Hearts We Lost: Short Story 1

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“This world in comparison to the Hereafter is as if one of you were to put his finger in the ocean. Consider how much you would have when you pulled it out.”

—Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (Muslim)

SHARIF

 If I were to look back at my life and pinpoint a single event, a single moment that set everything moving in a different direction, it would have to be the first time I saw my wife in a dream. Naturally, I didn’t know this would prove a pivotal event, and if I’m honest, except for its strange timing—it was the week Hasna and I became officially engaged—I forgot about it.

Until I saw it again.

There’s something about things that keep happening, that keep coming back to you. Like a continuous tugging at the lapel of your jacket, at a certain moment, you’re going to turn around and see who’s there, and what they want from you.  

I cannot say how many times since then I’ve seen the dream, not because it has been too many to count, but because I never thought of it as relating to a particular number. But after seeing the dream a third time, which was about a year after the first, I knew this was not a random occurrence. It was some sort of sign.

I’m not one to place too much value in dreams, but I think intuitively we all know that, beyond their inherent enigma, dreams at times do have some definite meaning in reality.

I too know, however, that there are people who claim second sight, telepathy, and the power of dream interpretation. I am not one of them. I am as I always have been, simply a man.

I relate this initial dream as significant only because there was an even more significant moment, years later, when I knew this was no ordinary vision.

This was the moment I saw the dream unfolding before me—in real life.

*** 

“Do you love him?” Sommer said.

She folded the paper she had used for note-taking then folded it a second time. A dark arched eyebrow was raised as she pinched the twice-folded white paper between her thumb and forefinger before running them along the crease. She reached for her Louis Vuitton handbag that sat on the floor next to her and pulled it onto her lap without looking at Yasmin. She primly opened the large bag, ignoring the shocked expression on her friend’s face, and she dropped the folded paper inside before lifting the purse and letting it drop back to its place on the marble-tiled floor of the Jeddah beach house her husband’s family owned.

Folding her arms over her chest until her diamond ring sparkled under the chandelier’s light above their heads, Sommer narrowed her dark eyes as she regarded Yasmin. Her expression demanded a response.

Yasmin looked away, unable to conceal the stiffening of her jaw. She felt her face grow warm, and she hated Sommer right then. It had been a bad idea to come. If her parents had known that it was Sommer that she was visiting, they would not approve. But Yasmin had omitted that detail after securing her parents’ permission to visit “a friend” after she and her parents returned to their Jeddah hotel suite after performing ‘Umrah.

The look in her father’s eyes had been disapproving, but Yasmin sensed that he wasn’t inclined to refuse. Her mother had looked only worried. But Yasmin was twenty-three years old, and her parents were trying not to treat her like a teenager anymore. Besides, she had already proven herself trustworthy, at least following her last year in high school when her and Sommer’s friendship ended abruptly.

Yasmin herself never expected to speak to Sommer again. And she hadn’t. But right then she didn’t know where else to turn.

“Does it matter?” Yasmin’s voice was curt, and she feared that she was overacting.

But Sommer looked pleased that she had annoyed her friend. A mischievous, knowing grin spread across Sommer’s powder-pale face, the light olive skin beneath peeking out only where her make-up met her ears and hairline.

In high school, this same grin had given Yasmin so much confidence in having the “popular girl” by her side. Now it only made her stomach churn in dread. Sommer was enjoying this, Yasmin realized right then. She shouldn’t have come.

“Of course it matters.”

The music that had been playing in the back room grew louder until Yasmin could feel it thumping in rhythm to her own discomfort. She was still covered in her black, over-the-head abaya, but she had removed her face veil and gloves. But she kept them within reach on the card table that separated her from Sommer. Yasmin had always felt uneasy around Sommer’s brother Aziz. But because he had been popular in the boys’ section of the private school that she and Sommer had attended in Riyadh, she never showed discomfort in front of her friend, especially after Sommer had told her that he thought she had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen.

Aziz’s blaring music made Yasmin shift in her chair. She wished she had chosen to take a nap after returning from Makkah. If she had, she’d be having dinner with her parents right then instead of subjecting herself to this.

Why was it that a simple beat from a song stirred up so much emotion in one’s heart? The soft rhythm reached deep and brought to surface so much, confirming for Yasmin, inescapably, how much of a fool she had been.

“What?” Sommer grimaced as she regarded Yasmin. The contempt that Yasmin had always sensed her friend held for her during high school became apparent in that expression. “You think you’re just going to use some guy to repair your image and it’s not supposed to matter to him?” She sniffed her disgust.

“I’m not using him,” Yasmin snapped, but she caught the insincerity in her tone though she had never thought of her motives in that way.

Sommer was silent, and an eyebrow went up again.

Yasmin’s gaze fell to her hands, and the sight of the deep brown olive skin reminded her of that day during their first year in secondary school when Sommer discovered that the Arab boy she liked was talking to a girl from the American school.

“Life’s so unfair,” Sommer had blurted as she opened the bag of Doritos Yasmin had bought for them to share. They were sitting outside on break, leaning against a wall near a pair of glass doors. “Your skin looks like crap, and you get the blue eyes.

“Is he a real American?”

Yasmin gathered her eyebrows and regarded her friend in genuine confusion. “What?”

“Is he a real American, or just some F-O-B toting the blue passport?”

It was then that Yasmin realized that Sommer had assumed that the man she wanted to marry shared their ethnic background, though only Yasmin’s mother was Pakistani. Her father was Yemeni-Saudi. Even that had been a source of tension between the friends, as only Yasmin held a Saudi passport.

Though both she and Sommer had always wanted an American one.

“He’s a real American,” Yasmin said coolly. She didn’t want to reveal more than she needed to. But if she were to get the help she had come for, she couldn’t hold back too much.

An hour earlier, when Yasmin had arrived and explained her dilemma, Sommer had asked details only about the girl whom the “American” had been engaged to marry, and very little about the man himself. Yasmin had found that odd, especially as Sommer took out a pen and wrote furiously on a piece of paper as she spoke. Yasmin had imagined that Sommer could somehow help her get in touch with the man’s family—without her own family knowing, of course—so he could reconsider her for marriage and contact her father. Sommer and her family had several close friends and family in the States, some of them having resided in the country for generations—hence their status as “real” Americans.

In school, Sommer was often critical of classmates who were “FOB’s”—immigrants who, “fresh off the boat,” had stayed in America only long enough to get the blue passport. Thereafter, they swiftly returned to their countries or to Saudi Arabia, where “American” was always neatly printed on formal paperwork like report cards and class rosters posted in the school’s halls. Yasmin had always felt that Sommer’s detesting the “fake” Americans was a bit much, but, then again, she herself had disliked them no less.

But that had been in another time, another lifetime, it seemed. Yasmin no longer cared about things like that. She would never have imagined that Sommer, after two years of marriage—to a very wealthy Pakistani businessman in Jeddah—and a son, would still nurse so much envy in her heart for people who had that which she felt more deserving of. Half the people she envied could never dream of living the lavish life she now took for granted, Yasmin reflected.

“Where does his family live? In America or Pakistan?” There was a tone of skepticism in Sommer’s question.

“He’s American,” Yasmin said again, this time feeling for the first time since she arrived that evening that she had the upper hand. It didn’t escape her that Sommer had omitted the mention of Yemen or Saudi Arabia in her inquiry. It was like being in high school all over again, when she was treated by Sommer and other classmates as if she had no right to her Arab blood. But, then again, maybe most of them never knew about her paternal side since her mother worked at the school and was known as “Yasmin’s mom.”

“He’s Black American.” She glanced at the clock as she added this detail.

Oh.

Yasmin could almost taste Sommer’s shock, and defeat. In high school, this had been their dream, to marry a Black American. Of course then, their images had been immature ones, like that of the late rapper 2-Pac or the actor Will Smith, borrowed from their fascination with American music, television, and movies.

When Yasmin met Sommer’s gaze a second later, she detected a twinge of envy as her friend’s eyes grew grave. Sommer wrinkled her nose in disapproval, but it was too late, years late actually, as Yasmin had already gotten a glimpse of her friend’s heart.

“But it could never happen,” Sommer had brooded one day staring at the ceiling as she lay on the bed in Yasmin’s room, hands clasped behind her head. The sound of a 2-Pac CD played with the volume turned low because they both knew Yasmin’s parents would never approve of rap music in their house, of any music in fact.

“You never know,” Yasmin had said from where she played in Sommer’s hair as she sat with her legs crossed and folded in front of her at the head of the bed, her back against the headboard. A smile lingered on her face as she imagined the impossible. “You never know…”

Sommer’s face was twisted in such marked disapproval that Yasmin sensed she was about to retract her agreement to help Yasmin speak to his family. Sommer opened her mouth to say something, but then shrugged.

“I’ll help you,” she said finally, her manner cold once again. She spoke as if assisting Yasmin was a tremendous favor and inconvenience. “But I don’t agree with what you’re doing. It’s wrong.”

Yasmin was unsure if her friend was referring to Yasmin’s alleged crime of “using” the man or that of marrying an indigenous American. Yasmin doubted the disapproval was due to her parents not knowing, but she felt guilty nonetheless.

“I just want a chance to talk,” Yasmin said more for herself than for Sommer. She couldn’t shake the feeling that what she was doing was wrong, terribly wrong. She should have talked to her father about this. Perhaps he would be willing to contact the young man about reconsidering.

But the problem was that she wanted to talk to the young man herself, and she doubted her father would approve. Her father had lived in America for many years while completing his doctorate degree, and he had admitted on more than one occasion that the American Muslims were more pragmatic about matters like this. But he was still Arab at heart. He could never allow his daughter to speak to a man until at least the written marriage contract was complete, even if he were present while they spoke.

But Americans didn’t approach marriage like that. They at least needed to talk to the person they wanted to marry. Chaperoned discussions were fine, and even expected among the more religious ones, but never would they agree to marry someone after only a showfa—looking at the girl without her veil—even if the “wedding” would be held an entire year after the written contract had been signed. It didn’t give Americans any consolation that they could talk freely during that year, for that defeated the entire purpose of talking. They were already married by then.

“I don’t like owing anybody.” Sommer’s voice had risen, and Yasmin could tell that Sommer herself was growing annoyed at Aziz’s music that was now playing even louder.

Aziz was in the back room with friends of his brother-in-law’s younger brother, and Yasmin heard them thrashing about although she couldn’t imagine what they were doing. But she thought she smelled hashish.

“You don’t owe me anything,” Yasmin said, raising her own voice so her friend could hear her over the music. “It’s just a favor I’m asking because—”

“No,” Sommer interrupted, shaking her head, leaning to the side to reach for her bag again. “I owe you.” The words were spoken humbly, as if in submission to something she had wrestled with for years. But there was an edge of bitterness in her tone. Her eyes were distant and regretful as she pulled the bag onto her lap again. But her dark eyes still held that sullen look that made Yasmin worry that she had made a mistake in asking Sommer’s assistance.

Yasmin felt that sickness in the pit of her stomach again.

“But I’ve always hated that.” Sommer contorted her face as she rummaged through the bag, her gaze on whatever she was looking for. And it was almost through gritted teeth that she spoke her next words, withdrawing the folded paper again and a pen thereafter.

“I never understood why you’d done something so stupid in the first place.”

It was then that Yasmin was reminded of her own motivations for calling Sommer earlier that evening. Yasmin knew, even if she had been unable to admit it to herself at the time, that Sommer did owe her. Contacting some family and friends in Washington, D.C. was the least Sommer could do to make up for being the cause of Yasmin’s inability to get married.

They had graduated from high school more than six years ago, and Yasmin had been the only one still held back by the past. Even her newfound religiousness hadn’t allowed her to outlive the “image” Sommer imagined Yasmin wished to repair.

And Yasmin was in fact hoping to repair her image through this marriage. Love had never crossed her mind.

“But you should know,” Sommer said as she unfolded the paper and smoothed it down on the card table in front of them, “that Americans don’t take this issue of love lightly. If someone wants to marry them—” She paused as she lifted her gaze to meet Yasmin’s, her face twisted in disapproval. “Especially an Arab girl,” she said, acknowledging Yasmin’s paternal blood for the first time. The acknowledgement made Yasmin uncomfortably aware that this meant that Sommer was being honest, and painfully so. “They think it’s because the girl actually cares for them.”

Yasmin looked away.

“Not because she’s lost all hope in marrying her own.”

***

Sharif dreamt of his father as he leaned the back of his head against the seat that, even reclined, gave the feeling of being closed in. Behind his lids, his father was as he remembered him, a man whose leather brown skin and dark eyes were symbols of one worthy of veneration, even when words did not pass his lips. Sharif saw his mother next to his father, her thin fingers gently touching the back of his father’s hand, her other hand outstretched, index finger pointing to Asma. Sharif’s sister had bent her stubby legs and watched with a toddler’s amazement as her diaper, drooping heavy from a long night’s sleep, moved on its own accord and swung like a pendulum, needing only the rhythmic, gentle urging of her upper body. Sharif saw himself then, only momentarily amused, unable to offer more than that because he was showing his father his seventh grade Spanish exam. The red ink strokes of the score “92” and the teachers hurried, barely legible “Good Job!” was more interesting, more pressing to him at that moment. Wali, a young boy at the time, sat with exaggerated disinterest, oblivious to his surroundings as he played Pac Man, the only video game their father allowed at the time.

Sharif opened his eyes only briefly, long enough to see that the seatbelt sign was still turned off. He could not bring himself to look at his watch. Already there was at his temples a throbbing threatening release if Sharif were to burden it with knowledge of more waiting. He shut his eyes and felt exhausted sleeplessness overtake him, even as he hadn’t slept more than an hour.

The sound of a woman’s voice prompted his turning his head in the direction of the sound. She was scolding her young son for spilling his drink on the stow tray and soiling his clothes. It took a moment for Sharif to register that she was speaking in Arabic because he understood every word.

He became aware of his staring only after meeting the gaze of the girl in the aisle seat, next to the boy. She regarded Sharif suspiciously, a sly grin on her face, and it took a moment before he turned his head. Perhaps he had turned too quickly, because a second later he found himself staring too forcefully out the window to his left, trying to erase the image of the girl’s large eyes decorated by mascara—or was is kohl?—that had become mysteriously beautiful in that brief moment. The image disturbed him, and a full minute passed before he understood the reason for his unrest.

The young woman, before Sharif had drifted to sleep, had been wearing a jilbaab. The voluminous black garment had been draped from the top of her head and fell over her feet. Her face too had been concealed with a matching veil, and her eyes had been covered with a sheer screen and her hands with gloves matching the soft black fabric of her outer-garment.

Now, the authentic caramel brown of her Arab skin was palpable, reminding him of the two things he had hoped to forget for at least another three hours. He was no longer in Riyadh, and he was a man. At that moment, he didn’t know which was more troubling.

Day glowed outside the small window. Translucent clouds faded into the sky’s powder blue that exuded a luminance that strained the eyes even as the sun itself was not visible. Sharif willed himself to imbibe the beauty of this magnificent view, even as the scene had become suffocating in its monotonous singularity during the long flight. He turned his head slightly and rested it on the stiffly reclined seat, inadvertently glancing in the direction of the girl.

In that brief moment, she caught his gaze and smiled so imperceptibly that its message lacked ambiguity. It was a smile of triumph, of familiarity—a gesture that Sharif had often, in the years before leaving for Saudi Arabia, returned equally imperceptibly, followed by a lowered gaze that only faintly allayed his fears of succumbing to human weakness.

Out of politeness, or masculine inclination—Sharif didn’t know which—he smiled back. He caught himself, though a second too late, and turned his attention back to the darkened seatbelt sign welded to the ceiling of the cabin.

“Are you American?”

He heard her voice, a soft, resonant tone free of both Arab accent and Islamic hesitation, and he recognized the unrestrained kindness that marked an inappropriateness that had, most probably, been incensed the moment she removed the traditional garb to reveal a fitting “Go Terps!” T-shirt and equally fitting jeans.

Sharif nodded but refused to look in her direction. “Yes.”

“I am too. I go to U-MD College Park.”

He found the information intriguing despite himself. His home was thirty minutes from the school.

“What about you?”

“I graduated from Howard,” he said, surprising himself by the ease with which he spoke. “But after that, I left to study in Riyadh.” Despite his inclination otherwise, he shut his eyes, feigning exhaustion.

“So you’re from D.C.?”

Sharif, even in the self-imposed darkness of his closed eyelids, was impressed and could almost see the look of recognition on her face. By circumstance or volition, Sharif didn’t know which, but most Muslim immigrants he had met were unfamiliar with the historically Black university based in the nation’s capital.

“Yes.”

“I am too.”

Sharif didn’t know what to say in response but felt the growing discomfort of his silence. He had to temper his instinct to converse more, to find out more about her. The temptation alone disturbed him and he felt a nostalgic longing for the mundane spiritual atmosphere of women in black jilbaab and men in white thobe, a singularity of appearance that he had taken for granted while living in a Muslim society. Initially, the tranquil atmosphere had been a welcome refuge from the fast-paced, social lifestyle to which he was accustomed, but it soon became so commonplace that it evoked neither solace nor strain as his studies consumed him and the strange city became merely home.

The girl filled the silence, and Sharif became both relieved and disturbed at the sound of her voice that temporarily distracted him from the throbbing in his head. He hated himself for wanting her to be quiet, and he hated himself for not wanting her to stop—a selfish desire that would protect him from participating but allow him to benefit from the conversation nonetheless.

Sharif’s desire to respond was so insistent that he had to turn his head to the direction of the window to discourage himself. It was rude, he knew, but he was growing more irritated by the second. When would this flight be over?

He loathed long flights and wished he could show his mother this moment. He wanted her to feel what he was feeling. Then, perhaps, she could understand why in the six years he had lived across the Atlantic, he had come home only twice, and why, even then, he had stayed only two weeks. He had, instead, opted to spend his vacations in Cairo, where he would study Arabic and Qur’an, both of which required his mastery if he were to graduate with his degree in Islamic jurisprudence, although both were already part of the program at his university in Riyadh.

*** 

“Whose bag is this?” The school supervisor held up the weather-beaten designer backpack as she stood in front of the section D twelfth grade class, flanked by both her assistant and the girls’ section vice principal.

The sloppy ink pen scribble of S + K in exaggerated cursive was legible even over the “LV” company logo printed on every part of the leather of the student’s bag. Everyone knew whose bag it was, but in typical student solidarity, even if they were far from being friends outside class, they stuck together. Besides, these “bag searches” were nothing short of mafia-type encroaching in the students’ view. What business was it to the school what students carried in their book bags? It wasn’t like they were carrying narcotics. Gosh.

Ms. Javeria stood in front of the room with her arms crossed, looking dutifully upset. The random “bag search” that was whispered among students to happen that day actually ended up being an entire school search instead. Lockers were checked, behind lockers were checked, on-top-of-lockers were checked, and even the mobile-phone hideout next to the school’s canteen had been searched.

The students were livid. They had begun to realize that the school likely deliberately leaked the fact that there would be an “unannounced random bag search” that day. It felt like a set-up. Not even one bag had been searched, at least not the ones in students’ possession.

This was a travesty of justice. What kind of school deliberately whispered lies in students’ earshot as some sort of psychological ambush to catch them unaware?

There was an entire mobile sweep that day, too. Every few minutes, the intercom interrupted classes, asking, on average, about three students to report to the vice principal’s office, where their mobile phones had already been confiscated. Students only had to sit tight while their parents were called about the presence of the mobile phone, as well as any “suspicious” messages or pictures found on them.

Sommer had been amongst the first of the mobile-phone transgressors called out of class earlier that day, and she had returned—two class periods later—during Ms. Javeria’s Islamic Studies class. And Sommer was, in her words, “pissed off” because they had taken not only her mobile phone this time, but her SIM card too.

“Only your mother come get it,” Sommer mocked the assistant supervisor’s accent and poor English as she recounted the story in barely restrained whispers to the students who sat near her. The laughter that exploded thereafter had annoyed Ms. Javeria, who had been writing on the board proofs from the Qur’an about respecting authority and telling the truth—a topic that, interestingly, was not covered in their course text. The students suspected that this too was part of the school’s ploy to root out “contraband” being brought to school. Of course, very few students had enough presence of mind to care about what the teacher was saying, especially since they were quite sure she would slip into her lesson some diatribe about not bringing movie DVDs, music CDs, and mobile phones to school.

“Sommer!” Ms. Javeria’s voice stunned the class to silence. She didn’t often raise her voice. But apparently, the sudden laughter had irritated her thoroughly. “Enough.”

Inadvertently, Yasmin glanced at Sommer apologetically. Sommer too had looked in Yasmin’s direction after the teacher’s outburst. The friends were seated far from each other, as they both knew that Islamic Studies was not a class they could play in. But Sommer met Yasmin’s apologetic expression with a glare, her nostrils flaring in that moment.

Yasmin looked away, her face hot in humiliation, especially since other students had mirrored Sommer’s accusing look. Yasmin absolutely hated her mother right then.

It was bad enough that Yasmin had to endure this class every single week, and now this sudden outburst directed at Sommer, and on a day that the students were already upset?

Yasmin was utterly ashamed that her mother took this class so seriously. She often wanted to disappear when her mother’s eyes filled with tears as she recited Qur’an or talked about the blessings of emaan. What made matters worse was that Ms. Javeria was actually well-respected at the school and was, to even some popular girls, a favored teacher. Despite the subject having had a reputation for being the easiest at the school, many students started taking Islamic Studies seriously after Yasmin’s mother took the job during Yasmin’s third year in high school, after the students had gone for nearly three weeks with no teacher.

Everything had changed after that. The break for Dhuhr prayer toward the end of the day, which had been just another snack and gossip break for most students, began to be taken seriously by most students. Girls who had never prayed began to pray and even started talking about encouraging their parents and friends to pray. Even girls who didn’t wear hijab started contemplating the importance of it. Everywhere Yasmin turned, there were whispers of how nice, sweet, and “inspirational” Ms. Javeria was.

And she despised it.

She resented being “Ms. Javeria’s daughter.” Yasmin didn’t wear hijab, and she absolutely refused to put the head cover on, even when her mother insisted that she cover properly. But Yasmin was defiant. Nope, you can’t force me. That was her mantra. Then her mother’s eyes would grow sad, and as she pulled the covers over herself at night, Yasmin would feel bad, the image of her mother’s deep sadness coming back to her. She’d always said that her mother cared too much about what people thought. But in those quiet moments, Yasmin knew that her mother simply cared “too much” for her soul. That’s when Yasmin started to care herself.

But she couldn’t reduce herself to being a “hijabi,” at least not at school. She’d lose all her friends. The marginal popularity she had earned was because she wasn’t religious. That she was bold enough to openly defy her mother, when so many other students felt ashamed to, made Yasmin all the more praiseworthy to Sommer and her friends.

Whose bag is this?”

The supervisor stepped toward the students and narrowed her eyes as she scanned the class, the bag still suspended in the air. Ms. Javeria shook her head from where she stood near the board, a dry eraser marker still in her hand, in the gesture expressing her deep disapproval for her students being so obstinate.

The bag was Sommer’s. Everyone knew that. The answer to the supervisor’s question was literally written on the bag itself. S + KSommer and Khalid. The two had been an item for nearly a year now, and Sommer was now the envy of the senior class because she had secured for herself the boy known as the most popular, cutest, and smartest. That he was half-American only incensed the girls’ envy. There was even a rumor that he was telling his friends he wanted to marry her.

But, of course, teachers and supervisors, true to their job, were stupid and oblivious. So stupid, in fact, that they actually imagined that their raised voices and stern gazes would make the students stoop so low as to betray a friend.

But that was unthinkable.

Sommer exhaled loudly from where she sat defiantly with her arms folded over her chest. Her expression was stoic and grave, as she stared right at the supervisor, apparently not caring if she was discovered.

But her friends knew she did care. Having her mobile phone confiscated was one thing. But having to take ownership for the bag was another thing entirely.

Sommer had always planned for the worst with her mobile, as even Khalid’s name had been saved under a female’s so that neither the school nor her parents would suspect anything, even if they did come across the number stored in the list of recent calls and texts in her phone. It was a joke among her friends that Sommer wasn’t “straight” because her real love was “Kholood,” Khalid’s female name in her address book.

The pictures Sommer had stored on the phone were merely of her and her friends—yes, at school—but the shots were obviously not random ones of uncovered teachers or hijabi girls. She would get in trouble if the mobile was found, she already knew, but not much. Her parents, as they came to retrieve the SIM card, would just grumble at how ridiculous the school’s rules were, her father in the car waiting in the parking lot, her mother cursing at the principal in the Saudi Arabic she knew so well after having lived in the Kingdom all her life.

Sommer’s parents hated the no-mobile rule, [for selfish reasons of course (they felt Sommer should always be a phone call or text away, even in Biology class)]. But that would work in her favor, even if caught—as she had been today. And they wouldn’t think twice about this Kholood always texting to say “she” wanted to meet up at the mall. Except for Yasmin, Sommer’s parents had no idea who her friends were, even if they were right in front of their faces.

But the bag was another thing entirely. Especially today. Sommer hadn’t learned of the possibility of a bag search until she’d heard the rumor whispered among even the “good” students.

Oh crap.

Khalid had, upon her request, brought her some books and magazines from America that past summer, and she couldn’t get caught dead with them, even if from “Kholood.” She had brought them to school to show off in front of her friends. But she hadn’t expected a bag search. Stupid girl, she cursed herself. Always expect the unexpected.

Sommer and her friends had been carefully situated behind a corner of the school during morning break when she heard the rumors of a bag search. That’s when they frantically stuffed the contraband—and these really were illicit items (even by American schools’ standards)—back into the bag and sought a hiding place outside. They decided against the mobile-phone hideout, not because they feared discovery by teachers, but because they feared discovery by students. This wasn’t something Sommer even wanted other students to see. She could trust only her closest friends with this one.

That’s why she had deliberately brought the material on the day that she knew Yasmin had some silly quiz to make up during break. She didn’t want to chance having the “daughter of Ms. Too-Good” around although Yasmin considered Sommer her best friend. Somehow though Sommer sensed that Yasmin wasn’t too far from following in her mother’s footsteps. Yasmin’s insistence on praying the five prayers (even if she never prayed at school) was proof enough that Yasmin was a mutawwa’ at heart and that her friendship with Sommer’s crowd was for selfish reasons.   And that was a source of constant irritation to Sommer.

“Look,” the supervisor was saying as she looked right at Sommer, her eyes resting on her so long that Yasmin could almost taste her friend’s panic, though Sommer’s cold eyes and folded arms revealed nothing as they met the supervisor’s unblinking, “we already have a pretty good idea whose bag this is. That’s why we came to this class.”

Yasmin exhaled in relief when the supervisor turned to look at someone else, one of Sommer’s friends, but at least not Sommer herself. Yasmin hated the way the school administration thought so badly of Sommer, always assuming the worst, even though having a bad reputation wasn’t something that they could actually punish Sommer for, no matter how much they wanted to.

Yasmin suspected that they had found Sommer’s mobile phone in that bag, and they probably even discovered that the texts from “Kholood” were a bit awkward to say the least. That would get them to researching and investigating, and Yasmin feared that it was only a matter of putting two and two together before they realized the truth. That would mean Khalid would be in trouble too.

“I’m going to ask you for the last time,” the supervisor warned the girls. “Whose—”

“We take all you names, all you!” The assistant supervisor took a notebook from a nearby desk and opened it furiously. The student sitting at the desk opened her mouth in shock, indignant. It was her Islamic Studies copybook.

“Hey, that’s my—”

“No talk! No talk!”

There was muffled laughter as her speech reminded them of Sommer’s earlier mocking, and Sommer herself couldn’t resist a mischievous grin toying at one side of her mouth.

“It’s okay,” the supervisor said turning to the assistant. “I’ll just—”

“No, I tired of games playing. Shoof. Maa ‘adree…” She started to shout at them in Arabic. Look, I don’t know what you think you’re up to, but—

“It’s mine.”

The sound of a chair screeching slightly as the student stood up to take responsibility interrupted the assistant midsentence. She looked up from the notebook, her hand still trembling from her unfinished tirade.

’Aysh?” What? The assistant supervisor looked confused.

Yasmin raised her voice. “It’s my bag.”

The supervisor and the assistant exchanged glances, and the exchange made Yasmin painfully aware of what she had just done. She was only slightly cognizant of the shocked expressions on the students’ faces, and that of the teacher.

Yasmin inadvertently glanced in Sommer’s direction, and the look on her best friend’s face sent her heart racing. She had never seen that look before, at least not directed at her.

Sommer looked horrified.

The reaction confused Yasmin, and she felt her palms sweat as she reached for the books on her desk in preparation to be dismissed. Or maybe it was out of desperation that she had reached for her books. She needed to reach for something. She felt so lonely right then, so isolated.

Yasmin shivered as she held her Islamic Studies books and copybook close to her chest. She was unable to shake the feeling that things were going terribly wrong, and that she was utterly incapable of doing anything to set them right.

“This bag for you?” The assistant pointed to the bag, as if Yasmin didn’t know what bag was being discussed. It was the only one being discussed.

“Yes.”

Yasmin’s mother looked as if she couldn’t decide between the shock that she felt right then and the hurt she nursed in her heart. Her mouth was slightly open, as if she wanted to speak, and her folded arms loosened in front of her, as if she wanted to reach out and stop this from happening. But Yasmin thought she detected a trace of fear in her mother’s eyes. But what scared her most was her mother’s uncertainty. Yasmin wasn’t used to her mother looking uncertain, at least not at school. It was similar to the look Javeria often gave Yasmin after they’d had an argument about hijab. She would look…defeated, as if resigned to a fate she had no control over. With hijab, her mother’s fear and uncertainty had been in knowing she could do very little to save Yasmin from what her daughter probably could never understand.

But, of course, Yasmin’s mother knew it wasn’t her bag. Javeria didn’t even buy designer bags for herself, let alone for her daughter. So what did it matter to her if Yasmin covered for her friend? Was this going to be another lecture tonight to go along with the why-you-should-cover-yourself one?

Yalla,” the assistant said. Let’s go. She indicated with a motion of her hand that Yasmin was to follow the administration out the room.

The vice principal nodded her approval to the supervisor, who turned to Yasmin as she was already making her way around the desks. Yasmin was feeling a bit proud of herself for having had the strength to do this, even if she was a bit nervous about actually getting in trouble.

The supervisor turned to Yasmin’s mother, her expression concealed from Yasmin who saw only the back of her head. In that moment, Yasmin felt her chest tighten as her mother merely stared back at the supervisor, a trace of defiance in her mother’s eyes. Or maybe Yasmin had misinterpreted her mother’s reaction.

But Yasmin couldn’t shake the feeling of unease as she left her mother standing alone in front of the class to continue the lesson about respecting authority and telling the truth.

*** 

The chime of the seatbelt sign woke Sharif. The sound inspired both surprise and relief. He hadn’t realized he had drifted to sleep. Instinctively, he glanced to where the Arab girl had been sitting and found her leafing through a magazine, the boy and his mother asleep next to her. Before the girl had opportunity to realize he was awake, Sharif rested his gaze on the window, reflecting on how difficult it would be for him, now that he was back in America—for good.

A knot formed in his chest, and his mind groped for other options. Perhaps he could return to Saudi Arabia as an English teacher. A lot of the brothers he knew did that.   Or maybe he might even find a post teaching Islamic studies.

But he knew that, even as his restless mind resisted the obvious, he was not a teacher. He had not, even during his obtaining an undergraduate degree in both biology and education, aspired for a future in the classroom. He didn’t even have any experience in the field, not counting his course requirements and his weak attempts at Arabic tutoring he had done in the homes of some American expatriates living in Riyadh. He had majored in biology because it was something that he loved, and he had majored in education because it was something that his father had loved.

The mere thought of standing before a class of restless, disinterested students inspired anxiety. But even if the restless, disinterested faces could be replaced by eager, inquisitive students, hungry to learn, Sharif doubted he would experience a change of heart. In fact, he imagined that the latter would make him even more uneasy.

How then was he to survive as an imam in America?

Sighing, Sharif returned his gaze to the glowing seatbelt sign as his head began to throb—again.

It wasn’t his idea to become the leader of the small Muslim community where he had spent much of his childhood, but right then he felt the weight of obligation upon him.

Despite his prior restlessness to escape the suffocating confines of the plane’s cabin, as the flight made its final descent upon the shores of America, Sharif was overcome by dread.

Sharif exhaled as he exited the plane, barely able to hear his footfalls walking the portable corridor as the bustle of hurried feet and wheeled baggage rushed past him.   Seconds later, with his single carry-on bag strapped over one shoulder, he entered John F. Kennedy International Airport. He had a two-hour layover before he would reach his final destination, but it was refreshing, at least partly, to be this close to home.

As he took his place in the line for American citizens, Sharif was struck suddenly by apprehension. He was native to this country, but the presence of security officers, sniffing dogs, and indurate kiosks made him acutely aware of how foreign his homeland had become since he had last visited in the summer of 2000—four years ago. Now, after the infamous terrorist attacks in September of 2001, his religious affiliation made him both a stranger and suspect at once, although his particular crime eluded him.

Perhaps it was not merely the desire for further study of Arabic and Qur’an that had halted Sharif’s visits home. There was, too, the subconscious anguish at being viewed as a security threat, even as in all the twenty years he had lived in America before accepting the scholarship to study overseas, he had never seen the inside of a jail.

Now he prayed that he never would.

*** 

“Sharif! Sharif!” a voice called from the throngs of people waiting outside baggage claim at Washington Dulles Airport. His mother had told him they would be unable to meet him at the gate as they had when he had last visited, but after twenty minutes of fruitless searching, Sharif had begun to wonder if his family had made it to the airport at all.

Sharif strained his eyes to locate the sound of the voice.

A waving hand and a white-covered head was his first clue.   The white cloth moved through the crowd until it revealed a young woman whose almond brown skin glowed with excitement as she finally located him.

As-salaamu-alaikum!” she greeted with a grin she was unable to contain.

Before Sharif could determine who she was, the young woman shrilled in excitement and threw her arms around him in an embrace.

“Asma?” he said in surprise, gently pulling her away to get a better look.

She nodded eagerly, still unable to keep from grinning and obviously proud of herself for having grown so much. When Sharif had last seen her, she was only ten years old, but now she could pass for eighteen.

“Asma?” he said again, an uncertain grin now forming on his face. As his mind registered recognition, his eyes squinted in disbelief. Although he was just over six-feet, she stood inches taller than his shoulders though his memory of his sister was of her being barely taller than his waist.

“How old are you now, what, seventeen?”

“Look, Mom, he has a beard!” Asma was too excited to register his question.

It had been rhetorical anyway. Sharif knew that she would turn fifteen in November. The month of her birth had left him with memories too indelible to permit his losing count of her age, and the eleven years and three months that separated it from his own.

Still grinning uncontrollably, Asma motioned to her mother to come see Sharif. “And an accent!”

He had wanted to tease Asma about the khimaar she was wearing, the head cover indicating that she was now a young woman. But the taunt was halted as he realized the reason for her last exclamation. He didn’t have a beard last time they had seen him.

It was then that he realized that his family had gone through some changes themselves.

In the small Muslim community over which Sharif was now to be imam, no Muslim man wore the traditional Islamic beard—and no Muslim woman wore traditional Islamic garb.

“Islam is in the heart,” Sharif’s father would often say. “We don’t need to prove to the world who we are. Allah already knows that better than we do.”

Why then was Asma wearing hijab?

Nadirah grinned at her son, tears glistening in her eyes.

Sharif’s thoughts were interrupted by the look on his mother’s face as their eyes met. Feeling his own eyes moisten, he looked away. She looked older than he remembered. Her braids were threaded with more gray than black, and he wondered if the extended distance between mother and son had taken a toll on her.

Nadirah embraced Sharif, and the familiar scent of her perfume reminded him of home. He struggled to keep his composure. How had he lasted so long away from his family?

As-salaamu-alaikum,” he said, his love for his mother aching inside. It had been too long.

Nadirah held her son for several seconds before letting go.

As-salaamu-alaikum,” a deep voice greeted a second later.

Sharif looked up and found a young man standing a couple of feet behind his mother. “Wali?”

It was difficult to recognize his younger brother beneath the carefully sculpted goatee and towering height. Sharif imagined that Wali had to be at least six-foot-two now, and his strong build was noticeable even beneath the large polo shirt and baggy jeans. Sharif suddenly felt insignificant in his role as the eldest.

Wali grinned and nodded, and even that motion suggested a cool self-sufficiency that had most likely developed in Sharif’s absence. One hand tucked lazily in a back pocket of his jeans, Wali extended the other to greet his older brother, a safe alternative to displaying open affection.

“You better give your brother a hug,” Nadirah playfully scolded Wali. But both Sharif and Wali knew that she was not joking. Their parents had not raised them to put on faces for the world.

Groaning, Wali smiled uncomfortably and stingily hugged Sharif, patting his older brother playfully on the back, as he normally did whenever an embrace was unavoidable.

“Get these bags into the car,” Nadirah said to Wali. “Your brother’s had a long flight.”

Without argument or hesitation, Wali pushed the small trolley overloaded with baggage to the car parked several feet from the curb.

A security guard spoke sternly to Wali as he effortlessly lifted the bags into the trunk.

Nadirah had started to say something when she noticed Wali’s contorted face as he responded to the officer.

“Let me get in the car,” Nadirah said with a sigh, turning and walking toward where Wali unloaded the trolley. “I drove around this place at least six times, and they can’t give me five minutes to greet my son.”

Sharif followed his mother until she stood next to the driver’s door watching Wali. Sharif decided to help his brother arrange the bags in the trunk. The task was making Wali visibly aggravated, most likely because the security guard still stood next to him with his arms crossed authoritatively as if expecting their family to break a law that forbade excessive trunk luggage.

Nadirah wore a smirk as Wali pushed the trolley back to the airport’s baggage claim entrance and Sharif forcefully closed the trunk that needed more effort due to the amount of bags he had. Sharif was expecting a tease before his mother spoke; he figured she couldn’t resist joking that he wasn’t as strong as he used to be.

“Oh, don’t be rude and just take off before greeting everyone,” his mother teased.

It took several seconds before Sharif registered his mother’s joke, and realized he did not understand it.

His face must have displayed confusion because his mother laughed. An uncertain grin formed on Sharif’s face, and he was about to ask what the joke was when his mother took the hand of someone who stood next to her and said, “You can’t forget the most important person.”

As-salaamu-alaikum.”

Sharif recognized the face and voice at once. Hasna greeted him with a hesitant smile, a shyness that was so unlike her that, for a moment, Sharif doubted that it was his fiancée standing before him.

As Sharif’s gaze fell upon the woman, reality engulfed him before it even occurred to him that he should avert his gaze. His heart was a storm of emotions. Her presence made him forget that he had travelled at all, or that he had ever wanted to.

Or perhaps it was merely that he had not allowed himself to remember.

There was at that moment, in the dimming light of that early August afternoon, an air of distant familiarity, and Sharif found himself momentarily taken by what he had sought refuge from.

Airport passengers rushed past, their luggage dragging noisily behind them. Families and friends embraced as others squealed in excitement upon seeing each other. And cars double parked as drivers impatiently beeped horns.

Yet, it was the familiar scent of Hasna’s perfume—the scent he liked most—that distracted him, eclipsing any possibility of registering his surroundings.

There was an attractive newness about her, Sharif noticed. Her hair was now cut low and dyed amber, only a shade darker than the milky bronze tone of her skin. Blue eyeliner accented her hazel eyes that regarded him with a reservation that suggested an unfamiliar strangeness about her. Shiny white pearls dangled from her ears and the 14-karat gold S for “Sharif” adorned the necklace that glistened from her bare neck. The silk white blouse that was neatly tucked in her navy blue slacks reminded Sharif of more than he would have liked.

Sharif lowered his gaze, and it was then that the discomfort paralyzed him.

What could he say? He had known that he would eventually have to face the issues he had been avoiding for so long, but he had not expected to face them so soon.

“Get moving! You’re holding up traffic.”

It was the security officer again, and this time Sharif obeyed. He got moving. He walked around the car to the passenger side and climbed in as everyone else followed suit. There was a lingering sensation that he had broken some unwritten rule, and it wasn’t until his mother had started the car and music wafted through the car’s speakers that he realized his error.

He had not returned Hasna’s greeting, nor did he embrace her. And he knew that, given their past—and planned future—the latter was the greater offense.

“Now, when you go over there, Sharif,” his mother had told him before he left to Riyadh, “don’t let those people make you forget who you are.”

But that’s exactly what had happened. He could no longer remember who he had been in the first place.

Next… Story 2 of 15

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