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“What do you think of her?” Maryam asked the following afternoon. She sat on her bed with her back supported by a pillow as she held the cordless receiver against her ear, her other hand studying the ends of some hair that had loosened itself from the braid.
“She seems nice, maashaAllah,” Maryam heard Latifah say through the phone. “A bit different, but in a good way.”
“Really?” Maryam raised her eyebrows as a smirk formed on her face. “I’m surprised you think so.”
“Why? Because she likes Justin Bieber?” Latifah laughed. “That’s not a big deal, if you ask me.”
“I think it is.”
“Because you’re your father’s child,” Latifah teased.
Maryam frowned. She hated when Latifah said things like that. “Well, my father’s right in how he feels.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t. I’m just saying you take after him.”
“And you think that’s a bad thing?”
Latifah’s laughter crackled through the phone. “Oh come on. You’re way too sensitive.”
“And you’re way too lenient.”
“All I’m saying,” Latifah said, laughter still in her voice, “it’s not a big deal what singers she likes.”
“Staring at Justin Bieber posters before going to sleep each night?” Maryam contorted her face at the phone. “That’s creepy.”
“And you think you’re not creepy?” Amusement was in Latifah’s tone.
Maryam grunted and rolled her eyes. “Why? Because I’m a ‘normal Muslim’?”
“No, because you’re an abnormal teenager.”
Maryam was unsure what her friend meant, but her face grew hot in offense. She refused to respond, instead expressing her feelings by huffing into the phone.
“Don’t act so surprised. You were called rag head in sixth grade, remember?”
At the reminder, Maryam’s throat closed. She bit her lower lip. She didn’t want to think about the year she started wearing hijab to school.
“Well, I don’t see how that makes me abnormal,” Maryam said.
“It makes us all abnormal, Maryam. I was called rag head too. My mom says that’s just the way the world is. Muslims are weirdos now.”
Maryam drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “It’s not fair though.”
“Life’s not fair,” Latifah said in a song-like tone.
“How can you joke about this? Doesn’t it bother you how people treat us?”
Maryam heard Latifah sigh through the phone. “Oh, Maryam. Of course it bothers me. But my mom says sometimes laughter is the best medicine.”
“Well, I wish I could see it how your family does. I don’t see anything funny about being called a terrorist because I cover my hair.”
“I didn’t say it was funny, Maryam. I said sometimes laughing helps.”
An awkward silence followed as each girl was lost in thought.
“You really should try laughing a bit more, girl,” Latifah said, breaking the silence. “Life’s really not all that bad.”
Maryam sucked her teeth. “For you, maybe.”
“For me?” The sound of Latifah’s laughter made Maryam’s cheeks grow warm in shame. “And how is my life better than yours?”
Maryam thought of Brother Hamid bursting into laughter after telling one of his own jokes. Meanwhile, Maryam’s father would wear only a slight smile, restrained amusement on his face.
“It’s not proper to laugh loudly like the Americans do,” her father would often say. “But what about just laughing?” Maryam wanted to ask. “Is that improper too?”
“Your parents let you watch movies,” Maryam said finally. She didn’t want to share her true thoughts. She didn’t understand them herself.
“Oh, puh-leez.” Maryam could almost see Latifah rolling her eyes with those words. “You think we have movie night or something? My parents are way too strict about movies if you ask me.”
“Watching Incredibles and Kung Fu Panda is better than nothing.”
“I don’t consider those movies, Maryam. They’re toys come-to-life.” Humor was in Latifah’s voice.
“Do you really think I’m creepy?” Maryam asked. She drew her knees close to her as her eyes fell on the framed Qur’an poster of Ayatul-Kursi hanging above the flat screen monitor and printer on her desk.
“Of course not. What makes you ask something stupid like that?”
“I was thinking about Samira…”
“Oh, Maryam. Stop worrying yourself to death. The girl likes you. It’s obvious.”
Maryam rolled her eyes, a shy grin forming on her face. “Yeah right.”
“I’m serious. She was so happy to say she’s Desi like you.”
“And if she’s going Desi on you, then that’s like total commitment.”
Maryam burst into giggles despite herself. “Latifah, you’re imagining things.”
The sound of Latifah’s laugh came through the receiver. “Well, I know how it is with Desi bonds. The glue works best when I’m not around.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Of course I do. I may be open-minded, Maryam. But I’m not stupid. I know a ‘Keep Out’ sign when I see one.”
Maryam creased her forehead. “You really think Samira doesn’t want you around?”
“Samira? Girl, Samira wouldn’t care if I was purple.” Latifah chuckled. “I’m talking about the Desi club in general. There are golden rules, you know.”
Maryam smiled, shaking her head knowingly. “And what are those?”
“Rule number one,” Latifah said, and Maryam could almost see her friend’s eyes sparkling with humor right then. “Keep away from all non-Desis until they pass the ‘Are they worth my time?’ test.”
Maryam rolled her eyes, still smiling. “And rule number two?”
“Oh that’s easy,” Latifah said. “If they’re Black, no test needed. Stay away. For your own good.”
“Ooooh,” Maryam squealed in laughter. “You are so cruel.”
Latifah was unable to keep from laughing herself.
“Who told you that?” Maryam said after recovering from laughter, a grin still on her face.
“The Arabic teacher at the weekend school.”
Maryam brought a hand to her mouth. “Are you serious? I can’t believe she’d say something like that.”
“She didn’t,” Latifah said. “She was just so rude that I went home crying to my mother. That’s when my mother translated everything for me.”
Maryam was quiet momentarily, her expression growing serious. “Wow, I feel so bad for you.”
“I don’t,” Latifah said, matter-of-fact. “Like my mom says, people like that are the ones you should feel bad for. Because if there’s any crime in having dark skin, then they’re picking a fight with Allah, not me.”
“Please don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart,” Samira cooed, bobbing her head. A bright yellow iPod was in her right hand, a silver ring glistening from her ring finger. Her other hand was pressed against the side of her color-print khimaar, where an ear was hidden beneath the soft fabric, a thin white wire snaking from where the cloth framed her face.
“Samira,” Maryam said with clinched teeth. She leaned close to Samira as she yanked Samira toward her by the elbow. “People are looking.”
“…I just don’t think he’d understand.” Samira moved her shoulders rhythmically even as she was thrown off balance by Maryam’s pulling. “And if you tell my—”
Samira started, pulling the white wire from beneath her head cover until one iPod ear piece dangled awkwardly in front of her chest, the other still hidden and secure in her other ear.
Her eyes were wide when she looked at Maryam, who still held her by the elbow. “What happened?”
Maryam glared at her in response.
Samira blinked, her eyes still wide. “What?”
Maryam widened her own eyes. “You were singing, Samira,” she said in a low voice. “Loudly.”
Samira immediately looked around her from where they were walking in the mall.
“Did anyone hear me?” Samira whispered, quickly pulling the other ear piece from under the cloth then shutting off the iPod.
“Are you kidding?” Maryam said. “They probably think this is some cover-up terrorist operation.”
“Singing in the mall?” Samira looked genuinely shocked. She wrapped the white cord around the iPod. “It’s not allowed here or something?”
“Oh my God. Is that all you’re worried about?” Maryam’s hand went to her own dark grey khimaar, and she tugged self-consciously on her black jilbaab. “People were staring at us.”
Samira appeared embarrassed as she glanced about again. Her gaze followed a young couple immersed in their own conversation. “I don’t see anyone staring.”
“Well, I felt them staring.”
Samira wrinkled her nose knowingly. “Perverts, huh?”
“No… Normal people.” Maryam let go of Samira’s arm, shaking her head as she walked toward the pretzel kiosk.
“So what?” Maryam repeated in disbelief. “You don’t mind making a complete fool of yourself?”
“What’s so foolish about enjoying a song?”
“Nothing,” Maryam said, “if it’s to yourself.”
Samira shrugged nonchalantly.
“At home,” Maryam added, rolling her eyes.
“Gosh,” Maryam said. “I would never have come here if I knew you’d make us look like complete idiots.”
“Dummy, you’re the only idiot here.”
Maryam halted her steps before she reached the growing line in front of the soft pretzel shop. “Don’t call me that.”
“Well you are. Getting all worried about what people think of you.” Samira’s nose flared as she shook her head. “You’re the last person I’d expect to worry about what people think.”
Taken aback, Maryam creased her forehead. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“My mom talks about your family like you’re from Ahl-ul-Bayt or something. So I thought you’d have more guts than that.”
“The family of the Prophet.”
Maryam rolled her eyes as her cheeks grew warm in embarrassment. “What does making yourself look stupid have to do with guts?”
“You’re the only one looking stupid, Dummy.”
Maryam started to say something, but Samira spoke before she could.
“If you’re such a good Muslim, why do you care what people think?”
Maryam’s mouth fell open, her face burning in humiliation. A thousand thoughts crossed her mind, but she couldn’t settle on a single thing to say in defense of herself.
“Mmmm,” Samira said, her eyes darting to a girl passing them right then.
Confused, Maryam followed Samira’s gaze.
“That looks soooo good,” Samira said.
That’s when Maryam noticed the warm pretzel the girl was dipping in chocolate sauce.
“Let’s get in line before it gets too long,” Samira said, pulling Maryam by the arm.
“Wh…” Maryam said as Samira practically dragged her to the line.
“I think I’m getting caramel sauce with mine.” Samira’s eyes twinkled as she eagerly skimmed the choices mounted on the wall behind the workers. Samira turned to Maryam, releasing her arm. “What about you?”
To Maryam’s surprise, Samira seemed sincerely interested in her response.
“Me?” Maryam was still recovering from offense at Samira’s insult.
“Yes you, Dummy.” Samira laughed and shook her head. She pulled the strap of her purse from over her shoulder and unzipped it before dropping the iPod inside.
“Did you bring money?” Samira asked, her expression more serious. “Because I can pay if—”
“I have money,” Maryam said, rolling her eyes as she pulled her purse in front of her, the strap still on her shoulder.
“Good,” Samira said, grinning, “because I want to buy extra for later.”
Early that Saturday afternoon, Joanne sat on the couch in Basma’s living room cradling a cup of tea with both hands. Her eyes were distant as she leaned forward and took a sip. She peered into the cup absently for several seconds.
“Thank you for what you’re doing for Samira,” Joanne said. The rich brown cloth of her khimaar framed her pale face and accented the hazel eyes she and her daughter shared. “It really means a lot to me.”
Basma took a sip of her own tea from where she sat on the couch a comfortable distance from her friend. “It’s what I would want someone to do for me.”
A hesitant smile played at one side of Joanne’s mouth before she looked at Basma. “You haven’t changed, have you? I remember how idealistic you were in college, wanting everyone to work together and love each other.”
Smiling, Joanne shook her head before her eyes grew distant again. “I envied you for that.”
Basma’s dark eyebrows rose as she grinned. “What in the world do I have worth envying?”
“Your heart,” Joanne said softly. “That beautiful heart.”
“MaashaAllah,” Basma said.
“MaashaAllah,” Joanne repeated, her voice just above a whisper.
“But you underestimate yourself, Joanne. You’re about as kind as they come.”
Joanne suppressed a cough of laughter as she swallowed a sip of tea. She reached forward and set her teacup on the glass of the floor table in front of them.
“Oh, Basma, if you only knew me now.”
Basma was silent, a frown toying at the side of her mouth. She gazed at Joanne, a look of sympathy in her eyes.
“How are you, Joanne? Do you need anything? I mean, with the divorce and all…”
Joanne was quiet momentarily then lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Prayers I suppose. Lots of prayers.”
Joanne heard her friend’s voice as if from a distance, and it tickled a small space on the left side of her chest. She drew in a deep breath to soothe the familiar burning sensation in her eyes. But she chuckled, betraying her true feelings. “I could use a shrink.”
“Oh, Joanne,” Basma said, stretching out her friend’s name sympathetically. She set down her teacup and leaned to the side, placing a hand on Joanne’s leg. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not crazy.”
“So they say…”
Basma forced laughter. “Now you are talking crazy.”
Joanne shook her head, her eyes glistening. “Basma, I keep asking myself over and over what I did wrong. I tried everything. I cooked. I cleaned. I even gave up my career…”
“Joanne, please don’t do this to yourself.”
“But I wasn’t good enough.” Tears welled in Joanne’s eyes. “He said it wasn’t me. It was just too much for his family to accept me.” Her last words came out as a croak.
“But what does that mean, Basma? Tell me. I didn’t care about where Riaz was from. I didn’t care that we came from different worlds. I loved Riaz because he was Riaz.”
“Why couldn’t he love me because I was Joanne?” She heard the whine in her voice but couldn’t contain herself.
A second later Joanne felt warm arms embracing her, and she sobbed into the shoulder beneath the cotton shawar khameez that smelled of spices and laundry soap.
Later that evening Maryam sat opposite Samira on the carpeted floor of her bedroom after her mother had picked them up from the mall. Maryam stared curiously at Samira, who kept shutting her eyes as she lifted a purple can of soda to her mouth each time she took a sip.
“What was that song you were singing at the mall today?”
Maryam heard Samira gulp before responding.
“You mean ‘Achy Breaky Heart’?” Samira’s eyes remained shut until she finished the question. But her mouth still hovered over the can as she spoke.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“It’s an old song my mom listens to.”
Maryam’s eyes widened. “Your mom listens to music?”
Samira lowered the can slightly as she furrowed her brows. “Yours doesn’t?”
Maryam shook her head. “Never. It’s haraam.”
Samira blinked and looked as if she wanted to say something but shrugged her shoulders instead. Then she shut her eyes and lifted the can to her mouth again. She gulped loudly before giggling and looking at Maryam.
“What are you staring at?”
Self-conscious all of a sudden, Maryam turned away. “Nothing. I just…”
“Never saw anyone drink grape pop before?”
“Pop. Soda pop.”
“You mean grape soda?”
Samira lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Same thing.”
An awkward silence followed as Maryam didn’t know what else to say.
“Billy Ray Cyrus,” Samira said a few seconds later, shaking the can to see if any soda was left. She peered inside the can by shutting one eye then shut both as she lifted the can until it was upside down. She bent her head back as she poured the final drops on her tongue.
Maryam wrinkled her forehead. “What?”
Samira lowered the can as she opened her eyes again, her upper lip purple stained. Samira licked her lips just before an amused grin spread on her face.
“Billy. Ray. Cy-rus.” Samira leaned forward, speaking as if talking to a child. “The singer, Dummy.”
Maryam grimaced. “I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
Samira creased her forehead, appearing sincerely puzzled. “Calling you what?”
Samira blinked as the realization came to her. “Oh that.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Get over yourself. It’s nothing personal.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
“And I don’t like you.”
It took a few seconds for Maryam to register what Samira had said. She narrowed her eyes into slits as her heart thumped in her chest. “How dare you.”
A loud burp escaped Samira’s throat, and Samira immediately brought a hand to her mouth in apology. “Excuse me,” she said, unable to restrain a giggle.
Maryam huffed and folded her hands over her chest as she rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “You are so disgusting, I swear.”
Samira burped again, prompting Maryam to stare at her with wide eyes, as if saying Are you serious?
“Excuse me,” Samira said again, this time cackling in laughter.
“Whew!” Samira said, waving her hand in front of her mouth. “That one smelled like sour grapes.”
Maryam jumped to her feet and pointed to the door. “Get out of my room, you pig.”
For a moment, the only sound that could be heard was Samira’s laughter, which she was unable to restrain. But she burst into a new fit every time she caught Maryam’s glare.
“Why?” Samira managed to ask after successfully suppressing laughter, but a grin was still on her face.
“You called me Dummy and burped in my room.”
“And you called me a pig and said I’m disgusting.”
Maryam’s hand was still pointing to the door as she opened her mouth to reply. But in that moment, she realized Samira was right. She had said those terrible things.
“I’d rather be a dummy than a disgusting pig,” Samira said, smiling up at Maryam. Her tone conveyed amusement.
Unsure what to say in response, Maryam stood with her hand still pointing defiantly to the door.
“Well…” Samira said after a few seconds of silence between them. “Are you just going to stand there like a crippled Statue of Liberty, or are you going to sit down and hear my heart-to-heart?”
Blinking in embarrassment, Maryam slowly lowered her arm to her side.
“I still don’t want you here anymore,” Maryam said, defiance in her voice, though considerably less so than before.
“Why? Because I said I don’t like you?”
“Well…” Maryam pouted. “…yes.”
“Why does it matter to you? You don’t like me either, so we’re even.”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Maryam huffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh, so you read minds now?”
“No.” Samira folded her arms as her smile faded slightly. “But I do read hearts.”
Maryam wrinkled her nose as she regarded Samira. “Liar.”
“I don’t bet,” Maryam said indignantly.
Samira rolled her eyes as her head followed the motion. “Well, excuse me for being such a haraami.”
Maryam felt herself becoming more irritated. “A what?”
“Haraami. A bad girl. You know, someone who commits all these terrible sins. Lying, drinking, burping, betting…”
“I never said you drink.”
“I meant grape soda.”
Maryam grunted in frustration. “Don’t make fun of your religion, Samira. It’s kufr.”
“What?” Samira’s expression reflected genuine shock. “I’m making fun of you, Dummy. Not Islam.” Samira folded her arms over her chest. “Or is that a sin in this house?”
“It’s a sin in this room,” Maryam said.
Samira groaned. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Maryam, can you just shut up and sit down? I have something to tell you.”
“Why should I, since you don’t like me?”
“And why not, since you don’t like me?”
Maryam’s nose flared. “That’s not true.”
“Then prove it.”
Maryam turned away from Samira and crossed her arms, struggling to gather her composure.
“If we’re going to do Friendship Style,” Samira said, “you have to uncross your arms and face me.” Samira scooted closer to Maryam then folded her legs like a pretzel, one knee brazing Samira’s ankle.
“Come on, Dummy,” Samira said reaching for one of Maryam’s hands, tugging it lightly. “It’s like this.”
Samira’s fingers felt cool against Maryam’s palm, and Maryam remembered the grape soda can Samira was holding earlier. Maryam felt stupid as a lump developed in her throat as she reluctantly obeyed Samira’s urging.
“Now, here’s how Friendship Style works…”
A single tear escaped Maryam’s eyes and slowly rounded the side of her cheek until it was a moist spot on the soft pillow beneath her head. She lay on her right side, her body facing the wall in the darkness.
“Friends forever, friends forever, friends forever more.”
Maryam could almost hear Samira’s rhythmic whisper reciting the Friendship Style chant.
“Say it with me, Dummy,” Samira had said with a giggle. Each of Samira’s hands held one of Maryam’s as Samira recited the chant.
“And close your eyes while you say it. Otherwise it’s not a friendship promise.”
“What am I promising?”
“Close your eyes and you’ll see.”
“Friends forever, friends forever, friends forever more.”
“Just say it.”
“On the count of three, okay? One, two, three…”
“Friends forever, friends forever, friends forever more.” They had sat eyes closed, knees touching and hands grasped, as they recited the chant in unison.
“Now, it’s sealed.”
“What’s sealed?” Maryam had asked, opening her eyes. But their hands remained loosely holding each other’s.
“You see, Maryam,” Samira had said, surprising Maryam by the use of her proper name. “Anything we share in our heart-to-heart never leaves the room. Friendship Style is one heart talking to another.”
“But I thought we didn’t like each other,” Maryam said, a hesitant grin on her face.
“It doesn’t matter,” Samira said with a shrug. “Our hearts can still speak to each other. And that’s how we bond. Then we don’t have to worry about liking each other.”
“Because then we’ll love each other, and it won’t matter what you or I think.”
Next… Story 3 of 7 Posted every Friday
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