Internet Standoff: Story 3 The Friendship Promise

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“I can’t believe you let Maryam have internet in her room.” Joanne gripped the steering wheel with her left hand as she lifted a can of diet cola from the cup holder and took a sip. She shook her head as she held the can inches from her mouth. “I swear that’s the one thing that makes me really uncomfortable when Samira comes over.”

In her peripheral vision, Joanne could see Basma turn to look at her, but Joanne kept her eyes on the road. She already knew what her friend was thinking. It was what most Muslims thought when they heard her views on teens and internet usage.

“Really, Joanne,” Basma said, shaking her head, “I’m surprised you feel that way.”

“Why? Because I’m a bad Muslim and should just go all the way?” Joanne chuckled and shook her head before taking another sip of cola.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Joanne returned the can to its place and smiled at Basma.

“Don’t worry,” Joanne said. “I don’t blame you for it. I’m used to people thinking I’m a hypocrite.”

“Oh, Joanne, for God’s sake. Can we talk about something else?”

“I didn’t bring this up to bicker, Basma. I’m really worried about my daughter.”

“And you don’t think I’d treat her like my own?”

Joanne slowed the car to a stop behind a line of vehicles at a red light. “Honestly, Basma,” she said quietly. “That’s what I don’t want you to do.”

Joanne frowned apologetically as she met Basma’s shocked gaze. “I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m being judgmental, but—”

“If anyone should be worried,” Basma said, narrowing her eyes through the slits of her black face veil, “it should be me.”

Joanne’s eyes widened as she chuckled. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re not the only one worried about her daughter.”

“So you believe Samira will corrupt your innocent little girl?” Joanne rolled her eyes and smirked. “I should’ve known you’d see this whole thing as a one-sided charity case.”

“Well, Faris and I are sacrificing a lot to help you.”

Joanne drew her eyebrows together. “You and Faris? What does your husband have to do with anything?”

“Oh my God. You can’t be serious, Joanne. Did you think I’d just invite some girl over to spend hours alone with our daughter and not ask his permission?”

“His permission?” Joanne looked at her friend, hands gripping the steering wheel. “You mean letting my daughter come over requires some major family deliberation?”

“Well, actually, it does.”

Speechless, Joanne stared at Basma. It was only the sound of a beeping horn that prompted Joanne to blink and shake her head. She lifted her foot from the brake and rested it on the gas pedal, guiding the car past the green light.

“In an Islamic household,” Basma said, her voice authoritative despite the soft tone. “that’s how it should be.”

“In an Islamic household?” Joanne contorted her face. “So what does that make my household?”

“Joanne, don’t be unreasonable. I just want you to know it’s not personal.”

“But it is personal, Basma. It’s very personal.”

Joanne squinted her eyes as she glanced at her friend. “Think about it. Do you have to get permission every time Maryam’s cousins want to drop by?”

“They’re family, Joanne. That’s different. We have to keep ti—”

“In Islam,” Joanne said, her emphasis on the word intentionally sarcastic, “cousins aren’t family. Otherwise, how did you and Faris get married?”

“Wh…” Basma’s eyes widened, but Joanne could tell Basma didn’t know what to say.

“And isn’t it true,” Joanne said, “your husband can forbid family from visiting if he thinks they’ll cause harm?”

“Well…yes…but—”

“But nothing, Basma. So it’s personal. Period. There’s no need to lie about it.” Joanne’s nose flared. She shook her head. “And Islam forbids lying last time I checked.”

Basma sighed, and Joanne sensed her friend wasn’t in the mood to argue.

Joanne felt a tinge of guilt pinching her, but she found it difficult to let go of her offense. How could Basma think she was corrupt?

Joanne huffed. Was this what her life would forever be as a Muslim? Other Muslims holding her at arm’s length? Admiring because she’s American, but distrusting for the same reason?

 

Shaking her head, Joanne propped her left elbow on the seal of the window next to her as her right hand steered the car. Oh how she’d believed all that universal brotherhood rhetoric when she first accepted Islam. But now…what was left for her? Not even the marriage she’d thrown her heart into sustaining. She now lived an ocean apart from her youngest children—two boys she loved more than life itself.

Joanne was tired of hearing how Islam is perfect and Muslims are imperfect or how she shouldn’t judge Islam by the actions of Muslims.

“Oh please,” an American convert had said once, rolling her eyes. “That’s just what they say so they can keep living culture and ignoring Islam.”

At the time, Joanne had been infuriated. She was personally offended because she was married into one of the very cultures the woman was criticizing. “I swear to God these Black people are impossible,” Joanne had said to Riaz later that day. “People bend over backwards to treat them equal, but it’s never enough.” Riaz had laughed in agreement as she continued venting. “They’re a bunch of ungrateful leeches if you ask me. Always got their hands out, but then they complain that even the people who help them are racist!”

These were the words that hung in Joanne’s mind as she pulled the car to a stop in front of the Muslim high school where the girls were finishing a placement exam.

Joanne felt the beginning of a headache. She was beginning to see the world with the very eyes she’d scorned for so long.

Oh, sweetheart, don’t blame yourself,” Riaz had said when he’d sat her down to explain his reasons for divorce. “It’s not your fault. It’s just that this has been really hard for my family.”

What the—? Joanne had thought at the time. Was he kidding? You’re just going to throw away a marriage of fifteen years because your wife can’t “fit in” the family? You knew I couldn’t speak Urdu or cook biryani when you married me!

“Joanne,” Basma’s soft voice drifted to Joanne as if from a distance, “are you okay?”

Joanne’s heart beat had slowed to a normal rate, but the tightening in her chest had not loosened.

It’s not personal, Joanne.

Such simple, sincere words Basma had spoken. Yet they were eerily similar to the ones Riaz had used to break apart an entire family.

Yes, I know it’s not personal, Basma, Joanne thought as she turned the keys to shut off the engine. My problem is one I can’t control.

The keys jingled as she pulled them out the ignition.

I exist.

***

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Faris lowered the newspaper he was reading and turned to glare at his wife from where he sat on the living room couch next to her. “And you actually promised this woman we won’t have internet on while her daughter is here?”

Basma shrugged. “Yes…”

“And you think this is reasonable?”

“No, not really, but—”

“I swear, Basma. I have no idea why you put yourself through this.” Faris moved his head toward her. “Mark my words, I think this little charity of yours is going to bring us more stress than it’s worth.”

“She’s a good Muslim though…”

“Oh give me a break.” Faris snapped the newspaper in place. “Listening to music? Going to movies? Walking around in front of men with her face exposed and wearing jeans and a hijab?” He shook his head as he resumed reading.

“But you don’t mind?” Basma’s tone was soft and tentative.

Faris groaned and lowered the paper again. “I mind, Basma, and you know that. In fact, I more than ‘mind,’ I completely disagree. The only reason I’m not forbidding this outright is I feel sorry for the woman.”

“You mean letting my daughter come over requires some major family deliberation?”

Basma’s cheeks grew warm in mortification.

Faris grumbled from behind the paper. “But I feel sorrier for the man who married her in the first place.”

Faris,” Basma said, unable to keep from raising her voice. “You don’t even know her.”

“I don’t need to know her, Basma. I see her. That’s enough.” He huffed. “I swear, I cringe at the thought of that gum-chewing, iPod-carrying girl coming anywhere near Maryam.”

Basma sighed. She knew it was useless to suggest to Faris that he was backbiting Joanne’s family. “Not when she’s doing these things openly,” he’d say. “The world sees what she’s doing. I’m just saying I don’t like it.”

“So what should we do about the internet?” Basma said. She didn’t want to talk any more about the huge sacrifice they were making to help Joanne. It bothered Basma too much, and it was made all the worse because Joanne would blame her for even seeing it as a sacrifice.

Why are Americans so judgmental? It seemed to Basma as if they searched for prejudice.

“Thank you for what you’re doing for Samira,” Joanne had said. “It really means a lot to me.”

But did it really?

Basma was already exhausted with the whole ordeal. What was she doing this for anyway? Her husband was right. This whole thing could end up harming Maryam…

“You figure it out,” Faris said from behind the paper. “If you want my vote, I say we’re stretching ourselves thin by even letting them in our house. Now they have the audacity to judge our lifestyle?”

***

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Maryam was sitting at her desk in front of the flat screen monitor of her computer when she heard a light knock at her door. She glanced up to find the door that was slightly ajar opening wider.

“Are you busy?” Her mother said after stepping inside.

Maryam shook her head and nodded toward the monitor. “Just looking some things up for school.”

Basma chuckled. “But school doesn’t start for another two weeks.”

Maryam smiled. “They said I should brush up on math.”

“I don’t think they meant during summer vacation.”

“But I don’t want to be behind when school starts.”

“True enough.”

Basma walked over to Maryam’s bed and sat down, prompting Maryam to turn in her desk chair and face her mother.

“Ummi, is everything okay?” Basma looked a bit tired, and her eyes were slightly red.

Basma forced a smile. “I just wanted to ask how you and Samira are getting along.”

Maryam averted her gaze as she thought of Friendship Style. She shrugged. “We’re getting along okay.”

Basma nodded, but Maryam sensed her mother had something else on her mind.

“Do you like her?”

Maryam started, her eyes widening slightly as she looked at her mother. How did she know about the argument?

A second later Maryam relaxed, realizing her mother was speaking in general.

“Um… I guess so.”

“Does she like you?”

Maryam bit her lower lip, unsure how to respond. And I don’t like you. The reminder of what Samira had said made a lump develop in Maryam’s throat.

“Never mind.” Basma waved her hand. “What’s important is you’re getting to know each other. That’s how friendships begin. Allah is in charge of hearts.”

Because then we’ll love each other, and it won’t matter what you or I think.

Maybe that’s what Samira had meant. Allah is in charge of hearts.

“But we’ll have to make some ground rules.”

Maryam creased her forehead as she looked at her mother. “Ground rules?”

“For when Samira comes over.”

Oh…

“Because her mother doesn’t want her on the internet.” Basma’s lips formed a thin line as she attempted to smile, but Maryam sensed sarcasm in her mother’s tone.

“But…why?”

“I suppose Sister Joanne thinks it’s inappropriate for teenagers to be online.”

Maryam contorted her face. She thought of Samira singing loudly at the mall, and a giggle crawled in her throat. Was Sister Joanne serious? The internet was inappropriate? But Maryam controlled her laughter. She didn’t want her mother to scold her for being disrespectful.

Basma’s smiling eyes and forced grimace conveyed she was fighting the same feeling as her daughter.

“Please don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart.”

Maryam had practically bullied Samira into not dancing through the halls of the mall bellowing a stupid kaafir song while iPod headphones dangled from the khimaar that barely covered Samira’s chest.

And they needed ground rules for the internet? Oh my God.

Maryam’s and Basma’s eyes met, and Maryam cackled in an effort not to burst into giggles. Basma looked away, her own shoulders jerking in an effort to suppress an outburst.

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Laughter was still in Basma’s voice when she was finally able to control herself enough to speak.

“So we have to respect Sister Joanne’s wishes, Maryam.”

Maryam’s lips formed a poorly restrained grin. “Yes, I know.”

“Seriously.” Basma narrowed her eyes in an effort to convey that she wasn’t joking, but this only made Maryam break into giggles.

“Ummi,” Maryam whined, humored.

“Okay, fine.” Basma chuckled herself. “I admit that it makes absolutely no sense to me. And given Samira’s—” Basma stopped herself.

A second later Basma sighed regretfully, an awkward smile on her face. “I’m sorry, Maryam, I just—”

“It’s okay, Ummi. I understand.” Maryam smiled at her mother, relieved she no longer had to hide her feelings.

Basma drew in a deep breath and exhaled.

“Look, it’s late,” Basma said, standing. “I’ll let you finish your…homework.”

Maryam turned her body toward the monitor as her mother walked to the door, the shadow of a smile still on Maryam’s face.

“But make sure you’re not on the internet when Samira is here.”

Maryam’s expression was a pout as she looked at her mother. “Never?”

“Let’s put it like this,” Basma said from the doorway, her eyes exhausted. She brought a hand to her head to smooth down her hair. “Officially, internet isn’t allowed while she’s here. But I can’t say never get online if Samira is here.” She shook her head, her hand now adjusting the chiffon dupatta covering her chest. “Because that’s too much to ask. So if you need to get online, get online. But Samira isn’t allowed to.”

Maryam shrugged, turning to the screen, her hand on the mouse that she shook gently. “What if she asks to use the computer?”

Basma tucked a stray hair strand behind her ear. “Then the answer is no.”

Maryam contorted her face, her gaze on the monitor that glowed back to life. “That sucks.”

Maryam.

Maryam brought a hand to her mouth, her wide eyes in apology as she glanced at her mother. “Sorry. I mean, that’s…too bad.”

Basma shook her head, sadness in her expression. “I agree. But we have to respect Sister Joanne’s rules.”

“I didn’t know she had any,” Maryam mumbled to herself, tapping the keyboard as she keyed the words pre-algebra practice into the Google search engine.

“But I don’t expect you to police Samira,” Basma said, apparently having not heard her daughter’s remark.

“And between you and me,” Basma said with a grunt, “I couldn’t care less if Samira surfs the net. That’s the least of our worries.”

“Okay.” Maryam smirked in agreement, clicking the blue title of a math site on the screen. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t go online.”

The awkward silence that followed prompted Maryam to look toward her mother. She found her mother’s eyes glistening, a smile lingering on Basma’s face.

“I love you, Maryam,” Basma said. “BarakAllaahufeek. I’m really happy to have a daughter like you.”



“I just can’t afford it right now,” Joanne said. She held the receiver between her shoulder and ear as she stirred a small pot of soup in front of the stove in her kitchen. She wore a faded pink night robe and fluffy slippers, her brown hair pulled back by a ponytail holder.

“Basma,” Joanne said with a sigh after her friend protested, “I understand how important Muslim school is, but you heard what they said. There’s no financial aid available.”

“But what about Samira?” Basma’s voice crackled through the phone.

Joanne groaned, the familiar fury building in her chest. “You know what, Basma. Let me worry about that. I’m her mother.”

“I’m sorry, Joanne, but I’m just really concerned.”

Joanne rolled her eyes. “About Samira or Maryam?”

“Both of them.”

“Look,” Joanne said, stirring the soup vigorously as she spoke. “I’ll make this easy for you. Samira just won’t come over your house anymore.”

“Oh Joanne, that’s not what I meant.”

“Basma, I’m not stupid. I can read between the lines.”

“But in this case, you’re reading into the lines.”

“Oh, please,” Joanne said. “You’ve made it clear that you’re making a huge sacrifice by even befriending me, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why you’re really worried about Samira going to public school.”

“Okay, maybe I am a bit worried about how it will affect Maryam.”

Joanne shook her head and raised her eyes to the ceiling, her gaze briefly resting on a small water stain. There was so much renovation her house needed. She had stayed away too long…

“But tell me, Basma,” Joanne said, “exactly how will public school affect Maryam if she’s not even there?”

Basma sighed through the phone. “You know what I mean.”

“So now you’re admitting this is really about protecting Maryam and not Samira?”

“What if it is? You think this is easy for me and Faris?”

What? Joanne turned off the stove and shifted the pot to another burner. Her heart pounded as she lifted the stirring spoon from the pot and tapped it against the side to release the remaining soup from it.

“Basma.” Joanne clinched her teeth as she dropped the spoon into the sink. “Thank you for everything. But right now, I want you out of my life.”

Hands trembling, Joanne pressed the off button as she grimaced at the cordless phone.

“You think this is easy for me and Faris?”

Joanne threw the phone against the wall, the crashing sound making her start. Tears welled in her eyes as she watched the gutted phone plop into the sink and slowly disappear into the dirty dishwater.

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