“Are you a scholar?” Asma grinned at Sharif from where she sat across from him at the dining room table Sunday morning, a forkful of eggs poised midair as she eagerly awaited his answer. She looked younger than she had the day before at the airport when the white cloth framed her face. Her hair was now uncovered to reveal four frizzy braids, each bound by a pair of red-marble ponytail holders.
Sharif chuckled self-consciously and shook his head, reaching for the bowl of fruit salad that was in front of his brother before serving himself a heap. “No, not quite.”
“But he is an imam.” Nadirah couldn’t keep from smiling at her son from where she sat at an angle to him.
“Well…” He wasn’t quite sure he was comfortable with that title either.
“Imam Sharif!” Asma chimed.
“Asma,” Nadirah said, pointing her fork at her daughter, “don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Asma brought a hand to her mouth in embarrassment and giggled. After chewing her food and swallowing, she grinned at her brother again, waiting for him to meet her gaze. But he continued eating, ignoring her—on purpose, she knew.
“Imam Sharif!” she sang again.
“Asma,” Wali grunted, “why don’t you just shut up?”
“Wali.” Nadirah narrowed her eyes in a warning.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “But she is irritating.”
“What are you so sour about?” Asma said.
“You.” Wali glared at his sister.
“Wali, Asma,” Nadirah said, “this is a family meal.”
“So…” Sharif said, hoping to lighten the atmosphere, “what grade are you in now?” He was looking at Wali.
An amused smirk tugged at Wali’s lips as he looked at his brother before squeezing syrup over his pancakes. “Grade?”
Sharif creased his forehead in concern. “Aren’t you in school?”
“Wali graduated in June,” Nadirah said.
His eyebrows rose. “Really?”
“Yeah, man. Where you been?” Wali shook his head, still smirking as he cut his pancakes with his fork.
Sharif really had been gone too long.
“What’s your plan then?” he asked.
“For a major. What do you want to study?”
“I wanted to do my own thing, but—”
“But you need an education first,” Nadirah interjected.
“—Mom won’t let me.”
“Well,” Sharif said, “a degree is important these days.”
“But a business is more important.”
“What business do you have in mind?”
Sharif tried to picture Wali’s smiling headshot in a real estate magazine. Trust Wali Benjamin with your Real Estate needs. No, Sharif couldn’t picture it.
He wondered if Wali knew what the business would require of him.
“For starters,” Nadirah said, “we’re looking at a community college. That’s our compromise. I hope after two years he’ll be inspired to transfer to a university.”
“Or be free to do what I want.”
“What about you, Asma?” Sharif thought it wise to change the subject. “What grade are you in now?”
Asma glanced uncertainly at their mother. “I’m homeschooled.”
“Really?” He looked at Nadirah.
“Well,” Nadirah said, frowning at Asma, “this may be her last year.”
“I thought you worked,” he said to his mother.
Sharif furrowed his brows. “Then how—”
“I’m not homeschooling her,” Nadirah said, disappointment in her tone. “Mona is.”
At the mention of his future mother-in-law, Sharif grew quiet momentarily. “Well, it’s certainly better than public school.”
“That’s what I thought too.” Nadirah shook her head regretfully, eyeing Asma.
Asma now sat with an elbow on the table and her head propped with a fist against her cheek. She was stabbing at her pancakes absentmindedly.
Apparently, Sharif had broached a sensitive subject. He didn’t know what to say.
“But, Mom,” Asma whined, “I’m almost finished.”
“You certainly are.”
Asma sighed and leaned back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest in frustration. But she didn’t respond to her mother. This small show of defiance was already crossing the line.
Wali chuckled. “Asma’s turning into a fundamentalist.”
“Shut up, Wali,” Asma snapped.
“You are.” His eyes twinkled mischievously as he turned to Sharif, grinning. “We think she may be joining Al-Qaeda.”
Sharif’s eyebrows rose although he knew his brother was being facetious.
Asma’s nose flared as she glared at her brother. “And you’re turning into a thug.”
Wali laughed. “Why, because I listen to rap music?”
A sly smile crept on his face. “You know, I think I’m going to buy you the latest Nas album. I think it’ll change your mind about rap.”
He slapped the palm of his hand against his forehead suddenly. “Oh, Asma. I’m sorry. How could I forget?” He looked regretful just then. “Music is haraam.” He sang out the last word and wiggled his fingers at her as he said it.
Unable to stand it any longer, Asma pushed her chair back, the legs screeching against the wooden floor a second before she stormed out of the dining room, leaving her breakfast nearly untouched on the table. Sharif could hear her hurried steps as she retreated to her room.
Wali was still laughing to himself after they heard Asma’s door slam.
“Wali,” Nadirah said quietly, “that really wasn’t necessary.”
He threw up his hands in mock innocence. “Hey, it’s not my fault she’s joined Al-Qaeda.”
“Enough.” Nadirah’s voice was raised authoritatively. “And I don’t like you mentioning terrorists in connection to your sister, even if you’re just joking.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled. But he was still chuckling as he picked up his fork to finish eating.
Sharif ate in silence, uncomfortable in the tense atmosphere. Although he did not show it, Wali’s comments stung. They reminded him of his own dilemma—and presented a perspective he hadn’t considered.
What if the masjid community refused to accept him as imam, especially once they realized that his views on Islam were different from theirs? He never imagined they would equate practicing Islam openly with being part of some extremist group.
In Riyadh, Sharif was so busy with school that he had been only vaguely aware of the post-9-11 propaganda against Muslims in the media. At the university, he had no television, but he had access to the Internet, where he would only skim the headlines when he signed into his e-mail account. But even from the little he was able to read, he could tell that his home was becoming a suffocating political environment for Muslims.
Before he was due to travel back to America this summer, he had stressed over the increased security in the airport. He was relieved when the trip was finally over and he was “off the radar” of non-Muslim airport security who would view his stay in Saudi Arabia and trips to Egypt with suspicion.
He had never considered that Muslims would regard him with the same distrust.
“Imam Rashad called this morning.” Nadirah smiled in an apparent effort to focus on something positive. “He sends his greetings and asked if you could give him a call whenever you’re over jet lag.”
Sharif smiled. “I don’t know if my body will ever forgive me for that long flight.”
“I can’t imagine.” She shook her head. “I remember when your father and I went to Hajj. On the plane, I was thinking the whole time how I’d never do this again in life.”
They both laughed.
“I had the same feeling,” Sharif said, still smiling. “I don’t understand how people do it every year.”
“I don’t either.” Nadirah glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Get some rest though,” she said, standing and beginning to clear the table. “I have some errands to run before your appointment this afternoon.”
He creased his forehead. “Appointment?”
“Lunch at Brother Karim’s.”
“Hopefully, I won’t be long, but if I’m not back with the car, Karim said he could pick you up.”
“No problem,” Sharif said, betraying his true feelings.
“Oh yeah,” Nadirah said, remembering something just then. “If you can talk some sense into Asma, I’d really appreciate it. Ever since she’s been going to Mona’s, I feel like I don’t know her anymore.”
“Okay.” But Sharif doubted he could be of any help.
An hour later, Sharif tapped his knuckles on Asma’s room door and waited for a response. Asma didn’t answer. When he knocked again and still received no reply, he called her name aloud.
“It’s Sharif,” he added, hoping she wouldn’t feel threatened by him.
Sharif was about to return to his room when he heard the door being unlocked. A second later the handle turned and the door opened slightly.
“What?” Asma peered out, and although he could see only a fraction of her face, it was obvious to Sharif that she was still deeply hurt by what had happened earlier.
“Can I come in?”
There was a slight pause, as if Asma wasn’t sure she should trust him. But seconds later the door opened, and Sharif stepped inside and Asma closed the door behind him.
The first thing Sharif noticed about Asma’s room was the Barney bedcover and sheet. The purple monster smiled at him from his sister’s crumpled bedding. Another stuffed Barney, the size of a kid’s teddy bear, was lying on its side next to the pillow at the head of Asma’s bed. The room’s walls were painted purple, and Sharif had to stifle a grin as he remembered Wali’s taunt, imagining just then the caption under Asma’s name in a newspaper. Al-Qaeda Member Has One Final Wish: Don’t Hurt Barney.
Asma picked up the stuffed purple monster with a green belly and held it close to her as she sat down on the edge of her bed.
Sharif sat down on the mattress next to her, unable to keep from grinning.
Despite her sour mood, she smiled, though Sharif detected a hint of embarrassment in that expression.
He decided to leave her childhood friend alone.
“What’s going on at Sister Mona’s?”
Her pleasant expression immediately faded. “Nothing.”
“Mom doesn’t seem to agree.”
She shrugged. “So what else is new?”
He was quiet momentarily. “What do you mean?”
“She never agrees with anything I do. That’s what I mean.”
“Never? That’s a strong word.”
“Well, almost never.”
Asma hesitated, and Sharif sensed she was trying to decide what was safe to say. “Like the music they listen to.”
“You mean the Nas album Wali was talking about?”
“He was being sarcastic.”
“I know that, but I was wondering if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“Everything Wali does bothers me. He does it on purpose. It’s not even funny.”
Sharif nodded thoughtfully. “That’s true. People shouldn’t make fun of other people’s beliefs.”
She wrinkled her nose. “It’s not other people’s beliefs. It’s our beliefs. We’re all Muslim.”
He pondered her words. “Ideally, yes.”
“It’s not ideal. It’s true. We are all Muslim.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He glanced at the clock on the wall, and Barney smiled back at him, the monster’s right leg raised and left arm outstretched in some jolly dance move. But this smiling Barney had on what looked like rectangular sunglasses.
It took a second before Sharif realized the glasses were the result of someone coloring over the eyes in black marker.
“I mean,” he said, “we should have the same beliefs as Muslims. But that’s not the case.”
“But that’s not right. It’s the same religion.”
“But there are many kinds of Muslims.”
“In the Sunnah, there’s only one.”
Sharif was silent at her last words. He didn’t know how to respond. She was right. It was at this moment that everything began to make sense. Her hijab, Wali’s taunts, their mother’s concerns.
“Is this something you learned from Sister Mona?”
Taken aback, Sharif looked at her. “Then where did you learn it?”
“From Sister Irum.”
Now Asma turned to Sharif, a confused expression on her face. “You don’t remember Sister Irum? Imam Rashad’s wife.”
Yes, Sharif did remember her.
“Do you remember anyone anymore?”
He smiled, a bit self-conscious. “I guess I just need a reminder, that’s all.”
“Well, you better hurry up and get some reminders,” she said, a half smile on her face. “I don’t think they’ll be happy to have an imam who doesn’t even remember who they are.”
“Does Sister Irum have classes at the masjid or something?” Sharif didn’t like the tone of Asma’s teasing, but he decided to ignore it. Perhaps, he was being too sensitive, as her words held a double meaning that Sharif knew was unintentional.
“No, she comes to Sister Mona’s to teach us.”
“Who else is in the class?”
“It’s just me and Iman.”
Sharif nodded. “Why does Mom want to take you out of the class then?”
Asma sighed and bit her lip, hugging the stuffed animal closer to her. “Like Wali said, they think I’m turning into a terrorist or something.”
Sharif laughed. “I don’t think so.”
He shook his head. “Like you said, Wali was being sarcastic.”
“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he said.”
“Come on, Asma. Al-Qaeda?”
“Well, maybe not that part. But still…”
“I think what you mean is Mom doesn’t agree with what you’re being taught.”
“But all she’s teaching is Islam.”
“Maybe so, but that’s not how Mom sees it.”
Asma’s face crumpled in frustration. “So it’s better for me to be around people who say God died on a cross while I have some thug boyfriend than to be with someone saying I shouldn’t listen to music?”
She rolled her eyes. “Now I see what Sister Irum meant when she said nowadays you have to do da’wah to Muslims.”
Sharif grew quiet, remembering something he had learned in Riyadh. He had never thought about his own transformation in that way, but Sister Irum was right. And Sharif was living proof.
By the end of his third year abroad, which was his first year in the official Islamic studies program following his lessons in the Arabic language itself, he felt like a new Muslim. It was as if he were accepting Islam for the first time. Even the basic lessons on the difference between emaan and kufr were completely new to him. How could he have gone his entire life as a Muslim without knowing belief from disbelief? How could he have gone so many years without knowing even the foundation of the faith he claimed? Or even the minimum requirement to enter Paradise?
And how could he have gone so long without realizing he didn’t know?
“But you can’t blame people for not knowing, Asma,” he said, glancing at his little sister’s worried expression just then. “There’s so much you still have to learn yourself.”
“And that’s what I’m trying to do. But Mom won’t let me. To her, it’s better if I learn that no religion is true and that homosexuals were born that way.”
“Asma, don’t speak like that. If you’re truly learning about the Sunnah, then you’ll know that your mother deserves more respect than that.”
Asma did not respond. She lowered her head until her chin rested on Barney’s soft head, and she sat reflecting for some time.
When Sharif looked at her, he saw that tears brimmed her eyes. In that moment, he felt aching in his own heart as he thought of how much he loved his mother, and how much it would hurt her when she learned that he too had changed.
But he could see no way around the pain. He was a different person now, a better person, he hoped. And why shouldn’t he better when he now understood Islam better?
Before Sharif’s studies, Islam had been his religion. Now, after his studies, it was Allah’s.
Intuitively, of course, Sharif had always known that. But practically, he had not.
Islam is in the heart, he would tell himself, echoing his father’s words. You don’t need to prove to anyone who you are. Allah already knows.
Sharif sat in silence for several minutes before he put an arm around his sister, pulling her close to him in that moment. It was an awkward role for him, comforting his sister. It was something their father would have done. But their father had died when Sharif was fifteen.
Seconds passed in silence, and he heard Asma sniffle as she cried quietly next to him. But he willed himself not to become emotional himself.
“How was it when Dad was alive?”
Asma voice was small, barely above a whisper, and for a second Sharif doubted she had asked the question. He glanced at her, and he saw her looking up at him, eyes glistening as she wiped away a tear with the back of her hand.
Sharif drew in a deep breath and lifted his gaze to the window as he rubbed his sister’s arm. “It was nice.” He was silent as he recalled the day he thought his parents had left him.
He chuckled. “I remember the day I found out Mom was pregnant with Wali.”
Tears still in her eyes, Asma smiled, and he met her gaze smiling too, moisture now warming his own eyes, but he fought the emotional display.
Sharif laughed to himself, mostly to keep the tears from coming. “Yes.” His voice was thoughtful, distant. He drew in a deep breath as he smiled again at his sister a moment before he shared with her his memory of that day.
Asma’s eyes lit up, and the tears were gone from her eyes when he finished. She was sitting up now.
“Really?” With one foot folded under her, she turned toward her brother as she held Barney on her lap, a grin forming on her face.
Sharif laughed. “Yeah. I had no idea what was going on.”
Asma laughed too, shaking her head. “I remember him, but not so well.”
They were quiet momentarily, thoughtful.
“Well,” Sharif said, exhaling the word, “you were only three when he died.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, smiling. “Yes, you were almost four.”
At the reminder, a smile still lingered on his face, but Sharif felt his chest knot in the anxiety that he imagined would forever be associated with that terrible day.
“Is it true that Dad was the imam before Imam Rashad?”
Sharif nodded reflectively, and his voice lowered as he looked beyond Asma. “Yes, he was.”
“Is that why you’re going to be the imam now?”
He creased his forehead and looked at his sister, a bit taken aback by the question. “I don’t think so.”
“Sister Irum said you’re going to teach everyone about true Islam.”
Asma grinned. “She said that’s why they wanted you to go and study.”
He sighed. “Oh, Asma. I don’t know…”
“But you studied Islam, right?” Her voice was giddy in excitement. “And you know Arabic now?”
“Yes…” Sharif nodded and started to say something to explain that it wasn’t that simple, but his sister’s voice interrupted his train of thought.
“So you are a scholar.” Asma smiled, a triumphant grin spreading over her face.
“Do you have any idea, any idea what was in that bag?”
Javeria spoke through gritted teeth, her anger more palpable than any other time that Yasmin could remember. She pointed a finger at her daughter, who stood stark still, still wearing her school uniform as she stood in the living room of their home minutes after they returned from school.
Javeria herself still wore her black khimaar, the fabric now loosening from around her head. Her abaya lay in a bundle on the couch feet from them, where she had thrown it minutes before. Javeria’s chin quivered, and Yasmin swallowed. Yasmin lowered her gaze slightly, too shell-shocked from all that had occurred to feel offended at her mother’s finger pointing in her face.
“You think you know so much. You think you know what friendship is. Now you’ll see that this has nothing to do with me or your father and our so-called strict rules or how we take Islam too seriously.”
Javeria was alternating between English and Arabic and Urdu, as if even her mind couldn’t decide which language was best to convey her fury. But Yasmin said nothing. She understood every word, and each pierced her heart. Each language shift was like a fresh attack, and Yasmin would feel the pain anew. Yet pain knew no language, and thus her suffering erected no barriers against any one.
“I tried to tell you to stay away from that family. All of those girls, in fact. But no, you knew better. ‘They’re my friends, Mom’ you always said. But today, now,” Javeria huffed, turning her back abruptly, “you’ll learn who your friends are. And Wallaahi,” she said, turning to face her daughter again as she swore by Allah, something she almost never did. In fact, she had taught her students not to swear by Allah, as an oath in His name should be uttered only when there was some great, dire need.
Yasmin shuddered as she recalled the supervisor tossing the filthy books and magazines on the desk of her office in front of Yasmin before saying this very oath. “Wallaahi, I would have never expected this of you.”
At the sight of pictures, Yasmin’s eyes had widened. She was utterly stupefied at what was before her. It took a full minute for Yasmin to even register what she was seeing. She had never in her life seen anything like it. She hadn’t even known such filthy pictures existed. They were…revolting.
“Now tell me,” the supervisor had said, a wicked smile on her face that Yasmin sensed was a triumph of some kind. Yasmin had shivered, her jaw trembling in terror of what was unfolding. “Where did you get these books?”
Javeria’s eyes shone with tears as she shook her head at her daughter, defeated, as her daughter stood speechless before her. Javeria’s voice was more subdued when she spoke again.
“Wallaahi,” she said again, and Yasmin’s throat closed at her mother’s hurt, “you’ll see that, after Allah, you have not one friend in that school except your own mother.”
This was the memory that Yasmin nursed as she unpacked her bags in the quiet of her room. Her family had returned to their Riyadh villa the night before, but Yasmin had been too exhausted to unpack then.
Yasmin chewed at her lower lip as she recalled the look in Sommer’s eyes when her taxi had arrived to take her back to the hotel.
“I don’t like owing anybody,” Sommer had said again. And this time Yasmin sensed the bitter resentment in her friend’s tone. The darkness in Sommer’s eyes warned Yasmin to never ask anything of her friend again. Whatever manner that Sommer planned to assist Yasmin with Sharif, it was going to be beyond what Sommer herself felt she owed, and it would be such that, after this, Yasmin could never feel justified in even thinking of Sommer again.
And that’s what Sommer had wanted all along, Yasmin reflected as she stood to carry her hotel-laundered clothes to her bed, setting the small pile on the comforter. She unfolded the garments and smoothed them out with the flat of her hand in preparation to hang them in the closet.
Yasmin knew that Sommer was still blaming her for having been the very reason Sommer herself had graduated with an almost impeccable reputation—while Yasmin had been expelled from school, months before she was due to graduate from high school. It wasn’t the flawless reputation that disturbed Sommer, but that Yasmin’s selfless act had cemented it for her. She resented Yasmin for that.
Yasmin had finished her senior year quietly as a new student in a small private school that had opened only a year before and was housed in a cramped villa. When she graduated, there were only four other students in the ceremony. And none of them had she befriended. By then, even they had learned of Yasmin’s reason for expulsion, and their parents had warned them to stay away from her. One student had studied her with a look of distant alarm whenever she saw her, as if trying to place Yasmin’s seemingly innocent appearance with what lurked in her heart.
Experiences such as these made Yasmin realize how isolated she had been from the majority of Saudi society while enrolled at the private school. She learned that the nonchalance with which most girls at her school talked about boys, dating, and American movies and music, while shunning the open practice of Islam, was an anomaly in most other schools in the Kingdom. Although other schools were by no means flawless in the moral realm, the occurrence of such open rebellion against religious morality was rare, and frowned upon.
This knowledge made Yasmin that much more aware of just how horrific her bad judgment had been—and how far-reaching.
It wasn’t long before nearly everyone in Yasmin’s family’s association heard of Yasmin’s transgression, and a more distorted, incriminating version besides. But none of her parents’ friends or family abandoned them amidst the slanderous rumors, and for that Yasmin was grateful. But the daughters dutifully kept their distance, and the sons’ names gradually disappeared from all talk and hints of marriage to Yasmin.
What hurt Yasmin most though was that most close family and friends knew that she was innocent, yet still she was shunned. It is wrong, I know, her father had said once. But to so many in our culture, honor is more important than truth.
“And the sad thing is,” Javeria had said to Yasmin a month later, the day that Javeria herself resigned and left the school. She and Yasmin were standing on the roof of the family villa just outside the small storage room, and Javeria was holding a tattered cardboard box she had used to pack the last of her belongings from school and Yasmin was holding another. “None of this had anything to do with you.”
Javeria looked tired that day, spent, Yasmin imagined, from having been unsuccessful in clearing her daughter’s name. “They knew all along whose bag it was. We all did. Even the girl’s notebooks and pencil case were in there.”
Yasmin wanted to ask why then had she taken the blame. But she couldn’t speak. She hadn’t uttered a word to anyone since the day of the confession. She heard her voice only in muttered whispers whenever she prayed. Other than that, her voice was dry, and she couldn’t find her voice when she wanted to say something. Like now.
But if she could speak, she wouldn’t speak about Sommer’s bag. She would ask her mother how she was doing. And she would say she was sorry. And that she loved her, a great deal.
But the words got stuck in her throat.
“Nadhaam, Nadhaam…” Javeria said, waving her hand dismissively, her face contorted as she imitated how the administration had responded to her. School policy, school policy. We punish the one who confessed.
“Oh, Yasmin,” she sighed. “I couldn’t say whose bag it was. So all I did was make excuses for you.”
Javeria set the box down and glanced out at the houses with lights glowing from windows in the night. She sighed as she leaned forward to open the storage room door. She had to pull it forcefully because it often got stuck. She hefted the box and slid it into the small space and then reached for the one Yasmin was holding out to her.
“It was about me the whole time,” Javeria said as she set the second box on top of the other. She pushed it further inside when the door wouldn’t close on the first attempt. It took some effort before the door was finally closed, and there was the sound of wood scraping stone with that motion.
“None of them liked what I was accomplishing with the girls,” Javeria said.
“Before all of this happened,” she said, patting her hands free of dust on the pants of her shawar kameez, “I’d heard it whispered on many occasions that I was overstepping my bounds, that I had no business getting into the private lives of those girls.”
Right then Yasmin remembered her mother’s look of defiance when the supervisor had turned to look at Ms. Javeria after Yasmin claimed the bag as her own. Yasmin had been so immersed in the struggles of her social life that it had never occurred to her that her mother had struggles of her own at the school.
“They tried everything to get me to stop what I was doing.” Javeria drew in a deep breath and exhaled, her gaze again on the villas in the landscape. “But it was mainly because parents were complaining.” She laughed to herself, but Yasmin could tell her mother found no humor in what she was saying.
“To them, Islam was a subject to be studied, read from pages of a textbook, and shut up after class.
“When they hired me, they expected me to treat my work like a job, and nothing else. The Ministry required the school to teach Islamic studies, so they did it once a week to say they did.”
She shook her head. “They never expected the new teacher to actually teach, or the students to actually learn.”
She glanced at her daughter. “But real teaching goes beyond the classroom, habeebati.”
Yasmin listened, realizing that her mother knew a lot, much more than Yasmin had given her credit for. It filled Yasmin with regret to realize she had taken her mother for granted when she could have been learning from her.
“In Pakistan,” Javeria said with a look of reflection in her eyes, “I respected my teachers. I even stood up whenever they came in the room, even if I was at my parents’ house and they visited. That’s the status teachers had when I was a girl. I never thought of their lessons as something to be stuffed on a shelf somewhere or to be listened to only to get a high mark on my report card. They were like parents to me. And that’s how my father and mother taught me to look at them.
“This new approach to school,” she said, shaking her head, grimacing, “all business and show. I don’t understand it, Yasmin. I don’t. I couldn’t have done what the school wanted from me even if I had known it before I took the job. It’s just not in me to keep worrying about offending someone.” Her eyes grew distant again.
“In Pakistan, my parents would never side with me against my teachers. If my teacher said something, I was to listen and obey, even if it wasn’t something my parents themselves would tell me.
“And the funny thing is, I never saw it as a contradiction that my teachers and parents said different things sometimes. In a way, I guess my parents were teaching me about life. They knew they didn’t have all the answers, so they saw no reason to shield me from those who might have answers to things they didn’t. Or even a different way of seeing something they already felt they understood.
“But this new way of thinking.” She frowned slightly. “I don’t understand. They say they want progress. But as soon as children start moving in that direction, they do everything they can to stop it.”
Yasmin considered that, puzzled at the thought.
Javeria squinted her eyes, and Yasmin saw sadness there.
“But it’s like that everywhere now.” Javeria sighed. “Even in America and the UK. Pakistan is even changing. I hardly recognize the country anymore.”
Javeria drew in a deep breath and exhaled as she started for the door leading to the villa. “Just pray for our souls, habeebati. That’s all we can do,” she said as she pulled the roof door open, stepping inside the villa, Yasmin behind her.
“You know the Day of Judgment is near when Muslims start opposing Islam.”
The first thing Hasna noticed about Sharif when he entered the living room of her home and greeted her father was the attractive glow on his face. She had been nursing her hurt feelings over how he had treated her at the airport the day before, but upon seeing him, she felt the resentment loosen in her chest. When she had first seen his beard, she was turned off. She never liked beards. They always made men look unkempt. But now, seeing it for a second time, the beard really suited Sharif. It made him look older, in a more mature, distinguished way.
For some reason he seemed taller too, but that was most likely due to the long robe he was wearing that extended a few inches above his ankles, which were covered in black dress socks. It was an outfit she associated with Arabs, but like the beard, this new dress was attractive on him. The robe was loose, but its soft white fabric fell against his chest and arms in a manner that revealed his thin, muscular stature that Hasna associated with professional basketball players.
In this moment, Hasna remembered why she wanted to marry him. She had to restrain herself from greeting him with a hug. Instead she stood in front of the large couch in the living room, hands in the pockets of her jean skirt, waiting to be noticed.
The night before, Vernon had suggested that Hasna give Sharif his space.
“He has a lot to weigh,” Vernon had said. “Living in a foreign country changes you in ways that are hard for others to understand.” And Vernon was not speaking in theory. He had lived abroad several years himself.
Sharif was still shaking Brother Karim’s hand and laughing at something Karim had said when he noticed Hasna standing about ten feet from them. For a moment, their eyes met and this time the awkwardness from the day before was gone. Today, she looked more peaceful, more mature even, as if she understood better the direction their relationship needed to take given all Sharif had learned abroad. The inflated self-confidence she’d shown during their distant correspondence was gone, and he detected a reserved mellowness about her, hinting that she was open to growth, personally and spiritually.
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” he greeted before he remembered that he should be lowering his gaze.
“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam.” There was a shy smile on her face when she replied, and Sharif couldn’t help smiling in response. But their conversation was interrupted by Karim asking if they were ready to go.
Sharif had assumed the lunch would be hosted at Karim’s house, but Sharif was relieved that he would not be forced to endure the meal at Hasna’s home. He imagined it would be too suffocating an environment for him to ponder all that was before him if he was surrounded by scenes from their shared past.
“Are you ready for December?” Karim asked Sharif an hour later after exchanging small talk over the food that had just been served. The restaurant played soft Indian music in the background, and Sharif’s eyes grazed the halaal symbol on the centerpiece advertisement, indicating that the meat served here adhered to Islamic requirements. But Sharif was disappointed to see the Budweiser logo featured next to it.
Sharif felt his face go warm as he stirred the mango lassi with his straw. He could not look Hasna or her father in the eye although they both sat across from him at the booth. It was a good thing that they had come to the restaurant in the early afternoon. There were only two other customers there, maximizing the confidentiality of the conversation. Perhaps Karim had arranged it like this intentionally.
“I don’t know.” Sharif lifted the glass and took a sip of the lassi, a moist imprint left on the wooden table. Still holding the glass, Sharif ran a finger along the curvature of the imprint. The truth was too difficult for him to divulge right then. Given the circumstances, he decided that it was wiser to be diplomatic.
Karim turned to his daughter. “What about you?”
Inadvertently, Sharif glanced in the direction of Hasna and found her looking at him uncertainly. “I’ve been waiting for ten years,” she said. Her honesty pierced Sharif’s heart, prompting him to look away. “I don’t know if that means I’m ready for December, but if it doesn’t,” she shrugged, “I don’t know how much longer I’m expected to wait to be sure.”
Karim chuckled uncomfortably. “Well, she’s right about that.”
Offended at the implication, Sharif creased his forehead, unwilling to keep quiet on this subtle accusation. He set his glass down. “Actually, I wanted to cut several years off of that, but there was nothing for Hasna in Saudi.” He met her eyes unblinking, in that gaze reminding her of how she had hurt him deeply. Or perhaps he was the one in need of the reminder. “Even after I was there for six years.”
Hasna’s cheeks colored, and her gaze dropped as she used her fork to toy with her food. “That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s what you said.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“It was to me.”
She started to speak but stopped herself, biting her lower lip instead. In the awkward silence, dishes rattled in the background, an odd complement to the strange music.
“I’m sorry,” Hasna said quietly.
Sensing the sincerity in her apology, Sharif regretted his remark. But he stopped short of apologizing. He would not offer her more than his understanding, even if he refused to acknowledge it aloud. Until this moment, he hadn’t admitted to himself how much her remark had hurt. It revealed to him more than he could have determined on his own, and he now wondered why he had imagined it could be any different. Hasna had always been like that. Her comfort came first. What came second or thereafter depended on the circumstance. It was the reason she had gone to law school in the first place.
“I’d never be caught dead in somebody’s classroom,” she had said when he had shared that he was going to double major in biology and education.
“Why not?” he’d asked.
“I need something that can guarantee that I can drive at least a Volvo for the rest of my life.”
Karim cleared his throat, apparently feeling like an intruder. “Sharif.”
Sharif looked up, in that moment fearing that his expression revealed what he was thinking.
“I talked to Rashad for some time this morning.” Karim’s eyes grew serious as he reached for a glass of water. “And he said I shouldn’t be surprised if you have a change of heart.”
He looked at Sharif now then took a sip of water before setting the glass back on the table. “What do you think?”
“Change of heart about what?”
“Everything. Your religion, your life.” He paused then regarded Sharif as if unsure what to think. “Your marriage.”
This was the moment that Sharif had dreaded for the entire duration of his final year in Riyadh. For days he was restless in anxiety, no longer able to push the moment out of his mind with the intention of facing it “later.” Later had now come, and the weighty reality was before him. And there was no option except to face it, directly.
Hasna sat before him, as did her father. Sharif had to make a choice, and there were only two options. Neither of them included the plans he had made in childlike innocence before he had left the country. Even if he wanted to, he could never again be the Sharif he had been when he and Hasna made their marriage plans official. He could never again be the Sharif who had mustered enough courage after sacrificing several nights of sleep to ask a question that he now knew she had expected all along.
Will you be my companion on this journey?
But now it was time for him to ask of himself the same question he had asked of her.
Will you be her companion on this journey?
What could he say?
People thought they could plan life, Sharif had reflected before leaving Riyadh for good. And when things didn’t go their way, they could just call it quits, even when they had, by their own hands, sent their life spinning in an entirely different direction.
Accountability wasn’t a part of the equation.
All is fair in love and war, people often said. But as a Muslim, Sharif knew that wasn’t true. Every affair was bound by rules, and love and war were ones with strictures most binding.
Then again, what of a person who grew dizzy at the sudden shift in motion, even if inspired by his own hands? Could he really be blamed if he wanted the world to grow still beneath his feet?
Did he owe anyone an explanation for a simple change of heart, even if it meant a drastic change in others’ lives? Was there any explanation he could offer to make someone understand that his heart, like his life, was all he had that belonged wholly to him? Should he sacrifice it to save someone else? If he refused, would anyone understand his motives?
Would he understand them himself?
No, he could not force someone to see his point of view. It was impossible to make others understand what could be seen through only his own eyes, his own heart.
But should he at least try?
Sharif had so long pondered the words he would utter to explain his decision—the option he knew would most justly preserve the carefully carved future both he and Hasna had sculpted for themselves, even if his had come years late. He had even drafted the right words in his head and recited them to himself more than once, carefully selecting the ones he imagined would inflict the least amount of pain.
But he’d never stopped to realize whom he was trying to spare—Hasna or himself.
So on that Sunday afternoon, a day after his six-year study abroad, Sharif, without forethought or plan, chose the other option, betraying everything he had coached himself to say for the past year.
“I’ve changed, yes.” Sharif heard the words as if coming from someone else, and inside there was a tugging, a soft voice, telling him that he could still choose the option that did not betray who he was today. “But that doesn’t mean I’ve had a change of heart.”
He had heard that compromise was inherent to marriage itself. But now, after hearing the words that sealed his fate in a way that he could only fathom, he feared that compromise was also an impediment if resorted to before the matrimony itself.
In his peripheral vision, he saw Hasna’s shoulders relax. He thought he heard her sigh in relief, but he could not meet her gaze to read what he’d find there. Not being completely honest with himself was difficult enough. How then could he confirm that dishonesty by looking at the one who would suffer most from his poor choice?
Then again, he wasn’t sure if it were actually he who would suffer most in the end.
It was an odd position for him, Sharif couldn’t help noticing, to be the one on the other side, the one doing the favor instead of being on the receiving end.
Was it that he felt too insignificant to say no, too small to refuse? He had always understood what this relationship meant to Hasna—accepting his company was a favor bestowed when she had so many other more promising options; and she had, in their years together, made her superiority quite clear—but now, it was Sharif bestowing the favor, protecting her feelings while neglecting his own.
But he also understood the reason his refusal would be so hurtful to her at all.
To be turned down by someone of worth was painful, yes, but it could only be expected. But to be turned down by someone unworthy was devastating—and more agonizing than the hurt itself.
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