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“Sooo,” the girl with hazel eyes said, “is your mom forcing you to hang out with me too?”
The girl yanked off her small white one-piece khimaar and tossed the head cover onto Maryam’s desk. She mussed her dark hair that was trimmed to her earlobes, where gold-loop earrings dangled, and plopped onto the edge of Maryam’s bed. The girl wrinkled her nose, making Maryam self-conscious of her own plain dark eyes and limp hair that she always wore in a single braid though Maryam had no idea what was disgusting the girl.
“Dummy!” The girl stared at Maryam with exaggerated widened eyes. “I’m talking to you.”
Maryam drew in a deep breath from where she stood next to her closet, arms folded across her chest. She exhaled as she got up the nerve to take a few steps toward the bed. Her lips spread into a strained smile as she extended her hand to the girl.
The girl surprised Maryam by smiling in kind—unrestrained.
“I’m Samira.” The girl shook Maryam’s hand so effusively that Maryam’s body jerked with the motion. The girl withdrew her hand to glance around at the walls of the bedroom.
“How can you live like this?” Samira said, wrinkling her nose again. “If I don’t see Justin Bieber looking back at me, I get depressed.”
Maryam turned and walked over to her desk, where she picked up the white cloth that Samira had deposited there, and she folded it carefully before laying the hijab neatly on the dresser.
“We don’t hang pictures.” Maryam slid into her desk chair and forced a smile that she knew would allow Samira to catch the sarcasm in her words.
Samira rolled her eyes. “Oh my God. Fundamentalists. I should’ve known my mom wouldn’t let me hang around normal Muslims.”
Maryam’s cheeks colored. But she wasn’t going to let this girl get the better of her. “Normal Muslims don’t hang pictures.”
“Oh I’m sorry.” Samira raised her hands as if surrender. “I meant I should’ve known my mom wouldn’t let me hang around abnormal Muslims like me.”
Maryam sighed aloud, realizing Islam wasn’t a safe subject if they were going to get along. “Do you have any hobbies or anything?” Maryam said. “Like drawing or painting or cooking?”
Samira brought her eyebrows together as a smirk formed on her face. “So it’s okay to draw pictures, but it’s not okay to—”
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” a voice called out in a song-like tone as the room door opened.
Maryam’s face brightened and she nearly leaped from the chair and embraced her friend with a warm hug.
“Wooooe,” Latifah said, laughing as she pulled away from Maryam. “What was that for?”
Maryam’s face grew hot in embarrassment, ashamed that her relief at seeing a familiar face was so obvious. “I’m just happy to see you.”
Latifah wrinkled her forehead, smirking. “Well, I’m happy to see you too.” She chuckled. “But we just saw each other yesterday, remember?”
Maryam laughed self-consciously. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“You must be Samira.” Latifah walked over to where Samira was sitting and reached out a hand. “I’m Latifah.”
“Cool,” Samira said, shaking Latifah’s hand as she stared at Latifah in awe. “Like Queen Latifah?”
Latifah grinned as she lifted her head slightly to unfasten the safety pin under her chin. The maroon cloth around her head immediately loosened until the smooth brown of her throat was exposed. She pulled the khimaar from her head and folded it, revealing rows of thin braids flat against her scalp and fading into a mass of small plaits at the back.
“Yeah,” Latifah said, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, “like Queen Latifah.”
Latifah placed her folded hijab on top of Samira’s and sat down on the bed next to Samira, still smiling in amusement as she looked at the new acquaintance.
“So you’re from Saudi Arabia?” Latifah asked.
Samira wrinkled her nose. “No way. Who told you that?”
Latifah shrugged. “My mom.”
Maryam slid back into her desk chair, her discomfort loosening a bit. “My mom told me the same thing,” she said, her voice awkward in an attempt to be polite.
Maryam’s mother had said that an old friend of hers who lived in Saudi Arabia was recently divorced and had moved back to the Washington, D.C.-Maryland area a month ago with her daughter.
Samira averted her gaze momentarily, and Maryam sensed Samira was uncomfortable with the topic. “I don’t know where they got that from,” Samira said. “We lived there, but I’m not from there.”
“Well, I’m from Pakistan,” Maryam said, smiling.
“And I’m from New York,” Latifah said.
“I’m Desi too,” Samira said, appearing to relax somewhat. She smiled.
Latifah looked confused momentarily, but she maintained her pleasant expression as she shook her head. “Well, I’m not Desi. My parents are just regular Americans, but Maryam’s—”
“Are you kidding?” Samira rolled her eyes and laughed heartily. “It’s obvious you’re not Desi. I was talking to Maryam.”
Latifah laughed at the mix-up. “Good. I was about to say…”
Maryam smiled, a bit uncomfortable with the attention. “So have you ever lived there?”
“Where?” Samira asked.
“No, have you?”
“So you lived in America all your life?” Samira’s eyes glistened in admiration.
“Yeah. My parents moved to America before I was born.”
“Well,” Latifah said, chuckling, “I think it’s cool that you lived in Saudi Arabia.”
Samira shrugged, an uncomfortable expression on her face. “Saudi was okay. But I was born in Rockville, Maryland.”
“How long were you in Saudi Arabia?” Latifah asked.
“Since I was seven.”
“How old are you now?” Maryam looked at Samira, intense interest in her eyes.
Maryam smiled. “Same.”
“Are you fourteen too?” Samira’s eyes widened slightly as she turned to Latifah.
“Almost,” Latifah said, smiling. “I turn fourteen in September.”
“Yeah, that is cool,” Latifah said. But Maryam sensed her friend was just trying to be polite.
“Who’s your favorite singer?” Samira’s eyes twinkled eagerly as she looked at Latifah.
Latifah appeared taken aback by the question, but she chuckled. “Zain Bhikha.”
Samira furrowed her brows as her smile faded slightly. “Who?”
“Zain Bhikha.” Latifah spoke if he was the most famous singer in the world. “You never heard of him?”
“No…” Samira looked slightly embarrassed. “Is he new?”
Latifah shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. He’s been around a while.”
Samira was quiet, as if unsure how to respond.
“Who’s your favorite singer?” Latifah asked, looking at Samira.
Maryam cringed, remembering Samira’s Justin Bieber remark before Latifah arrived. She dreaded what Samira would say.
“Alicia Keys,” Samira said.
The room grew quiet momentarily as Latifah studied Samira, a curious smile lingering on her face.
“I thought you liked Justin Bieber,” Maryam said.
Samira shrugged. “I do. But he’s not my favorite.”
Latifah turned to Maryam, her expression a storm of question marks.
Maryam waved her hand dismissively and chuckled as she met Latifah’s gaze. “We were discussing him when you came in.”
“Not like that!” Maryam laughed.
Latifah sighed and shook her head, amused. “I was about to say…”
“Don’t tell me you’re a fundamentalist too.” Samira groaned, rolling her eyes.
Latifah blinked repeatedly. She wore a puzzled expression as she looked at Samira. She forced laughter. “What?”
“Maryam said that Muslims can’t have pictures.”
Latifah drew her eyebrows together as she looked at Maryam. “You did?”
“I said they don’t hang pictures.”
“Same thing,” Samira said.
“It’s not the same thing.” Maryam felt herself growing annoyed.
“Whatever,” Latifah said, waving her hand. “It doesn’t matter.”
An awkward silence followed as no one knew what to say.
“You want to hear my favorite Zain Bhikha album?” Latifah asked, grinning at Samira.
Samira’s expression softened and she smiled. “Yeah, sure.”
“All I’m saying, Basma, is I don’t like the idea of our daughter playing babysitter for your friends.”
It was almost midnight and Faris stood in the doorway to the kitchen with his arms crossed over his chest. The guests had gone home an hour before and his wife stood next to the trash can scraping chicken bones and remnants of rice from glass plates.
“Maryam’s not playing babysitter, Faris. We’re helping a Muslim sister do what we’re all trying to do. That’s all.”
“Raise her daughter for her?” Faris huffed. “Parents usually raise their children, Basma. They don’t ask little girls to help them out.”
“Remember when Maryam was ten, and you asked me to enroll her in the weekend school so she could have Muslim friends?”
Faris sighed, his impatience thinly veiled in that sound. “That’s not the same thing.”
“It is the same thing.” Basma walked over to the sink and set the plate on top of the others, her hair a thick braid securely at her back. “Joanne wants for her daughter what we want for ours.”
Faris was silent as he ran his fingers through his beard.
“I believe that,” he said. “I’m just not so sure an American divorcee has any idea what this will mean for us.”
Basma’s jaw stiffened, a shadow darkening her pale olive skin. “Don’t be a bigot, for God’s sake. Most American converts are better Muslims than people like us.”
Faris groaned and shook his head. “You know what I believe about that. It’s hogwash. They have no idea what Islam really is. You see most of them going from group to group, masjid to masjid, searching for so-called ‘true Islam.’ They dress like Arabs, think it’s the Sunnah and—”
“Faris, please. Stop it.” Basma unbuttoned the cuffs of her blouse then rolled up her sleeves before dipping her hands into the dishwater to begin cleaning the plates. “Anyway, the girl’s father is from Pakistan.”
“As you said a million times.”
“Yes, because I knew that was the only way you’d let her in our home.”
“The Bilals were just here tonight, in case you forgot.”
Basma drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “Let’s not go there,” she said. “Because I remember quite distinctly what you thought of them when they were just ‘Black Muslims’ to you.”
“So I guess since I’m not comfortable with Joanne, I’m racist against White Muslims now?”
“Faris,” Basma said quietly, glancing at her husband over her shoulder as she lifted a plate from the dish water, “I didn’t use that word, and neither should you.”
“But that’s what it boils down to, me being racist. Or a bigot, as you like to say.”
“I say don’t be a bigot, Faris. I didn’t say you are one.”
“Well, if being leery of having Americans in my house makes me a bigot, then that’s a good thing.”
“Faris, we’re Muslim.”
“And? Does being Muslim mean we shut our eyes and accept this ‘everything goes’ culture like most American Muslims do?”
“Look who’s talking. Some of our own family don’t even pray or cover. And they have mixed parties, with wine and music and everything else.”
“That’s because they’re Americanized.”
Basma turned away from the sink, her eyes widened. “Tell me you’re joking, Faris. That didn’t come from America. They do things like that in Pakistan too.”
“Yes, I know. Because they love America.”
Basma grunted and rolled her eyes. She turned back to the sink, shaking her head as she resumed washing dishes.
They were silent for some time.
“Look, Basma. I’m sorry.” Faris sighed. “I know you’re trying to do the right thing. I just don’t want this girl corrupting our daughter. Joanne’s family is not Muslim.” A concerned expression contorted his face. “And I don’t want Maryam around anyone like that. It would be different if Joanne’s family lived a different city, but they’re practically down the street.”
Basma was quiet for several seconds. “Maryam was in public school up until last year, Faris. I think it’s a little late to worry about things like that.”
“But she’s not friends with non-Muslims, Basma. She’s still innocent.”
Basma drew in a deep breath and sighed. “Well, if you want me to tell Joanne that Samira can’t come over anymore, I will.”
Faris didn’t respond immediately.
“But I don’t agree with it,” Basma said. “I highly doubt Samira’s going to bring her Christian cousins over when she visits.”
“It’s okay,” Faris said after some time. His voice was quieter, more thoughtful. “We can help them out. I’m sorry. I just don’t want anything to happen to our daughter.”
Basma turned to her husband, but his hands were deep in the pockets of his pants, his gaze on something beyond her. “Don’t worry about that, Faris. She’ll be fine, inshaaAllah. I’m sure about that.”
Faris looked at his wife then. “What makes you so sure?”
She smiled. “Because I pray for Maryam every day. And Allah answers the prayer of the parent.”
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