After Ali

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“I will call you, Insha’Allah as soon as I get home.”

My mother’s voice is almost reassuring to me. She is standing in the doorway of my apartment her face set in a soft smile. She reaches out to me and as I rest my head against her shoulder I feel a fleeting sense of calm. I inhale her familiar scent and we pull back from each other.

“I will not tell you again that I think you need to come home now. Although your father will be disappointed. I will not.”

With those final words she is gone. I watch her from the window of my first floor apartment. She climbs into the cab and then there is just the familiar sights of my street. Men standing on the corner waiting for a fare, women in scarves heading home to prepare dinner and the young yuppies new to the neighborhood who bear with this not so fabulous life because of its close proximity to the city. I stare at the people before closing my blinds.

My nighttime ritual begins as if I had not had visitors for the past four weeks. I light an incense. Drink a cup of tea. Pet the cat. I lay out my prayer rug.

After I have prayed Isha I make a long dua for him. So long that my knees and hamstrings begin to ache.
As I fold my prayer rug I whisper: “Allah take this rock out of my heart. Out of my chest. Out of my throat.”

**
My parents did not want us to move to Queens. He convinced them. His cousin knew a man who needed someone to work. My father wanted us to move into the garage/guest house until we could find a place near them. My older brother had lived there, my two oldest sisters with their husbands, even my younger brother when he married. I am convinced that all of my siblings will eventually spend their first year of married life in that garage.

My father was proud to provide the small finished room with private shower to his children as they searched for apartments and houses once they were married. New Muslim couples sometimes need more time to settle on living quarters, he said with a bright smile. Although I appreciated my father’s offer I must say that I was excited beyond belief when Ali told him that he had a guaranteed place for us in New York.

My own place. No more fighting for television or the bathroom with my eight (yes, eight) brothers and sisters. My unmarried sisters would not have to worry about throwing their scarves on whenever my new husband entered the shared living space.

My father was, of course, disappointed but Ali had smiled at me knowing that this was what I wanted. I wanted to leave my parents house. And most importantly, I wanted to go to New York.

It did not bother me that the first apartment had only one sitting room for television, a small kitchen and a tiny bedroom. I didn’t even let out a big yelp when I turned on the kitchen light one night, in search of a late night snack, and saw roaches everywhere- fleeing from my sudden intrusion. I simply got up the next day and scrubbed everything with bleach.

We went to the Trade Fair around the corner for Borox Acid and Raid and I listened to Ali speak Arabic with the people who worked there. A few of the sisters eyed me. An Arab with a non-Arab and she’s brown. I knew that was what they were thinking. What a shame for them, I thought.
***
I have started working again. On my first day the kids give me a huge card and I thank them with a broad smile. They are quieter than usual and more respectful.

Jamal, a Puerto-Rican and black third grader with huge eyes, tells me that the substitute was mean. She yelled all the time and never let them out for recess. I wonder what tortures my class subjected the poor woman to. Jamal plays innocent when I ask him specifically about his behavior.

I never eat in the teacher’s lounge. Instead, I cross the Brooklyn street and eat in a small park. Today I have a cheese and romaine sandwich on a wheat roll. I wash it down with lukewarm water. My appetite has returned.

****
I have spent the last twenty minutes trying not to hang up the phone on my father who insists that I come home immediately. Key words: Woman. City. Alone. Crime. Bad.

I am tired. The weary tone in my voice mistakenly convinces him that he has finally won.
“Abbi. I am tired. Insha’Allah we will talk tomorrow. I love you.”
I am happy to hang up. To eat a small plate of beans and brown rice for dinner. I pray Maghrib and spend most of the night reading Qur’an, grading homework, and doing lesson plans for the next week. It is Saturday night in spring and people are outside. Hip hop music comes in through the open window. I listen to the excited voices heading into the city and the familiar rumble of the train.

*****

Ali was an only child. His mother died when he was ten and his father when he was thirteen. He was raised by a loving older aunt (his father’s sister) and her husband. Alhamdulilah they were at our nikah. Two years into our marriage she returned to Allah. This was the first and only time that I saw Ali cry. He did not know that I saw him. I came home late from a meeting at school and he was sitting at the kitchen table with his head in hands. I wanted to cry seeing him like that.

By that time we had been trying to have a baby for a year. We had just moved into this apartment and had acquired an extra bedroom. After a year with nothing-the sisters at the Trade Fair (who eventually warmed up to me) starting giving me things to drink, sharing duas that I needed to make and recommending special “exercises.”

Another year drifted by. Still nothing. By this time we knew that neither one of us had any infertility problems. Yet, there was no baby. Until a year and a half ago when two faint pink lines appeared on the test. Ali did a happy dance and made a huge dinner. I ate and ate. Four weeks later I woke up with horrible cramps.

I cried for days after I miscarried and Ali was quiet. He made me soup and read Surah Rahman to me.

******
At Ali’s janaza I stood shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot with my oldest sister and my mother. I thought my knees would buckle but they didn’t. My body was held too tight between them. They would not let me fall.

********

Today I want to move back home. The school year has ended and I am in this apartment too much. I can only vacuum and sweep so much. I open the window and the sky is overcast. It will rain today. There is no point in going out.

How strange that my mother knew that I had not yet washed the bedsheets. On her third day here I awoke to her standing over me. She caressed my forehead and nudged my shoulder. Without a word between us I stood up and watched her gently pull the sheet from the bed’s corners.

I sat in the living room and listened to her collecting quarters. When the door clicked behind her I watched the clock. After ten minutes I was sure that Ali’s scent was being washed away in the basement below me.

I close my eyes and his calm face appears.
“Still asleep…I’ve been talking to you for the last five minutes, habibi.” I laughed entering our bedroom fully dressed for the school day. He lay there on his left side his arm still enfolding my pillow.I see myself laying next to him and hear that first cry rise up from the center of my body.

The cat rubs against my leg on cue.
“You need food don’t you?”

I walk to the Trade Fair and the manager smiles at me. It catches me off guard. She rarely smiles. Her red lips are usually too busy speaking in rapid Arabic or arguing with a cashier over lateness or a customer over a complaint as her huge gold hoops bob back and forth. It wasn’t until I heard her speak Arabic the first time that I realized she was Egyptian.

I walk to the cat food aisle. When I turn around she is there.
“Assalaamualaikum”
I return the greeting.
“I have not seen you in so long. I wanted to check on you but I did not have your number.”
I nod.
She suddenly stops smiling and touches my shoulder. Her hand stays there firm.
“Allah will take away this pain. Allah will heal you. It was a blessing to have spent so much time with Ali.”
She smiles now and leans closer.
“We are here for you. I want you to come eat with me tomorrow night. Me and my girlfriends we get together, eat, and talk. Allah will reward us for our strength. My husband is gone now too. ”
She says this last part and I see tears form in her eyes.
“I will come, Insha’Allah.”

I have to put the cat food down when she embraces me.

(c) S.A. for Muslim American Fiction 2008-2009

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Back in the Dunya: Part I

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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.

Who did they belong to? There was no one else inside the room except for the woman.

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.

On first entering the masjid the believer should offer two rakah.

The words from the book that she had been studying for the past two months appeared in her mind and she began.

 

Allahu akbar
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.
“Assalaamualaikum.”
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?”
“Tracy.”
“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

The War

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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.
“Assalaamualaikum”
“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.”
“Really?”
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

Right Under Your Nose

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Zaynab was not nervous. For breakfast she ate her usual maple, brown sugar oatmeal. Yes, it was instant despite her oldest sister’s warnings about processed food. All Zaynab knew was that it took less than two minutes to zap in the microwave and mix with fresh slices of banana.

She sat alone at the family table. Abu and umm had already left to start their day at work, at the family business-Munir Travel. A traveler’s agency that was already beginning to book trips for the hajj season. Her older sister Fatimah was dropping her eleven year old brother at his elementary school. So Zaynab sat with the house to herself. She was quiet and full from her quick breakfast.

It was Thursday. This past semester her Thursdays had been packed with classes. All morning classes then a quick bite, Dhur prayer and more classes. Alhamdulilah she had finished. She was graduating at 5 o’clock this very day with a BA in Accounting. The thought of it made her want to press her forehead against the cold tile of the kitchen out of gratitude to Allah subhana wa ta ala.

There was nothing to do this morning but wait for the hours until graduation. She closed her eyes to picture her name being called. A smile crossed her lips at the thought.

****
Hours later she stood in the hallway of her college. She wore a black gown with a matching cap. A purple and gold tassle dangled from the cap. She wore a deep purple scarf with gold thread to match. She looked at the other graduates around her and stifled a smile. Now she wasn’t the only one walking the halls in abaya!

“Okay line up!!! I need to check in who’s here!” a red haired lady bellowed over the excited chatter of the graduating class.

Zaynab recognized her from the afternoon before where they had rehearsed for the graduation. This lady was about business. At the rehearsal the day before she had go on and on about not taping silly greetings to the top of your cap or tossing beach balls over your heads. A group of rowdy frat boys had groaned when they were informed that all beach balls would be confiscated.
Now the woman stood in front of Zaynab checking off her name.

“Hmm…still no sign of Zaid Muhammed.”
Zaynab recognized the name. He had been in Accounting I and II with her. He always sat in the front row with two other guys while Zaynab preferred the middle of the room. It was easier to blend in if you were in the middle -even with hijab.

Moments later Zaid was being put in front of her by the obviously stressed out attendant.
“Excuse me…Ms. Munir …could you please help uh..uh Mr. Muhammed, yes, Mr. Muhammed with what’s going to happen?”

Before Zaynab could answer the woman was gone and Zaid had turned to her. She instantly felt a shyness creep up her neck and heat her face. She looked down and then up again.
“Um..basically we walk out to the auditorium and sit in our seats. Then the attendant will signal to us to stand. When your name is called walk across the stage shake Dean Winters hand. Turn and smile for the picture.”

Zaynab found herself giving out the information rather quickly. So fast that when she was done she paused to catch her breath and she looked up at him again. He smiled.
“Thanks…” he glanced at her scarf.
“Assalaamualaikum!” he said.
“Walaikumasalaam wa rahmatullahi.” she said softly.
They were quiet and she peered down the line to see if it was moving. No chance. Zaid was looking at her now but not rudely.
“I’m sorry…sister but you seem to be so familiar to me.”
“I’m Accounting…I mean we were in class together. In fact, quite a few.”
“Hmmm. I never saw you. Strange.”

Now he looked shy and they both stared ahead. The line was moving now. He smiled at her one last time and they made their way into the auditorium.

***
After waving to her mother and father, Fatimah, her little brother Anwar and best friend Samira, Zaynab settled back in her chair to watch the graduation. Twenty minutes into the graduation she felt Zaid’s leg accidentally graze hers. They both sat up more erect and he shyly apologized.

After another twenty minutes Zaynab was bored out of her mind and another student was singing. The graduation had turned into a musical. Suddenly Zaid was handing her a piece of paper-the program-with a note.

ASA-So what are you’re plans after graduation?
Not sure yet! What about you??
I most likely will be working with my older brother for now, Insha’Allah.
Cool. What does he do?
Over the next half an hour she learned that Zaid had missed rehearsal the previous day because his grandparents were flying in from overseas. He lived with his family in the town next to her family and his father was an imam and his mother was a writer. The two became so consumed by their notes that someone had to tap Zaid when the line started to move. After the graduation Zaynab stood with her family and friend Samira. They had bought her a brilliant bouquet of lilies. She smiled as Fatima took pictures hoping that no one noticed her searching glances around the auditorium.
copyright S.A.  for Muslim American Fiction 2008-9

 

 

The family was just preparing to leave when someone called her name. She turned to see Zaid standing with a man and woman. He approached with a small smile.
“Assalaamualaikum. I was hoping that I could introduce you to my parents.”
“This is Zaynab Munir-accountant”

****
A year later, after three tries Zaynab finally managed to parallel park her car between a van and a super sized SUV downtown. She stepped out the car and looked across the street. He was standing there with a huge grin. Zaynab managed to jog across the street the end of her blue shayla flapping behind her.

“You made it Alhamdulilah! I just finished putting up the sign. What do you think?” Zaid said.
Zaynab turned to look at the tiny glass store front behind her husband.
In bold red and gold lettering she read outloud: Z&Z Accounting.
“It’s beautiful Masha’Allah. I love it and I love you!”