Now a short MOVIE and bestselling novel!
It all began with this widely popular short story series:
Story 17: Muslim Marriage Monologues
“I’m not sure what you think your test in life is,” Salima said as she stood in front of the crowd of sisters reciting the poem she’d written for the Muslim Marriage Monologues gathering that Friday night, “if you don’t have to follow any rules…
I’m not sure what you think faith is
If there’s absolutely nothing you have to do.
Why even claim Islam at all
If you’re not going to submit?
Why even call yourself Muslim
If you can just call it quits?
No, I’m not judging you.
Okay, well, maybe I am.
But you can’t deny this is all confusing
If you’re standing where I am
I thought Islam was a complete religion
Established for all time
I thought Islam was Allah’s religion
A gift to all mankind.
I thought the whole point of submission
Was that it requires a lot of work
I thought the whole point of faith
Was that you never give up
What happened to humility?
What happened to ‘We hear and we obey’?
Or is that only when Allah says something you like
And otherwise it’s ‘We hear and we disobey’?
So, nah, I ain’t feeling you
With all this love who you want to sh*t
If you wanna roll like that,
On the real, I ain’t feeling it
We all got skeletons and ghosts
Stuff that’s better left alone
You ever heard of hiding your sins?
Seeking refuge from Shaytaan?
So don’t think you got a test so big
It can change Allah’s Word
He knew what He was going to give you
Before you were even on this earth
So don’t play that feel-sorry-for-me card
It’s really getting old
We all got sob stories, girl
Some are just better left un-told
So if you want Paradise
You’re going to have to get serious
And you can’t put a footnote
Where Allah puts a period.”
The crowd of about twenty women erupted in applause. “Tell it!” some shouted.
Smiling, Aliyah brought her hands together, clapping along with the crowd as her gaze followed Salima leaving the front of the room and joining the other women.
“I’m not much of a poet…” a soft voice said, prompting Aliyah to turn her attention toward the source of the sound. A tall, thin woman stood hesitantly in front of the crowd and held three sheets of paper worn with creases. A face veil sat under her chin like a bib, as if she were uncomfortable completely unveiling in front of the all-female crowd. “…so I hope you don’t mind if I just read from the paper.”
“Go ‘head, girl!” someone shouted. “We’re listening!”
“Okay…” The woman smiled awkwardly as she fumbled with her papers. “This is um… I just wrote something, um…” She forced laughter, as if in apology for her nervousness. “I’m sorry… I’m not used to speaking in front of people…”
“We’re right here with you, ukhti! No judgment. Just share your truth.”
“…so…um…okay…” She drew in a deep breath then exhaled, her breathing jagged from nervousness. “This doesn’t really have a title, but it’s about how I lost my best friend because of polygyny.”
Aliyah was immediately reminded of her broken friendship with Deanna.
The woman shut her eyes as if to mentally coax herself into gathering her composure. “I lost my best friend because of polygyny,” the woman said, her eyes opening as she looked at the paper in her hands. “But not for the reasons you might think. She didn’t try to marry my husband, and I didn’t try to marry hers.” The woman smiled and shook her head, as if lost in a memory momentarily. “Allow me to explain,” she said.
“My best friend and I met in high school,” she said. “And I was always the strong one.” She laughed nervously and glanced at the crowd. “If that’s not too hard to believe,” she added jokingly. “Lori had it rough growing up and was a bit quiet and withdrawn. So I was always fending off bullies and telling people to leave her alone. I guess I saw myself as her protector. But even back then, she’d tell me to let it go. She said everything doesn’t require a fight. She said some things can just be ignored.”
Aliyah averted her gaze, recalling having similar thoughts whenever her mother or siblings would say she should speak up more.
“But I knew better,” the woman said sarcastically, “like I did for everything. So when she started hanging out with Arabs and Pakistanis, I told her she should be careful because they were probably terrorists or part of some sleeper cell.”
There was a ripple of awkward laughter in the crowd.
“And when she decided to become Muslim and talked about wearing hijab, I rushed to call her parents and tell them their daughter was hanging out with a dangerous crowd.” The woman smiled sadly. “Needless to say, Lori never wanted to speak to me again. ‘You never see me,’ she kept saying. ‘You never listen.’ And of course, I was offended that she couldn’t see how I was just trying to help.”
The woman drew in a jagged breath and exhaled nervously. “So anyway, after high school, we lost touch and went our separate ways. But a few years later, I met this wonderful guy and fell in love. But there was only one problem. He was Muslim.” She smiled hesitantly. “Yes, I became that girl. I fell in love with religion because I fell in love with a man. But that’s not the point.”
Her hands trembled slightly as she looked at the paper. “I became Muslim and married him, and we ended up living in the same community as my friend Lori, who I found out was married now and had a child. She was ecstatic when she found out I was Muslim, and we reconnected just like old times. But this time, she was the strong one. I was really proud of the changes I saw in her. She was active and well-known in the community, and she and her husband were doing all these amazing programs at the masjid.”
Where do sisters find good men like that? Aliyah wondered. If she were to ever get remarried, that’s how she imagined her relationship would be. She and her husband working together doing community work.
“About a year after I joined Lori’s community, I started hearing rumors about a brother trying to marry women in secret behind his wife’s back. I dismissed it as gossip until a sister I knew came to me for advice about her friend accepting the brother’s proposal. I was shocked and horrified, and of course I told her to tell her friend not to do it. But what was most troublesome to me was that it was Lori’s husband who was trying to get married.”
There were a few huffs and grunts from the crowd.
“I didn’t know what to do, and, well—” She shrugged nonchalantly. “Okay, I admit, I was pissed. I immediately went into protective friend mode, and it was just like old times, except the bully I needed to ward off was Lori’s husband.”
“These men,” someone muttered in frustration.
“So I talked to whoever I could to help figure out a way to tell Lori and have someone confront her husband. I even talked to the imam because I felt it was his responsibility to keep sisters from being manipulated like this.”
Okay, I can see where this is going, Aliyah thought in annoyance, reminded of Deanna just then. Where do people like this come from? she couldn’t help thinking. Who raises them? Who teaches them Islam? Were they really that self-absorbed as to think they had the answer to everyone’s problems? Or were they just some sort of reverse misogynists who hated men instead of women? Aliyah could think of a million different non-incriminating explanations for what Lori’s husband might be doing, and this woman couldn’t think of one? No wonder Lori had said, “You never see me. You never listen.”
A sad smile formed on the woman’s lips. “Long story short, Lori’s husband’s reputation was ruined, and the imam asked him not to come back to the masjid except to pray. Lori and her husband eventually moved away, but before that, I found out that before they got married, Lori had told her husband that she didn’t have any problem with polygyny so long as he didn’t tell her until after it happened. Turns out, for her, the hardest part of polygyny was the suspense of not knowing what would happen. She felt like being taken through the rollercoaster of maybes and what ifs was too much for her, so she preferred to deal with only what is.” The woman forced laughter, but it was apparent that she was not happy. “So of course, I lost my friend. And to add insult to injury, last thing I knew, Lori’s husband married the sister my other friend talked to me about, and she and Lori are apparently not only co-wives but good friends.”
The crowd clapped, and some women stepped forward to give the woman a hug, and Aliyah sighed, turning and walking toward the stairs to check on Ibrahim. It was hard for Aliyah to sympathize because all she could think about was how the woman ruined Lori’s life. And based on what? Suspicion? An assumption? The belief that all men are evil?
As she ascended the steps, Aliyah wondered how the crowd would have reacted if the roles were reversed. What if a friend of Lori’s husband had heard that Lori was secretly talking to a man whom they assumed she wanted to divorce her husband for? And what if that friend spread rumors about Lori until her reputation was ruined and she wasn’t allowed to come back to the masjid? But to hear the woman tell it, it was as if her savoir complex were the most natural thing in the world. Of course the man was doing evil, and of course she had to save her friend. No need to verify the rumors. No need to mind your own business. Just go into immediate “save the woman from her evil husband” mode.
SubhaanAllah, Aliyah thought. Even if the rumors were true, was the community’s reaction worth all that? Stopping Lori’s husband from coming to the masjid except to pray? Apparently, the anti-polygamy police had given themselves promotions and were regulating who could serve Allah now.
At the top of the stairs, Aliyah heard the noise of children playing and saw that it was coming from a door that was slightly ajar. She walked toward it and carefully pushed it open wider and peered through the opening. After a few seconds of surveying the young faces, she saw Ibrahim and Haroon crashing action figures into each other and making pelting noises. She smiled and watched them for a moment longer before going back downstairs.
Salima was eating from a plate of vegetables and standing in the hallway when Aliyah reached the main floor. “You didn’t like that one very much, huh?” Salima said, leaning into Aliyah with her voice lowered.
Aliyah forced a smile. “I really liked your poem, mashaAllah.”
“But not Tina’s?” A knowing smile was on Salima’s on her face as she lifted a celery stick to her mouth and bit into it.
“Tina’s the one who did the polygyny story?” Aliyah asked.
“Yes,” Salima said.
Aliyah’s gaze was drawn to the crowd of sisters now milling around in the room and getting plates of food. She saw Tina chatting amongst them, her face veil still under her chin. She seems like a nice sister, Aliyah found herself thinking as she studied the woman from afar. And so did Deanna, a voice retorted in her head.
“The story was interesting…” Aliyah said tentatively. “It’s just hard to stomach, that’s all.”
“Because of what happened to you?”
Aliyah shook her head. “Not only that. It was just hard to follow.”
“Really?” Salima sounded genuinely surprised. “I thought she did a good job connecting her thoughts.”
“I don’t mean in the storytelling,” Aliyah said. “I mean in the logic behind her actions. I just don’t get the ‘save the woman from her husband’ thinking. If I’d heard something like that about my friend, I think I would’ve just left it alone.”
“You wouldn’t feel obligated to tell her?” Salima asked between bites of celery.
Aliyah creased her forehead in confusion. “What is there to tell? It’s a rumor.”
“But it wasn’t a rumor,” Salima said. “Tina’s friend was friends with the sister Lori’s husband wanted to marry.”
Aliyah chuckled. “That sounds like a game of telephone to me. Too many people in the chain of transmission, and too many possible misinterpretations between each link.”
Salima nodded thoughtfully as she ate another celery stick in silence for some time. “But you don’t think you owe it to your friend to let her know what people are saying about her husband?” she said. “I think I’d feel obligated to tell her something.”
Aliyah shrugged. “I can see feeling inclined to let her know,” she said honestly. “But there are other ways to go about it than creating an uproar in the community when you don’t even know what’s going on.”
“Like telling her directly without talking to anyone else?”
“I don’t think I’d feel comfortable,” Aliyah said thoughtfully. “I’d feel tempted to,” she admitted. “But I don’t think I’d go through with it unless I had a really compelling reason to. I’m just not a fan of participating in the rumor mill. Part of the reason backbiting and gossip are so rampant is that each person feels justified to share what they think they know. It has to stop somewhere. And in Tina’s situation, even if the worst was true, it’s not a sin for the brother to ask about another sister without telling his wife. It’s not like he got married in secret or anything. He was just asking about someone. And anyway, why did Tina assume Lori didn’t know?” Aliyah contorted her face in distaste. “Like I said, there are just too many links in this telephone game, and I don’t want any part of it.”
“But what if you found out your friend’s husband did get married in secret?” Salima said. “Would you still feel comfortable leaving it alone?”
Aliyah smiled in discomfort and shook her head. “I don’t know about that one,” she said honestly. “Because marriage should be announced. So there’s a moral dilemma involved if it’s done secretly.”
“But with Tina’s friend, she preferred not to know until after the fact,” Salima said. “So wouldn’t it ultimately be her husband’s decision when to tell her?”
Aliyah nodded thoughtfully. “I would assume so…” she said, her voice trailing for a moment. “So I guess it’s better left alone. Allah doesn’t ask us to reveal people’s private choices to other people. Marriage should be announced publicly,” she said tentatively, “but it’s not invalid if it’s not. So I think staying out of it is safest for my soul.”
Salima narrowed her eyes in deep thought. “I think you’re right,” she said. “Sticking to what you know Allah asks of you is always the safest route.” She smirked. “But it’s not easy when it’s your friend on the other side.”
Aliyah laughed in agreement. “That’s true. So I guess I don’t know what I’d do unless I’m in the situation.”
Salima nodded emphatically. “That’s true for most things in life. What if’s are so different from what is.”
Friday evening, Jacob sat next to Attorney Bryan Schmidt who sat across from Deanna at the dingy foldout table in a cramped, musty meeting room at the county jail. Deanna’s bail had been denied earlier that day, and because the attorney had been unsuccessful in communicating with Deanna himself, he’d asked Jacob to accompany him to the meeting.
“She’s not speaking much,” Bryan had told Jacob on the phone. “But she signed over power of attorney to you. So she’s apparently thinking things through and wants you to decide how to move forward.”
“Whose idea was it to give me power of attorney?” Jacob had asked. When he’d contacted Bryan to represent Deanna, Jacob had specifically asked Bryan not to tell Deanna that it was he and not her father paying the legal fees. It probably wasn’t the most foolproof plan in protecting Deanna from learning that her father was eagerly working with the prosecution in the case against her. But Jacob had hoped that Bryan would give Deanna the impression that her father was paying for her lawyer and that he was only cooperating with the prosecution because he had been subpoenaed as a witness.
“It was your wife’s idea,” Bryan said, apology in his tone. “She told me last time we met.”
“I thought she wasn’t talking,” Jacob said, a bit uncomfortable with the term wife being used in reference to Deanna. Her ‘iddah period was scheduled to end this week though he probably would never know the exact date. Deanna had more pressing issues to worry about than keeping track of her menstrual cycle. Besides, up until the accident with her mother, Deanna had refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Islamic divorce sans a legal divorce.
“If we follow the laws of the land for marriage,” she’d kept saying, “then we have to follow the laws of the land for divorce, too.” It had been frustrating trying to convince her that even in the case of marriage, a legal marriage was only valid if it met the conditions of an Islamic marriage; thus, the Islamic definition always took precedence. Jacob eventually left the issue alone and focused on taking the steps necessary to file for a legal divorce. But his efforts had been disrupted by the accident.
“She wrote it down,” the attorney clarified. “But she occasionally answers yes or no questions, so I’m not sure we can consider her a selective mute at this stage.”
Then what should we consider her? Jacob thought as he sat at the folding table studying Deanna’s set jaw and her refusal to look in Jacob’s direction. She seemed to be focusing her attention on the wall behind Bryan’s head.
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” Jacob said, trying to keep his voice as cordial as possible. It disturbed him to see his wife dressed in a pale blue uniform and no hijab. But he tried to shift his thoughts to the more pressing issue.
Deanna turned her head slightly, her eyes still not looking in Jacob’s direction. But Jacob thought he detected the tiniest hint of calm on her face at the sound of his greeting. He wanted to ask how she was doing, but he decided against it. She wasn’t talking much, and in any case, what he really wanted to know, she wouldn’t tell him, at least not in the presence of a stranger.
“Dr. Bivens,” the attorney said, prompting both Jacob and Deanna to look toward him. “I’m sorry. I mean Mrs. Bivens,” Bryan said. “I’ve spoken to the prosecution attorney, and they’re willing to negotiate a plea deal that would reduce your time served to five years.”
“If she pleads guilty,” Jacob said in disappointment.
“Yes,” Bryan said apologetically, “if she pleads guilty. But it’s our best option right now. If Mrs. Michaels’s condition takes a turn for the worst, they may change the charge from aggravated assault to second-degree murder, and that could mean a life sentence.”
Jacob shook his head in disbelief. “And if she’s innocent?”
“Mr. Bivens,” the attorney said in as diplomatic a tone as he could manage, “without Mrs. Bivens’s testimony or at least some documented non-incriminating account of the events on that day, the possibility of her innocence is an existential philosophy question. Right now, the prosecution has at least five witnesses, three of them neighbors who overheard the altercation between Mrs. Bivens and Mrs. Michaels, so without a strong defense, pleading innocent to aggravated assault is worse than pleading guilty to second-degree murder.”
“I find that difficult to believe,” Jacob said for Deanna’s benefit.
“I agree. It is difficult to believe,” Bryan said. “But unfortunately, this is how the criminal justice system works. Even if Mrs. Bivens were able and willing to testify in her own defense, I wouldn’t advise it. The nine-one-one call itself is enough evidence to put her away for at least twenty years. We could find some character witnesses, but they are most helpful in cases that weigh heavily on premeditation as opposed to a crime of passion or emotion.”
“What about the insanity plea?” Jacob had planned to posit the question later on the phone because he didn’t want to offend Deanna. But after he learned that she appointed him power of attorney, Jacob felt obligated to discuss his thoughts while she was present. Deanna turned her head away from him until Jacob could see the unkempt ponytail at the back of her head and a profile of her face. He took her reaction to mean that she didn’t like the proposition. “Strategically speaking, I mean,” he added.
The attorney was silent momentarily as he considered what Jacob had said. “It’s possible…” he said doubtfully. “But the plea deal is Mrs. Bivens’s best chance at having a normal life again. With the insanity plea, best-case scenario, she’ll be locked away in a psychiatric facility instead of a prison. And I don’t recommend that.”
“Even with a plea deal?” Jacob said.
“Currently, the plea deal is for aggravated assault,” Bryan said. “I can speak to the prosecutors about a temporary insanity plea if you want.”
Jacob looked toward Deanna, but she was still looking away from him.
“Why don’t I give you two a few minutes?” Bryan said, collecting his papers as he stood. “I’ll be right outside the door if you need me. But I suggest taking the current plea deal. It’s our best option. This isn’t a case you want to argue in court.”
After the door closed, the room fell deafly silent except for a subtle ringing in the pipes buried in the walls. Jacob felt a surge of frustration as Deanna stared off into the distance. How did it come to this? Jacob thought. How did we come to this?
Jacob drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “Deanna, I’m really sorry you’re going through this right now…” He shook his head. “I know you gave me power of attorney, but the truth is, I really don’t know what to advise because I don’t know what happened.”
Deanna rolled her eyes in annoyance until she met Jacob’s gaze briefly, her face contorted in offense. She grunted and looked away, folding her arms firmly over her chest.
O-kay, Jacob thought to himself sarcastically. I guess this means I should just know she’s innocent. Some things never change, he thought to himself in exhaustion.
“Do you want to plead not guilty and fight the charges?” He spoke in the calm, diplomatic tone he often used whenever he was trying to avoid an argument with Deanna.
Deanna’s nose flared in agitation, and she shook her head and folded her arms more stubbornly, as if too disturbed to speak.
“Then I guess we should accept the plea deal…” Jacob let his voice trail in hopes that Deanna would give him some indication as to what she wanted to do.
“No, I—” Deanna said in a grunt, her voice clipped. Her expression revealed frustration that she couldn’t put together an intelligible sentence.
Her voice was so raspy and abrupt that for a fleeting moment Jacob thought someone else was speaking. She sounded like she was choking on her words. It pained Jacob to see her eyes glistening as she shook her head in annoyance. He wasn’t sure if she was losing patience with herself or with him.
“Why don’t you write it down?” Jacob said, opening up his brief case as the idea came to him just then. He withdrew a legal pad and pen and set them on the table before pushing them toward her.
For a few seconds she just sat there staring ahead obstinately.
“I can’t help you if I don’t know what you want,” Jacob said softly. “And I want to help, Deanna. But I need to know what you want me to do.”
Deanna’s chin trembled, and for a moment Jacob thought she would cry. But tears shined in her eyes, refusing to fall. Deanna jerked her body forward so quickly that the table shook. She furiously slapped her hand over the legal pad and pulled it closer then picked up the pen.
Internally, Jacob sighed in relief. This wasn’t ideal, but it was progress. Other than telling Attorney Schmidt in writing that she was giving Jacob power of attorney, she hadn’t said much of anything.
The pen whistled across the pad in angry strokes, and after a few seconds, Deanna slapped the pen down. Jacob had to stand up to pull the pad toward him.
You better NOT marry Aliyah, the sloppy handwriting said.
“Reem, here are the rules,” Aliyah said Saturday morning as she walked alongside Reem toward the tennis courts after taking Ibrahim to the indoor basketball court. Aliyah had rehearsed in her head what she would say, but she was unsure how to put her thoughts into words.
You have no people skills, she heard Deanna’s voice in her head. Though Aliyah hated to admit it, Deanna was probably right. Aliyah had spent most of Friday night stewing about what Larry had said about not calling a man unless she’s prepared to give him what he wants, but when Aliyah woke up this morning for Fajr, she realized that she had absolutely no idea how people came up with their rules of interaction.
In Aliyah’s mind, she’d done everything she could to respect the limits of Allah, but apparently that wasn’t enough. There were extra Muslim social codes to keep in mind. But what are they? she’d racked her brain earlier that morning. “Your uncle should be present whenever you’re talking to a non-mahram man,” a sister had told her once. But my uncle is a non-mahram man, Aliyah had thought to herself in confusion. Benjamin was her uncle by marriage, not by blood. So was the Muslim social code that she should talk to two non-mahram men at the same time?
After nearly giving herself a headache trying to understand Muslim social code, the only conclusion Aliyah could come up with was the one she’d come up with for most everything else. If Aliyah gave credence to the pseudo-religiosity of people like Larry, she’d be homeless and panhandling right then—because working in a “mixed environment” would make her a “tease” to all her male colleagues. So all she could tell herself was, Worry about pleasing Allah, and leave people alone. They don’t even know what they believe half the time.
“You stay out of my life,” Aliyah said, “and I stay out of yours.” As soon as she said it, she realized it had come out all wrong.
Reem’s eyes widened through the slit of her black veil. “Why would you say something like that?”
“I’m not upset,” Aliyah said quickly, hoping to lighten the blow. “I’ve just given this a lot of thought, and I think it’s better for both of us in the long run.”
“I thought we were friends,” Reem said, her voice tight in offense.
“We are,” Aliyah said. “Just not close friends, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean.”
“Look, Reem, I’ve thought a lot about what you said about intercultural marriage, and I realized I should respect your views, even if I don’t understand or agree.”
“Alhamdulillah,” Reem muttered.
“But since I view true friendship as only for the sake of Allah, I—”
“Are you saying I think it’s not for the sake of Allah?”
“—can’t open myself up to being hurt again.”
Reem shook her head as they stopped at an open tennis court. “Now you think I’m trying to hurt you?”
“This is about me, not you,” Aliyah said as she shrugged the tennis racket case from her shoulder then unzipped it. “I’m trying to learn from my bad experiences.”
“Now I’m a bad experience?” Reem said in disbelief.
“Are you even listening to me?” Aliyah said, frustration in her tone. “This isn’t about you. I know you mean well, but that’s not enough. People use the good intentions excuse to do horrible things. And I’m trying to get away from that.”
“What horrible things am I doing?” Reem asked challengingly, folding her arms over her chest. Her tennis racket was still in its case, the strap over her shoulder.
“I didn’t say you were doing horrible things,” Aliyah said as she pulled her tennis racket from its case. “If you were, I would just cut you off.”
“Then what are you trying to say?” Reem’s tone was defensive.
“I’m saying I respect that you and I don’t agree on what an Islamic marriage should look like, so I’ll just leave it alone and try to focus on what we do agree on.”
Reem averted her gaze as she removed the tennis case strap from her shoulder and unzipped it. “I wish I never told you that,” she muttered in frustration.
“You didn’t tell me that,” Aliyah said. “I drew it out of you. It was never really a secret to me. I just thought I could ignore it and focus on our Qur’an classes. But the closer we got, the more it bugged me. I felt like I was opening my heart to you while you were closing yours off. And I didn’t like that.”
“I did open my heart to you.”
“I know you think you did.” Aliyah hoped her words weren’t offensive, but she really wanted Reem to understand her point of view. “And that’s why I still value you as a friend. But what you call opening your heart is really just opening your mind to a new experience so you can earn blessings.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“No, it’s not,” Aliyah said. “It’s a good thing. But it just means that to you, I’ll always be lacking in some way.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Reem yanked the tennis racket from its case and walked toward the edge of the court to set it down.
“Look, Reem,” Aliyah said as she followed her friend, “just like there are things I’ll never understand about your cultural views, there are things you’ll never understand about my spiritual ones.” Reem stopped at the edge of the court and set down her racket case, and Aliyah glanced at the sky tentatively before setting down hers. The clouds had darkened, and it looked like it was about to rain.
“I get the whole preference thing,” Aliyah explained as they walked back to the court. “But what I don’t understand is why your culture doesn’t allow you to see Allah’s plan as bigger than yours.”
At the net, gripping her tennis racket, Reem turned to Aliyah and folded her arms over her chest, her gaze stubborn and off to the side as she waited for Aliyah to finish.
“Normally, I’d consider your perspective racist,” Aliyah said honestly. “But I’m realizing that things aren’t as simple as one hundred percent good or one hundred percent evil. You have your reasons for thinking only Arabs are compatible with your children, so I accept that even in this, Allah knows best. But that doesn’t make me change my opinion of spirituality and friendship. It just makes me change my approach to my friendship with you.”
A soft rumble of thunder filled the brief silence.
“Why are Americans so obsessed with marrying other people?” Reem said, annoyed. “There are plenty of Americans you all can marry.”
Aliyah smirked. “Trust me, Reem, there are plenty of Americans who aren’t the least bit interested in marrying Arabs. And I’m sure there are plenty of Arabs who are open to marrying Americans. So for me, this is about Islam, not an obsession.” Aliyah huffed humorously. “And after talking to you, I think I’ll stick to considering only American men for marriage.”
“Oh, so it’s okay for you to be racist.”
Aliyah shrugged. “That’s one way to look at it. But to me, it’s about avoiding another Matt situation. I don’t want someone to think he’s doing me some kind of favor by marrying me. I’m not the most confident person in the world, but I definitely think I’m worth more than that. I shouldn’t have to prove I’m worth marrying.” She paused thoughtfully. “And I shouldn’t have to prove I’m worth having as a friend.”
Reem shook her head in apparent irritation, but she didn’t say anything.
“You might not understand where I’m coming from,” Aliyah said sincerely, “and I accept that. But what I do need you to understand is that if you can draw the line at who your children can marry, then I can draw the line at who can be a close friend.”
After playing tennis with Reem, Aliyah was grateful that the rain had been only intermittent and light, so their lesson was not disrupted. But Aliyah was pensive as she walked to the indoor basketball court. She wondered if she had done the right thing by telling Reem how she really felt. Reem had told her to be completely open about her feelings, but the conversation had left Aliyah feeling discomfited. Why couldn’t she shake the feeling that she had said the wrong thing?
“Because they’re racist,” Larry had said. “And you’re supposed to feel grateful if they even spend time with you. The minute you see yourself as more than a charity case, they feel insulted.”
Was it possible that Reem felt insulted that Aliyah was not content with being kept at arm’s length?
Aliyah turned at the sound of a female voice and saw Mashael walking briskly to catch up. Aliyah held the door to the gym open until Mashael was at her side. “Wa’alaiku mus salaam,” Aliyah said, forcing a smile. Mashael and Nora had come late to the tennis courts and played separately from Reem and Aliyah.
“I’m sorry about my sister,” Mashael said, breathless, as she and Aliyah stepped inside the gym, the door closing behind them. “She told me about your argument.”
“That was fast,” Aliyah said, lighthearted sarcasm in her tone.
Mashael chuckled. “It doesn’t take long to share something like that,” she said. “Anyway, she and I have been arguing about this for weeks. Reem’s a sweetheart, mashaAllah, but she’s really hardheaded sometimes.”
Aliyah raised her eyebrows. “You’ve been arguing about this?”
“It’s a point of contention between us, to be honest.”
“So you don’t agree with the whole you-can-only-marry-an-Arab rule?” Aliyah hoped her joking tone would be taken as friendly banter and not condescension.
“No, I despise it,” Mashael said, her face pinched in distaste. “My boyfriend’s American, and my family thinks I’ve lost my mind. Some of them are saying I’m not even Muslim anymore.”
The word boyfriend made Aliyah wince, but she told herself that Mashael might not mean the term in the way it was commonly used. Perhaps this was another Muslim social code Aliyah didn’t know anything about. Was it possible that the word boyfriend varied in meaning as much as the word friend? Could Mashael simply mean that she was talking to the American for marriage?
“Is he Muslim?” Aliyah asked, turning her eyes to the basketball court where she saw Ibrahim standing in line to shoot the basketball into the lowered rim.
“No,” Mashael said. “He calls himself a recovering Christian.”
“And you think that’s okay?” Aliyah said, her tone thinly masking her disapproval.
“I’m not convinced it’s wrong,” Mashael said tentatively. “So much of the Qur’an is misinterpreted to favor men, I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Thoughts stormed Aliyah’s mind, but she decided to keep quiet. She didn’t know Mashael well enough to try to correct her beliefs. Aliyah didn’t fully understand what Mashael was trying to say anyway, so how could she correct her? The last thing Aliyah wanted to do was what had been done to her. Everyone deserved to speak for themselves and have their words and behavior interpreted in the best possible light, and no matter how uncomfortable Aliyah felt with Mashael’s words, she wasn’t about to take that right away.
But Aliyah couldn’t help feeling wary of Mashael’s mention of a male-favored interpretation of the Qur’an. It always made Aliyah uncomfortable to hear any reference to a male or female view of Allah’s Words. In Aliyah’s mind, there were only two categories of Qur’anic interpretations, valid and invalid. Gender had nothing to do with it.
“I need your advice on something,” Mashael said suddenly, leaning toward Aliyah with her voice lowered.
“My advice?” Aliyah turned and met Mashael’s gaze, forefinger pointing toward her own chest. Aliyah didn’t mean to sound so shocked, but her response was instinctive. She couldn’t fathom what topic would warrant Mashael imagining Aliyah could be her advisor.
“Yes, yours,” Mashael said, humor in her tone. “You studied Islam right?”
“Yes…” Aliyah said hesitantly. She was uncomfortable with anyone thinking she had “studied Islam” though technically she had. But hadn’t every Muslim? “But I’m not knowledgeable about anything,” Aliyah added for transparency.
Mashael chuckled. “MashaAllah,” she said. “Reem told me you were humble.”
“Um…I’m not sure what Reem told you,” Aliyah said, uncomfortable with the implication that she knew more than she did. “But I’m not being modest. I really don’t know anything.”
“How long have you been taking Islamic classes?” Mashael asked.
“For about ten years…” Aliyah said, realizing how ridiculous she must sound.
“And in all that time,” Mashael said, laughter in her voice, “you learned nothing?”
“I wouldn’t say I learned nothing,” Aliyah said. “But I’m not a scholar or student of knowledge or anything.”
“Don’t worry,” Mashael joked. “I don’t need a fatwa, just another perspective.”
“Well, that’s all I can offer,” Aliyah said in apologetic warning.
“Can I drop by some time?”
“To my apartment?” Aliyah was surprised at Mashael’s preference to speak to her in person. Perhaps all the Arab versus American discussions had made her assume that anyone from Reem’s family would stay far from her unless they wanted to teach her something.
“If you don’t mind…”
“Sure, it’s fine,” Aliyah said noncommittally. “It’s just…” She creased her forehead. “Is everything okay?”
Before Mashael could respond, Ibrahim ran up to Aliyah and greeted her with salaams and a hug.
“I’ll call you, insha’Allah,” Mashael whispered. “As-salaamu’alaikum,” she said as she lifted her hand in a wave and walked away.
“Aunty!” Thawab said, appearing at Aliyah’s side. Aliyah smiled at him and rubbed his head. Her eyes drifted to Younus, who hung a few feet back from his brother. The odd expression she’d seen on Younus’s face a week ago was still there. But this time, she decided to ignore it.
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Younus,” Aliyah said.
“Wa’alaiku mus salaam, Aunty,” he said, a look of uncertainty in his eyes.
Aliyah glanced around at the men and women meeting their children and walking toward the exit. “Younus, where’s your father?”
Younus wrinkled his brow and glanced around. “Uncle Larry is supposed to be here.”
Aliyah was overcome with dread at the mention of Jacob’s brother. “Men don’t like teases,” Larry had said to her. “If you’re not interested in marrying a brother, don’t call him for advice. If you can’t help him with what he needs, don’t expect him to help you with what you need.”
“Who brought you here?” Aliyah asked.
“Uncle Larry,” Younus said.
“Did he say he was going somewhere?”
“He said wait for him right here.”
Aliyah frowned and glanced at her watch. She had hoped to be heading home by now so she could catch up on her preparation for One Plus One and the summer class she was teaching.
“Well, well, well,” a boisterous voice called from the other side of the gym. They all turned at the sound of the voice and saw that Larry had just entered. “Who would’ve guessed?” Larry called out, prompting the other men and women to look at him curiously as he approached.
Aliyah sighed and turned to the boys. “As-salaamu’alaikum, Younus and Thawab,” she said as she took Ibrahim’s hand. “Insha’Allah, we’ll see you later.”
“Wa’alaiku mus salaam, Aunty,” Younus and Thawab replied in unison.
“You’re leaving so soon?” Larry said jokingly, a playful grin on his face.
Aliyah kept her gaze straight ahead as she walked toward the exit, firmly gripping Ibrahim’s hand. Maybe Larry thinks women shouldn’t even look at men they don’t plan to marry, Aliyah thought sarcastically. I don’t want to send the wrong message.
“Now that is just rude,” Larry called out, humor in his tone. “I can’t even get the greetings?”
Aliyah pulled open the exit door and let it close behind her and her son. She exhaled in relief as she passed through the reception area of the athletic complex and headed toward the door leading to the parking lot. As she and Ibrahim walked to her car, she thought of her uncle Benjamin. He and her aunt Valerie had left last night for a weeklong vacation. Right then she wished she could have gone too. She could really use the break, but there was no way she could take off from work. With Jacob gone and her supervisor acting ornery, now wasn’t a good time to take any sick days or leaves of absence.
Aliyah lifted her keychain, pressing the button to unlock the car. She released Ibrahim’s hand and opened the door for him. “Aunty!” she heard a small voice call out as Ibrahim settled into his place in the backseat.
Aliyah turned and found Thawab running toward her. She forced a smile as Thawab stopped breathless in front of her, handing her a rectangular package about the size of a book. “Uncle Larry said give this to you.”
“Thank you, Thawab,” Aliyah said as she took the package from him and deftly tossed it in the backseat next to Ibrahim.
“You’re welcome, Aunty,” Thawab said, still catching his breath. He turned and stood next to Aliyah as Larry and Younus came into view.
Aliyah rolled her eyes in annoyance as Larry approached with a triumphant smirk on his face. “You left so fast I didn’t get to give you your box,” Larry said.
“Well, I have it now,” Aliyah said, giving Larry a tightlipped smile. “So as-salaamu’alaikum, Larry.” She turned, standing at the open door and watching as Ibrahim buckled his seat belt. She then stepped back and closed the door before opening her own.
“Wa’alaiku mus salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh,” Larry said, enunciating every syllable for exaggerated emphasis. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his car keys.
“Here, little man,” Larry said as he tossed the keys to Younus. “You can start the car for us.”
“Thanks, uncle!” Younus said as he caught the ring of keys with both hands, his gaze on the keys as if they were a rare prize. “Come on, Thawab,” Younus said, gesturing to his brother. Thawab followed his brother to Larry’s car, which was parked diagonally across from Aliyah’s.
“I tried to call you before I got back to the gym,” Larry said, his voice lowered. “But your phone was off.”
Aliyah started to respond but realized that she had rushed out the apartment that morning without charging her phone.
“It’s hot,” she said finally as she climbed into her seat and turned on the ignition, her door still open. She reached to her right to adjust the temperature for the air conditioner. “I don’t want to keep Ibrahim waiting,” she said apologetically, raising her voice slightly as she closed the door and the automatic window came down.
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Larry,” she said through the open window, keeping her voice cordial so that Ibrahim wouldn’t sense that anything was amiss.
“I’m sorry,” Larry said, his voice low as a hesitant smile played at one side of his mouth. “Just give me a call when you open the package.”
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Larry,” she said again, her voice slightly louder this time. But she didn’t wait for a reply as she pressed the button for the automatic window and let it seal shut in his face. She put the car in drive and eased forward out of the parking space. For a moment she considered connecting her phone to the car charger. But she decided against it when she realized that Larry would most likely try to call during the drive.
As she exited the parking lot, she sighed, wishing she could visit Benjamin right then. She wanted to vent to her uncle about Larry’s aggravating behavior. But she decided to let it go, at least for now.
Aliyah’s mind drifted to her family as she slowed her car behind a line of vehicles at a stoplight. About a week ago, Aliyah had spoken to her aunt Valerie about the possibility of coming along when she visited her sister (Aliyah’s mother) next time. Valerie had said she thought it was a good idea and that Aliyah’s parents would be happy to see her. But Aliyah wasn’t so sure.
The light turned green, and Aliyah drove in silence as she wrestled with whether or not to accompany her aunt to her mother’s house. Yes, Valerie had a good relationship with the family, but Valerie was Christian; and that made all the difference. Benjamin himself rarely visited Aliyah’s family except for official family events like weddings and family reunions. Aliyah suspected that he was tolerated only because he was married to Valerie and was father to the favored niece and nephew of Aliyah’s parents. Though it was questionable whether or not Benjamin’s children were Christian, Aliyah’s two cousins (as far as the Thomases could tell anyway) were at least not Muslim. And in the Thomas family, that’s all that had come to matter.
Or perhaps Aliyah had it wrong. Maybe there was underlying tension with Benjamin’s children that Aliyah knew nothing about. One was recently married and the other one was still in college, so Aliyah imagined they couldn’t possibly come around much anyway. Was Aliyah just assuming they were still favored by her parents while her cousins were hardly children anymore?
“Mommy, don’t forgot your box,” Ibrahim said from the backseat after Aliyah parked in front of her apartment complex and turned off the car.
Internally, Aliyah groaned as she removed the keys from the ignition. “Thanks, cookie monster,” she said, forcing a smile into the rearview mirror before opening her door and getting out.
For a moment Aliyah considered leaving the box right where it was. She found it deeply offensive that Larry thought that it was inappropriate for her to call him for advice but that it was perfectly fine for him to buy her a gift—after she made it clear that she was not interested in marriage. His sense of male entitlement was grating her nerves.
It seemed that people like Larry made up Islamic rules to suit their own purposes. Would her desire for advice have been “appropriate” if the title imam was inserted before Larry’s name? Were “imams” the only men permitted to advise the opposite sex? And were they the only men whom Muslim women should expect to look out for their wellbeing?
Aliyah watched as Ibrahim unbuckled his seat-belt and climbed out the car. She wondered what type of man her son would become. How would he view women? How would he treat them? Would Ibrahim be one of the magic-wand Muslims, who slapped labels on things and—voila!—right and wrong disappeared, and even Islamic obligations morphed into something else entirely? Would he think like Larry, that a woman shouldn’t call the person she felt was best able to answer her question, but the one whose magic label would protect her from slander and arousing suspicion?
Did Aliyah’s actions—calling the one person she thought could offer sound advice about her work dilemma—justify her being called a “tease”? Aliyah strived hard to stay away from sin and took very seriously the obligation to guard her chastity. After accepting Islam, she’d never committed zina, and outside the accidental handshake, she’d never even touched a non-mahram man. So it cut deep that anyone would accuse of her moral indiscretion.
After a moment’s hesitation, Aliyah reached into the backseat and retrieved the box, her face hot in offense and mortification that she had inadvertently made Larry think she was immodest.
In the apartment, Aliyah plugged in her mobile phone and walked to the kitchen to prepare lunch for Ibrahim, sadness and regret weighing on her. If it had been wrong to call Larry, she wondered, who should she have called? Was it really better to face a dilemma alone than to call someone of the opposite sex? Or was what she thought of as “magic-wand thinking” merely a reflection of proper Islamic guidelines? Was it true that only men with honorary religious labels could offer advice and assistance to non-mahram women?
After Ibrahim had finished eating and had lain down for a nap, Aliyah picked up the box from the front table and opened it. Inside was a small card and the framed Mark Twain quote that she and Larry had seen in a store months ago.
Never argue with a stupid person. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.
She set the framed quote on the front table and lifted the card. The handwritten note said: Forgive me, Aliyah. I have lots of experience being the stupid person, but I don’t want to drag you down with me. I want you to lift me up. And maybe we can lift each other up. Give me a chance. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
His words touched a soft spot in her heart, and for a moment, she considered calling Larry to thank him. She could then tell him, as politely and as straightforward as possible, that she wasn’t ready for a relationship right then. But she stopped herself. If you don’t want to marry him, then don’t call him, she told herself. Not even to tell him you don’t want to marry him. In Aliyah’s mind, it sounded like the stupidest logic. But she accepted that this was how things had to be. She didn’t want to risk having her “thank you” and polite refusal construed as a request for wedding plans—or an invitation for an inappropriate relationship. And she definitely didn’t want Larry thinking she was “playing hard to get.”
“Does every interaction between men and women boil down to sex?” she’d vented to Matt years ago after they attended a lecture where the speaker said that it was inappropriate for a man to “let his wife” record the standard greeting on the home voicemail or answering machine. “Brothers, have some shame!” the lecturer had said. “Do you want men imagining your wife?”
“SubhaanAllah!” Aliyah had exclaimed to Matt in the car. “Who imagines having sex with someone just from hearing her say leave a message after the tone?”
But apparently, Aliyah was in the minority in her belief that it was possible for men and women to interact respectfully without the assumption of sin or the expectation of marriage.
Unless it’s a male colleague during work hours or my uncle Ben, Aliyah told herself with resolve, I’ll never speak to another non-mahram man again, insha’Allah. If an emergency happened and she couldn’t reach her uncle, for the sake of her dignity and saving herself the headache, she was probably better off reaching out to a trusted non-Muslim coworker than a Muslim man. Which meant she’d probably opt for death over asking for help, she thought bitterly. Because no matter how aggravating and confusing Muslim men could be, she didn’t trust non-Muslim men at all.
Aliyah gripped the small card with both hands and hesitated only briefly before ripping it in half. The two torn pieces in hand, Aliyah lifted the Mark Twain frame and walked into the kitchen. At the trashcan, she stepped on the lever to open the lid, and after she released Larry’s gift, there was a soft thud as the frame hit the bottom, the torn pieces falling closely, though more slowly, behind.
Aliyah returned to the front room and unplugged her mobile from the wall charger. She looked at the screen as she walked down the hall toward her room. The voicemail icon was displayed in the corner, indicating that someone had left a message.
“You have three new messages,” the automated voice said as she put the phone on speaker. “First message,” the robotic voice said before giving the time of the call. “As-salaamu’alaikum, Aliyah, this is Mashael,” the message said as Aliyah entered her bedroom and closed the door, still holding the phone. “Can you call me whenever you’re free? I want to get together as soon as possible. Thanks!”
Aliyah pressed a button to delete the message as she made a mental note to call Mashael later that evening or Sunday some time. “Message deleted,” the robotic voice said as Aliyah reached behind her head with her free hand and removed the scarf pin holding her khimaar in place. “Next message,” the robotic voice said as she pulled the now loosened cloth from her head. “So it’s like that?” Larry’s voice said, prompting Aliyah to roll her eyes. “I was just trying to—”
“Message deleted,” the robotic voice said after Aliyah jabbed a finger on the keypad. “Next message,” the voice said. “As-salaamu’alaikum, Aliyah.” Larry sounded more reserved and respectful this time, but Aliyah doubted she had the patience for all this back and forth. Her forefinger pressed the keypad just as she heard, “This is Jacob. I tried to c—”
“Message deleted,” the robotic voice said, sending Aliyah’s heart racing. Jacob? Aliyah thought in confusion. Disoriented, Aliyah jabbed the keypad again. “Message restored,” the robotic voice said.
Aliyah exhaled in relief. She stared at the phone nervously before pressing the keypad to listen to the message. “As-salaamu’alaikum, Aliyah. This is Jacob. I tried calling your uncle Benjamin, but I couldn’t reach him. And a brother told me he’s out of town until next week. But this can’t wait. So if you can, call me back when you get this message. Or I’ll just try back later insha’Allah. Again, I’m sorry for calling you like this. But I need to talk to you about something. As-salaamu’alaikum.”
“Message saved,” the robotic voice said.
Aliyah felt apprehensive anticipation as she pressed the “end call” symbol, her mind swarming with theories of why Jacob had called. Maybe it was about work, she considered. Perhaps Dr. Warren had called Jacob about the concerns she had expressed to Aliyah.
“I tried calling your uncle Benjamin…” Jacob had said.
No, Aliyah concluded. It couldn’t be related to her position at the college. Otherwise, why mention calling her only after he couldn’t reach her uncle?
Unless it’s a male colleague during work hours or my uncle Ben, Aliyah had decided only minutes before, I’ll never speak to another non-mahram man again.
Should she make an exception for Jacob since he was technically a colleague? Or was she merely allowing herself to fall into the same mistake she had with Larry? And the last thing Aliyah wanted was to disrespect Deanna during her most difficult time.
But what if Jacob was calling because he really needed her help for something?
Don’t be silly, Aliyah told herself, drawing on the painful lesson she’d just learned. No man calls a non-mahram woman for anything unless it’s a pretext for having a relationship with her.
Perhaps Aliyah didn’t think of giving advice and helping someone as acceptable only in the context of marriage (or only when the title imam came before a man’s name), but since other Muslims thought of male-female interactions in this way, it was probably better to err on the side of caution lest she send Jacob the wrong message.
But then how would she ever know why he called?
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