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“Oooooh,” Samira cried between bursts of giggles. She lay on a pile of autumn leaves with her arms stretched high above her head. She moved her arms and legs like scissors, the leaves crunching beneath her. “I can’t wait till winter.”
Latifah picked up a handful of leaves and dropped them on her friend as Samira squeezed her eyes shut in the afternoon sun.
“You’d freeze to death if this was snow,” Latifah said with a laugh. “And you couldn’t pay me to get buried in that stuff.”
Samira fluttered her eyes open, a smile lingering on her face as she sat up. Leaves were sticking to her white pull-on hijab, but she brushed away the leaves that covered her lower body. “Coward. You can’t die in the snow unless you faint or something.”
“Well, you can get frostbite.”
“Only if you stay out too long.”
“And if you lie down like an idiot,” Latifah said, rolling her eyes, “how would you even know what’s ‘too long’?”
A flash and a clicking sound prompted Samira and Latifah to look behind them.
“Got you,” Rafiqah said, holding up a camera triumphantly.
The girls laughed.
“Why didn’t Maryam come?” Samira said after Latifah’s mother had retreated back to the park bench where Joanne was sitting drinking from a thermos and smiling at them after she witnessed Rafiqah steal a picture.
Latifah sat down on the leaves next to Samira. She squinted her eyes in the distance. “She has some homework due tomorrow.”
Samira wrinkled her nose. “During vacation? That sucks.”
“She goes to Muslim school, remember? They don’t get Thanksgiving break.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot about that. That’s how it was in Saudi Arabia.”
There was a brief pause.
“Did you start your research paper yet?” Latifah asked, looking at Samira.
“For history, you mean?”
Samira groaned. “I’m still waiting for my mom to take me to the library.”
“The library?” Latifah laughed. “Girl, I’m taking everything off line. He said three sources, but he didn’t say they couldn’t come from the internet.”
Samira was quiet momentarily. “I don’t have internet at home.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot.” Latifah’s tone held a hint of sadness.
“I think it’ll take me forever to finish this stupid essay.”
“Not necessarily.” Latifah’s tone was optimistic. “The library has loads of books on the Great Depression.”
“Uff,” Samira said. “Just thinking about going there puts me in a great depression.”
Latifah laughed. “Girl, you’re so silly. I like going to the library.”
“Okay, not for school. But I do like going.”
“Isn’t visiting a library like totally outdated?” Samira rolled her eyes. “This is the twenty first century. Libraries aren’t buildings anymore. They’re dot coms.”
“Ask your mom if you can just come over my house then,” Latifah said. “Our computer is in the living room, and my mom or dad is always there when we use it.”
Samira crunched some leaves in her hand, her eyes growing distant. “Maybe.”
“Why not? It’ll be cool if we can help each other.”
“Doesn’t Mr. Butt call that cheating?”
Latifah shook her head, grinning. “Sharing internet? How is that plagiarism?”
“The way he talked, you’d think it’s plagiarizing to even ask someone to edit your essay.”
Latifah nodding, smiling. “I think he’s just trying to scare us. A lot of students have other people write their essays.”
A smirk formed on Samira’s face. “Now, that’s an idea.”
“Samira.” Latifah glared at her friend playfully.
“Let’s take some pictures,” Samira said, grinning suddenly. She jumped to her feet then stretched out a hand toward Latifah. “Then we can save them on your computer for a memory book.”
Latifah accepted Samira’s hand, and Samira pulled her forward. They dusted off their clothes and Latifah picked the stray leaves from Samira’s hijab before they walked to where their mothers were sitting, engrossed in conversation.
Arms folded in impatience, Maryam stood over Samira’s shoulder as Samira surfed the net for sources for her history homework.
“Can you please hurry up?” Maryam groaned. “You said you’d be real quick.”
“Can you calm down for God’s sake? I’m almost done. I just need one more source.”
“You said that fifteen minutes ago.”
Samira turned sharply and met Maryam’s annoyed gaze. “You can stop hovering over me.”
Maryam bit her lower lip, her arms loosening at her chest as she tried to decide if she should leave Samira alone.
“My mom might come in,” Maryam said.
Samira shrugged then turned back to the screen, clicking the mouse with her forefinger. “Let her. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
“Why don’t you just use the books you got from the library?”
“I already told you. I don’t understand anything they’re saying. Plus my paper’s due Monday.” Samira turned and met Maryam’s gaze, this time her eyes demanding that Maryam back away.
Maryam rolled her eyes and gave in. She dragged herself to her bed and plopped down on the bedspread. She picked up a book that was face down on her pillow and tucked one leg under her, but her eyes did not leave Samira.
“I wish you would’ve just used Latifah’s computer.”
“Dummy,” Samira said, eagerly tapping away at the keyboard, her eyes jumping back and forth from the monitor to her fingers, “I already told you my mom said no.”
“And you want me to help you disobey your mother?”
Samira rolled her eyes as she dragged the mouse to highlight something on the screen and copied it to a document. “I wish you’d get off your soapbox. Like you always do what your parents say.”
Maryam glared at the back of Samira’s head. “I do.”
Samira grunted laughter. “Yeah right. And I’m Jessica Simpson.”
“I’m not lying.”
“I believe you.”
“Then why are you accusing me of disobeying my parents?”
“Because I know nobody’s perfect, Dummy.”
“I didn’t say I was perfect.”
“You act like you are.”
“And so do you.”
Samira glanced over her shoulder, a smirk on her face. “Now, that’s something I’ve never claimed.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Samira turned back to the computer.
“Done,” Samira said after a few minutes passed. She stood and leaned forward to press the mouse one final time. A second later the printer hummed to life, buzzing and clicking as it spit out the papers.
Maryam jumped to her feet, exhaling a sigh of relief. “Finally.”
She hurried to the computer and slid into her desk chair, her eyes on the monitor as she eagerly closed all the browser windows.
Samira removed the papers from the printer and tapped the stack on the flat of the desk. “Thanks, Maryam,” she said as she lifted the straightened papers and stapled them. “You’re a lifesaver.”
Maryam’s index finger halted on the mouse before she closed the last browser window. She drew her eyebrows together as she skimmed the unfamiliar site.
“Samira,” she said slowly, “what’s this?”
Samira was kneeling and stuffing the stapled papers into a folder in her backpack. “What?”
“This,” Maryam said, turning to Samira and pointing to the screen.
Samira creased her forehead as she zipped her bag closed, narrowing her eyes to see the screen better. She stood and walked over to the computer.
“Oh.” Samira grinned as she brought a hand to her mouth. “I forgot to sign out of Facebook.”
Maryam blinked repeatedly. “You opened a Facebook account in my room? I thought you were doing homework.”
“No, Dummy.” Samira reached over Maryam’s shoulder, taking the mouse from her to sign out. “I opened it in Saudi Arabia.”
“Does your mom know about this?”
Samira rolled her eyes as she walked over to where her backpack lay on the floor. She sat down on the carpet, her body facing Maryam.
“Heart-to-heart time.” Samira patted the ground in front of her.
“No it’s not,” Maryam said. “I don’t feel like any stupid Friendship Style right now.”
Samira shrugged. “Fine, then I won’t answer any of your questions.”
“Oh yes you will.”
“Like a said, it’s either heart-to-heart or my lips are sealed.”
Maryam turned to the screen and clicked the small “x” in the corner of the sign-in screen for Facebook. “I swear I hate you.”
“Don’t swear, Maryam.” Samira wagged a finger playfully. “It’s not becoming of you.”
“You’re not becoming of me.”
Maryam folded her arms as she sat down across from Samira.
“Give me your hands.”
Maryam clinched her teeth as she reluctantly accepted. The warmth of Samira’s palms on hers calmed her somewhat.
“Now close your eyes.”
“Samira,” Maryam said, contorting her face and pulling her hands away. Tears stung the back of her lids. “I can’t.”
Maryam pressed her fists against the carpet to push herself to a standing position. She shook her head. “You lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie to you, Maryam.”
“You did too.”
“Then why were you on Facebook when you said you were doing history homework?”
“Because I was doing history homework, Dummy. I just wasn’t only doing history homework.”
Maryam’s weight fell against the bed as she dropped herself on its edge, her arms folded in a pout. She kept shaking her head.
“You’re never using my internet again,” Maryam said. “Ever.”
Late Monday morning Rafiqah pulled her car into a parking space at the public school that Latifah and Samira attended. She put the car in park and shut off the engine before pulling her keys from the ignition. The keys jingled as she looped the key ring around a finger. She pressed a button to unlock her door then reached over to the passenger seat to retrieve the bulging manila folder that contained the medical records that the school had called an hour earlier to request.
Rafiqah opened the driver’s side door and stepped into the cool early December air, shutting the door with a slight movement of her hip. She tucked the manila folder under her arm as she pressed a button on her key chain to lock the car door before making her way to the main entrance of the school.
The sound of distant laughter and playful cries inspired in Rafiqah an uncomfortable awareness of her appearance. She wondered how she would look through the scrutinizing eyes of teenagers and school staff. The thought left her feeling self-conscious and vulnerable in the charcoal grey khimaar and voluminous black jilbaab that she hadn’t given a second’s thought about wearing when she had thrown them on twenty minutes before. But now a bitter taste lingered in Rafiqah’s mouth as she imagined being gawked at and heckled. At least she wasn’t wearing the face veil she had favored years before.
It was the post 9-11 Islamophobia and the strained relationship with her Christian parents and family that had worn her thin until she removed the niqaab, and she actually felt relieved after taking it off. A year earlier there had been moments when she was crippled with shame and guilt about her choice, but she had gradually come to believe that as long as she lived in America, it was for the better.
Of course Basma repeatedly made it clear that she didn’t approve. But between beating up her own self about the decision and enjoying a better though strained relationship with her family, Rafiqah stopped caring what people like Basma thought—about anything. Rafiqah had even surprised herself by privately disapproving of Basma’s choice to continue to wear niqaab—and all black—in the current political climate. But Rafiqah didn’t like harboring those thoughts. After all, Basma felt it was obligatory to cover the face, so she should.
Fortunately, the halls of the school were relatively empty when Rafiqah made her way down the corridor to the front office.
“May I help you?” The voice came from an African-American woman whose eyes exuded kindness as she smiled at Rafiqah from behind the front desk of the main office.
“I’m here to drop off my daughter’s medical records,” Rafiqah said, her formal tone sounding foreign to her ears. “Someone called to say some files were missing.”
“Oh yes. That was me.” The woman swiveled her chair to a computer behind her and typed in something on the keyboard, glancing at the monitor.
“You’re the mother of Latifah Hamid Bilal?” the woman asked, glancing from the screen to Rafiqah.
The woman nodded. “We just need a doctor’s verification that she doesn’t have any health issues that we should be concerned about. Also, it looks like we’re missing a few vaccination records.”
Rafiqah removed the manila folder from under her arm then placed it on the desk. She rummaged through the papers until she found what she was looking for then handed some papers to the woman.
The woman accepted them and ran a finger over the top of the papers to skim the contents. She nodded approvingly. “Perfect. I’ll just make a copy of these and have these back to you in a minute.”
The woman walked over to the large copy machine in a corner of the office, and Rafiqah glanced around at the plaques, posters, and certificates hanging on the walls. The cozy atmosphere settled Rafiqah’s heart though she hadn’t admitted to herself that she was worried about Latifah.
“And we’re done.” The woman smiled as she handed the papers back to Rafiqah. “We’ll call you if we need anything else.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Rafiqah shuffled the papers in the folder then closed it around the bundle. She started to leave then hesitated as a thought came to her.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
The woman looked up from where she now sat in front of the computer. “Yes?”
“What’s the procedure for meeting a teacher?”
“Teachers are required to meet with parents only if there is a prior appointment,” the woman said. “But if they aren’t in class, they may meet a parent without an appointment so long as it’s arranged through the front office.”
The woman creased her forehead. “Would you like to meet one of your daughter’s teachers?”
“Yes… If that’s okay.”
“No problem,” the woman said. “If it’s a planning period or lunch break, I page them and they let me know if they agree to meet.” She paused. “Who would you like to meet?”
“The U.S. history teacher for ninth grade.”
The woman’s face brightened. “Oh. Mr. Butt? He’s one of the students’ favorite.”
“Really?” Rafiqah couldn’t contain her feeling of pride. It was always refreshing to hear about a Muslim having a good reputation.
The woman laughed heartily. “Yes. But we think he has a head start on other teachers.”
A smile lingered on Rafiqah’s face, uncertain how to respond.
“His name,” the woman said with a grin. “He uses it as the butt of jokes. No pun intended.”
Rafiqah burst into laughter, and the woman smiled broadly, chuckling herself.
“I’ll page him now.”
“I’m glad you stopped by,” Mr. Butt said as Rafiqah walked in step with him down the hall. A visitor’s badge dangled from the cloth of the head cover at her neck. “Latifah has made quite an impression.”
“Really?” Rafiqah’s lips spread into a smile she was unable to restrain.
“Oh yes. She’s smart, confident, athletic…”
“Athletic?” Rafiqah laughed. “Now that’s something new.”
“She’s one of our favorite students.” Mr. Butt turned the handle of a classroom door then pushed it open, stepping to the side as he held the door open. Rafiqah stepped inside and he followed her, halting his steps briefly to prop the door open with the stopper affixed to the bottom of the door.
“I’m sorry we’re not using the meeting room,” he said, pressing a light switch. The fluorescent lights buzzed then flickered, and brightness flooded the room.
“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing toward the U-shape arrangement of chairs.
They both took a seat at a student’s desk, leaving one desk between them.
“What’s on your mind?” Concern was etched in Mr. Butt’s tone.
“Oh nothing in particular,” Rafiqah said. “It’s just that Latifah goes on and on about you, so I wanted to meet you in person.”
Mr. Butt smiled slightly, his restrained eyes suggesting that he was more cautious than flattered, and Rafiqah could tell he was accustomed to hearing this sentiment from parents. She sensed his years of experience had taught him that student admiration was not always preferable.
“Well, I’m happy to have her.” Mr. Butt’s tone conveyed sincerity. “It’s always heartwarming to meet Muslims who are proud of their faith, especially among the youth.”
Rafiqah nodded, her thoughts drifting to some youth who had left Islam. “That’s certainly the truth.”
“And with her academic standing,” Mr. Butt said, lifting his eyebrows, impressed, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the class valedictorian come senior year.”
Rafiqah jerked her head in surprise. “You think so?”
Rafiqah breathed a sigh of relief. “I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel.” She chuckled, shaking her head. “I was beginning to doubt that we made the right decision putting her in public school.”
Mr. Butt nodded thoughtfully. “But I do have one concern, Mrs. Bilal.”
Rafiqah drew her eyebrows together. “What’s that?”
He scratched at the side of his thin beard and Rafiqah sensed he was trying to decide what to divulge.
The lines in Rafiqah’s forehead deepened. “I’m sorry, but I’m not following you.”
Mr. Butt glanced at his wristwatch. “Look, I don’t want to keep you. I know both of our schedules are pretty busy.”
“Mr. Butt, please.” Rafiqah’s tone was of strained patience. “I have all day if it’s for the sake of my daughter.”
“Well…” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “From one Muslim parent to another, Mrs. Bilal, I’m concerned the sport is being used as an excuse to have physical contact with boys.”
It took a few seconds for Rafiqah to register what he was saying. “But…” Her eyes reflected confusion. “…when does she play basketball? I didn’t see it on her schedule.”
Rafiqah’s face grew warm in mortification. “Well, why are girls and boys playing together? The school should keep them separate for contact sports.”
Mr. Butt met Rafiqah’s gaze as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His lips formed a thin line of disapproval. “It does keep them separate, Mrs. Bilal. It’s Latifah who insists on bending the rules.”
Next… Story 7 of 7 Posted every Friday
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