectly in a spot four long blocks from the beach. As she got out of the car and reached for a scarf to dangle loosely around her neck she watched men carrying tray after tray of food through the tiny side door of a brick building. She could hear the horn blares of salsa music coming from an upstairs party. A delicious spicy smell made Meredith’s stomach grumble as a woman carried a tray of empanadas swiftly down the sidewalk and through the doorway.

Meredith imagined herself catching the door before it was closed and dancing herself into the center of the party. Was it a birthday? A reception? A baptism? She stood there gazing up at the screenless window-a thin polyester curtain twirled in the breeze. A tan hand flicked cigarette ashes out of the window and then there was complete silence. Loud Spanish and laughter filled the music less gap. Then suddenly another salsa horn blare helped Meredith to look away from the window and begin to dig in her purse for change for the meter.

The boardwalk was crowded with shirtless teens, gambling seniors and tourists. She didn’t like Atlantic City but, as she walked its boardwalk, she was even more certain that if fit her mood. The grandiose white and gold structure that was Trump’s Taj Mahal seemed comical, looming grotesquely over the graying wood planks. It made Meredith laugh to see red, sweaty moms hurrying their children through the heavy casino doors to use the bathroom before there was an accident. For the beleaguered mother there was no pot of gold to be found within, just a place to momentarily escape the heat or clean dirty hands.

Meredith ate a warm, sugary funnel cake taking in the swollen crowd one last time before turning her head to stare at the ocean. The ocean silenced her rambling mind.

If the ocean turns into ink for the Words of my Lord, that ocean will exhaust before the Words of my Lord come to an end, even if We bring another similar (ocean or ink) to refill.

She imagined black wet letters staining the sky with ink. She wanted them to say something to her but she only visualized each dripping letter being replaced by the next dark letter before there could be meaning.

The sky seemed silent and the ocean, with all its depth, garbled on unintelligibly. But do I understand this?  She turned her attention back to the boardwalk.  Now there were countless couples to study. The young ones with no hint of chastity between them held hands, waists and hips. Sometimes they were the nucleus of a crowd of teens. As much as their laughing companions told jokes or tried to draw attention to something other than each other, the couple remained unchanged, still connected.

She remembered that pull towards the center. She could still picture herself yapping at the ear of a girlfriend-wanting completely attention, fighting to insure that there could be a devotion between friends that outlasted a first kiss or a slow dance.  There was ultimately the shocking pain of the rejection.  Then there was a waiting period before she would inevitably comfort her girlfriend’s broken heart. 

 I never was a cornflake girl.  The almost forgotten lyrics produced a smile on Meredith’s face. She dumped the oily plate into the trash bin and tossed one end of her scarf around her neck. She stared into the crowd. She had become fascinated with her past in the month and a half since Anwar had left. When they were together she had found her life boring in comparison to his life. His world was full of  stories of ancestors, travel, politics and music.  What was there to say about a bus driver mother and bullying brother? In the months before their marriage he asked her countless questions. 

The questions overwhelmed her. They shook her up so much that one afternoon, sitting on a bench in the middle of campus, she told him about how she lost her virginity  at fifteen to her older brother’s twenty one year old friend. She told him that  he was drunk and that he forced her.

“And what did your brother do?”

That question demonstrated to Meredith how different their worlds had been.  She could not imagine that if Ricky had known he would have done anything. She could not imagine that he would care if someone hurt her.   

She had said it to Anwar again and again. You are the only man who  has ever cared about me. You are the only man who has ever protected me.

Asr prayer was in.

Inside one of the casino bathrooms she made wudu. She found a corner outside of the restroom area and tied her scarf under her chin. As she said her prayers the shrill sound of the slot machines faded away. She only became distracted when she noticed a white haired woman staring at her intently- standing directly in front of her.  Meredith raised her hands and kneeled down pressing her forehead against the rug. When she sat back up again the woman was gone. She let out a slow breath.

After prayer she walked the boardwalk slowly, making sure to stay on the edge of the crowd.

“Assalaamaualaikum sister!”

The greeting surprised her. It came from a man in a wheelchair. He navigated the chair with his left hand and pulled himself forward by pushing out his right leg. He didn’t have on any shoes.

“Walaikumasalaam.” Meredith felt under her chin and realized that she still had the scarf tied under her chin. She nodded at the man with a small smile as he passed her and let her hand fall away from where the scarf was secured.  The sun had stopped beating directly down on her head. The party was probably over by now and she predicted that Bashirah was already anxious to leave.  She might occupy herself by half-heartedly playing cards with a younger cousin but her dark eyes were probably staring at her grandmother’s door. Yet, when her mother appeared Bashirah would not run to her with her arms extended for an embrace. She would simply nod, pack up her purple book bag that was always with her, and walk quietly towards where Meredith stood. She watches me now, Meredith thought navigating her body through the crowd.

The impulse for more sugar guided her to a stand where she ordered a waffle cone full of butter pecan ice cream.  She was occupying a child hood fantasy, complete free reign to eat junk food without censure.  Her mother had known nothing of healthy eating. She had kept the pantry stocked with salty chips, cookies and candy. Dinner was often fried egg sandwiches with cheese;  potato chips piled high on the side. Neither her mother or Ricky were thin but it was Meredith who became the one who was chastised for popping open a second can of grape soda. You don’t need that her mother would assert watching her daughter grab something from the refrigerator.  By age twelve, Meredith had perfected a whiny tone that she noticed helped other girls to either escape trouble or appear cute.

Well, what else am I supposed to eat ,ma?  She would say that placing her hands on her hips, still standing with the fridge door open. Her mother was not impressed or seduced by Meredith’s foray into pre-teen sassiness.  In fact, it made it more apparent to her that Meredith had no real clue or insight into how she truly appeared. 

Try taking a walk Mer, how ‘bout that?  Ain’t nobody gonna want a woman they can’t carry. Got it! 

With that, the door to the refrigerator was slammed and Meredith was forced outdoors to “walk.” She usually walked to the playground a block from her house and sat on a swing, her stomach growling. She satiated herself with fantasies that her mother’s recommendations would pay off.  She would walk so that her neck would become elongated and smooth.  It would be a neck destined for passionate kisses.

The first time that Anwar saw her without hijab he instantly touched her neck.  His fingers traced a trail that ran from right under her ear to the beginning of her collar bone.  

The ice cream had begun to drip onto her fingers. She licked at them distracted. She was trying to remember how much money she had in her checking account and if she could afford a hotel room for the night.  Why not the Taj Mahal? The thought made her laugh out loud.  She wondered if the rooms could out do the exterior. She felt as if she was planning an escape. She could see herself waking up in different hotel rooms, driving across the country. She had always been curious about the West Coast, Oregon in particular. It seemed like a place where the air was lighter, where she could breath. She imagined that she could buy fruit and vegetables from a farmer’s market-ride her bike home on a winding trail. And the house?  It was blue with yellow flower boxes, an interior full of books and plants. But where was Bashirah? Where was her daughter?

The dripping ice cream was real in her hand. The setting sun and the seagull picking at a hardened pizza crust inches from her feet were also real. She quickly discarded the melting mess and wiped her hands with a napkin. She started to walk the boardwalk again. She wanted to fight what was pulling her back to her car. She was not ready. She rested her hands on the railing and stared out at the beach. The last of the few people who swam in the Atlantic City Ocean were coming out of the water. A father was walking his son across the sand. Meredith stared down at the pair as they shook their shoes free of sand before ascending the concrete stairs.

Quiet. Anwar’s lips were a straight line with nothing to argue or explain. When you’re done, you’re done. No imam can change hearts or minds. When you’re done, you’re done, Meredith.

 The withdrawal was sudden but not unexpected. Early on he came by every day, eating dinner with them, making sure to tuck Bashirah in to bed before slipping out to return to the apartment he was renting.  Now visits were substituted with weekly phone calls. She learned to quickly pass the phone to her daughter, to make herself leave the room because she could not bear to hear Bashirah laughing at her father’s silly jokes.

She had no clue how to make laughter erupt from her child’s throat. She had no idea how to make her daughter stop looking at her with those eyes. If only you were pretty mommy. If only you carried yourself with a straight back and with grace. If only you were interesting enough to make him stay.

But didn’t I give him you?  Meredith replied to the imagined accusations in the same way.  I gave him you and that was not enough.  But she knew that she was telling herself the biggest falsehood. Her faith would not allow her to think in such terms-hyperbolic at best-blasphemous at worst. 

She wanted to leave it here.  She recalled how in the English novels,  that she loved reading at college,  the characters always travelled to the salty sea to cleanse themselves-to heal an ailment or forget a disappointment.  She studied the ocean once more. Its blackness seemed endless. It would not reveal its secret. It was not going to be easy.

She exhaled. Bashirah was waiting. It was time to leave.

Conversation in the Dark

Standard

Sayra inhaled deeply from Josue’s cigarette and handed it back to him.

“I’m getting a bagel. You want?” she asked already opening the door to the donut shop on the corner of 30th Avenue.
“Nah. But, yo, hook me up with a glaze donut.”
“Alright.”

The coolness of the store’s air conditioning hit her in the face and she let out a sigh. She thought that she could spend all day there-sipping iced coffees sweetened by spoonfuls of sugar, chewing on donut holes and talking to Josue. She looked down at her button down shirt concentrating on how the three white pearl buttons that descended across her stomach strained in their holes. She could hear her mother’s voice.
Sayra…you’re getting too chunky. Lay off the sweets…you’re going to be sorry some day.
But she didn’t feel sorry right now. She asked for extra cream cheese on her bagel and three chocolate holes in addition to Josue’s donut.

“Add an iced coffee with lots of cream too.”

The short Greek lady with frosted hair smiled and nodded. She knew the order. Like clockwork the tallish girl with long black hair always entered the store every summer morning around eleven o clock. During the school year she was usually with two other girls as they walked with a group of kids to the high school down near Vernon Boulevard. This summer she was always with the Brazilian looking kid with the skateboard.

The L rumbled above all of their heads and Sayra turned to look at Josue, who was still puffing on the cigarette, through the window. What would they do today? Maybe he would teach her some tricks on his skateboard under the highway ramp near Astoria park or they could hang out at someone’s house. The point was to stay out all day. With her mother and father busy at their shop in Brooklyn it would have been nice to sit around all day watching court television and blasting the air conditioner. But with Fatimah lurking around the house now Sayra couldn’t stand being at home.

It was only a little while ago when school was still in that Fatimah had ratted on her. She had been hanging with her friends in the park one night. Maria’s older brother and his friends were there. Someone had brought out a radio and people were goofing around trying to do their best old school dance, when Sayra had spotted a small woman standing near the fence. Sayra could make out a head scarf and a long skirt. She instantly felt a sense of panic. Hoping that it was someone she didn’t know-or someone who didn’t know her parents-she had turned her back quickly. When she looked again the person was gone. She almost felt a sense of relief until one of her friends said, “Hey, wasn’t that your older sister, Fatimah?”

When she got home that night Fatimah was sitting at the table with her parents. What followed was an hour long lecture on hanging in mixed company. Fatimah had done most of the talking. Finally Sayra blurted out “Fatimah, why do you care? Shouldn’t you be at home cooking for your husband or something!”

This brought on another lecture, with her mother and father taking turns, about how she should be grateful to have a sister who loved her enough to admonish her. At this Fatimah had shed tears. Sayra had felt nothing.

****
Hours later Sayra lay with her back flat against the green metal park bench. She dangled her legs over the bench’s side and shut her eyes. The sun infiltrated her lids so that the blackness of her closed vision was rimmed by a thin glow of orange light. The heat made her legs sweaty in her denim jeans. A requirement even in August weather. Her friend’s Zahra’s mother didn’t mind if Zahra wore cute skirts that showed knees and calves during the summer or a tee shirt that revealed Zahra’s feminine plump arms.
Well, Zahra’s mother wears too much make-up anyway Fatimah had responded when Sayra casually mentioned this before. A typical Hassan family non sequitor. You bring up a jean skirt and you get criticisms about too much kohl on someone’s mother’s eyes. Before Sayra could say anything their mother was interrupting-her voice ringing in from the kitchen with a tone of finality.

“We’ve left you alone about not covering your hair Sayra but you will cover those legs, dear.” Sayra had left the living room hoping to avoid Fatimah’s triumphant smile.

“Yo, something’s going on-check it out.” At the sound of Josue’s voice Sayra opened her eyes. She sat up and felt her stomach tremble from the mixture of heat and dairy. She followed Josue’s gaze to the row homes opposite the park. Almost everyone was standing outside-older ladies with pink rollers and robes on, a mom holding a baby talking enthusiastically to another mom holding her toddler’s hand. Someone in the park shouted.

“All the electricity is out-in the whole city!”

As Sayra and Josue walked back up to 30th Avenue it seemed as if the whole neighborhood had emptied out onto the streets. They both remembered the last time the neighborhood’s streets and sidewalks filled with people.

“My son says it ain’t terrorists. It’s just a plain old blackout” an old man offered to anyone who might be listening. Sayra turned to look at the man standing on the edge of the sidewalk in a stained white tank top and old flannel pajama pants with a rip.
“Dude, these people live for stuff like this!” Josue said looking at her with a smile. They both laughed. Josue’s jokes made her stomach stop trembling for a bit so that she once again focused on her black and white Chuck Taylor’s hitting the hot pavement as they approached a smaller park where people had started to gather.
Moments before memories of her old apartment building had crowded her mind. She had recalled the scent of everyone cooking dinner -the building heavy with the aromas of lamb, onions and cumin. She saw herself on the apartment roof that allowed her to look across her neighborhood into Manhattan’s twinkling lights. Then suddenly that feeling in her chest.

She was grateful that her best friend had a quick wit. The weight in her chest resided and she entered the small park laughing with Josue. Two young enterpreneurs in long tee shirts and baggy jeans were already selling cold water from laundry baskets full of ice. The shish kebab vendor had wheeled his cart closer to the park in order to capitalize on the impromptu crowd.

Soon Josue was skating loops around the park with two other boys-and Sayra, sitting on an edge of concrete near the small fountain, let her ears feel with the whooshing sounds of skateboard wheels hitting concrete and the buzzing of excited conversation. A small little boy with dark black curly hair stood next to Sayra and she smiled at him. He smiled back revealing two small teeth stained red with what Sayra guessed was evidence of a popsicle. Yes, a sticky ring also outlined his pouty mouth.

 

He moved closer to the stagnant pool of fountain water but before he could reach his hand in a young woman in a paisley head scarf was pulling him back.
“No, darling. No.” she said softly, offering a smile to Sayra.
Sayra watched the mother and child return to their bench. They sat next to a man with a mustache and the same thick, ringlet hair inherited by the son.
Somalian probably, Sayra thought. She studied the woman’s deep set eyes and beautifully round mouth. Yes, Somalis.

Then she wondered if the girl could tell what she was or did she just assume that she was Columbian or Brazilian like most people did-because of her long dark hair, brown skin and “wannabe style” as Fatimah, labeled it.

“But doesn’t it bother you that other Muslims don’t recognize you as Muslim anymore, Sayra? Think of how sad it is to not be able to have people greet you on the street.”
“Well, Zahra doesn’t wear hijab and plenty of people greet her around here.”
Fatimah rolled her eyes: “You know that is because her father owns the market. And since when did Zahra become a role model for you. I swear every time with you lately it’s Zahra this and Zahra that. It’s kind of sad, you know.”
This argument was after they were leaving the Islamic Center on Eidul Fitr. Fatimah had been agitated that as soon as they left the gates Sayra had thrown off the grey scarf that covered her head.
“I’m sure you would like it better if it was Fatimah this or Fatimah that, right?”
“No, dear, I would like it better if you followed the sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and most importantly the Qur’an!”
Fatimah was flustered. Her breath was coming in short gasps and her voice was raising with emotion.

Sayra was silent. She wanted to tell her sister that, contrary to her assumptions, she did not always want to be recognized. And, at times, she did not want to be greeted. She wanted to tell her that there were times that she just wanted to melt into the crowd-to become nameless and unburdened. There were times that she wanted to ride her bicycle onto Roosevelt Island without anyone finding it strange that the Muslim girl was with a non-mahram boy. And that it was harmless and that he made her feel safer than any uncle ever had. She wanted Fatimah to know that she still loved Allah-although sometimes she felt confused.

Yet she remained silent because she knew that Fatimah would never understand. Fatimah’s refutations would mock her love and demand her obedience.
****
As the sky began to darken the excitement moved into quiet discussions of candles and flashlights. Josue walked Sayra home despite living in the opposite direction.
“How long do you think this is going to last?”
He shook his head and smiled a little.
“I have no fricking clue! It’s wild, though. Look…not one light is on over there.”
He pointed to the Manhattan sky line. The buildings still loomed large but they began to look as if they were disappearing into the purple-blue sky.
“Oh crap!” Sayra said stopping dead in her tracks.
“What’s up?”
“I just realized that the air conditioners won’t work!”
Josue let out a large burst of laughter.
****
The first smell that entered Sayra’s nose as she entered her family’s brick row home was charcoal. A trail of burning candles led Sayra from the foyer, through the living room and into the kitchen. The sliding doors that led to the backyard was open.

She spotted Fatimah, her small frame covered in a simple green tunic, over the bar-b-que grill. She was lifting a last piece of meat off of the grill, adding it to a round white platter.

“Fatimah-what are you doing?” Sayra said crossing into the outdoors. Fatimah turned to her sister-her typical small smile on her full lips.

“Assalaamualaikum! I’ve been waiting for you! ” she said setting the plate down on the white plastic patio table.

Sayra returned the greeting noting that the table seemed to be full of food-there was grilled vegetables, rice in a disposable aluminum container, flat bread and bottles of water.

“Why are you cooking all this food in the dark?”

“We can’t let this meat go to waste. Daddy just bought it-you know? I was worried about them. But I’m assuming they are at Aunty Rahma’s. She is only about six blocks or so from the shop. Insha’Allah everything is fine. I’ve been making dua since the electricity went out. I tried their cell phone but the networks are all out of wack.”

She was talking a mile a minute in her usual nervous way. She was sitting down now spooning rice onto her own plate and a plate that Sayra assumed was hers. Her older sister had set up a ring of candles that were burning on the table, illuminating the feast.

“Come sit down and say bismillah over the food.”

Sayra did what her sister requested. She spooned the vegetables over the rice and wrapped a piece of meat in bread. The bread was toasty from the grill and the meat perfectly seasoned.

“It’s good Masha’Allah.”

“Not as good as mommy’s but it’s fine” Fatimah responded chewing.

They ate quietly. They could hear their neighbor on the other side of the stone wall that separated the two yards. The older man was calling his cat-his voice more urgent than usual in the darkness. Seconds later his voice softened “Oh there you are you little stinker. Come, I’ve got a treat for you inside.”

The sisters smiled at each other. Alhamdulilah, Fatimah thought. She had gone over hours before to make sure that Mr. Horiates had candles. He had taken her offering with his usual happy chuckle and offered her a box of chocolates. She had declined. The last box he had given the family had been no good-each chocolate square covered in a thin-film of whiteness.

“So what did you do all day?”
Her older sister’s question felt acutely invasive like all of the questions she asked. They were never innocent. Sayra gave her sister a shrug of her shoulder piling another heaping spoonful of rice on her plate.

Ah, there was that wall again. Fatimah felt it falling between them with a thud. She saw another one veiling her sister’s dark eyes. She didn’t want to imagine how her sister could spend a full day away from home. Nine and half hours doing what? She saw the other teen girls all the time-walking up and down the street in the tightest-fitting clothes or openly grinding with boys against walls in broad day light.
Then there was the cursing. The other day while waiting for the bus on Steinway she had been subjected to the most demeaning and disgusting conversation between two girls. They kept calling each other names that Fatimah considered the lowest insult a man could give to a woman. Yet these two girls weren’t mad at each other. They were talking that way and laughing about it!
She looked at Sayra and shook her head. Maybe she was out of touch. That is what Sayra had said to her before. Fatimah, you are so out of touch and you don’t even know that you are. What happened to you?

She had changed. She knew this. Fatimah remembered when she saved all of her money from helping in the store to buy big gold earrings with her name written across them. Mommy had shaken her head and daddy had mumbled something about cheap gold. Yet, she had worn them proudly to her first day of eighth grade with an oversized striped sweater and red stretch pants.

That whole year mommy preached to her about bad influences. Then there were rumblings about going to stay with Aunty Haggar for the summer-her mother’s older sister in Michigan. The rumblings became reality and she found herself on a plane. She arrived in Michigan full of New York attitude only to be met at the gate by Aunty Haggar in a neatly ironed jilbab and headscarf.

Her cousin Bashirah stood behind her mother strikingly beautiful in a simple black scarf and abaya. That summer Bashirah taught her five new surahs, took her shopping with friends who dressed just like her and talked to her about her school-a private Islamic school. Fatimah returned home dressed in a long jean skirt, beige tunic and blue headscarf. Her gold earrings were buried in the bottom of her suit case. Her mother smiled during the entire short ride home from La Guardia to Astoria.
Suddenly she wondered what ever happened to those big gaudy earrings from 9 years ago.

“Hey, Sayra do you remember what happened to those earrings I had with my name in them?”
“Huh.”
“Never mind what were you seven then? You wouldn’t remember.”
“I was nine. I don’t remember what happened to them but I remember them. They were definitely door knockers” she gestured with her hands pretending to knock on a door near her earlobe and Fatimah laughed.

“So ridiculous, I know. But they were the thing then. You know what- the girls are wearing them again now.”

“Very true.”
They smiled at each other.

“I’m stuffed. Let’s take this inside. The mosquitos are killing me.”

Inside, after helping to clean, Sayra contemplated taking a candle and retreating to her room on the second floor. She could listen to her Ipod and maybe read a book by the candlelight. Dramatically she thought that her nightmare had come true-she was stuck in a house with Fatimah without the mediating forces of parents, television or internet. Yet the thought felt unfair and heavy. She could still taste the traces of the delicately cooked meal in her mouth.

“Sayra, would you like to pray Isha with me?”

“Okay”

Fatimah was surprised by Sayra’s quick answer and she suppressed a smile. She could not remember the last time Sayra had said yes to prayer with her older sister without annoyance or reluctance in her voice. Fatimah laid out the rugs on the living room floor and waited for her sister to complete her ablution. She wanted Sayra to lead the prayer but she thought that would be pushing it. She was content to feel her sisters arm against hers and her gentle movements as they moved together from standing, to bending and then to sitting.

***

After the prayer rugs were folded and scarves removed the sisters returned to the living room each with a piece of sticky baklava.

“Mmmm. This is so good. Where did you get it?”

“From the bakery yesterday. When I was visiting Malik’s mother.” Fatimah answered recalling the afternoon spent with her mother in law and sister in laws. She was ashamed to admit that her biggest hope was that Malik would stop by knowing that she was there. His mother had made excuses about him being busy with other obligations but Fatimah was aware that it was his afternoon off from work. She pictured him in the apartment, gulping down steaming hot tea without caution as he sat with newspapers and law books sprawled in front of him. After his studying was done he would lay across the couch for a quick nap before running to his night classes in the city. She knew it would be this way because it was his pattern. Malik worked in patterns.

She had learned in her first year and a half of marriage the true meaning of clockwork scheduling. He doesn’t miss me. The thought sent a shot of pain through her body. He hadn’t discouraged her from spending more time at her parents. In fact, it had been his idea. She could not hold it in any longer and finally asked him if he could spend more time at home-if he could perhaps cut his late night study sessions short. The look on his face was one of bewilderment.

“It is a requirement Fatimah. It is a requirement of being a law student. Do you actually believe that I want to be out until one in the morning and then go to work at seven?”

She shook her head no. The conversation ended with him recommending that she spend more time with her family so that she would not depend on him entirely for company. She had silently acquiesced resentful that he found her need to spend more time together evidence of dependence rather than something he too desired.

Lately she so often found herself staring into his dark eyes searching for the Malik she had known for most of her life. He was her close friend Suheila’s oldest brother who used to exchange silly jokes with them. Now he had become so serious. His signature dark curly hair was now croped close to his head. His Knicks jerseys and jeans were now replaced by starched button down shirts and slacks. Professionalization, was how he described it to her. She slowly felt herself becoming like many women she knew with professional husbands who seemed to enter another world when they boarded the F or N train. He mentioned names to her casually-Professor Stewart, Andy, Richard, Emily-people he interacted with in that other world.

Was it true? The park talk she heard from the other women dressed like her. Scarves pinned tightly under chins. Was it true that she would probably never meet these people because the men like to keep their wives in Queens and their business in Manhattan? How could that be when her father had always taken her mother everywhere? Her parents had worked along side of each other for Fatimah’s entire life and that was the life she wanted with Malik.

So she told Malik that she was ready to go back to school-to finish the credits she had began before their marriage and maybe even consider graduate school. She knew he would have to agree to this condition of their marriage contract. He did without hesistation but he had encouraged her to take classes close to home instead of out of borough. And now she felt that her entering a world beyond the neighborhood was falling out of her grasp. She turned to Sayra and told her what she had hesistated to tell anyone for months.

Sayra was licking the last bits of honey from her finger when her sister finally broke the silence. She moved her hand away from her mouth and stared at her sister. She heard her sister’s words but she was surprised by the look of sadness in Fatimah’s eyes.

“For real Fati, how far along are you?”

“Almost two months. You’re the only one who knows.”

“You didn’t tell Malik? Or mommy?”

“No…not yet.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know how I feel about it and that makes me feel really horrible. I thought I would be so happy when this happened, Sayra. But I’m actually a bit numb…a bit sad.”
Sayra was surprised by her sisters words because she knew how much Fatimah loved Malik. Their engagement had been short and their marriage ceremony a simple one after Friday prayers. No one doubted that they were a good match and no one doubted that they were already in love. Watching her sister in a cream colored abaya and embroidered hijab that day sitting across from Malik, Sayra was already picturing her sister pushing a baby stroller down the street with another stay at home mom chatting about the price of fruit and the baby’s first tooth.

Sayra didn’t know what to say. She felt like she needed Oprah so that she could say something deep and meaningful that would put everything in perspective. She managed to say:

“Why, why are you sad?”

“I don’t know Sayra, marriage isn’t everything we make it to be. That’s all I can say. Sometimes people can hurt you without saying anything.”

“Is Malik mean to you?”

“No he just treats me like…how can I say it? Like an accessory-not like something that interests him or excites him.”

“I get it. I’m sorry Fatimah. I’m sorry you’re sad.”

Fatimah nodded. They were quiet watching the candles flicker. A ringing noise came from the kitchen and Fatimah made her way to the counter to answer her cell phone.

“Assalaamualaikum! Yes…I’m alright. Are you at aunty’s? Good. Yes, Sayra is with me. We’re both alright. Yes…Insha’Allah tomorrow. I love you too. Walaikumsalaam.”

“That was mommy. They’re at aunty’s.”

Sayra waited for her sister to settle back down on the floor next to her and she let out a sigh of relief.

“You know Fatimah. I think you’d be a really good mom. Like you might be a litte strict..”

They both laughed.

“But you’re cool too.”

“Really…but you know I want to go back to school for my business classes.”
“So you can still go…plenty of people have children. It might not be right away but you can still go. I’ll watch the baby some nights.”

“Insha’Allah” Fatimah said.

“Yeah Insha’Allah. Like the Malik stuff…I don’t know what to say about that. He seems nice. I remember when he gave that talk on the law and why he wanted to do it-at the educational banquet last year. He really made sense to me.”

Fatimah was surprised. Most of that speech that Sunday at the community center had been punctuated by screaming kids and a bad sound system. Malik had been extremely nervous but he was eager to speak to his community, to let them know their rights.

“The stuff he said made sense and I thought about what happened a few years ago after the towers, ya know. How we felt, what happened to people.”

They glanced at each other and Sayra felt her heart beating faster in her chest. She saw Anwar’s face again. She heard the door creaking behind her as she sat on the roof staring out across the neighborhood. Then he was there beside her his tall frame producing a shadow.

“They took them. They finally took them those bastards!”
He was crying and Sayra felt the tears well up in her throat, tightening it so that she couldn’t breath. She had hugged him and when his lips had fastened on hers she cried even more. A week later Anwar was gone. He left with his mother and little sister. His older brother and father were gone. Rumours circulated that they were sent back to their country. Other people heard they were being detained in another state. There was one letter, months later, from Anwar’s mother that said they were in Egypt living with her sister. They had little money and that they still hadn’t been reunited with her husband or her son. Sayra had listened to the content of the letter without a word. It was only when she was alone in her room that she had cried-wondering about Anwar and if he thought about her.

“I don’t want you to stay mad with me Fatimah about the things I’ve done. And I know it wasn’t right but I still miss Anwar. I miss growing up there and having everybody in one place. In that building, you know.”

Fatimah was quiet but Sayra could see her wiping at her eyes.
“I’m not here to judge you Sayra…although it may seem that I’m always doing that…I don’t want you to think of me in that way. I just have wanted to protect you-to give you guidance. I miss the way things were too before all of this.”
Fatimah let out a slow breath.
“I can’t believe how dark it is.”
“Me either” Sayra said pulling her knees up to her chest. The cell phone was ringing again and Fatimah started to move from the floor to get it.
“No. You stay put. I’ve got it.”
Sayra made her way across the floor careful not to brush against the burning candles.
“Assalaamualikum Malik. Yes, she’s right here with me and we’re both okay.”

(c) S.A.  for Muslim American Fiction 2008-2009