The dark maroon vertical blinds covering the glass door danced gently when Vernon pulled the handle. He stepped back, releasing Hasna momentarily to let her inside before him. Instantly, Hasna relaxed in the intoxicating sound of Marvin Gaye singing “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Minutes later, Hasna sat across from her best friend at a private booth, the back of Hasna’s chair creating a wooden wall between her and the next booth. With her back to the entrance, Hasna could see Vernon’s imposing form outlined by the doors that read “Employees Only.” It was an ideal location. No one was in the adjoining booth.
“So how’s Kenya?” Hasna reached for the menu that lay on the table in front of her, unable to shake the awkward feeling that was overcoming her. Hasna had always thought fondly of Vernon’s personable, former-marine fiancée, but tonight was the first time Hasna envied her.
Like Vernon, Kenya was eye-catching. Due to her years in the military and exercise regimen she maintained afterward, Kenya sported an attractive muscular form that accented the rich brown skin tone that she shared with her boyfriend. Hershey was Kenya’s nickname, and Hasna never felt the need to ask why Vernon had chosen the name. Hasna understood its aptness when she first met the woman months after her and Vernon’s friendship developed in law school. Kenya really was the color of milk chocolate, and her smooth complexion made the name all the more fitting.
But they were an odd couple, Hasna couldn’t help thinking. Vernon’s six-foot bulky, former college-linebacker build and shiny bald head made for an intimidating frame next to Kenya’s five-foot slender-yet-thick physique that was made all the more exotic by her mass of henna-dyed locks that hung to the middle of her back.
“She’s good,” Vernon said as he casually skimmed his own menu. “She says to tell you hello.” He chuckled. “And to not let Sharif stress you too much.”
“She knows you’re meeting me here?”
Vernon met Hasna’s gaze with his brows furrowed, a grin teasing one corner of his mouth. “Why? Are you thinking of dumping your lousy fiancé and replacing him with a real man?”
Hasna laughed beside herself. “Yeah right. And how will Kenya feel about that?”
“I didn’t say anything about me,” he teased. “I just asked if you were replacing him with a real man.”
Hasna shrugged, a bit surprised by the sudden warmth in her cheeks. “Well, honestly, you’re the only real man I know.”
Although Hasna chuckled at her last comment, Vernon’s expression changed to concern. He was quiet as he studied Hasna.
“Tweetie,” he said, waiting for her to meet his gaze. “What’s going on?”
Hasna drew in a deep breath. She couldn’t look at him for too long, not without getting distracted.
Where should she begin? At the beginning of her and Sharif’s relationship, when she should have seen the fault lines? Or when he left America to—
“Good evening,” a perky voice interrupted her thoughts. Hasna turned to see a smiling, thin redhead with a hair bun held in place by two pencils, one which the woman removed in preparation to write. “My name is Bobbi, and how can I make this evening special for you two?”
“We’ll take two Cappuccino Ice Houses with extra whipped cream,” Vernon said, saving Hasna the need to respond. “And house fries topped with cheese and peppers.”
Bobbi scribbled something on her pad. “Is there anything else you’d like?”
“No, thank you.”
“Tonight we do have a house special with—”
“Thank you,” Vernon said with a polite smile that told Bobbi what they really wanted. “That’ll be all.”
“Right,” she said, flashing a smile. “You two have a good night.”
“What happened?” Vernon asked once the server had disappeared back-first into the swinging doors of the kitchen behind his seat.
Hasna sighed thoughtfully. “I guess it’s not what happened so much as what did not happen.”
Vernon smiled. “Speak English, Tweetie. I’m a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean I understand two languages.”
She laughed. “I’m sorry. I guess what I’m saying is…”
It took twenty minutes for Hasna to recount Sharif’s coldness at the airport earlier and their distant relationship prior to that.
Vernon was quiet and Hasna waited as he folded their menus and stacked them on the edge of the small table just as the server returned, perkier, with a large tray displaying their order.
“Two Cappuccino Ice Houses,” she sang out, each glass making a thudding sound as she placed one before each of them. “Two orders of home fries…”
The aroma of the freshly fried potato wedges topped with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers teased Hasna’s nostrils, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten all day. She eyed the chocolate shavings atop the whipped cream adorning the cappuccino shakes, and she had to restrain herself from reaching for her glass right then.
“And…” Bobbi said as she artfully placed the napkin-wrapped silverware in front of them “…privacy.” She shot Vernon another smile before winking at him and disappearing a second later.
“Tell me something,” he said once Bobbi rounded into the kitchen again, this time carrying an empty serving tray. “Do you love him?”
The question took Hasna off-guard, and she forgot about the grumbling in her stomach. She felt her friend’s resolute stare, but she focused on the utensils she was unrolling and setting before her.
“Summertime,” a talented karaoke singer crooned from the restaurant’s small platform that had suddenly become a stage, “and the living is easy…”
“Yes,” Hasna said softly, feeling her heart pound at the confession. She still could not look Vernon in the eye. She felt so weak and pathetic with her heart laid so bare although it made no sense for her to feel so humiliated. Wasn’t it only natural for a woman to love her fiancé? And Hasna had known Sharif before she had known herself. He was so much a part of her that she could barely recall anything in her own life that didn’t include him in some way. But Hasna knew that it wasn’t the truth of her words that disturbed her, but the answer to the question that she knew was coming next.
“Does he love you?”
Hasna shook the white cloth napkin and laid it across her lap before reaching for the iced drink and removing the paper from the edge of the straw. She took a sip, then another, before responding as honestly as she could.
“I don’t know.”
She was surprised at the even confidence in her tone, as if she were not expecting to break down any moment. She even met Vernon’s gaze and did not blink as his eyes reflected kindness, empathy, and concern.
“Is this seat taken?” Vernon had asked on the day they had first met. It was Hasna’s first day as a law school student and already she had felt isolated and alone in the lecture hall. Apparently, everyone else had known each other in undergrad. Hasna didn’t want to believe there was something inherently flawed about her that inspired other students to keep their distance.
“No,” she had muttered, a bit uncertain at the sudden kindness in such a cold, unfriendly atmosphere.
“You mind if I sit here?”
“No,” she said again, this time noticing just how handsome he was. And just like that, he was all smiles, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to befriend an outcast. He took a seat next to her and had never left her side since.
But that was a lifetime ago, it seemed—before Hasna had known her life would wind up so hectic and confused.
Even with Vernon’s constant companionship, Hasna had often wondered if she’d made the right decision choosing law school over her heart. It tore at her that she wasn’t by Sharif’s side when he needed her most. She could only imagine the anxiety and stress he was experiencing in a foreign country, and it only aggravated her own anxiety to know that his experiences were worsened by feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
Before Sharif had asked Hasna to join him overseas, he had never asked anything of her. And Hasna knew Sharif well enough to know that he had stressed compulsively before even posing the question.
Then why had she refused him without forethought or consideration?
It was true that she had no desire to live in such a restrictive environment as she imagined Saudi Arabia to be. She could not erase from her mind the sullen images of women weighed down by dull black sheets that hid even their faces from view. She imagined the women to be scurrying along the marketplaces quickly for fear of being struck violently by religious police. That these people claimed Islam made the image even more repulsive. She had never even covered her own hair except to pray, and she had no desire to restrict herself beyond that. How could Sharif imagine that she would be willing to live in such a rigid culture—ever?
Naturally, over the years, her thoughts had matured to realize that her image of the Kingdom was obscure, if not exaggerated and stereotypical. In law school, she was surprised when a professor spoke fondly of his years spent as a youth in Jeddah, where he graduated from high school and had formed many friendships, even amongst Saudis. And the professor was Gnostic. When she had approached him after class one day and asked about his experience in the Kingdom, he had laughed when she shared her own impression.
“No,” he had said, shaking his head, still chuckling at her words. “It’s not like that at all.”
He added, “My wife and I hope to return there one day. We think it’s a much better environment for our children.”
The warmth of Vernon’s fingers nestling hers brought her back to the present.
At the sound of Vernon’s deep voice saying her name, Hasna focused her attention back to her best friend.
“Let me tell you something,” he said, “honestly.”
She drew her eyebrows together curiously, but before she could say anything, he spoke.
“I love you.”
The words were so matter-of-fact, so honest, that her heart fluttered until she felt the warmth of her friend’s affection permeate every part of her. Even if for only this moment, Hasna wished she was Kenya. Then she could be honest with him too.
She dropped her gaze shyly, unaccustomed to such open flattery.
“To me,” he went on, squeezing her hands in his, “you’re more than a friend. You’re like a sister to me.” He paused and waited for Hasna to look at him again. “Or a wife.”
Hasna’s eyes widened slightly. She didn’t know how to respond. She parted her lips, but Vernon spoke instead.
“This is honestly how I feel. After Kenya, you’re the closest person to my heart.”
For reasons Hasna was not able to admit, the words After Kenya disappointed her deeply. But she wasn’t ready to face the reason for this deep hurt.
“It’s something I tell Kenya all the time. I’m just sorry I never told you.”
“Why are you sorry?”
Now Vernon averted his eyes, but he tightened his grip on Hasna’s hands. “Because I didn’t want to come between you and Sharif.”
“But how could you come between us when you have Kenya?”
He shook his head. “With me and Kenya, it’s different. I tell her everything, and she tells me everything. From our past experiences, we understand how complex love is. Just because you love someone and want to spend the rest of your life with them doesn’t mean you’ll never have feelings for someone else.”
“Here we are, the two of us together,” the restaurants speakers now played the mellow tune as if mocking Hasna and Vernon, “taking this crazy chance to be all alone. We both know that we should not be together…”
Instinctively, they let go of each other’s hands and sipped their shakes in silence.
“Kenya doesn’t get jealous?” Hasna chuckled, unsure what was more awkward, the conversation or the song “Secret Lovers” playing in the background.
“Of course she gets jealous. And I get jealous too. Just like I have you, Kenya has close male friends who she needs to talk things through with.”
Absentmindedly, Hasna nodded, now toying with a potato wedge between her thumb and forefinger, twisting the cheese around it in a spiral. She pondered the weightiness of his words as she lifted the warm piece to her mouth. She savored its seasoning as she admired the beauty of Vernon’s and Kenya’s open honesty—and trust. Yet, here she was, at almost ten thirty at night and neither her family nor her fiancé knew where she was, and likely had no idea she had gone anywhere in the first place.
“I envy you,” she said finally. “I wish I could have what you and Kenya have.”
“And I envy what you and Sharif have.”
Hasna laughed. “And exactly what is there to envy?”
“He has you,” Vernon said as he pulled his plate of home fries closer to him. “And a day doesn’t go by that I don’t wish it were me instead.”
Minutes before Sharif’s plane had made its final descent to the Dulles airport, Sharif was looking out the small window next to his seat gazing distantly at the miniature winding roads, houses, and greenery. Ant-sized cars moved steadily along the roads, reminding Sharif of the toy cars he once played with when he was a boy.
“You’ll ruin him,” Nadirah would often complain.
Sharif’s father would chuckle, give his wife a quick peck on the cheek, and say, “You’re just a worrier.”
His father took him everywhere. “This is my son,” his dad would say in a way that made Sharif feel so proud that he found it difficult to keep from smiling. Whenever his mother would complain of how his father spoiled him, Sharif’s father would give him a “man-to-man” talk about women and how to deal with them.
“Your mom,” his father would explain, shaking his head as he drove. “She’s just worried about you. That’s how all women are, but you’ll learn that soon enough.” All the while, his father’s eyes remained on the road, occasionally glancing at his son to make sure Sharif understood. “You just gotta let ‘em worry.” His father would smile. “But don’t let it get you worrying.” A laugh. “Your mom, you see, she worries about everything, but you just look out for her and love her for it. That’s all you can do.”
Each time that Sharif and his father went out, Sharif wanted a new toy car, and whenever he had the money, Sharif’s father would get one for him. If his father was ever short of money, he would tell his son, “Don’t worry, I’ll get that one for you soon enough.” And surely, as he said, he would buy the car, even if Sharif himself had forgotten about it. Sharif’s collection of cars grew so huge that he had a special toy box for his cars alone. Often, Sharif would ask for a car simply because he knew he could get it though there were times that he did not care either way.
However complacent Sharif was about actually purchasing a particular car, his cars were his treasure nonetheless.
But they were also his source of getting in trouble with his mother.
At home, he played with his cars all day, and when his father returned home from work, they would play with the cars together, sometimes until dinnertime, which often upset Sharif’s mother.
Although Sharif preferred the “Go-car-go” game with his dad—it was so much fun watching the cars skid off the hardwood floors and up against the walls and hearing them crash back down—he knew how to enjoy his cars alone too.
As loud and boisterous as his voice would allow, Sharif would roar through the halls, running the wheels of the small cars up and down the walls. His mother’s protests only encouraged him, because he knew that after she yelled at him three times, his father would come to his aid.
“Let him be, Nadirah.” His father would wave his hand, a half smile on his face as he gently squeezed his wife’s shoulder to calm her. “He’s a boy.”
Sharif pretended that he did not hear, roaring more loudly as his father reasoned with his mother. “Vrooooom!”
“Yes, he’s a boy, Dawud, but these are my walls.”
If it were not the walls that she was complaining about, it was the dining room table, the kitchen sink (where Sharif gave his cars a “car wash”), the hardwood floors, or the plant soil (Sharif’s favorite: After a nice “car wash” it was always neat to see how the dirt from the plant pots stuck to his cars. It made them look real rough, just how Sharif liked them).
“I’m so tired of you saying that,” his mother had complained once. Sharif still remembered how her voice rose that day.
“Nadirah,” his dad reasoned, chuckling between his words, “he is a boy.”
“He’s eight years old, Dawud. He’s not a boy.”
Another chuckle. “Nadirah—”
“No, Dawud, this is not funny.”
The rectangle glow from the slightly open door disappeared as the door shut.
“Vrooooom!” Crash. Go-car-go. Craaaash!
“I’m so tired of you being so, so, so…careless.” His mother’s voice was shaking, Sharif could tell, even though it was muffled somewhat by the closed door. He could see moving shadows beneath the door.
Carwash. The idea came to him suddenly as he grabbed a handful of cars and hurried downstairs to the kitchen, dropping some on the stairs along the way. Sharif’s heart was pounding wildly as he turned on the faucet full blast until the clear water appeared white as it made a rhythmic pounding against the metal sink.
Sharif fumbled through the cabinet under the sink in search of the dishwashing liquid.
“…so spoiled that we can’t even…” His mother’s voice wafted through the vent.
Ah, there it is, behind the box of trash bags.
“Why do you…”
He placed the stopper in the drain and squeezed the bottle until the entire bottom of the sink was covered in the blue liquid. As the white suds grew into small mountains, Sharif dropped his cars into the water and moved them about, splashing the water with them.
Sharif’s heart pounded. Was he in trouble? He quickly turned off the water, removed the stopper, and shook the suds from his hands as the footfalls approached. Why, he did not know, but he ran under the kitchen table, hoping his parents had not heard the screeching sound of the chair legs, which would reveal his hiding place.
Two pairs of legs passed the kitchen doorway.
“Nadirah,” his father pleaded. There were no signs of laughter in his voice.
Slowly, Sharif moved forward and peered from behind a chair into the living room where his parents were.
His father was holding his mother’s arm. “Please.”
She yanked her arm free of his grip and grabbed her keys from the coffee table. “Dawud, just leave me alone.” His mother was crying.
Sharif’s heart sank as the realization hit him.
“Nadirah, just sit down and we can talk.”
“I’m tired of talking, Dawud. You don’t listen anyway.” She sniffled. “All you do is laugh, and it’s not funny.” Her voice was high-pitched and whiny. “I’m trying to raise this boy to appreciate things and be grateful, and all you do is just give him whatever he wants. I’m tired of it.”
“Nadirah,” his father reasoned in a low tone, conscious that his son was likely in earshot, “let’s just sit down and talk about this.”
“Why, Dawud?” She turned and glared at her husband, her eyes gleaming with tears. “So you can just laugh at me? Or are you going to—”
“Sharif,” Dawud said in a loud whisper, reminding his wife that their son could likely overhear. The sound of his name sent Sharif’s heart pounding, and he drew back a bit.
“—sit here and tell me the same old story. That you hardly knew your father and you want to be a good father to him? That you want show him the love you never got? Or that we can’t let being poor stop us from getting our son nice things? Well, wake up, David,” she said, reverting to his English name, as she often did when she was upset. “Wake up! We don’t have money to blow on some stupid toy cars that sit in that boy’s room like he’s Richie Rich. Good lord, Dave, he doesn’t even have a proper bed! But no, no, he’s got cars! Is that supposed to help us pay the car note, the mortgage, or all those silly bills you never bother to open because Sharif wants another car?”
“Now, that’s not fair.”
“Oh it’s fair, it’s fair.”
“You know just as well as I do that buying those ninety-nine-cent cars don’t put a hole in our budget.”
“After you buy a million of ‘em, it does!”
She started toward the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I don’t care.”
“But I do.”
He held out his hand. “Give me the keys.”
The keys jingled as she pushed them far into her pant pocket and slipped on her shoes.
“Give me the keys,” he told her, raising his voice.
She opened the door, left, and shut it behind her. Dawud quickly opened the door and rushed to catch his wife. A moment later Sharif heard the car start and pull away.
Sharif sat motionless under the table and stared without blinking at the front door that remained ajar. He cautiously swallowed as a lump developed in his throat. How long he sat there, he had no idea, but it felt like years.
Had his parents left for good?
Panic engulfed him.
Blinking, he swallowed again, and he slowly emerged from under the table.
I’ll give the cars back, he made a promise to himself. I won’t play Go-car-go ever again.
Sharif walked slowly to the front door and stood at the screen door. Somewhere a dog barked. Sharif felt his eyes moisten but made no effort to “be a man.” He could barely lift his arms out of weakness. In helpless surrender, Sharif leaned his head against the cold screen and felt the tears well and slip down his cheeks. Seconds later, his shoulders shook, and he heard a whimper escape his throat. The sound was awkward and familiar, and it was all he could to do withstand the aching in his heart.
But it hurt so much.
Sharif wiped the tears away with the back of his hand. He would be strong. He would be strong.
He had already made his mommy mad with his cars; he could at least make his daddy proud by behaving like a man.
His small shoulders shook under the heaviness in his chest. He fought the tears that demanded release. But they resisted.
Sharif’s sobs became so horrible that it was difficult to imagine that the sounds were actually coming from him.
Outside the sun was setting. Soon it would be dark. Already, he could hear the crickets chirping, and he saw an occasional glow of lightning bugs in his un-mown yard. Usually, he and his father would run through the dandelions after the blinking lights, and catch them and let them tickle their palms and fingers until they flew away—or until Sharif’s mother reminded them to mow the lawn before it got too late.
In the distance, a silhouette approached.
As it came closer, Sharif became more hopeful. Then he realized that his parents had driven—not walked. Quickly, he closed the door.
Inside, he collapsed on the living room couch and cried even more. He had really messed up this time, worse than when he wrote really big on his homework paper to make his teacher think he wrote a lot of pages. A lot worse.
Outside, the screen door opened.
Sharif sat up. Why was somebody at the door? He tiptoed to the front window and parted the curtains slightly and peered out. There was no car in the driveway.
Before he could rush to the door and lock it, the door opened. His jaw trembled. He was uncertain how he should handle the intruder. In panic, he thought to run, but before he could, the person spoke.
“As-salaamu-alaikum.” His father was too engulfed in his own thoughts to notice his son’s frightened expression at his greeting.
Sharif forced a smile to mask the fear that hammered in his chest.
He noticed the stains of sweat on his father’s shirt, and the musty scent of outside filled the small living room. It was then that Sharif knew what his father had been doing.
“Where is she?” Sharif’s heart pounded until he felt the throbbing in his throat.
Dawud smiled and rubbed Sharif’s head, but the gesture seemed to exhaust Sharif’s father. “Don’t worry, son. She’s fine.”
“But where is she?”
It seemed like years before his father said anything.
When Dawud finally spoke, he gave Sharif the most memorable “man-to-man” talk that they would have.
That night Sharif learned about the serious condition his mother was suffering, a condition that required the combined patience of not only Sharif’s father, but of Sharif too. This condition, his father explained, caused his mother (and all women afflicted with it) to behave erratically.
Doctors called the ailment “pregnancy.”
Naturally, Sharif was terrified for his mother. He had heard of this affliction but had no idea what it was and what it did. Sharif’s father assured him that, however strange and scary it all was, it was nothing to worry about. He told Sharif that his mother would return that night, apologize—after she had had enough of her mother—say she loved them both, and everything would be normal again.
Sharif was not convinced.
But sure enough, late that night, she did return, apologize, and tell them that she loved them. But for some reason, things never felt normal again. And having a baby boy arrive four months later did not make it any easier.
And Sharif would always regard Wali suspiciously, wondering how “the condition” had affected his little brother.
May Allah give you children just like you. These were the words that played over in Mona’s mind just before she had gone to bed next to her sleeping husband the night before.
It was after one o’clock in the morning when she had stood in her night robe waiting in the living room, having halted her pacing at the sound of keys turning in the door. She crossed her arms over her chest and forced herself to remain calm, even as anger and relief gripped her at once. In the last hour, she had imagined that something terrible had happened to her daughter. She hated to disturb Nadirah so late at night, but she really needed to know if Hasna was with Sharif. Even when Nadirah told her that her son was alone and asleep in his room, Mona could not relax until she spoke to Sharif directly.
Her heart sank when Sharif had come to the phone groggy. No, he hadn’t spoken to Hasna since he had seen her at the airport. Was everything okay, he wondered? Yes, yes. She’s just gone to the store or something, Mona had said before getting off the phone.
But she hadn’t been able to sleep after the call. She didn’t think it wise to wake her husband and alert him. He would probably think she was overreacting, or, worse, begin worrying too.
This one she had to battle alone. At least until she was absolutely sure that something was wrong.
She had given in and considered waking her husband to have him call the police when she heard what she thought was a car turning into the driveway. But she continued pacing the living room, mind racing frantically, wondering what she’d do if it weren’t Hasna’s car.
Then she heard keys turning in the door.
“Where have you been?” Mona exploded, startling Hasna as she tried to slip unnoticed into the house.
When Hasna’s eyes met her mother’s, Hasna rolled her eyes. “Mom, please. I’m not in the mood. It’s really late.”
“Yes, I can see that. That’s precisely my point.”
“I know what time it is.” Hasna kicked off her shoes and adjusted her purse on her shoulder.
“I’m your mother.” Mona stepped closer to her daughter and pointed a finger at her, trying not to raise her voice louder than she already had. But seconds later she heard movement, and Iman, in her long cotton night gown, appeared at the top of the stairs with a look of sleepiness and worry on her face.
“Everything’s okay, sweetie. You can go back to bed.”
At that moment, Iman noticed her sister fully dressed and tossing her shoes on the rack. Iman seemed fully awake suddenly. “You’re just getting home?”
Mona could tell the question was due more to shock than any desire to interrogate Hasna, but Mona cringed, knowing that Hasna would take offense.
“Iman, mind your business and go to bed like your mommy said.”
The words were said sarcastically, and Mona didn’t appreciate the way the remark had insulted her too. “Don’t talk to your sister like that.”
Hasna groaned and rolled her eyes as she passed her mother and started up the steps, the sweet scent of perfume lingering behind her.
Iman was still staring at her sister in confusion when Hasna pushed Iman out of her way, momentarily throwing Iman off balance. Iman had to catch herself by holding onto the banister to regain her posture.
“Hey! What was that for? I didn’t do anything to you.”
Ignoring her sister, Hasna disappeared down the hall and seconds later her room door slammed shut, its angry rattling echoing in the otherwise still house.
Iman looked to her mother, a question mark and hurt on her face as she was still recovering from her sister’s brusque manner.
Currently, Mona stood peering out the kitchen window into the backyard, the morning’s dishes piled in front of her. It was true that Hasna had a lot on her mind, she reflected, but it was not true that everything was okay.
The words of Mona’s father spoken more than two decades ago assured Mona of that.
May Allah give you children just like you.
Simple words, really, Mona reflected as she now hugged herself in front of the window. She rubbed her arms as if the motion would somehow soothe her, and protect her from the fear of the prophecy unveiling itself in her life today.
Words, spat at a wayward daughter in a moment of anger, perhaps forgotten in the father’s memory, yet— Mona thought of her daughter Hasna.
Mona lifted a plate from the sink and turned the stainless steel knob, and water rushed from the faucet in that motion. She felt tightness in her chest as she held the floral-trimmed glass plate beneath the clear-white stream, the hardened food loosening its grip on the dish in that moment.
Mona thought of her own flippant attitude as a teen, her complete disregard for what she saw as an overbearing, overprotective father, and her insistence on dating the American though it broke all cultural expectations and rules.
Even in the insobriety of rebellion against her family’s “backward, FOB tradition,” her father’s angry prayer had been more terrifying to Mona than if he had cursed her outright.
And it terrified her even more today.
What if Allah answered that single supplication of an exasperated father calling out to his Lord?—even if he was a man who loved his prestige, his distinguished upper-class blood, and his six-figure income more than he loved his Lord or his religion.
The du’aa of the parent is answered.
Mona reached for the faucet’s knob again, turning it, and the rush of water stopped suddenly. She started to stack the dishes on the counter next to the sink, the clinking a distant sound as the tightness in her chest squeezed her heart.
Was there any exception to this rule? Could there be any exception to words spoken by Prophet Muhammad himself?
“Sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam , sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam…”
As she opened the dishwasher, she whispered this supplication over and over again. It was something her mother would do whenever she was distressed, and right then it calmed Mona’s anxiety. But not entirely.
The supplication asking for peace and blessings for Allah’s Messenger made Mona wonder if she would be granted peace and blessings in her own life. Or if she deserved either.
She felt the familiar moisture welling in her eyes as her throat closed, her gaze on the dishes she was lining up neatly in the dishwasher.
“There are exceptions to this rule,” an imam had told her once.
But right then Mona couldn’t remember what those exceptions were. She remembered only leaving the masjid that day feeling hopeful and optimistic, only to, years later, return to feeling hopeless and despondent.
Mona remembered the sense of self-satisfaction she had felt, at least briefly, as she imagined that the prayer would not be answered because her father had been in the wrong at the time. He had no right to utter something like that to his daughter.
But that was before Mona understood that she herself had been wrong. And even if her father had been in the wrong, Why worry about a prayer that promised nothing other than her future offspring mirroring her same innocence?
At the time of her father’s words, Mona was nineteen years old, a college sophomore and less religious than even her father at the time. At least he considered himself a Muslim, even if his lifestyle reflected only marginally that belief. But Mona did not use the word Muslim in connection to herself at the time, and she loathed hearing Pakistani friends and family remind her of Islam.
If it weren’t for her having to identify herself with some ethnicity, she would not even have told others she was Pakistani originally. But it was a fact that she could not escape because of the constant inquiry, “But where are you from originally?”
Her aunts had said she was suffering from an “identity crisis,” but Mona had felt that she was simply suffering.
This was more than two decades before September eleventh, but even at that time, Muslims, especially from “Eastern” countries, did not have an impeccable reputation in the American media. Honor killings, wife beatings, and women draped in all-black were the images that Islam evoked then. And Mona had been determined to escape every stereotype. She would not allow any impediment—even her own religion and family—to stand in her way of being a reputable doctor and a full American.
And she never did become a doctor. In fact, she never even made it to medical school. And although her blue passport suggested that she was fully American, she knew from her repeated painful experiences, especially after September eleventh, that her Western nationality too had eluded her.
She worried that Hasna was suffering from similar tragic dreams. But it was only Islam that Hasna was trying to escape, even as she wished to hold onto her Muslim identity.
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