“Iman!” Mona stood at the bottom of the carpeted steps leading to the girls’ rooms. It was Tuesday morning and she had just returned from the store. After Mona had unloaded the car, paper bags of groceries lined the kitchen table and floor, and she was exhausted. She had been up most of the night talking to her sister on the phone and she wanted to rest. She was not in the mood to put the items away, and many things needed to be frozen or refrigerated.
Mona heard her son’s voice before she saw his small figure running toward her. The third of her three children, Adam was her only boy. Before Mona discovered she was pregnant with him, she had given up on having more children. Iman was ten at the time, and Mona was showing signs of menopause. It was disheartening to be growing old after only two children. It wasn’t that she wanted a house full of babies, but she and Karim had always hoped for at least one son and one daughter, regardless of the amount of children they would have.
She swept Adam into her arms and embraced his small body. It was amazing to see him running around like a big boy now. He was only three. It seemed like yesterday that he was struggling to stand on his own.
“Where’s your sister?”
“Her tummy hurts.”
Mona groaned. Iman was probably upstairs with headphones on, Qur’an playing in her ears, and she had probably already taken two extra-strength Midol. When it was Iman’s time-of-the-month, it was everybody’s. The whole house went down with her.
Today, cramps or not, Mona decided, Iman was going to put the groceries away.
Mona made her way up the steps and knocked on her daughter’s door. “Iman? Iman?” Mona’s patience was growing thin. Every day it was a new story with her, anything to get out of her chores, and in the last two days her “body weaknesses” had increased. Part of Mona wondered if this sudden onset of illness was due to stress. Iman was often distant and despondent after seeing any of Mona’s family or their friends, even if only in passing at a mall or Islamic event.
When Mona’s sister had called Sunday night to say that a friend of their family who owned a henna and hair salon was inviting Hasna and Iman to a henna party at the parlor, Mona was reluctant. Iman wasn’t allowed around her family, and Mona’s sister knew that. But it was a peace offering, Mona knew, as her sister didn’t hold the same view as their parents.
“And they’re offering free hair styling,” her sister had said, her voice hopeful.
Mona had sighed, realizing perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea. Mona herself was still struggling with styling Iman’s tightly-coiled curls, and Iman herself hadn’t settled on the best way to tame her head of hair. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea…
“I can pick them up,” Saira added before Mona could protest.
In the end, only Iman went with Saira Monday evening, as Hasna said she had already agreed to meet up with a friend at that time. Knowing that Iman would go alone increased Mona’s apprehension, but she didn’t have the heart to turn down Saira’s kind offer.
But when Iman returned late that night irritable and upset, Mona didn’t have the heart to ask her what had happened.
Mona now grew worried that Iman was still not well.
She really wanted one of the girls to help her put away the food. But Hasna was at work, and Mona’s legs were aching from shopping. It had been difficult enough to unload all the bags; she didn’t have energy to put everything away.
Mona was about to invite herself into Iman’s room when she saw the handle turn slowly and a head peer through the crack. “Iman, can you please put away the groceries?”
As the door opened wider, it took a second for Mona to realize it that it was Hasna, not Iman, looking back at her.
“Hasna? What are you doing here? I thought you went to work.”
“I wasn’t feeling well.”
Mona sighed. Like she thought, the whole house went down when Iman was sick. “Where’s your sister?”
“She’s in your room.”
“She said I was making too much noise.”
Mona sighed and started toward the stairs, where Adam was making his way up toward her. A second later she turned back to look at Hasna, a thought coming to her just then. “Why are you in Iman’s room?”
“I was, um, looking for something.”
It was then that Mona noticed the white cloth draped from Hasna’s neck, reminding her of how some women wore the scarf in Pakistan. Mona recognized the fabric immediately. It was the khimaar Irum had bought for Iman a year ago, and she had bought an identical one for Asma.
For a second Mona and Hasna didn’t speak, their eyes meeting in acknowledgement of what this meant. Hasna lowered her gaze. Clearly she hadn’t intended to be caught, and that touched Mona more. She wanted to embrace her daughter, but she withheld. Hasna was an adult, twenty-six years old, and even before she had grown that much, she had a strong sense of independence, and pride. Hasna wanted to do things her own way, and in her own time.
This was supposed to be a private moment, Mona realized. Hasna hadn’t expected her mother to discover she was trying on the head cover, a clear indication that Hasna’s heart was changing, even if it was years late.
May Allah give you children just like you.
Yes, Hasna was like her mother. After years of glorified rebellion, Mona had finally submitted to what she had intuitively known all along—that in life there was nowhere to run, except to Allah Himself.
Without a word, Mona turned around and started her quiet retreat down the stairs to her room, only then allowing herself to break into a wide grin. She had to wait until her back was to Hasna before she could openly display on her face the depths of her pride. She didn’t want to disrupt the delicacy of this moment. This one Hasna needed to handle alone.
Mona was halfway down the steps when she turned to see her daughter now holding two fistfuls of the fabric that was still draped behind her neck. “Yes, Hasna?”
“Can you show me how to put this on?”
Yasmin’s eyelids fluttered open until she was fully awake, the late afternoon sun a dull orange glow outside her window. She sat up, throwing the covers from her in that motion, realizing that the time for Asr was fading quickly. She had lain down for a nap after praying Dhuhr, expecting to sleep only an hour. Her heart felt heavy as she slipped her feet into her house shoes and made her way to the bathroom connected to her room.
Yasmin shuddered as she turned the metal handle of the bathroom, unable to console herself after the troubling dream she had just seen. She grew nauseated as she was reminded of her meeting with Sommer. It was a bad idea, a terrible idea to have asked her help.
What was Sharif doing right then? Yasmin wondered, her mind drifting to something pleasant. It was still morning where he lived, so he might be preparing for work. What was it that he did anyway? She couldn’t remember. Their meeting had been brief, and, of course, they hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to each other. But her father did mention something about Sharif being a… an imam?…or perhaps it was a teacher her father had said.
But how would they live?
Yasmin stopped herself.
Why was she assuming that Sharif wanted her at all? Why did it matter what his profession was? He had turned her down after only the showfa.
Yasmin turned on the faucet, feeling a headache coming on. She held her palm under the running water to gauge its warmth. She let the water rush between her fingers, feeling humiliated right then. What had she been thinking? She couldn’t marry a teacher.
The mirror reflected a woman grimacing.
You could do better, the woman was saying to her. You have to do better. Your reputation depends on it.
In that moment, Yasmin saw Sommer’s contempt for her in the blue eyes that glared back at her.
What? The eyes regarded her with disdain. You think you’re just going to use some guy to repair your image and it’s not supposed to matter to him?
Yasmin averted her gaze and quietly made wudhoo in the solitude of the bathroom, unable to ignore the sickness erupting in her stomach.
She doubted that marrying Sharif would repair her image even if he had wanted to marry her. She would be the laughing stock of her friends.
Yasmin halted her wudhoo, her wet palms stilling as they wiped her face. A moment later she continued the motion, feeling tears stinging the back of her eyes.
Wallaahi, you’ll see that, after Allah, you have not one friend in that school except your own mother.
When Yasmin lifted her gaze to her reflection, the woman looked sadder than she had moments before, the disdain gone from her eyes. For a moment, Yasmin felt sorry for the woman opposite her.
Wallaahi, the sad eyes said to her in a whisper, you’ll see that, after Allah, you have not one friend in this whole world.
Except your own family.
And Sharif, if you let him.
In her room, Yasmin pulled the floral prayer garment over her as she thought of Sharif. Right then, she could not deny that she found him attractive, and it had little to do with him being American. She had long since outgrown her fascination with rappers like 2-Pac. Sharif’s attractiveness was a spiritual one, and Yasmin felt that they could get along well together.
Yasmin had never expected him to say no to her father. She had spent her time wondering if she herself would say yes. Her indecisiveness toward marrying him had been the subject of the conversations she had with her parents leading up to the day of the showfa. It had been a difficult decision for her father to settle on Sharif as the right person for his daughter.
Yasmin tucked the cloth of the prayer garment’s scarf under her chin, feeling her insignificance right then.
She had heard that American men viewed Arab women as rare beauties. Unlike most Arab men, she was told, Americans preferred women of color, especially those of deep brown olive complexion. Women of darker tones, especially from foreign lands, were seen as possessing an exotic beauty, and it was every American man’s dream to have such a woman for himself.
Such was the “women talk” she had often heard whispered in circles of Arabs who mingled with Americans and their wives.
But now she doubted its authenticity.
Americans don’t take this issue of love lightly…
Perhaps Sharif’s reservations had nothing to do with her superficial traits. It was more likely that he had said no simply because he had no compelling reason to say yes. After all, who was she but a mysterious woman…beautiful perhaps…but mysterious and unfamiliar nonetheless.
Yasmin raised the back of her hands to her shoulders and recited the takbir, signifying the start of prayer. As she prayed, she had difficulty concentrating due to all that had been on her mind after her nap. Her heart scolded her for her arrogance, and she submitted to the reality that, regardless of whether or not Sharif would ever reconsider her, she had no cause to think herself better than he, even if he were merely a teacher.
Even as she recited isti’aadhah, seeking refuge in Allah from Satan as she tried to regain concentration, Yasmin could not forget the scene from the dream—the woman’s dark eyes narrowing at her as she tossed a small box to Yasmin, clearly wanting to be rid of the sight of Yasmin on her doorstep.
The steps leading to the door of the woman’s house were of weathered and broken stone, and Yasmin had left behind her the wide expanse of a lush green landscape to reach the uncomfortably narrow alley that led to the steps. Yasmin felt suffocated as the stone walls of the suddenly dark alley seemed to crush her as she frantically hurried to the steps, feeling desperate to get the box from the woman. The skin of her shoulder and arms was scraped as she moved forward in the narrow corridor, and she felt the stinging sensation of blood there.
The stone steps appeared at the end of the alley and descended into what looked like a murky pit. Yasmin halted her steps suddenly before descending, and her heart urged her to turn back. But she was reminded of the box, so she willed herself forward, drawing strength from her desire to have it in her possession.
The woman appeared at the doorway dressed in rags that barely covered her filthy skin. Repulsed, Yasmin withdrew from her, but only a step; after all, she had come for the box, and she would get it, even if it killed her.
Yasmin caught the box just as the woman slammed an iron door in her face, a door Yasmin had not noticed before.
The box was light in her hands, and this confused Yasmin, as she had thought the box would be…
Just then, there was a fluttering in the box, as if a large moth was struggling for release. The box itself began to tremble, and with each trembling it grew heavier. But Yasmin held on, the horrible shaking causing her scarf and shawl to slip from her, falling in a heap on the ground. The more she held on, the more her garments slipped from her, until both the weight of the box and her fear of exposure forced her to let go.
Upon releasing the box, Yasmin reached immediately for her garments, struggling to cover herself again. But she grew distracted as the box burst open and what looked like a black moth escaped and grew into a large, flat bird-like creature with two wide black wings and no body.
It flew away in the distance, and a moment later Yasmin was in a bedroom where a beautiful girl slept. In the dream, Yasmin knew the girl to be the one Sharif would marry, but Yasmin felt no jealousy at the sight of her, only raw terror. Frantically, Yasmin wondered how to help the girl, but the girl could not see her…as Yasmin was not even in the room herself. She saw the girl only because she, at that moment, was as if the girl herself, but Yasmin knew she was not.
Suddenly the black-winged creature descended upon the girl, and Yasmin felt as if it were herself in the bed right then. The creature wrapped itself about the girl, waking her in a fright. Desperately, the girl fought the dark wings, slapping and clawing at them to break herself free. But her desperation became despair as she realized the wings had become part of her skin, part of herself. But still she fought and fought…
Yasmin woke with a sick feeling in her stomach, and regret in her heart. Even as she finished prayer and sat quietly reciting the adhkaar on her prayer mat, she had that same eerie feeling that she had had in her heart upon waking—
That the dream was somehow connected to her visit with her former best friend.
“But why would you want to live there?”
Sharif sat in the living room of his home Tuesday afternoon, the phone to his ear, a feeling of déjà vu coming to him. He knew Hasna wouldn’t be excited about the idea of living in the country Sharif had come to love more than his childhood home in America, but it was burdensome to hear the raw disappointment in her voice. It had been the simple sharing of his heart’s desire, not the expression of a definite plan.
But her reaction reminded him of the same question that was often asked of him by Americans he had met in Riyadh. More than once he tried to articulate what he felt, thinking of his nearness to the Holy Cities, his being surrounded by believers, and his hearing the adhaan for every prayer. He tried to express what it meant to hear Allah’s Words being recited from dozens of masjids at once, how it felt to experience the camaraderie of believers standing in closed ranks around the city, and the inspiration it evoked to walk the streets and give salaams to a passing stranger and know that he could respond in kind, because Islam was not only a religion and a way of life. It was a language itself.
A language of faith.
And it was spoken in Riyadh.
Often Sharif’s explanation was met with blank stares, confused expressions, and even marked disgust, verbalized by degrading comments about Arab culture or about Arabs themselves.
It was then that Sharif was reminded of what he had already known.
There were some questions you simply could not answer, because there really was no way to explain. A person could not place his life in the palm of another and have the stranger examine it with the same eyes and heart of the one who had placed it there.
Understanding was not passed on with words, or with the indication of a perspective not considered before. Not even the faculties of hearing and sight aided one in comprehension.
Because understanding was transmitted through the heart.
Sharif started to respond to Hasna but stopped himself, remembering at that moment another lesson he had learned.
Often, people don’t ask questions because they really want to understand. They ask to seek evidence to assure themselves they need not live like you.
“But you can be around Muslims in America,” a brother had said once in response to Sharif.
Currently, however, Sharif was unsure how to respond. By agreeing to go forward with the marriage itself, Sharif had already sacrificed more than he could measure. He could not offer a compromise on something for which his heart itself did not offer such.
“Because I want to raise my children in an Islamic country.”
There was a brief pause before Sharif heard Hasna grunt in response.
“Muslim country you mean?”
Sharif felt his jaw tighten at this disintegration of the conversation.
Hasna had called him to say that she had thought things over and that she might consider wearing the hijab one day.
It was good news, yes, and it should have been wonderful news. But there was the subtle hint that he read behind her words, a hint he caught only because he knew Hasna so well.
You can’t make me; the decision is fully mine.
Sharif had no intention of forcing Hasna to do anything, but if she was to be his wife, did she imagine that a decision as serious as this rested in her mood alone? For the Muslim wife, there should never even be the question of force, as the husband would not be in a circumstance that required it. The wife would have already complied on her own, because that’s what Muslims do when they learn of Allah’s commands.
And if what Allah desired of her was worth only considering, should her mood allow, what of Sharif’s own desires of her after they were husband and wife?
And now this? Muslim country?
It was becoming the cliché excuse for those who wished to make no efforts to live around Muslims, even within America itself. If it wasn’t a “No, it’s a Muslim school, not an Islamic school” comment, it was “No, it’s not Islam they’re following, it’s culture.”
“What do you mean?” Sharif asked, his calmness betraying his growing irritation with the conversation.
Hasna laughed. “Come on, Sharif. You know those people don’t follow Islam, they follow culture.”
“For example?” Sharif knew the tone of his voice revealed that he was less than pleased with the question, but he could not bring himself to care. It was disturbing that Muslims who viewed with disdain the prospect of living around other Muslims actually imagined that those who preferred Muslim societies had no idea that the current political and religious state of the Muslim world was less than perfect. He supposed it was just another absolution of responsibility: Oh, no, I can’t live there. They don’t practice Islam fully.
And you do? Sharif wanted to ask. But he held his tongue.
“You’re kidding, right?” Hasna’s tone was characteristic of those who looked down their noses at those from Muslim countries. “Please tell me they haven’t brainwashed you into believing that the stuff they’re doing there represents true Islam.”
Sharif wasn’t good at arguing, especially with Hasna, and he rarely took the bait. Her arrogance had always been pungent, but he had always chosen to overlook it and focus on her positive traits. But right then, he couldn’t recall what they were.
“If what they’re doing isn’t Islam,” he said, his confidence both shocking and pleasing him, as it was rare he got in a word edgewise with Hasna, let alone a confident one, “what should we call what you’re doing, since it’s much less than that?”
The silence was so complete that for a second he thought he had disconnected the line. “Hello?”
Her tone was cold and distant, but Sharif was unmoved. At that moment, he couldn’t care less how she felt. He just wanted to make sure that she had heard every word. He was tired of her self-righteousness and the way she talked to him as if she were doing him a favor by letting him hear even the sound of her voice.
At least the people she criticized had something to show for the Islam they claimed, he thought to himself. What about her? She rarely even prayed.
The line was silent again, but he refused to speak. If she wanted to talk, let her. He would say nothing until she herself gave him cause to speak, even if it meant having the phone hung up in his ear, a childish strategy she often resorted to when her feelings got hurt—even though she hurt his as a matter of course.
“Vernon told me this might happen.”
Her words had come slowly and purposefully, and they settled over Sharif in the same deliberate way. He could taste their bitterness even as his mind was delayed in fully registering their meaning, and what they implied.
Mention another man. It was a hit below the belt. Apparently, Hasna had wanted to make Sharif taste every bit of the venom in her words, and suffer from every one.
And it worked.
She sighed and in that sound was a vicious taunting that told Sharif that she knew she had won—and that she was enjoying his subsequent suffering more than she had the triumph itself.
“I was just hoping he was wrong,” Hasna said.
In that moment, Sharif felt his inadequacy. He had been a fool to ever imagine that he meant anything to Hasna at all. It was as if he, again, was an adolescent crumbling in his fragile self-esteem as he sat next to her in his kitchen, hoping she didn’t notice his flimsy T-shirt or the hole tearing through his jeans at the knee—or if she did notice, that she would still accept his company, however meager it was, even if he could never have her for himself.
Vernon. The name itself left an unpleasant taste on Sharif’s tongue. He remembered the name from an e-mail Hasna had written during his first year in Riyadh. Seeing a man’s name in an e-mail from his fiancée was naturally troublesome to Sharif. He imagined it would disturb any man. But it hadn’t been terribly significant at the time. It wasn’t unusual for Muslims from his small community in Maryland to speak casually to the opposite sex. Sharif himself had done it as a matter of course when he had lived in the States.
A year after the initial e-mail, during his second year in Riyadh, Hasna mentioned Vernon again. This time Sharif had grown concerned. To casually talk to a male classmate was one thing, but to have a lasting friendship with one was another thing entirely.
Even in Sharif’s circle of non-Muslims friends from high school and college, this had been a red flag. It simply was not in a man’s nature to relax in the knowledge that his woman was cultivating a relationship with another man, no matter how platonic it appeared, or was claimed to be.
Hasna’s bait hung in front of Sharif, and he felt the palms of his hands grow moist as he held the receiver to his ear.
Hasna’s unspoken question was unmistakable in its affront, and it was the ultimate in-your-face.
“Well…” Sharif said coolly.
His shattered ego was laid before him, hopes of its revival gone. But his utter helplessness was tearing at his pride. He had no idea what he would say—after all, what could he say to revive his dignity after suffering such a deadly blow? But he could not bow in the face of viciousness. As a mere human, he carried with him at least a grain of self-respect, and that alone demanded that he not give her cruelty the last word.
“I guess he’s a smart man,” he said finally.
Hasna laughed, a tinge of relief and triumph detectable in that sound, because their relationship was now back to where it was supposed to be—with Sharif beneath her and humbly so.
Sharif could tell she wasn’t registering his true motives for the statement. Then again, neither was he.
“Yes,” she agreed, confidence returning to her voice just then. “He knows a lot.”
It was then Sharif remembered from an e-mail the mention of Vernon’s fiancée. Kuwait? Katie? Keisha? No, it was a country’s name…
Kenya. It came to him just then.
“He must,” Sharif agreed, a smirk forming on his face. “Because he chose Kenya over you.”
Change comes in stages, Sharif had heard. It wasn’t something you could force. But it was something you could influence, for better or worse.
The hardest thing, though, about being an influence for change, was realizing it beforehand. Sharif hadn’t asked to be a beacon for change, but the responsibility had been handed to him nonetheless.
“It’s what your father would have wanted,” his mother had said seven years before, the day after she, Karim, and Rashad revealed to him their plan for the community.
At the mention of his father, Sharif had grown quiet, that haranguing guilt eating at him again. He could not oppose an absent father, and most certainly not to the woman who was widowed by the loss. Nadirah was not trying to make her son feel guilty, Sharif knew, but the guilt crippled him nonetheless.
With the ghost of his father haunting him and his mother’s corporeal presence a living testament to the loss, Sharif had silently consented to study abroad, even as he hadn’t in his breast the slightest desire to board the plane.
Saudi Arabia was a country on a map, a word printed alongside the longitude-latitude grid that fenced the blues, greens, and browns of cartoon lands. It was a place his middle school social studies teacher had asked the class to picture with their eyes closed, as the students, restless and sweaty, sat in cramped desks, the air conditioner blowing out warm air from where it was wedged into the wall.
Saudi Arabia was a land of a strange language, of a foreign people, a world of National Geographic and Discovery Channel, and was separated from America by an ocean and a continent—and from Sharif Benjamin by immeasurable distances of the heart.
In private Sharif had sulked, lamenting the tremendous sacrifice that this trip would mean for him. He didn’t care about the acceptance letter from Montgomery County Schools that was folded in his drawer, or the transcript that revealed that he had maintained a grade point average that earned him a place on the Dean’s Merit List at his school. He wasn’t worried about even the prospect of leaving his mother, brother, and sister alone after being their second caretaker after his father had died.
It was the prospect of losing Hasna that he grieved when he had sat alone in his room, nursing the anger and guilt that burned in his chest. The extended wait—six more years—was agonizing enough, but the prospect of losing her completely was even more agonizing to his fragile self.
Frantically, Sharif’s mind had searched for other options, the first of which was that he wouldn’t go. He was almost twenty years old, an adult. Couldn’t he just say no?
But then he’d see the graying strands in his mother’s hair, the wrinkles next to her eyes when she smiled, and the exhaustion on her face when she returned from work. And he’d remember her laughing with their father, or brushing her husband’s cheek with a kiss, or her saying, with a roll of her eyes, O Lord, not another car for Sharif.
And then the protest would get stuck in his throat, replaced with the choking of his heart, and in silence he would retreat to his room. The implacable pain would continue to seize him until he thought his chest would burst. In anguish, Sharif would bite his fist to keep from making a sound when he whimpered, even when his eyes could offer no more tears.
No matter how much he had tried, he was utterly helpless in warding it off. There remained the haunting reminder that it was he, Sharif himself, who was responsible for his father’s death.
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