**** 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!”
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.”
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)