For much of her life Khadijah had wanted to know when it began. What had always been was the knowing looks, the forced smiles followed by a sucking teeth smirk when a back was turned and the quietly uttered, yet urgent, warnings.
Don’t take nothing from that sister.
Hmmm. Sister Nadirah wants to give you that. Let me see. Nah. You don’t need it. Take it back! Didn’t I tell you not to take nothing from her?
Who made the chicken? Nadirah, huh. We’ll just have some fish. Right Khadijah?
Year after year, Khadijah found herself nodding “okay” as the most unappealing, white piece of fish was placed on her plate. Khadijah willed herself not to look at the pile of brown, fried chicken pieces on the oval shaped yellow plate with blue flowers. The pile was so perfectly stacked that it reminded Khadijah of something that should be in magazines.
Finally she decided that she had suffered through this for too long. During one Ramadan, she stood in the line for the weekend iftar dinner and when asked if she would like chicken or fish she said in a strong voice “Fried chicken, please.”
When she returned to the table she sat next to her mother who drew in a deep breath when she saw the chicken breast in the center of her daughter’s plate. Khadijah avoided her mother’s eyes as she sunk her teeth into the most crispy, yet tender, chicken she had ever tasted. A smile appeared on her lips.
Suddenly Sister Nadirah was standing by their table.
“Assalaamualaikum. You like my chicken, sweetie?”
Khadijah nodded. She felt her mother’s body go rigid next to her.
“I’m so glad.”
When sister Nadirah walked away from the table Khadijah finally mustered enough strength to look at the silent person next to her. The look on her mother’s face instantly made the mouthful of food she was chewing lose its flavor. She stopped chewing and looked down.
She was fourteen years old then. For the next four years before she left for college and even during the college years when she returned home for holidays she did not eat another piece of Sister Nadirah’s chicken.
Yet, she never knew why she should not eat it.
Khadijah’s Fabrics & Design had been opened for a year. In that time Khadijah had designed and made two prom dresses, sold material and mended or altered countless shirts, skirts and dresses.
Her shop was located not far from her South Philadelphia apartment. Every morning except for Sundays she threw on her work clothes-jeans, a tunic top, a head wrap which she knotted into a bun in the back and completed the ten minute walk to her shop. By eleven thirty the shop was up and running, a woman or two were browsing through her collection of fabrics, and Khadijah was working on her first alteration of the day.
This particular morning was no different. Khadijah had spent the night before sketching her own designs. Her latest creation had been a collection which she called Garden Party. The recent cold and snowy January weather had prompted her to create a collection full of light fabrics and floral patterns.
By two o’clock the snow had created a soft blanket on the ground and the shop was empty. Khadijah stood up from her sewing desk and stretched. The usual thoughts and worries filled her mind. She attempted to silence them by remembering the lessons she had learned in her Fashion Marketing class. Yet somehow they still lingered and she let out a breath going into the back to retrieve a bottle of cold water.
She heard the bells on the front door cling just as she closed the refrigerator. She straightened her shirt and entered into the shop again to see two women looking at fabric near the front of the store. Khadijah noticed that both of the women had their heads covered.
She approached the two women. The taller of the two turned to her with a smile. Although it had been many years, Khadijah instantly recognized the dark brown face, large round eyes and signature broad smile.
“Walaikumsalaam Sister Nadirah. How are you?”
The older women said “Alhamdulilah” and embraced the still surprised Khadijah.
The girl standing next to Sister Nadirah was her daughter, Maryam. She must be at least twenty-one years old now, Khadijah thought as she embraced her.
“Maryam’s getting married. And we want you to make the dress. We saw the article on you in the Tri-state Muslim last month and Maryam fell in love with your dresses.”
Khadijah had been under the impression that no one had seen the article. Her friend from college had interviewed her but business had not changed since the article was published.
“I also need three dresses for my sisters. Similar to the ones in the article. But this is what I want.”
Khadijah stared at the picture. The dress looked deceptively simple but she could tell from the elaborate draping that she would need some time.
“Hmmm. How much time do we have?”
It was confirmed that she had enough time if she was able to secure a little extra help on the additional three dresses. Fittings would be held the next day.
Right before she left the store Sister Nadirah casually mentioned who her daughter was marrying. Khadijah’s heart beat faster in her chest. She had read his name in newspapers and seen his face on the news numerous times.
She, Khadijah Nahl, was designing for a local celebrity’s wedding. She could not wait to tell her mother the exciting news and solicit her expert sewing for the three extra dresses. Suddenly she stood still. Uh-oh, she thought.
How long can a person hold a grudge?
Khadijah asked herself this question as she drove over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to her mother’s home in New Jersey. Her mother had not mentioned Sister Nadirah in years. Then again, Sister Nadirah had stopped attending their masjid years before when she had moved with her family to Philadelphia. Thoughts and counter thoughts circled in her mind as she turned into her mother’s driveway.
Yet, when she saw the beaming face of her mother open the door Khadijah was sure that her mother would feel nothing but excitement for her good news. Two years before, her mother had made hajj and since that time she had taken on a new life and glow. She returned home from overseas and retired from her job quickly. She spent most of her time hosting sisters halaqas, studying Qur’an, gardening and supplementing her pension by using her exceptional baking and sewing skills.
While her mother had always been what Khadijah considered a “good” Muslim she now seemed so much happier than years ago. So much more at peace. Perhaps this was because so many years had elapsed since Khadijah’s father’s death.
Where before her mother’s religious practice had made her seem hard, even rigid, and had often made Khadijah feel shut out; now her mother seemed so much more comfortable in her skin. She hugged and kissed her daughter more. She called Khadijah to share funny stories. This change in her mother had prompted Khadijah to also become more at peace with her religion. For the past year Khadijah had started praying regularly and studying Arabic with a young sister from Syria she had met.
After lunch and Asr prayer, the mother and daughter sat in the living room. Khadijah listened attentively to her mother as she detailed plans to travel to Georgia during the summer. When the conversation paused Khadijah told her mother about her new customers. She finished by excitedly sharing the name of the man that Maryam was marrying.
Her mother was silent for a long time. Khadijah watched as a war seemed to take place on her mother’s face. She looked as if she was containing an emotion that Khadijah could not describe.
“I’m going to put on some tea.”
With those words her mother swiftly left the room and entered the kitchen.
When she returned she carried two cups of tea. Khadijah took hers and watched her mother sit down. She stared at her mother. She looked as if she had been crying!
“I cannot help you with those dresses. I’m just too busy.” Her mother’s voice was flat and she stared more at her tea than at her daughter.
Khadijah did not know what to say.
“I’m sorry. But I don’t understand, ummi. I really, really need your help.”
Her mother let out a breath. The breath seemed to deflate all of the features in her face.
“I know you’re not asking me to make something for that woman.” She spat out the last two words with such force that Khadijah felt as if she was a little girl again being told to stay away from Sister Nadirah, to not take anything from her and to never eat anything that she cooks.
“Ummi, I can’t believe you’re saying this after all this time. This is crazy!”
“Crazy! What’s crazy is that after all the times I told you to not mess with that sister…you have the nerve to be making dresses from her. Are you forgetting whose money helped you start that shop?”
Khadijah felt as if she had been slapped.
“How can I forget when you mention it all the time!” Khadijah knew that this was not true but she felt as if she had to fight back.
“You know what. I’m not surprised. People always choose money and status over principles. That’s what Allah warns us about” her mother muttered shaking her head.
“Are you saying that about me, ummi? You know that’s not true. This is why I was confused when I was young. All you sisters talked really sweet…all the time. Alhamdulilah, this. Masha’Allah that. But you didn’t mean it. You talked about each other. Didn’t talk to this sister because she was too silly. Didn’t like this sister because her daughters didn’t cover or her son had a girlfriend. Then had the nerve to tell us kids not to backbite. Ummi it’s not right! All I wanted was a piece of damn fried chicken!”
Her mother looked surprised and Khadijah instantly felt ashamed. She knew she had no right to curse or yell at her mother.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to be disrespectful. But I have no idea why you hate her so much. I just don’t get it.”
Her mother looked at her now. Tears had formed in her eyes.
“I never said I was perfect Khadijah, did I? There are things that a woman does to another woman that are very, very hard to forgive. Something happened between me and Sister Nadirah, or should I say Patti, that was her name back then, that nearly destroyed me. Let’s just say that Patti never apologized to me. Never, even when she became Nadirah. She just put that scarf on her head and acted like she was perfect. And I had to eat the humiliation. That’s just not right!”
Khadijah was quiet. Something was being said that she did not want to know. She felt her mouth go dry and a creeping feeling of guilt. She did not have to put her mother through this. But she had. And why? For money. For potential recognition. Was it worth seeing her mother cry?
“Ummi, I won’t make…”
“Nope. You’re going to make those dresses. I know you need the money and the exposure. And, Insha’Allah, I will have to make peace with that.”
With those words the discussion ended.
Two weeks into making the dresses Khadijah heard the door to her shop open. With a quiet greeting her mother walked in. She was wearing her sewing smock and glasses. She walked over to Khadijah’s sewing desk and watched for a minute.
“Okay…what do you need me to do ‘Dijah?”
Khadijah stared out the window of her shop massaging her hands. She wondered if there would be a day when she would get used to the painful cramps that she felt in her hands after a big project. She had been sewing for fifteen years, since she was thirteen, and she had not yet gotten comfortable with the tingling ache. She was happy to see the snow melting on the ground outside now that the seasons were transitioning. She listened to the sound of her mother steaming the dresses in the back of the shop and then covering each with plastic. Thank you Allah, she whispered, grateful that they had finished just in the knick of time. Maryam’s sister, Jamillah, was on her way to pick up the finished dresses.
This is why Khadijah did a double take upon seeing a tall figure approach the shop rather than the petite Jamillah. It was Sister Nadirah. She entered the shop explaining that Jamillah had to prepare for an exam for school. Khadijah nodded a shaky feeling beginning in her stomach.
“I’ll get the dresses.”
Her mother was already emerging from the back with two of the sisters’ dresses. Khadijah stood in between the two women.
“Oh! Assalaamualaikum Iman.”
“Walaikumsalaam Nadirah. How are you?”
Khadijah watched her mother hang the dresses and then walk over to where she stood with Sister Nadirah.
“Sweetie. Do me a favor and go get the other two garments?”
Khadijah stared at her mother hoping that her mouth was not hanging open. She searched her mother’s face but could not read anything there. She walked quickly to the back praying the whole time that her mother would not strangle her biggest customer in the middle of the shop. Her heart was beating fast in her chest as she tied the plastic cover at the bottom of each dress. She folded them both over her arm and emerged from the back. She caught the last moments of the two women’s conversation.
“Yes, she’s worked very hard on these. What’ s amazing is that I taught her and now she teaches me new things.”
“That’s wonderful, Iman. I’ve been telling every women I know what a talent she is. Come next Eid she’s going to have a line out the door.”
“Insha’Allah. I do appreciate you using her for the wedding.”
“Well I have two more unmarried daughters. So, I really, really hope to be back Insha’Allah!”
Khadijah watched her mother smile at Sister Nadirah and even manage a small chuckle at her joke. She felt her heart expand with pride in knowing that the short woman in the worn smock was her mother.
After Sister Nadirah left the mother and daughter stood at the counter together. Khadijah tried to think of the perfect words to say but all she could do was lean her head on her mother’s shoulder.
(c) S.A. for Muslim American Fiction 2008-2009