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.
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.
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)