********* 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.
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.