Attractive Women Can’t Be Broken (HOW Story 14)

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It all began with this widely popular short story series:

As we countdown to the  WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short MOVIE on January 27 & 28, 2018, we’re relaunching the 22-part series, one story per day:

Story 14: Attractive Women Can’t Be Broken

“All right,” Aliyah said into the portable microphone as she lifted a hand to get the attention of the thirty youth gathered in the center of the conference room. The other One Plus One mentors stood staggered along the walls, observing Aliyah’s group activity. Each mentor had been assigned the task of planning and facilitating an educational group activity for the “fun session” held every Friday morning for the duration of the internship program, and today the tables and chairs had been removed so that there was maximum range of motion for the activity. “Each of you should be holding a card in your hand,” Aliyah continued. “It will say LAN 1, LAN 2, or LAN 3. Raise your hand if you do not have a card.”

Aliyah surveyed the room then lowered her hand and pointed toward the flat carpet. “Okay, now look at the masking tape markings on the floor. Anyone who has a LAN 1 card should go to the area marked as number one. LAN 2 cards go to area two, and LAN 3 cards to area three.” The interns surveyed the floor and moved themselves accordingly. A hint of a smile was on Aliyah’s face as she saw them comparing cards to see who would be their group partners. She always found it heartwarming to see youth interacting with each other during group activities.

“On the back of each card are words, numbers, diagrams, or graphs,” she said after the interns were in groups of ten. “Some are followed by a mathematical symbol. In each LAN group, nine members are holding a part of a single mathematical problem, and one member is holding the answer. For this activity, you will take the role of either a switch or a router. Your first task is to figure out who is who. If you are holding part of the problem, you are one of the switches in your group. If you are holding the answer, you are the router in your group.” The interns began to read their cards and glance at the card of the person next to them.

“The first group to arrange themselves in proper mathematical order earns ten points,” Aliyah said, gesturing a hand toward the scoring chart on the large dry erase board. Immediately, the students began reading their cards and asking to see the group members’ cards. “You have five minutes, starting…now.” The noise level in the room immediately rose as the students mingled and shuffled around as they tried to figure out their mathematical problems.

“Mentors,” Aliyah said into the microphone as her eyes scanned the walls where her colleagues and superiors stood, “you are permitted to help the interns, but only in understanding their cards. You cannot give them the answer or tell them which group member comes before or after them.”

The mentors nodded gratefully and walked toward the groups with an air of purpose. Aliyah could tell that they were relieved that they would not be relegated to the usual role of wall flies as a fellow mentor headed an activity. The previous week she had assumed that useless role and was left wondering why mentors had to attend the group activity at all.

Aliyah turned off the portable microphone and set it on the table that held a large cardboard “WAN” sign, where she would instruct the “routers” to come after their LAN group solved the mathematical problem. As Aliyah rounded the room and observed the interns and mentors interacting with each other, she felt that everything was right in her life. Her love for math and science education filled her so much that at times she imagined that if she remained only a mother and an educator for the rest of her life, she would be content.

Marriage is half your faith, she had learned in her Islamic studies classes. But no matter how eloquently the concept was explained, she never quite fully grasped what the prophetic teaching meant. When Aliyah was first exposed to the concept years after becoming Muslim, she had thought it meant that she had to get married.

But Aliyah hadn’t been particularly interested in marriage. It wasn’t that she frowned upon the arrangement. But she had grown up believing that she would meet her soul mate one day and fall in love. And because she hadn’t yet met “the one”, she saw no reason to get married.

Muslims don’t fall in love before marriage. It was something that Aliyah would hear over and over again in Islamic classes and lectures. But her heart had recoiled at the idea. How can you marry someone you don’t love? she wondered. But the more imams and scholars repeated the words, the more convinced she became that her dislike for the statement was due to religious ignorance and weak faith.

“True believers marry for the sake of Allah, not for their nafs,” the local imam had told her when she spoke to him about Matt’s proposal. Deanna had pushed the marriage so much that Aliyah had begun to doubt her Islamic sincerity in refusing Matt. Her internal turmoil eventually inspired her to seek advice from the imam. “But why can’t we marry for our nafs?” Aliyah had asked him. “My nafs has to live in the marriage. I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting something for myself.” “If you truly believe in Allah and the Hereafter,” the imam had told her, “a good Muslim brother is all you’d want in a marriage.”

Aliyah gritted her teeth at the memory. It was only in the last few months that she was beginning to explore her own feelings and needs guilt-free. After mustering the courage to cut off Deanna as a friend, Aliyah found that there were many other attachments that needed abating, the first of which was her blind trust of anyone labeled an imam, scholar, or Islamic teacher. It angered her that she had been so naïve as to assume that the imam’s marital advice reflected divine guidance more than it did human opinion.

Like so many other converts to Islam and inexperienced, gullible Muslims, Aliyah had made the erroneous assumption that a “knowledgeable person” was actually a knowledgeable person. The Islamic classes she had attended had left her feeling so helplessly ignorant and in need of scholarly guidance that the obvious had escaped her. Any “knowledgeable person” was knowledgeable in only a certain field, not in every field. Only God had full knowledge and understanding of every aspect of life; thus, only He had the right to speak with authority on what someone should or should not do. Yet even God himself remained silent on exactly whom a person should marry. He gave a few basic, general guidelines then left the rest to human choice, desire, and opinion. Why then had the imam made Aliyah feel guilty for wanting a marriage that pleased her nafs? And why had Aliyah assumed that pleasing her nafs—her human choice, desire, and opinion—was mutually exclusive to pleasing Allah?

Would Aliyah’s life had turned out differently if she had trusted her intuition more than she had trusted the imam? What if she had realized twelve years ago that, while the imam had a lot of knowledge regarding Islamic concepts, his understanding of the practical application of that knowledge might be lacking?

“We’re done! We’re done!” some interns from LAN 2 shouted, interrupting Aliyah’s thoughts.

Aliyah smiled as she walked to the front of the room and retrieved the microphone and turned it back on. “Congratulations LAN 2,” she said, prompting some clapping and cheers from the group. “But before you get your ten points, we need to check your mathematical problem and solution.”

“We’re done too!” the groups LAN 3 and LAN 1 shouted one after the other.

“Mentors,” Aliyah said, nodding toward her colleagues and superiors, “see if LAN 2 have correctly assigned themselves to the roles of switches and router and if their problem is in the correct order for the solution they are proposing. If so, instruct the router to come to the WAN table. If not, then check the problem and solution of LAN 3.”

“You must not know how it feels to be in love,” Reem had said when, a few days prior, Aliyah mentioned her thoughts on remaining single for the rest of her life and investing her time and energy into her son and her students. “If you knew how true love felt, you wouldn’t think you’d be content without it.”

Maybe Reem is right, Aliyah thought to herself. But even so, Aliyah was unwilling to trust Reem’s thoughts over her own. She might be more knowledgeable than me about Islam, Aliyah considered. But she’s not more knowledgeable than me about me.

***

“I like that.” Jacob pointed to the framed quote on the wall of Aliyah’s office from where he stood in the open doorway late Friday afternoon. He had already packed up and was dropping by Aliyah’s office before leaving for the day.

Aliyah halted gathering her belongings to glance at the wall from where she stood behind her desk. We are anxious to improve our circumstances, but are unwilling to improve ourselves. We therefore remain bound. She’d hung the quote next to her desk earlier that week.

She smiled. “It’s supposed to say, ‘Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound,’” she said, a shadow of a smile on her face. “But I figured Dr. Warren would ask me to take it down on the grounds of sexism.”

Jacob chuckled in agreement. “Adapted from a quote by James Allen,” he read aloud. “That was smart.”

“I liked the pronoun we better anyway,” Aliyah said sincerely. “I’m trying to get to a place where I focus on myself, and I think sticking to I and we helps when I’m being critical.”

“It’s a far cry from ‘Don’t argue with a stupid person,’ huh?” Jacob said jokingly.

“You remember that?” she said self-consciously, laughter in her voice.

“Yes, because I’m trying to get away from the negativity myself,” he said. “I’ve spent too many years being reactive and critical. It’s time to focus on being proactive and self-reflective.”

Aliyah rolled her eyes in agreement as she leaned forward to shut down her computer. “You can say that again. Sometimes I feel like I was sleepwalking for the last twenty years. It’s unbelievable how much power I gave other people over my life.”

“For me, it isn’t so much other people as it is guilt and obligation,” Jacob said. “I swear, those two feelings have been in the driver seat of my life for too long.”

Aliyah nodded thoughtfully, and Jacob noticed how she seemed to be sincerely reflecting on his words. “That’s an interesting perspective,” she said as she put her iPad into her handbag and removed her keys. “You know, that might be where I went wrong myself.”

“It’s where a lot of us went wrong.”

Aliyah pulled the straps of her purse over her shoulder then picked up a bulging manila folder before walking around her desk, a finger looped through her key ring. Jacob stepped backwards into the hallway as Aliyah approached the door and pulled it closed.

SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said as she locked the door, speaking as if realizing something for the first time. “I think that’s what has been bothering me all this time about some of my Islamic studies teachers. They made me feel guilty instead of inspired, so I did things out of obligation instead of trying to please Allah.”

“You have to be careful with that though,” Jacob said cautiously as he and Aliyah walked toward the elevator. “Guilty obligation isn’t mutually exclusive to pleasing Allah.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Aliyah said. “It’s one thing to feel obligated to change because you know you’re doing wrong and feel guilty about it. But it’s another thing to feel obligated to change because someone made you feel guilty about something that you didn’t even think was wrong.”

Jacob’s eyebrows rose in understanding. “That’s a big problem amongst Muslims,” he said reflectively. “But there’s so much we really don’t know, so sometimes it’s best to just trust someone more knowledgeable.”

Aliyah rolled her eyes in annoyance. “Someone more knowledgeable in what though?” she said. “I swear, I’m so sick of hearing that. They act like studying Islam in a university gives them authority over people’s lives. You can teach me the basics of Islam, but don’t tell me your knowledge gives you the right to dictate my personal life.”

“Whoa,” Jacob said, lighthearted teasing in his tone. “That’s why I said sometimes. Obviously, a scholar can’t tell you how to live your life. They can only teach you about Islam, and even that comes with conditions and limitations.”

“If only they understood that,” Aliyah said, frustration in her voice. “Too many of us trust everything they say. Don’t they have an obligation to say ‘I don’t know’ when they don’t know?”

Jacob was silent as he and Aliyah stood outside the elevator waiting for it to open. In the seconds that passed, some of their colleagues joined them, inspiring Jacob to remain silent longer than he intended. She’s hurting, he said to himself. This topic was obviously a sensitive one for Aliyah, and Jacob wondered what had happened in her life that hurt her so deeply.

The elevator chimed, and the doors slowly slid open. Aliyah groaned when she saw that it was already full. “I’m taking the stairs,” she said. “You all have a good evening.”

“See you Monday,” some of her colleagues called out in response.

Instinctively, Jacob turned and followed Aliyah toward the staircase. He hadn’t asked her what he had intended when he stopped by her office.

“Can I ask you something?” Jacob said as he hurried in front of Aliyah and pulled open the heavy exit door.

Aliyah shrugged as she walked past him and started down the stairs. “Sure.”

He stepped forward and let the door close behind him. “Would you object to me going on television to talk about what happened?”

Aliyah halted her movements and turned toward him, a skeptical expression on her face. “Television?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think it’s the only way to correct the rumors.”

Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled as she continued down the stairs, this time walking more slowly. “Is that even possible?”

“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But I think it’s worth a try.”

“Isn’t it a bit late?” she said. “I mean, why now?”

“Because it’s the first time I was given the opportunity.”

Aliyah grunted. “You actually read all those emails and inboxes from the media? I don’t trust those people.”

“I don’t either,” Jacob said. “But I did respond to ones who sounded sincere.”

Sounded sincere?” Aliyah said skeptically. “Based on what?”

“A hunch,” he said, shrugging. “And du’aa, of course.”

Aliyah was quiet, but Jacob could tell she was listening, albeit reluctantly.

“Responding to them wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be,” he said. “After I came up with a short, standard response, I just sent the same reply to all of them. It’s similar to the one I posted on my Facebook page.”

“I didn’t see it,” Aliyah said, her voice devoid of interest.

“It wasn’t much,” Jacob admitted apologetically. “But I basically said that none of the rumors are true and slandering believers is a serious sin.”

“I can see why the media didn’t respond,” Aliyah said sarcastically, an amused grin on her face. “Slandering believers is a serious sin?” She chuckled. “They probably don’t even believe in God, let alone the concept of sin. You probably sounded more self-righteous than helpful.”

Jacob chuckled in agreement. “That part was only on my Facebook page. In my reply to the media, I said engaging in libel isn’t a good idea. I then asked if they’d be willing to do a full, unedited interview with me to explain what really happened.” He shrugged. “I didn’t expect anyone to respond. But I felt it was the least I could do.”

Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled as they continued to descend the stairs. “I think it’s fine,” she said, “as long as you don’t mention me.”

“I don’t have to mention you by name,” he said tentatively, “but I’d have to mention you. Otherwise there’s no point in doing the interview.”

“Then don’t do the interview,” Aliyah said with a shrug. “I don’t want to relive that nightmare. What if they edit the interview and twist your words? What then?”

Jacob walked alongside Aliyah in silence until they reached the first floor. He stepped ahead of her and held open the door as she passed in front of him. “I thought about that,” he said broodingly. “And that’s definitely a possibility. But I figured that since so much time has passed, there’s nothing really newsworthy in that angle. They used it before, so it no longer has shock value, and the story isn’t important enough to insist on it.”

“How can you be sure?” Aliyah said as they walked through the lobby toward the doors leading to the faculty and staff parking lot.

“I can’t,” Jacob said. “But even my mother says doing the interview is probably a good idea.”

“Your mother?” Aliyah said, pulling her head back in confusion.

“I do PR for her company, so I asked her advice.”

Oh. Larry had mentioned their company to Aliyah. “I don’t know, Jacob,” she said, exhaustion in her tone. “I don’t feel comfortable with it. But if you think it’s a good idea, do it. I just don’t want any part of it.”

Jacob opened the lobby exit door then fell in step next to Aliyah after she walked ahead of him. “They asked if it was possible to make it a joint interview.”

“Then absolutely not,” Aliyah said. “I’d never agree to let Deanna talk about me while I’m not there, especially on TV.”

“Not with Deanna,” Jacob said. “With you.”

There was an extended silence as Aliyah looked toward the rows of cars, but her expression suggested that her thoughts were elsewhere.

“I know it’s not ideal,” Jacob said. “But depending on how it’s set up, it could be a good way to clarify the truth. I already explained to them that it’s best if they interviewed us separately instead of at the same time.”

“But what would we say?” Aliyah said. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about my personal life to the world. It’s none of their business.”

“But you deserve exoneration. They had no right to slander you like that.”

Aliyah shrugged. “To be honest, I’m less bothered by the secular media than by the Muslims. The media’s focus is to stir up anything to get attention. You’d think Muslims would be focused on their souls.”

Jacob nodded sadly. “I feel the same way. But the more I live, the more I realize that Muslims are people like everyone else.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“I agree. But it’s the truth.”

“Not completely,” she said as they walked the length of the parking lot. “It took me a while to figure out why Muslims were so willing to tear me down. First I thought it was because they felt that if something was mentioned in the news, they had a right to talk about it without sin.”

“That’s possible,” Jacob said reflectively.

Aliyah shook her head. “But it was deeper than that,” she said. “About a week ago, I read through my Facebook page for the first time since everything happened, and the majority of the tags and discussions by Muslims weren’t about whether or not I was guilty of sleeping with a married man. That was discussed, of course, but it wasn’t the focus. The focus was whether or not I was trying to steal my best friend’s husband.”

Jacob drew his eyebrows together. “I thought they discussed that because they assumed the mistress story was true.”

Aliyah shook her head. “I thought so too,” she said. “Until I actually read the threads.”

“What were they saying?”

“That I was trying to get you to marry me as a second wife.” Aliyah coughed laughter. “Some of them even mentioned how I apparently forced polygamy down my first husband’s throat until he divorced me.”

What?” Jacob felt himself getting upset. “What is wrong with us?”

“But that’s not all,” Aliyah said. “When they discussed the possibility of me committing adultery, the sentiment was, ‘Unfortunately, that’s what happens when we work in mixed environments. May Allah forgive us.’ But when they discussed the possibility of me trying to be a second wife, the sentiment was, ‘Unfortunately, many women are backstabbers. Keep them out of your life.’”

Jacob was overcome with frustration. “That’s terrible.”

“Isn’t it?” Aliyah shook her head. “It’s like, it’s acceptable if you anger Allah. But it’s unacceptable if you anger me.”

Jacob didn’t know what to say.

“So for the Muslims, it was never really about my guilt or innocence in committing a major sin,” Aliyah said. “It was about whether or not I wanted to marry a married man. And to many of them, polygamy was more unforgivable.”

Jacob sighed. “It’s really sad that we’ve come to this.”

Aliyah shook her head in agreement. “It was amazing to see how adamant they were about making me out to be this vindictive woman. And not because they thought I was trying to do something wrong. But because they knew I wasn’t.”

A half hour later, Jacob had a heavy heart as he pulled in front of the school campus where his sons were enrolled in an all-day educational summer camp. After speaking to Aliyah, he was no longer convinced that the television interview was a good idea.

What’s the point? That had been Aliyah’s question, and now it was his own. If the people who mattered most to them viewed plural marriage as more blameworthy than major sin, then what exactly would he gain by clarifying the truth? And what crime would he be exonerating himself from?

It was never really about my guilt or innocence in committing a major sin. It was about whether or not I wanted to marry a married man.

SubhaanAllah, Jacob thought. What was he supposed to do with that?

***

As her mobile rang and vibrated in her purse, Aliyah quickly pushed open the door to her apartment. She set down the bulging manila folder then fished for her phone. After withdrawing her cell, she held the phone in front of her and hesitated when she saw the name on the display. Larry Bivens.

A flood of emotions came over her in the five seconds that it took for the name to disappear and the missed call symbol to appear. She was indignant and angry, yet sad and hopeful. But by the time the phone chimed and the voicemail symbol appeared, she was only annoyed.

Try empathy.

Last week Aliyah had typed the words in fancy font and framed the printout before hanging it on the wall in her living room near the front door. It was one of many printouts she’d hung on the walls of her home in an effort to think more positively and focus on herself. This one had been inspired by her mother’s oft-repeated advice to Aliyah and her siblings whenever they were upset.

Aliyah drew in a deep breath as she dialed the voicemail then put the phone to her ear to listen to Larry’s message. Try empathy, she said to herself in an effort to calm her annoyance.

As-salaamu’alaikum, Aliyah,” Larry’s voice said, apology in his tone. “I know it’s been a while. But we need to talk. Give me a call when you can.”

Aliyah disconnected the call. Nikki would be dropping off Ibrahim soon, so Aliyah needed to start preparing dinner. She wondered if she should call Larry back now or later. Or at all.

She glanced at the clock. It was time to pray. She would have to worry about Larry later.

After Asr, Aliyah sat on the carpet of the living room and recited Ayat al-Kursy, as was the prophetic custom after obligatory prayer.

Her heart felt heavy as she realized what had gone wrong in her marriage to Matthew. Both she and Matt had been trying too hard to do “the right thing.” Matt had been Muslim only a year when they’d met, and Aliyah had been Muslim for eight, but their understanding of marriage was strikingly similar despite the seven years between their Islamic experiences. Both had believed that “marrying for the sake of Allah” was somehow mutually exclusive to marrying based on one’s needs and desires. Matt had not sought Aliyah in marriage, and Aliyah had not sought Matt. They had been encouraged to become a couple simply because they were “two good Muslims.” But in the process, they became victims of a mentality that stripped from converts to Islam the right to their own hearts and souls, and the right to their own opinions and choices. Neither Aliyah nor Matt had been in any hurry to get married (to anyone, let alone each other), but friends and community leaders convinced them that they “needed” to get married.

Matt had been told that he needed to get married to protect himself from falling into zina, and Aliyah had been told that she needed to get married because a “good brother” was willing to marry her. It wasn’t until years after they were married that Aliyah learned that Matt’s incentive in getting married went far beyond a desire to avoid falling into fornication. Marrying a “good sister” was also his way of detaching his heart from his ex-girlfriend. His Muslim friends, as well as the local imam, had convinced him that if he had a righteous wife by his side, all his pain and worries would disappear. And Aliyah’s Muslim friends (particularly Deanna), as well as the local imam, had convinced her that it was her Islamic duty to accept the proposal of a Muslim man whose character and religious practice pleased her. Though Aliyah hadn’t known Matt well enough to assess either, she allowed herself to be persuaded that marrying Matt was the right thing to do.

“You don’t have to marry him, you know,” Benjamin had said after Aliyah eagerly introduced him to Matt for the first time. But by then, Aliyah was so enamored with the idea of having someone to love and care for her that she’d imagined that marrying Matt was what she wanted for herself.

It wasn’t until this very moment, as she sat on the floor of her living room after Asr, that she realized that, at the time, she had been merely longing for a replacement family. Growing up as the daughter of Alfred and Naomi Thomas, Aliyah had felt part of something phenomenal. Everywhere she went, she met people who admired her parents’ work. Alfred and Naomi were known in their church and their local community for their non-profit programs and the scholarships and internships they’d founded to benefit minority youth.

“You guys are so lucky,” people would say to Aliyah and her siblings. And Aliyah felt lucky. She’d smile in pride whenever her mother and father were featured in the local news or received yet another reward for their volunteerism or non-profit work. Alfred and Naomi were best known for the love and care they showed to underprivileged youth. They went as far as to spend one-on-one time with youth to assist them in self-sufficiency and academic achievement.

And Aliyah had naively assumed that this unconditional love, care, and concern had extended to her, too.

“But she was the love of my life,” Matt had told Aliyah when she told him she didn’t feel comfortable having Nikki around anymore, even if it was only to teach her about Islam. Aliyah was particularly upset that she had to learn from Nikki that Nikki was Matt’s ex-girlfriend. “Am I supposed to just abandon her now that I’m Muslim? She has the right to learn about Islam, and isn’t it better if you teach her instead of me?”

Though Aliyah was deeply offended by Matt’s tactics, she was genuinely moved by his honesty. She could almost feel his hurt at losing the woman he loved after he accepted Islam. As he spoke, Aliyah had sensed that Matt was hoping that Nikki would become Muslim so they could be together again, and that was when Aliyah realized what she had been to Matt from the beginning. She was merely a beautiful stranger tasked with making him forget the one who’d had his heart all along.

At the sound of a knock at the door, Aliyah sighed and stood, mentally preparing herself to greet Nikki as she dropped off Ibrahim.

***

“Because it’s stupid. That’s why.” Arms folded across her chest, Deanna stood on the balcony that overlooked her parents’ backyard Friday evening. The balcony’s dark wood stairs spiraled down to the grassy area enclosed by the fence that divided her parents’ property from the neighbors. Deanna knew she was pushing her luck by speaking to her mother like that, especially about something close to her mother’s heart, but she was growing tired of her parents’ browbeating. Why did they keep saying she had to go to church? She had been staying with them for a few months, and she had avoided church by running last minute errands or going to sudden appointments. But she was a grown woman. She shouldn’t have to make up flimsy excuses to avoid something she shouldn’t have to do in the first place.

“Jesus is our Lord, so you need to—”

“Jesus is a prophet of our Lord,” Deanna interjected indignantly, “and the only thing I need to do is worship the same God he worshipped. Like you should if you really believe in him like you claim.”

“You need to watch your mouth,” her mother warned.

“And you need to watch yours.” There was a part of Deanna that knew she was crossing every Godly and moral boundary by speaking to her mother like this, but the fury inside her had built up so much that she felt as if she were going to explode. She simply could no longer keep her mouth shut and play the role of obedient, submissive child while her parents tried to control even her thoughts and beliefs.

Deanna had come to stay with her parents because she needed their support and help in getting Jacob to realize his mistake in wanting a divorce. But instead of offering support, or even compassion or concern, everything was about proving that their religious beliefs were superior. It seemed that nothing mattered to them except their ability to look down on everyone who saw the world differently from them.

Though her mother had occasionally shown some compassion and concern, it quickly disappeared whenever the topic of religion came up. And those conversations never ended well. Like her father, Deanna’s mother would usually resort to hitting and slapping if she couldn’t get Deanna to renounce her Muslim beliefs or go to church with them.

“You’re the one uttering blasphemy,” Deanna said.

Internally, she dared her mother to lay a hand on her. Though Deanna imagined it would probably earn her an abode in Hellfire, she was no longer going to let her mother hit her without hitting back. She was tired of being her parents’ punching bag whenever things didn’t go their way. Their physical attacks would be understandable if Deanna was doing something openly disrespectful or harmful to them, but her parents would instigate arguments about religion then start hitting and slapping Deanna if she didn’t agree with them.

“I am your mother. You have no right to speak to me like that.”

“And you have no right to speak about God like that,” Deanna retorted.

“Our Lord died for us and gave his blood,” her mother said, voice rising authoritatively. “And if you want to go to Heaven, you need to accept his sacrifice.”

“If our Lord died,” Deanna said with a sneer, “I don’t see how anyone is going to Heaven.”

Deanna braced herself for her mother’s attack. She could feel her mother’s rage building as she glared at Deanna, her eyes thin slits of anger. “Your problem is you have no faith. You want everything to make sense.”

“I don’t need everything to make sense,” Deanna said. “But I at least need God to make sense, and it makes no sense to believe somebody murdered Him. And you’re telling me that God accepting His own murder is His greatest act of love toward humanity? You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you actually believe that nonsense?”

“And you think following a religion of terrorists and women haters is any better?”

Deanna contorted her face. “Terrorists and women haters?”

“That’s what your religion teaches,” her mother said, disgust in her voice. “Look at what your people do in the name of religion.”

“And look at what your people do in the name of religion.”

My people are upstanding, God-fearing Christians who walk with the Lord.”

Deanna snorted. “And what does that mean exactly?”

“If you went to church, you would know what it means.”

Deanna gritted her teeth as the image of Bailey sneering at her in the church basement flashed in her mind.

“This is why your life is so messed up,” her mother said. “You’re selfish and immature. You have no regard for anyone but yourself. Even God means nothing to you.”

Livid, Deanna wrinkled her nose at her mother. Her heart raced at the audacity of that statement. How dare her mother, of all people, say that to her. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Deanna said flippantly.

“How dare you.” Her mother stepped toward her, a finger hovering so close to Deanna’s forehead that she could feel the heat of her mother’s hand.

“Will you hit me?” Deanna held her mother’s gaze challengingly. “Because it seems like the only thing I can depend on in this family. I came here because I thought you and Dad would help me save my marriage. I was stupid enough to think you cared about me. I was stupid enough to think you ever cared about me.”

A shadow of indignant horror passed over her mother’s face as she dropped her hand, her fingers curling and tightening into a fist as if preparing to strike Deanna.

“If I’m selfish and immature,” Deanna said as her voice trembled, “it’s because I have selfish and immature parents. How dare you say I’m a bad Christian. You’re the bad Christian. I don’t have to love people who hurt me. That’s why I don’t love you.” Vision blurring in anger, Deanna stabbed her finger in the air toward her mother. “I hate you, and I hate Dad. And I hate Bailey too. You’re all sinful and wicked,” Deanna shouted until her throat hurt, “and I’m better than all of you!”

***

Aliyah forced a smile as Nikki stepped into the foyer holding Ibrahim’s hand. A wide grin spread on Ibrahim’s face when he saw his mother. After closing the door, Aliyah kneeled down and held her son in a tight embrace.

As-salaamu’alaikum, Mommy,” he said, his voice muffled against her neck. “I missed you.”

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam, cookie monster,” she said. “I missed you too.”

“Is it okay if I use your bathroom?” Nikki said.

Aliyah looked up and nodded as she released Ibrahim then stood. “Yes, it’s around the corner on your left.”

Ibrahim removed his shoes and bounded toward the kitchen. “Are you hungry?” Aliyah asked as she followed him.

“I want a popsicle.”

“You can have one after dinner.”

“Can I have one now?”

“Himy,” Aliyah said, her voice soft, “you can have a popsicle after you eat.”

“I can eat another one after dinner,” Ibrahim said, his tone suggesting that he had come up with the perfect solution.

Aliyah chuckled and shook her head. “I don’t think so. But let’s fix some—”

A roaring sounding interrupted Aliyah midsentence, and she immediately hurried toward the sound. “Is everything okay?” she called out as she approached the bathroom door where Nikki was still inside. There was another roar-like sound followed by gagging. Concerned, Aliyah knocked on the door with the back of her knuckles. “Nikki?”

Aliyah heard the toilet flush, and seconds later the bathroom door opened. Nikki stood looking pale, eyes bleary. “I’m not feeling well,” Nikki muttered, a hand on her abdominal area.

“Is it the pregnancy?” Aliyah said.

Nikki nodded, distracted. “I just need to sit down for a bit. I feel dizzy.”

“You can sit on the couch until you’re ready to drive home.”

Nikki dragged her feet as she walked toward the living room, and Aliyah followed cautiously behind her. “Do you need anything to drink or eat?” Aliyah asked.

Nikki collapsed into the couch. “Do you have white bread or potato chips?” she said, her voice weak.

“I think so,” Aliyah said as she started toward the kitchen.

“Are you okay, Ummi?” Ibrahim asked in a small voice, his expression concerned as he looked at his stepmother.

“Yes, I’m just tired,” Nikki said as she stared at the ceiling, her head lying on the back of the couch.

Aliyah returned with a half-full bag of chips closed with a clip and a loaf of white bread still in its store packaging. “Do you need anything with it?” Aliyah said as she set them on the floor table in front of the couch, her eyes following Ibrahim as he retreated to his room.

Nikki sat up slowly and shook her head as she reached for the bread and opened the package. “No, I’m fine.”

A concerned expression on her face, Aliyah sat next to Nikki and watched in silence as Nikki nibbled on a piece of bread. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay driving back home? You look like you’re barely holding it together.”

Cheeks bulging slightly as she chewed, Nikki grinned humorously at Aliyah. “Don’t worry about me,” she said, her voice slightly muffled by the food. “I can’t be broken.”

A confused smile formed at Aliyah’s lips. “What?”

Nikki chewed and swallowed before reaching for the bag of chips and removing the clip. “It’s something one of my fashion design instructors used to say in college,” Nikki explained, the strength coming back to her voice. “She struggled with alcoholism, so we’d get really worried whenever she got stressed, which was usually right before a show.” A reflective smile lingered on Nikki’s face. “But she’d joke and say, ‘Don’t worry about me. Attractive women can’t be broken.’”

Aliyah’s eyebrows rose in understanding, a hesitant smile on her face. “Oh my God. That’s sad.”

“Isn’t it?” Nikki shook her head reflectively as she ate a handful of chips in silence.

“She was my favorite professor though,” Nikki said. “She was so open and honest about her flaws, I was almost jealous. I couldn’t understand how a professional, accomplished woman felt comfortable telling her students she was a recovering alcoholic. And it wasn’t like she waited until we got to know her. She told us the first day of class.”

“I can’t imagine telling my students anything like that,” Aliyah said. “I was mortified when all that ‘hot Muslim mistress’ crap was in the media.”

“I can’t either,” Nikki said. “But she didn’t just come out and say she’s an alcoholic. She was telling us what inspired her to go into fashion. And she told us that her mother had taught her that her entire worth was based on how she looked and what she wore.”

Aliyah wrinkled her nose in disapproval. “How is that inspiring?”

“I think she was saying that fashion and looking good was all she knew about,” Nikki said, “so it was what she decided to go into for herself.”

Aliyah nodded in understanding, but she still found the story bothersome.

“Anyway,” Nikki said, exhaustion in her tone, “she said her mother would always say, ‘Attractive women can’t be broken.’ Meaning, if you’re good-looking and accomplished, nobody cares about you. So if you’re hurt or having a bad day, you better just suck it up because you won’t be getting any sympathy.”

SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said, a look of distaste on her face. “That’s a terrible thing to say to your daughter.”

Nikki shook her head. “But from what I understand, her mother wasn’t trying to be cruel. She just wanted her to understand the reality of the world. So she was trying to toughen her up for when she wouldn’t be around to take care of her anymore.”

Aliyah’s gaze grew distant. “That’s still sad.”

“Perhaps,” Nikki said with a shrug. “But it’s not too far from the truth.”

“You think so?”

“Look at what happened to you.”

“To me?” Aliyah said, her forehead creased.

“The only reason people felt comfortable tearing you down was because they felt you deserved it.”

Aliyah stared at Nikki in confusion, unsure how to form the question in her mind.

“Whenever a woman is attractive and intelligent,” Nikki said, “people are jealous. So they’re eager to tear her down, especially if they see something in her that they don’t see in themselves.”

Aliyah was reminded of her experiences growing up. She wrinkled her nose. “But that’s so high school.”

“No,” Nikki said. “That’s so life school. Women hate women they can’t find anything wrong with, and men resent women they can’t have for themselves.”

“You really believe that?” Aliyah said, a troubled expression on her face. “I thought that whole saga was about people thinking I was trying to be a second wife.”

A smirk formed on Nikki’s face as she shook her head. “Girl, you are so naïve.”

Aliyah felt a twinge of offence at Nikki’s words, but she didn’t respond.

“Even if they thought you were trying to be a second wife,” Nikki said, “it wasn’t about that. Girl, these are Muslims we’re talking about. They know their deen, so they know you can marry a married man. If you were obviously broken in some way, they wouldn’t have reacted like that. Because of our pride and insecurity, we approve of polygamy only if we can pity the woman somehow. That’s why Muslim sisters are always talking about helping widows and divorced women instead of about marrying the person who’s right for you.”

“But I am a divorced woman,” Aliyah said.

“No you’re not.” Nikki shook her head, still smirking. “You’re a woman who happens to be divorced. There’s a difference.”

Aliyah narrowed her eyes, a question on her face.

“Look,” Nikki said as if leveling with Aliyah, “I haven’t been Muslim long, so I don’t know a lot about Islam. But I’m just keeping it real. People are people. Women can put on hijab and pray five times a day, but beneath it all, they’re still women. And women can stomach the thought of another woman only if we can be sure we’re number one at the end of the day. In the dunya, that’s how so many of us stay with men who cheat.”

Aliyah nodded thoughtfully. “I see what you mean.”

“So if you throw Islam into the mix,” Nikki said, “the only thing that changes is the context. And the way I see it, those sisters were pissed off at you because, in their minds, polygamy is only acceptable if they can guarantee the man will be unjust.”

Aliyah laughed out loud. “You can’t be serious. Forced to be unjust? Men being unjust is the reason it’s not acceptable to us.”

“I’m not saying it’s a deliberate thought,” Nikki said. “But that’s what it boils down to. If you were really unattractive or crippled, or even a bit up there in years, then Jacob would be the hero. And you would be the poor Muslim woman in need of a husband.”

“That’s possible,” Aliyah said, laughter in her voice.

“But don’t you get it?” Nikki said, a grin on her face. “We have to pity you before we accept you.”

“I can see that,” Aliyah said. “But what does that have to do with the man being unjust?”

Everything,” Nikki said, humor in her tone. “In the hero scenario, Jacob can only marry a woman we think he doesn’t want to marry. That way, women can feel he’s doing her a favor instead of actually loving and caring for her like he does his first wife.”

Aliyah nodded as she began to understand Nikki’s point. “That’s true.”

“But if he does marry a woman he’s not attracted to, then it’s almost guaranteed he’ll be unjust. Because, obviously, he’ll prefer the first wife over her. And that’s exactly what we want.” Nikki grinned and shook her head. “But when he chooses someone he can be just with because he’s actually attracted to her, we cry foul.”

“Oh my God,” Aliyah said, laughter in her voice. “You’re so right.”

“The worst part though,” Nikki said, “is how disrespectful our polygamy requirements are to the women we think of as broken. They have feelings and needs just like we do, and they have the right to feel valued and desired as a wife. But we’ll only accept them as co-wives if our husband and the women themselves understand they’re a charity case with no real wifely value.”

SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said, shaking her head. “I never thought of it like that.”

“That’s why no one thinks of you as a divorced woman. You don’t look broken,” Nikki said. “Because the minute a widow or divorced woman doesn’t look widowed or divorced, then we don’t care if she ever gets remarried. We start talking about how in the past, they didn’t have a welfare system set up to help them out, and that’s why polygamy was necessary. But now we have programs to help them, so they can just go apply for government housing and food stamps.” Nikki grunted, the shadow of a grin on her face. “As if the only reason people get married is to eat dinner and have a place to sleep.”

“As pathetic as that is,” Aliyah said, humor in her tone, “it is how we think. May Allah forgive us.”

Nikki nodded as a smile lingered. For a few minutes, the only sound between them was Nikki crunching on potato chips as her thoughts appeared to grow distant. Aliyah wondered if she should ask Nikki to stay for dinner.

“I owe you an apology,” Nikki said, leaning back on the couch after she closed the bag of chips and put it back on the table.

Aliyah furrowed her brows as she looked at Nikki. “For what?”

“I was jealous of you,” Nikki said.

Aliyah averted her gaze, uncomfortable with the sudden honesty. She didn’t want to talk about this right now.

“When we first met,” Nikki said, “I knew I could never accept Matt being with someone like you.”

Offense stabbed Aliyah. When she was married to Matt, she’d felt like the soulless “good Muslim” tasked with keeping Matt’s body warm at night. Aliyah wondered if she could ever forgive the imam and her friends for making her feel that it was her Islamic duty to marry “a good Muslim brother” just because he happened to be available.

“I asked Matt to divorce you.”

It took a moment for Aliyah to register Nikki’s words. When she did, her eyes widened as she met Nikki’s apologetic gaze. “What?”

“I told him I couldn’t handle it.”

Aliyah’s heart pounded in anger, and she had trouble finding her voice.

“At the time,” Nikki said regretfully, “you were just the woman who stole my man. I was furious at him for falling in love with someone else.”

Aliyah grunted, finding bitter humor in the term falling in love. It made sense for Nikki to believe that Aliyah and Matt had actually fallen in love. Why else would they have gotten married?

“I was happy to be with him again,” Nikki said. “But I just couldn’t accept being a counterfeit wife.”

Aliyah focused her gaze on the wall near the front door where the inspirational quote hung. Try empathy.

“At the time, I really believed that all is fair in love,’” Nikki said reflectively. “It’s practically the golden rule of relationships in the dunya.”

“But you were Muslim,” Aliyah muttered, her voice clipped.

“I know,” Nikki said. “But I didn’t know what being a Muslim meant. I was just learning about Allah and how to pray.”

Aliyah moved her head in the beginning of a nod, but she was only half listening. It was infuriating how the people closest to her seemed to constantly use and abuse her whenever it suited them. Her own family had tossed her out of their lives when her presence was no longer convenient. When she had been only the quiet, starry-eyed girl who admired everything about her family, she was loved and welcomed. But as soon as she carved for herself a single part of her life as her own—her heart and soul— she was treated as if she had unleashed upon them some horrible, unforgivable affront.

“But this past year,” Nikki said, her voice contemplative, “I’ve been reading a lot and going to a lot of classes and learning Qur’an with Reem. It’s made me rethink a lot of things. I think I’m just now beginning to understand what it means to put Allah first and love for your sister what you love for yourself.”

“That’s good.” Aliyah’s tone was flat and emotionless. It was all she could do to keep from throwing Nikki out of her home and asking her to never come back.

“I know this is a lot to digest,” Nikki said. “But I wanted to say I’m really sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”

Eyes still on the inspirational quote, Aliyah tried to calm the storm of fury in her chest. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

“I understand,” Nikki said, her voice subdued.

“No, I don’t think you do,” Aliyah said, surprised that she was speaking her feelings aloud. “If you would’ve spoken to me six months ago, I probably would have rushed to forgive you. Or at least I probably would have rushed to say I forgive you. Because I was taught that’s what good Muslims do.” She clenched her jaw and shook her head. “But I’m tired of saying and doing things just because everyone says I should. That’s how I ended up marrying Matt.” She grunted. “Which was probably the biggest mistake of my life.”

“You didn’t want to marry him?” Nikki sounded shocked.

“No,” Aliyah said, unable to temper the gloating pride she felt at knowing Nikki would find this revelation offensive. “And I never loved him,” she added for emphasis.

Aliyah turned and met Nikki’s gaze, her expression stoic. “But if you were willing to wrong me and your soul to get him, and if he was willing to wrong me and his soul to have you, then I think you two deserve each other.”

Nikki’s mouth fell open in shock. It took several seconds for her to regain her composure. “How could you say something like that?”

“Because it’s what I believe.”

“But Allah is forgiving and merciful,” Nikki said. “That’s what I believe.”

“That’s what all Muslims believe,” Aliyah said, her heart beat quickening as she spoke freely. “So don’t think you’ve uncovered some esoteric mystery there. Humans are pretty open-minded to things that favor them. It’s when it’s time to think about others that things get a little confused,” she said. “As you yourself pointed out when you mentioned women preferring injustice so long as it’s in their favor.”

Nikki contorted her face and stood. “I should’ve never opened up to you.”

Aliyah shrugged as she too stood. “Maybe, maybe not. I can’t speak on that. But if you’re sincere in wanting my forgiveness, then you have to accept that I’m not going to be overjoyed to hear that you set out to destroy my marriage while I welcomed you into it.”

Nikki shook her head as she walked toward the front door, her face pinched in distaste.

“I apologize that I’m not more excited to hear your confession,” Aliyah said as she followed Nikki to the door. “But this fiasco with Deanna has made me determined to make some serious changes in my life.”

“I just expected you to be more understanding,” Nikki said as she slipped on her shoes. “I thought you were different from people like Juwayriah and Deanna.”

Aliyah laughed, but it was apparent that she was not happy. “So because I’m upset about what you did, I’m like them?”

“To me you are,” Nikki said haughtily. “Cruel and self-centered, just like them.”

That’s what you think of me?” Aliyah couldn’t conceal her shock and offense.

“It’s how you’re acting.”

“You have a right to your opinion,” Aliyah said as Nikki yanked open the front door. “But know this. I definitely don’t forgive you if you’re saying I’m a bad person if I don’t. That’s just not how seeking forgiveness works.”

Nikki lifted her nose, sniffing in offense as she straightened the strap of her purse and stepped into the apartment hall.

“I have feelings too, Nikki,” Aliyah said as she stood in the doorway. “And all I’m saying is I need time to work through them. I want to forgive you because I think that’s best for all of us. But you have no right to say I don’t have a choice.”

Nikki threw up a hand as she walked down the hall, her back to Aliyah. “Do whatever you want. I’m through. I’m just sorry I thought you were a good person.”

Aliyah groaned and shook her head as she stepped backwards into the foyer. “As-salaamu’alaikum, Nikki,” she muttered as she closed the door.

***

“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”

Deanna’s palm was moist in sweat as she pressed the cordless phone against her ear and stood near the sliding glass patio door adjacent to the balcony. Her heart thumped so forcefully that she felt it in her throat. “My mother,” she said, breathless. “She’s not moving. I think I…” Her voice caught as she realized the enormity of her predicament. “We were arguing. I didn’t do it on purpose. But, I, she…” Deanna’s legs folded beneath her, and she fell to the floor on bent knees. “Can you send somebody, please?” she moaned. “Can you please send somebody to help my mommy?”

“Ma’am,” the dispatcher said firmly and calmly. “What happened? Is she alive?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know…”

“Ma’am, please, I need you to tell us where she is.”

“She’s at the bottom of the stairs. She, I think… I… She fell.”

“What stairs? Where are the stairs?”

“In the backyard,” Deanna said, breathless, tears stinging her eyes. “Can you please just send help!” she yelled, growing impatient and annoyed.

“Ma’am, we are sending help,” the dispatch operator said. “We just need to confirm your mother’s location. Is she at the address of the phone you’re using?”

“Yes! Yes!” Deanna shouted frantically. “Don’t you have the location in your computer?”

“We have seven eight four Fr—”

“Yes, that’s us!” Deanna shouted irritably. “Now send someone. Now!” She pressed the end call button and threw the phone on the floor before rushing back outside to her mother.

Next: Story 15 of 22 (released daily as countdown to WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short movie).

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…inshaaAllah