Tracy still remembered the first day she walked into the masjid. Moments before opening the door she had adjusted the navy blue headscarf that she had tied around her neck. No one would believe that it had taken her forty five minutes to find this particular scarf.
Yet, she had spent that amount of time the day before in a store around the corner from her apartment. In between bouts of sneezing from the incense smell lingering in the air she had searched for something to cover her hair.
“This one’s nice and soft-this one’s really nice…yes, but this one is very popular with girls your age.” the man had said piling scarf after scarf on the glass counter.
Tracy stared at the succession of scarves not really seeing the difference between the style of any of them.
“Um…okay…I’ll just take this one.”
The man had looked slightly disappointed that Tracy’s hand was resting on the plainest piece of material in the bunch -a square shaped navy blue scarf with no embroidery or silver thread or floral print.
“Yes, okay. Right this way I’ll ring you up.”
She followed him to the cash register relieved that she had finally made a decision.
“Okay, dear, do you need any hijab pins?”
This question caught Tracy off guard. Yes, she knew that the scarf was called a hijab or a khimar but she did not know that it required any type of special pins. She did not know what to do- Play it cool or let the man know that she had no idea what he was talking about. She chose the latter.
Instantly the man seemed to perk up. In moments he knew that Tracy had never wore a hijab. He muttered some words in a language that Tracy guessed was Arabic or Urdu. She really had no clue. Then he shouted.
“Roohe! Roooo-he! Please come show this sister how to wear hi-jaaab!”
This call was followed by the emergence of a teenage girl from the back of the store. She wore a long shirt-top with pants underneath. Her own scarf was neatly pinned under her neck and around her head. Tracy guessed that this was the store owner’s daughter from the way that she walked slowly and with a slight attitude towards the front of the store.
“What Abu?” the girl said eyeing Tracy. The man quickly explained the situation and within moments Tracy was ushered to the long mirror in the back of the store.
For the next ten minutes she watched the girl move from style to style, never removing the scarf that was already on her head, talking the whole time.
“See…older ladies like to just pin under the chin and let all the material hang over the chest. See…like this. But it’s kind of sloppy you know. I mean you get the coverage but it ain’t cute, right? Now another way is to pin it and then wrap all around your head. You take a straight pin and see. Nice, right. Or if you’re wearing shayla and an underscarf you don’t even need pins. You just…wait let me grab a shayla…”
Tracy ended up leaving the store with a package of multi-colored straight pins, black hijab pins and an extra headscarf. Despite the lessons of the day before she could not remember exactly how to pin it in the way the girl had taught her. Afraid that she would miss her first Friday prayer, she finally decided to just tie the scarf under her neck.
So the moment before she opened the door to the masjid she was in a panic. What if her shirt was too short or she didn’t have the proper “coverage” like the store owner’s daughter had warned her about.
Tracy let out a breath and opened the door. The first thing she saw was a woman vacuuming the rug. Tracy’s eyes immediately locked on the top of the woman’s head. She had on a beret. It was fixed so that no hair was showing- but it definitely was a beret. She also wore a high necked navy blue blouse.
Tracy’s eyes scanned the room. The entire floor was covered with an emerald green rug except for the tile floor entrance and foyer that Tracy stood on now. There were two long benches set up across from each other. On one bench sat a beat up pair of men’s loafers.
On the other bench was a pair of silver flip flops with straps decorated with jewels. The woman who was vacuuming was barefoot.
This must be where the women put their shoes. She took off her shoes and set them next to the sparkling flip-flops. Then she walked to the back of the room, stepped on the rug and took a deep breath.
The words from the book that she had been studying for the past two months appeared in her mind and she began.
Bismillahi rahmanir raheem
Alhamdullilahi rabil Alameen
It had taken her weeks to memorize Al Fatiha and then two more weeks to know Ikhlas. But she had finally mastered the two surahs and she said them now as she had been saying them over and over for the past two weeks. Except now she was praying in an actual masjid instead of in her bedroom or in an empty office at work with a chair pressed against the door.
After she had finished praying she noticed that two men had entered the masjid and that the woman who had been vacuuming was sitting a few feet from her. Tracy studied her features.
Tracy guessed that she was in her fifties. She was a reddish- brown color with high cheekbones. Her wide eyes angled at each corner. Perhaps she was from Barbados like Tracy’s own grandmother. Perhaps-the glittery sandals were something that Nana Ruth would wear.
As if knowing that Tracy was thinking about her the woman turned and smiled.
Tracy was happy that she knew how to reply although her voice shook. She also knew that there was something longer that she could say in reply to the woman’s greeting of peace but she didn’t want to make a fool of herself by messing up the words. So, instead she offered a short greeting.
“I’m Sister Iman. You?”
“I haven’t seen you here before, right?”
“No… no you haven’t this is my first time here. It’s my first time at a Friday prayer.”
Something warm in the woman’s eyes made Tracy divulge the last bit.
Sister Iman smiled.
“Alhamdulilah. Allah is merciful. After prayer wait for me I’ll give you some information about classes and my woman’s meetings. I have them every other Saturday at my house. Don’t leave without talking to me Insha’Allah!”
“Okay. Okay Insha’allah.” The last words flew from Tracy’s mouth with an ease that both surprised and encouraged her.
What most surprised Tracy at this first congregational prayer was the quiet. She couldn’t help watching the way in which each person seemed intently focused on the words coming from the speaker’s mouth. She could not help drawing to mind her mother’s church where the building always seemed to be rocking and swaying with shouts and song. She wandered what her mother would think if she saw her daughter now- sitting cross legged on a rug her head, ears and neck covered. She pushed the thought out of her mind-content to know that her mother was over two hours a way in Brooklyn and she was living her own life. She was making her own decisions.
Yet, the quiet did surprise her. Even when everyone hurried off of the rug to line up for prayer there was not a word uttered. Then suddenly there was that moment at the end of Al Fatiha. She could not describe what the sound of that Amin made her feel. It was the most beautiful note that she had ever heard. She felt like she could hear every voice in the masjid-male, female, young and old. She could hear her own singular voice within it at the same time that it was lost in the unison.
It must have began at Temple. It began at the school that she did not want to really attend. How could a girl from New York, from Brooklyn, ever adjust to a so-called city like Philly. She had wanted NYU. She had desired UCLA. She had enough common sense to know that she wasn’t getting into Columbia. But she had been accepted to Temple and received the money to attend.
She had only applied because her cousin Roxanna was already there-a year ahead of her. So Temple it was.
She missed NY pizza bad that first year and the infinite places to shop. She also missed Derrick her boyfriend of three years who had gone to SUNY in upstate New York. Looking back she should have know that it wouldn’t last. He was already giving her the talk a week before they both were leaving. Long distance stuff is hard. Who knows if you’ll end up meeting someone. And some other crap piled on top of that nonsense. This was the same guy who told her he would marry her when they both turned twenty-one.
Yet, Derrick met someone at a party during the first week of school. He broke up with her by the end of September-through email. Tracy came home after class and cried every day. Until Roxanna bullied her out of the dorm with threats to disown her.
“Coley women don’t cry over no man! Please girl! Nana would knock you upside the head if she saw you now…all snotted up. Hair not done. This is toooo sad!”
Tracy looked up from where she lay on the bed. She was sprawled on top of the pile of clothes that had accrued there since the break up email.
“Get up! Don’t you know that that this is the best thing that could ever happen to you. Derrick was wack and corny. You’re in college. There are plenty of men.”
Men. It suddenly dawned on her. Derrick was a silly boy. That’s right, a boy. He was the last in the series of boys that she had dated since she was thirteen. First Jay, then Miguel, then stupid Melvin, ending with Derrick. She knew that Roxanna was right. College meant college men.
So she met college men. Except some of them had boy qualities too. Her first year she fell in love with Troy but by summer break he was heading back down South and she back to Brooklyn. Her sophomore year she met Roger and Patrick. Roger was fall semester and Patrick was spring. That summer she and Roxanna decided to stay in Philly and search out an apartment. They found one not far from South Street. Tracy had declared her Political Science major by then and she got an internship at a non profit agency. She met Bilal that summer.
He was a in charge of fund raising and she worked with him. She had just turned twenty in May and he was twenty five. The moment she saw him she thought “Now there’s a man!”
They were dating by the time she returned back to school.
(c) S.A. for Muslim American Fiction 2008-2009