Now a short MOVIE and bestselling novel!
It all began with this widely popular short story series:
Story 1: His Other Wife
In the foyer of her apartment, Aliyah tilted her head to the side and unfastened the decorative hijab pin that secured the plum chiffon fabric in place. As the khimaar loosened itself from her head, she exhaled and kicked off her flats, relieved to be home. She set the scarf pin on the front table next to her cell phone then casually tapped her forefinger on the mobile screen to log in to her voicemail.
Aliyah frowned in disappointment as she realized that the single message that had been left on her phone while she was at work all day was from her uncle. Disinterested, she put the voicemail on speakerphone as she pulled the loosened cloth from her head then ran a palm over the braids plaited to her scalp in cornrows. Holding her khimaar, she scooped up the phone with her free hand and headed to the couch as her uncle’s eager voice projected from the mobile.
“…So give me a call, Aliyah. I think this may be the one.” Aliyah rolled her eyes as she let the chiffon cloth fall to the floor table in front of the couch then stabbed at her phone to delete the message before pressing the red icon to end the call.
She appreciated her uncle’s enthusiasm in fulfilling his role as her marriage guardian, but she wasn’t ready to get married. Her uncle had converted to Islam when she was in high school and had been influential in her own decision to become Muslim, and for that, she would always be grateful. Her parents practically disowned her after she left the church, and Benjamin was the closest thing to a father she’d had since accepting Islam in college. But for the past eight months Aliyah was becoming increasingly annoyed with her uncle.
But Aliyah couldn’t ask her uncle to stop looking for a husband for her. Benjamin was wrestling a guilty conscience more than he was feeding his enthusiasm as her wali. It wasn’t his fault that Aliyah was divorced. She wished he could understand that. If there was anyone to blame for her marriage falling apart, it was Aliyah herself. She was the one who’d eagerly introduced Matthew to her uncle and begged him to support the marriage. She’d foolishly believed that if she did everything right, everything would turn out all right.
Matthew was one of the good guys, Aliyah couldn’t deny that. But she should have been less naïve about the nuances of the spiritual growth of a new Muslim. Matthew had been Muslim only a year when they’d met, and Aliyah had been Muslim for eight. It wasn’t until they were living together as husband and wife that the seven years between their Islamic experiences felt like light years.
Aliyah tossed her cell phone on a sofa cushion then collapsed onto the couch herself. She leaned her head back in exhaustion and stared at the ceiling of her apartment. I need a new job, she thought to herself. She liked teaching algebra and computer science at the local college, but the money simply was not enough.
She fought a tinge of guilt as she recalled being penniless and jobless and begging God to send her any form of provision. In the end, it was her best friend, Deanna, who came through for her by asking her husband to put in a good word for Aliyah at the college where he worked. Aliyah was ecstatic when she was notified that she was hired for the position. It had been hard to believe she was a bona fide college professor now. And it didn’t hurt that the masjid was only a five-minute drive from the campus, so she was able to relax in the women’s prayer area during her lunch break and planning periods if she didn’t have any student appointments.
The shrilling of the home phone sent Aliyah’s heart racing, and she sat up quickly and opened her eyes. Aliyah hadn’t realized she had fallen asleep. The house was dark except for a glow of light coming from the kitchen. The phone shrilled again, and Aliyah groaned as she pushed herself off the couch and walked over to where the cordless sat on a wall table near the front door.
“Girl, open the door.”
Aliyah hung up without replying, and true to character, Deanna was pounding on the front door before Aliyah could even unbolt it and pull it open.
“Are you deaf?” Deanna said as she stepped into the foyer carrying a half-full paper grocery bag. “I’ve been standing outside that door for at least ten minutes.”
Deanna must have come from one of her workshops, Aliyah guessed based on the tailored crimson pantsuit and matching stilettos that she wore. Deanna’s flushed cheeks suggested agitation that had been incited by something other than Aliyah, but Aliyah knew Deanna wouldn’t mention whatever it was. Deanna’s façade of strength was impenetrable.
“I’m sorry, Deeja,” Aliyah said as she closed the door and locked it. “I was knocked out.”
Deanna rolled her eyes as she handed the paper bag to Aliyah then readjusted the straps of her designer handbag on her shoulder. “Put the ice cream in the freezer before it melts, and you might want to heat up the gyros in the microwave.”
Aliyah’s eyes widened, and a smile spread across her face as she peered into the bag. “You brought gyros?”
“Yes, against my better judgment,” Deanna said as she kicked off her heels. “You know that bread has too many carbs.”
“I love you, Deeja!” Aliyah sang out as she made her way to the kitchen and Deanna invited herself into the living room.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Where’s the remote?”
“It’s probably on the couch somewhere,” Aliyah called out from the kitchen. A minute later she returned to the living room with the gyros on a glass serving plate, a stack of paper napkins next to them.
“I saw his other wife,” Deanna said as she stretched out her legs and flexed each foot from where she sat on the couch.
Aliyah felt nauseated as she set the plate on the floor table in front of Deanna then pushed aside the khimaar that was lying there. “How do you know it was her?”
Deanna pointed the remote toward the television to turn down the volume. “It was her.” She set down the remote then reached for a gyro. “She was with Matt,” she said as she folded her legs under her as she often did to get comfortable.
“May Allah bless their marriage,” Aliyah muttered as she lifted a gyro from the plate then sat down next to Deanna on the couch.
Deanna’s hand froze inches from her mouth as she glared at Aliyah. “No, Ally. That is not the correct response to this news.”
“Deanna Janice Bivens,” Aliyah said, purposefully using the authoritative tone that Deanna’s mother often used when she referred to Deanna by her full name, “yes it is the correct response. Now let’s eat.”
“You know what your problem is?” Deanna said thoughtfully, setting down her gyro. “You’re too nice. That’s why people run all over you. I’m not saying you have to wish harm on that girl, but you don’t have to pray for her marriage. She stole your husband, for goodness sake.”
“She didn’t steal my husband.” Aliyah took a generous bite of her gyro, her eyes on the television screen as she savored the taste of soft bread, seasoned lamb, raw onions, and cream sauce.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot,” Deanna said sarcastically. “You gave him to her.” She picked up her gyro again and took a bite, a disturbed expression on her face as she stared at the TV, her cheeks bulging slightly as she chewed.
Aliyah lifted the remote from next to Deanna and turned up the volume, but it was difficult to pay attention to what the detective actress was saying to the police officer.
“Even when we were in college,” Deanna said, raising her voice over the television, “you always wanted to make everyone happy. But there’s only one woman who can make a man happy, and that’s his wife.”
Aliyah remained silent until she finished her gyro. “She is his wife,” she said as she lifted a napkin from the plate and wiped her hands and mouth.
“And she was also his second wife.”
Aliyah gritted her teeth. “Deeja, let’s not go there.”
“Ally, please. You know I’m right. You practically became the poster child for women supporting polygamy, and that was a terrible mistake. You don’t let some woman convince you it’s your Islamic duty to share your husband.”
“I suggested polygamy, she didn’t,” Aliyah said, voice clipped. “Anyway, what does it matter now? I’ve been divorced for over a year. Leave it alone.”
“No, I can’t,” Deanna said. “I’m really bothered that you didn’t take my advice.”
“Why do you think you have the answer to everything? You may be a marriage counselor, but that doesn’t make you an expert on marriage.”
“Do you even hear yourself? Of course that makes me an expert on marriage. This is my area of expertise. I did my doctorate thesis on—”
“Yes, I know, as you’ve said a million times. But every marriage isn’t salvageable, Deeja.”
“See, Ally, this is what pisses me off, your defeatist attitude. Do you know why I’ve been married for eleven years and why Jacob and I would never even think about divorce?”
“Um, let’s see…” Aliyah said sarcastically. “Could it be because of Allah’s qadr maybe?”
“This is why you should spend less time in the masjid. You think it’s okay to hide behind religion so you can blame all your mistakes on some divine plan. God helps those who help themselves.”
“I’m just trying to—”
“Stop trying, Ally, and do,” Deanna interjected, annoyance in her tone. “I don’t sit around saying I’m trying to stay married. I stay married. I don’t sit around saying I don’t want my husband to marry another wife. I make sure I’m the only wife he’ll ever want. If you think proactively, then you won’t react to life. You’ll make life happen.”
Aliyah rolled her eyes. “And how do I do that? Do tell.”
“First of all, you have to quit being so cynical. You look way better than Matt’s new wife. There’s no way he would’ve chosen her over you without you egging him on. If you would’ve just—”
Aliyah raised a palm to Deanna. “Deeja, just stop, please. I can’t stand all this if only if. I don’t believe in that. You can call me a religious fanatic if you want, but I believe it was Allah’s plan that I’m not married to Matt anymore. I did everything I could to save my marriage.”
“Except listen to your best friend.”
Aliyah’s eyes widened. “I can’t believe you’re saying that. I did listen to you. I just—”
“Then how did Matt end up marrying that tramp while you were still married to him?”
“Like I said, Deeja. I listened to you, but I just had a different point of view.”
“Then you didn’t listen to me. You can’t just hear me. You have to listen. The way to keep a man from marrying someone else is you keep the subject of divorce and polygamy out of your marriage. Jacob would never marry another woman because I don’t give him any reason to.”
“Jacob would never marry another woman, Deeja, because he doesn’t want to. You said yourself that he believes it’s part of Islam to respect the laws of the land and that he just doesn’t think polygamy is worth the headache.”
“Yes, but the main reason he’ll never do it is because I make sure I’m good enough for him. I take care of myself. I give him sex every night. I pamper him. I—”
“I, I, I,” Aliyah said as she pointed the remote forward and powered off the television. “Dr. Deanna Bivens, the I-specialist.”
“I know you think I’m arrogant, but—”
“Overly confident is what crosses my mind. But I don’t think arrogant is too far off the mark.”
“—I know what I’m talking about. I’ve counseled dozens of couples, Ally, so I’m not talking out the side of my neck. There really is something to putting in the work to make a marriage last. When a married person cheats, there’s always a reason, a preventable reason.”
“Matt didn’t cheat.”
“He didn’t have to. You gave him permission to betray you right in front of your face. With your approval.”
“That’s not how I define supporting polygyny.”
“You can try to put an Islamic stamp on this if you want. But the bottom line is that your marriage was in trouble and instead of proving how much you were worth, you supported the very thing that was tearing apart your marriage.”
Aliyah felt exhausted all of a sudden. “Look, Deeja, I don’t feel like fighting about this anymore. What’s done is done. I can’t rewrite the past.”
“I’m not bringing this up to open old wounds. I just don’t feel comfortable helping you find a new husband until I’m sure you understand what marriage means.”
Aliyah felt herself getting upset again, but she remained composed. “I didn’t ask you to help me find a new husband.”
“You don’t have to, Ally. I’m your friend, so I’ll do whatever I can to help you whether you ask me or not. But the first step is learning what it means to be a woman.”
Aliyah clenched her jaw. “And now you’re an expert on the female sex?”
The chiming of a phone came from next to Deanna. Deanna turned and reached into her handbag and withdrew her cell phone. “That’s Jacob,” Deanna said apologetically after looking at the screen. She returned the phone to her purse and stood, pulling the straps over her shoulder. “Sorry I couldn’t stay long. I just wanted to give you something decent to eat. I figured you’re starving yourself up in here.”
“Thanks for stopping by,” Aliyah said in as cordial a voice as she could manage. She stood and followed her friend to the door.
Deanna drew Aliyah into a hug and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you,” Deanna said as she opened the front door.
“I love you too,” Aliyah said. “As-salaamu’alaikum.”
Aliyah closed the door as the sound of Deanna’s footsteps faded in the apartment hallway. As she turned the bolt to lock the door, Aliyah realized she hadn’t prayed Maghrib, the sunset prayer. She glanced at the clock and sighed. It was already time for ‘Ishaa. She had to get better at praying on time.
After completing her prayers, Aliyah sat on the carpeted floor of the living room, her body heavy in exhaustion. I don’t know how much more I can take from Deanna. The plea had come from a deep place inside, and Aliyah frowned at their implication. Was she really thinking of giving up her best friend?
“You need to be more like me,” Deanna often said to Aliyah.
Maybe Deanna was right. Aliyah needed to have more confidence in herself. If Aliyah were more like Deanna, perhaps Aliyah would still be married to Matthew. Aliyah couldn’t deny that a part of her envied the relationship that Deanna had with Jacob. It was obvious that Jacob absolutely adored his wife. Aliyah would often overhear Jacob talking about Deanna at work. Occasionally, when Deanna was assigned to conduct a marriage workshop, she and Jacob would facilitate the workshop together, and the chemistry and connection between them was undeniable. Once, when Aliyah and Matthew had attended one of the workshops, they had left in awe and were full of determination to implement some of the marriage-saving strategies Deanna and Jacob had discussed.
But as inspiring as Deanna was as a speaker and marriage counselor, she was becoming more and more difficult to deal with as a friend. In college, Aliyah and Deanna had bonded like long-lost sisters being reunited for the first time. They had so much in common then. They were both new Muslims struggling with difficult families. They were both academics with big dreams and high hopes. They both wanted to run their own businesses and be dedicated wives and mothers. And most importantly, they both were determined to make Islam the foundation and focus of their lives.
On the soft carpet of her living room, Aliyah murmured the Arabic phrases of glorification and praise of God, as was the prophetic custom after obligatory prayer. Her gaze was on the upturned palm of her right hand, where she was using her thumb to enumerate the recitation of dhikr. But her conflicted feelings about her friendship with Deanna were distracting her from the remembrance of Allah.
Could what Deanna and I have even be called a friendship? Aliyah wondered. In college perhaps, she considered thoughtfully. But even back then, when all seemed to be going well for their lives and friendship, Deanna had been the anchor of their relationship. At the time, Aliyah saw this as an immense blessing. She had been suffering from bouts of depression after her parents told her to never call or visit the family again “if you insist on being part of that Osama bin Laden religion.” Aliyah had been very close to her family and had never imagined that the all-encompassing Christian love her parents talked so much about would not be extended to their now-Muslim daughter.
During this difficult time, Deanna’s presence alone was enough to cheer Aliyah up. Deanna would cook for her, accompany her to Islamic events, give her surprise parties, treat her to a day at the spa, and even sleep on the floor in Aliyah’s dorm room if Aliyah was having a particularly bad day.
Sometimes Aliyah had felt like a burden to Deanna, but Deanna would always reassure Aliyah that she was happy to be there for her and earn so many blessings. “You’re my sister, girl. I love you. If you’re happy, I’m happy.”
But Aliyah was often racked with guilt because she just couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for impetuous fun, or for Deanna’s presence. There were times she really did want to be alone. Even when she was a child, Aliyah hated crowds. Attending church on Christmas and Easter often stressed her out because there were just too many people in one room, and Aliyah didn’t know what to do with herself. So when Deanna would plan sudden trips to the mall or announce that they were going to some relaxing retreat for the weekend, Aliyah would often feel suffocated with anxiety. In college, there were even times that Deanna’s presence itself was suffocating.
But Aliyah was never able to bring herself to talk to Deanna fully and honestly about her feelings, though there were moments that she tried. Whenever the thought came to her, she felt like an ingrate. I mean, what kind of person gets upset when her best friend is going out of her way to be nice and helpful?
“Shut up, girl. You know you love me.” That had been Deanna’s response when Aliyah had, shortly after the divorce, mustered up the courage to tell Deanna that her unannounced visits, incessant phone calls, and constant “constructive criticism” were becoming too much to bear.
“I just need some time alone,” Aliyah had said.
“That’s what got you into this mess in the first place,” Deanna had responded flippantly, a playful grin on her face. “You spending time alone while you let your husband sleep with another woman.” Then she pulled Aliyah into a tight hug and said, “Let’s go shopping. That will make you feel better.”
But it didn’t make Aliyah feel better. And Aliyah had come back home with three department-store bags full of clothes and accessories that she didn’t want or need.
“I think you’re jealous of me,” Deanna had told Aliyah last week after they had another big argument over the “real reason” Aliyah was no longer married. As always, Deanna insisted that it was because Aliyah wasn’t more like she was and because Aliyah had been open to letting Matthew marry another wife. Agitated and sick of Deanna’s constant holier-than-thou nitpicking, Aliyah had said, “Maybe your marriage isn’t so great. You don’t know everything. For all you know, Jacob could be looking for another wife right now. I would if I were him. I can’t imagine living with your nagging every day.”
Aliyah immediately regretted the comment after she’d said it. But at the time, she felt justified. Couldn’t Deanna just leave well enough alone already? Okay, fine, your marriage is great. Your husband loves you and doesn’t want another wife. But that’s from Allah, not you. So shut up already.
“I’m sorry,” Aliyah had said, dropping her head in shame. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay,” Deanna had replied, reaching out and squeezing Aliyah’s hands warmly. “I forgive you. I know it’s hard to have a friend like me.”
Aliyah had coughed laughter, nodding in agreement. Tears stung her eyes as she realized that Deanna was finally understanding the heart-wrenching struggle it was for Aliyah to maintain their friendship.
“It would be hard for me too if my friend had the life I could never have,” Deanna had added before pecking Aliyah on the cheek with a kiss.
The shrilling of the home phone interrupted Aliyah’s thoughts, and she immediately stood and walked over to the cordless. She glanced at the caller identification display and sighed when she saw the name Nelson, Benjamin.
“As-salaamu’alikum, Uncle Ben,” Aliyah said as if exhaling into the phone. She didn’t feel like talking about marriage right then, but she couldn’t keep avoiding her uncle. Besides, after the tense visit with Deanna, she relished the opportunity to hear from someone who actually believed she had all she needed to be happy and make someone else happy on top of that. She was tired of being Matt’s “other wife,” the wife he didn’t choose after he married another woman—with her support.
“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh, my beloved niece,” Benjamin practically sang through the receiver.
Aliyah burst out laughing. Benjamin’s mood was always upbeat whenever he felt he’d finally found “the one,” the man who was Aliyah’s long-lost soul mate, the man for whom (by some divine order) Matthew had only been Aliyah’s boot camp in preparation for “the real deal.”
“Who is it this time?” Aliyah said, an expectant smile lingering on her face.
“Hey,” Benjamin said playfully, “that’s no attitude to have before I announce who your Prince Charming is.”
“You say that every time.”
“This time is different. I really think this is the one.”
Aliyah chuckled. “And you say that every time too.”
“Well,” Benjamin said guiltily, laughter in his voice, “this one called me a couple of weeks ago and asked that I give him a chance to prove he’s the one for you. But I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure he was worthy.”
“Does he have a green card?” Aliyah asked jokingly.
“Yes,” Benjamin said, “and a successful side business.” Aliyah could practically hear her uncle beaming in triumph.
“That actually makes money?”
“Yes, lots of it.”
Aliyah was unable to temper the growing curiosity. “And he called you, not the other way around?”
“Yes, he called me.” Benjamin chuckled self-consciously. “Truth be told, if I would’ve known he was looking, I would’ve called him myself. He’s definitely the kind of man I think would see how special you are and never take that for granted.”
“Do I know him?”
“Yes, I think you do.”
Aliyah furrowed her brows as she searched her mind for who this could be. “How? From the masjid?”
Benjamin was silent momentarily. “Look, Aliyah,” he said, his voice more serious. “Before you give your answer, just think about it, okay?”
“Uncle Ben,” Aliyah said, her voice stern and cautious. “Don’t tell me this is another one of those perverted she-could-be-my-second-wife brothers.”
“Aliyah, don’t say that.”
“Uncle Ben!” Aliyah should have known better than to get her hopes up. She had made it abundantly clear that she was not entertaining the proposal of any married men. She was not interested in another Matt-style disaster. She didn’t want to marry someone and wonder whether or not she would be the woman he dumped in the end.
It took several seconds before Aliyah registered her uncle’s words.
“I know it’s unexpected, Aliyah,” Benjamin said, apology in his tone. “But he and I have been talking almost every day, and I really think this could work if—”
Aliyah felt faint all of a sudden, and her heart raced in confusion and shock. “Let’s not talk about this anymore,” she said, almost choking on her words.
“But, Aliyah, he’s really seri—”
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Uncle Ben,” Aliyah said through gritted teeth before pulling the phone away from her ear and disconnecting the call.
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