Peace of Mind (HOW Story 15)

Now a short MOVIE and bestselling novel!

His Other Wife Short Movie | AVAILABLE ON DEMAND. LIMITED TIME ONLY. from ki creative studios on Vimeo.

It all began with this widely popular short story series:

As we countdown to the  WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short MOVIE on January 27 & 28, 2018, we’re relaunching the 22-part series, one story per day:

Story 15: Peace of Mind

Aliyah woke early Saturday morning with a sense of peace in her heart. “Alhamdu lillaahil-lathee ahyaana ba’da maa amaatanaa wa ilahin-nushoor,” she muttered into the darkness of her room. All praise is for Allah who has given us life after taking it from us, and unto Him is the resurrection.

After reciting the supplication for waking, Aliyah lay beneath the softness of her comforter, her thoughts on her plans for the day. It was an hour before dawn, but she wasn’t inclined to go back to sleep. She had to take Ibrahim to basketball later that morning, and while she waited for him to finish, she would be taking tennis lessons with Reem, Mashael, and Nora.

Aliyah sat up and folded the comforter away from her body as she turned until she was sitting on the edge of her bed.

You are the author of your life story. In the dim light that glowed outside her window, she could make out the wooden frame of the quote that she’d hung on her room wall. It was too dark to see the words, but she knew them by heart. Like many people, she’d often heard the saying throughout her life. And like many people, she’d thought she knew what it meant.

The meaning was deceptively obvious, and like so many basic truths in life, the depth and complexity were often lost in the simplicity. It was like the saying, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” Aliyah had never read Robert Fulghum’s book by that title, but she could imagine what it would say. Or at least what it would convey. It was what she was embracing for the first time, in her thirties. She’d been estranged by her family, suffered an emotionally abusive friendship, and had gotten a divorce. It had taken all of this before the fundamental reality of life sank in.

You are alone on this journey of life, if for no other reason than no one can take your journey except you.

Perhaps she should pen that realization in a journal, she considered. In one of the self-help books she’d read about broken friendships, the author suggested journaling to help with healing from toxic and abusive relationships. Maybe Aliyah should give it a try. She wasn’t much of a writer though she’d occasionally enjoyed writing poetry and personal essays when she was in high school. She wondered if there was a voice tucked away inside her that needed only emotional safety to find release.

A lot of things happened to me when I was a child. And I think it just got too much for me to keep holding inside…

At the reminder of Reem’s words, Aliyah felt a lump in her throat. It was as if the words were being spoken from her own heart.

For a moment Aliyah sat in puzzlement at her emotional reaction. It made no sense for her to feel connected to those words. Nothing traumatic had happened to her when she was a child. There was no dark family secret that lurked in the shadows of her past. The Thomases had always been the good family. They were the ones whom everyone at church and in the neighborhood wanted to emulate. They were the ones parents mentioned when scolding their children. “Do you see the Thomases acting like that, huh?”

“I might be looking at the world from my vantage point,” Reem had said, “but whenever I see someone like Deanna, it reminds me of myself…I wasn’t mean-spirited by nature; at least I don’t think I was. I just felt so pressured to be this perfect Arab girl that I couldn’t take it anymore. My family was constantly comparing Arabs to Americans to show how we were better. Yet no one spoke about all the bad things we did behind closed doors. It was almost like it was our Arab duty to have a double personality. All that mattered was that we upheld our family’s honor and image. It didn’t matter who we were on the inside, or if we were suffering in silence about anything. So in the Arab-Muslim community, I acted like a meek, perfect Muslim girl. But at school, I was crying out for attention. I think I wanted somebody to see through all my rebellion and say, ‘I can tell something’s wrong with you. How can I help?’”

Aliyah stood and walked toward her bedroom door as sadness weighed on her. She had no idea why, but she was fighting back tears when she stepped into the hall and flicked on the light before heading to Ibrahim’s room to check on him.

“You should be grateful you have a mother and father in the home,” her parents would often say whenever Aliyah was upset about something. “Do you know how many people don’t even know their parents?” The shame these words had inspired in Aliyah would make her forget her troubles. Who am I to be upset about anything in my life? she’d say to herself. I have a safe home and food every day. I have a family who love and care for me. I can go to school. I don’t have to worry about stray bullets or bombs falling on my head. None of us are addicted to drugs or alcohol. No one is in prison… “You think you have problems?” her parents would say, berating her or her siblings for complaining about their petty troubles. “You have no idea what a problem is.”

Aliyah carefully turned the handle to Ibrahim’s door and slowly pushed it open until a rectangular glow of light spilled into his room and illuminated part of his face. The love and protectiveness she felt for him at that moment nearly choked her. She couldn’t fathom what she’d do if something ever happened to him.

Show him the love you never got.

The determination came to her so strongly that it was overwhelming. Before closing the door, she whispered to Ibrahim the prophetic supplication for placing children under Allah’s protection. As she walked back to her room, she was reminded of something Jacob had said.

“Guilt and obligation. I swear, those two feelings have been in the driver seat of my life for too long.”

In her bathroom, Aliyah performed wudhoo’ in preparation to pray Qiyaam al-Layl, the voluntary prayer before dawn. As she rubbed the water of ablution on her hands, face, and arms, she realized that she too had been driven by feelings of guilt and obligation. But it wasn’t for the reasons that she’d thought. Though attending Islamic classes had definitely contributed to these feelings, her Islamic teachers were not responsible for making Aliyah believe that her individual needs and desires didn’t matter. Her parents were.

Her relationship with her mother and father hadn’t been built on love and compassion. It had been built on guilt and obligation. That was why it had been so easy for them to ostracize her when she became Muslim. Because Ally as a person with individual needs and desires never existed in the Thomas household. The only things that mattered were the good Thomas image and the Thomases’ responsibility to save the world. Everything in Aliyah’s upbringing had been about her family’s obligation to some greater cause. Feeding the hungry. Helping disadvantaged youth. Being there for those without parents in the home.

You should be grateful you have a mother and father in the home. Even as a child, Aliyah felt the sting of those words. But she had been too young and inexperienced to fully understand and articulate why they hurt so much. But now she understood their underlying message.

You don’t matter.

Face and arms glistening from wudhoo’, Aliyah left the bathroom and walked toward her closet, grieving the thought of any child—or adult—actually believing that their suffering didn’t matter simply because someone else was suffering too.

As Aliyah pulled the prayer garment over her head, she recalled reading a story about how Prophet Muhammad had comforted a boy whose pet bird had died. He even helped the boy bury the bird and offered condolences. Something like that could have never happened in the Thomas home, she reflected.

Who are you to be upset about anything in your life? That was the question her parents would ask if she shed a single tear over her “petty troubles.” Years ago, Aliyah would have interpreted this question as a reminder to be compassionate towards others and grateful for her blessings. But now she understood it as a form of haughtiness. The Thomases were superior to everyone else, so they had an obligation to help everyone else. And if their children displayed even the slightest sign of neediness, they were scolded into guilt and shame. Because the Thomases were not needy. The Thomases helped the needy.

Aliyah unfolded her prayer mat and laid it in the direction of the qiblah. Guilt and obligation. Yes, they had been in the driver’s seat of her life too. Like Jacob had said, these feelings certainly had their place. But without an environment of love and compassion—in which no one’s pain or suffering was trivialized—guilt and obligation were merely tools of control and means to deny someone their rights. Telling a child that she had no right to be upset over her troubles because others had it worse was like a doctor denying a patient treatment for a gunshot wound because in a hospital on the other side of the world, patients had lost limbs after a bomb blast. “Who are you to be upset about a silly hole in your limb,” the doctor might ask, “while others don’t even have all their limbs?” But generous people did not view themselves as above needing generosity themselves, and they didn’t see themselves as having the right to dismiss the legitimacy of another person’s pain.

“What hurts her hurts me.” When Aliyah had first read these oft-repeated words uttered by Prophet Muhammad whenever he sensed even the slightest distress in his daughter Fatimah, Aliyah was overcome with emotion and awe at the Prophet’s compassion. She couldn’t fathom that level of love and concern existing in her childhood home. Aliyah’s father had “greater causes” to tend to than comforting and pampering his daughter. Alfred Thomas, along with his wife, was too busy feeding the hungry, helping the disadvantaged, and being there for those without parents in the home. Meanwhile their own daughter went hungry, became disadvantaged, and learned to survive without her parents. Yes, Aliyah had food to eat, enjoyed an advantaged lifestyle, and saw her parents every day. But emotionally and psychologically, she was starved, disadvantaged, and parentless.

And because Aliyah had been taught that guilt and obligation always superseded love and compassion, she had lived in self-flagellating denial, even going as far as to marry a man she did not love because she had convinced herself that it would fulfill some “greater cause.”

***

Kerri Michaels is in a coma.

Jacob sat on the carpet of the living room and turned his head to the right then the left, signaling the end of Fajr prayer. “As-salaamu’alaikum wa rahmatullaah,” his sons recited in unison, repeating after Jacob as they sat behind him next to each other. “As-salaamu’alaikum wa rahmatullaah.”

Jacob turned his body until he was facing his sons and then recited the dhikr after obligatory prayer, his sons reciting with him. But his mind kept wandering to his mother-in-law who was lying in the hospital right then—and to his soon-to-be former wife who was being held at the county jail, pending an investigation into attempted manslaughter.

Barry Michaels had called Jacob late last night in such an unintelligible rage that Jacob had difficulty making out what his father-in-law was saying. “You people are responsible for this, you know that?” Barry spat through the phone. “So no, I’m not going to pay a single penny for that girl’s bail. When she was in the church, she didn’t have any problems. Everything went downhill when she joined the Muslims. And now my wife has to pay! You better hope she pulls through this, boy. You better hope!”

Though it had perplexed Jacob at the time, after he finally comprehended what his father-in-law was telling him, he felt a trace of peace in his heart. Perhaps hearing the horrible news and listening to Barry blame him for something that had absolutely nothing to do with him helped clarify for Jacob that he had made the right decision by divorcing Deanna. Jacob could no longer bear the laborious responsibility of saving and healing Barry and Kerri Michael’s daughter, at least not in the role as Deanna’s husband. As her Muslim brother and the father of their children, Jacob would always be connected to Deanna. But he could no longer subject himself (and potentially his sons) to daily emotional, psychological, and physical harm. His responsibility first and foremost was to protect his own soul (and the souls of his children), and remaining married to Deanna was pulling him away from his responsibilities as a Muslim and a father. Yes, men were the maintainers and protectors of women, but men could fulfill that role only if they were in a spiritually healthy environment that allowed them to first maintain and protect themselves.

It wasn’t until Jacob woke up that morning about a half hour before Fajr that the gravity of his predicament weighed on him. Before praying Fajr, Jacob stood in Qiyaam al-Layl and supplicated to Allah for Kerri’s recovery and for Deanna’s psychological and spiritual healing. And he also prayed that Allah would help him and his sons during this difficult time.

“Your uncle Larry is going to be taking you to basketball this morning,” Jacob said to Younus and Thawab after they finished reciting the prophetic supplications after Fajr.

“When is Mommy coming home?” Thawab said, his expression pained.

Jacob started to respond, but Younus spoke before he could. “She’s not coming home for a while, okay?” Younus spoke with compassion, his eyes conveying insight and understanding as he looked at his younger brother.

“Why not?” Thawab said.

“She’s really sick and needs to stay with her mother and father for a long time.”

Taken aback by the maturity of his nine-year-old, Jacob creased his forehead in confusion. “She’ll be gone for a while,” Jacob said tentatively. “We’re not sure how long though, little man. So let’s make some cards and pictures for her. What do you think?” Jacob’s eyes met Younus’s briefly, and in that fleeting glance, Jacob saw that Younus was aware of at least part of what was going on.

Thawab shrugged noncommittally. “Okay.”

“You want something to eat?” Jacob offered.

He shrugged again. “Okay.”

“I’ll get you some cereal,” Younus said as he got to his feet. “Come on,” he said, gesturing to Thawab, who stood and followed his brother to the kitchen.

Jacob leaned against the doorway to the kitchen and watched as Younus poured Thawab a bowl of cereal and milk, a reflective smile on Jacob’s face. “But go to sleep after you eat,” Younus said. “You don’t want to be tired when it’s time to go to basketball.”

“So what was that all about?” Jacob teased Younus good-naturedly after they both left the kitchen.

Younus folded his arms over his chest, his expression troubled as he looked down, as if trying to figure out the best way to respond. “Are you and Mommy divorced?”

Jacob drew in a deep breath and exhaled. This was a conversation he had hoped he would never have with his sons, at least not for some time. Deanna’s ‘iddah would be ending in a couple of weeks, and Jacob had decided that during the Islamic waiting period for divorce, he would persuade Deanna to go with him to marriage counseling. However, all of Jacob’s attempts to convince her to accept professional or religious intervention were to no avail. She consistently maintained that she and Jacob were fully capable of solving their marital problems on their own (though she was adamant that Jacob was the only one with a problem).

“Not yet,” Jacob said, deciding that honesty was the best approach with Younus. “But we might be soon.”

Younus nodded. “Can we live with you then?” he said after a thoughtful pause.

Jacob furrowed his brows. “You already live with me, Younus. There’s no need to worry about that.”

“I mean, if we have to choose.”

“You don’t have to choose.”

“Isn’t that what the lawyers make you do?”

“Lawyers?” Jacob said, pulling his back in confusion. “What lawyers?”

“Divorce lawyers.”

Jacob’s eyebrows rose in understanding. “There won’t be any divorce lawyers insha’Allah.”

Younus nodded, but he didn’t look convinced. “I saw Mommy on TV,” he said after a few seconds had passed. “Why is she saying bad things about Aunty Aliyah?”

Jacob was overcome with concern. “What bad things?”

Younus’s arms dropped to his sides as he turned and walked toward the computer in the den. Jacob followed, dreading learning what Deanna had done this time.

***

“I’m telling you folks,” the host of Will’s Truth Hour said as he looked into the camera toward his television audience, “this story has inspired me to change the title of my show from W-T-H to W-T-F.” He shook his head in disbelief, a smirk on his face. There was chuckling from the set.

Will turned to the two guests present as the camera zoomed out. “Remember that ‘crazy Muslim woman’ story from months ago?” The guests nodded knowingly, grins on their faces. “Well, that crazy Muslim woman has just gotten crazier. We’ve just gotten word that she approached Cassie Studios, a photography company, asking the owner to take pictures of her and tell the media, and I quote,” he glanced at his notes before looking up, “‘I’m the hot wife, and she’s the crazy mistress.’”

There was laughter from the set. “But that’s not all,” Will said, humor in his tone. “She specifically requested that the photographer lie to the media. As it turns out, that ‘hot Muslim mistress’ she assaulted, who we’re told goes by the nickname Aliyah, wasn’t her husband’s mistress at all. She was her best friend.”

“Unbelievable,” one of the guests muttered.

“But our crazy marriage guru, Dr. Deanna Janice Bivens,” Will continued, “author of You Can Have Him All To Yourself, wanted everyone to believe that her best friend was the mistress so that Aliyah would look like a crazy woman.”

“That definitely puts a new spin on the blame-the-victim attitude that’s really prevalent today,” the female guest said as her name and the title Feminist Lobbyist appeared across the bottom of the screen. “One thing I speak about in my workshops is that women are often the first to blame the victim. Women put an enormous amount of pressure on other women to live up to sexist standards.”

“What I want to know,” the male guest said as the title Relationship Psychologist appeared beneath his name, “is what provoked the original assault. I mean, if Aliyah was this so-called marriage guru’s best friend, and not her husband’s mistress, then what on earth was she assaulting the woman for?”

“That’s where the story gets really interesting,” Will said, grinning hungrily. “Sources tell us that Dr. Bivens’s husband actually wanted to marry Aliyah when they were in college, and after ten years of marriage, Dr. Bivens was still filled with jealous rage.”

The guests nodded in understanding. “That makes sense,” the feminist lobbyist said. “It’s the part of blame-the-victim mentality that forms the foundation of rape culture. If a man finds a woman attractive, it’s the woman’s fault. So if she is attacked by a jealous woman or raped by a frustrated man, the logic is that she provoked the crime by being attractive.”

“Or in this case,” the relationship psychologist said, “Dr. Bivens may have been insecure due to a bad marriage and shifted blame to the symptom instead of addressing the cause. In my practice, I tell my patients that it’s impossible for someone other than the spouses to create a bad marriage, even if one or both of them are having an affair.”

“Well,” Will said, doubtful humor in his voice, “I don’t know if this is rape culture or a bad marriage, but Cassie Studios has provided us with those ‘hot’ photos from Dr. Bivens’s photo essay. Editors,” he said with contrived seriousness as he looked into the camera, “get ready to display that parental warning because these babies are hot.”

The screen faded to a picture of Deanna wearing a business suit, her hijab pushed back displaying half of her hair, her lips in a pout, shiny with red lipstick. There was a roar of laughter from the set as similar pictures were displayed.

When the camera returned to the discussion desk, the guests were still recovering from laughter. “Crazy hot,” Will added, an amused grin on his face as they transitioned to a commercial break.

***

“I just don’t think that’s the right attitude though,” Reem said as she and Aliyah stood on the sides of the tennis courts holding their rackets, waiting for a court to open Saturday morning. Mashael had called to say that she and Nora wouldn’t be able to make it that day. “What people think does matter. You just can’t let it run your life.”

“But I can’t change how people think,” Aliyah said. “So all I’m saying is I’m no longer expecting anything from friends or imams, and definitely not men. How is that being negative?”

“But you should expect things from people. That’s the purpose of a community.”

“Ideally, I agree with you, Reem,” Aliyah said. “But we’re working from two very different realities. I’m an American convert with no Muslim family, so I don’t really have a community. If I were married, it’d be a different story. Because only married couples are welcomed in our community.”

“Aliyah, come on,” Reem said. “I don’t think our community is that bad. They might post offensive stuff online, but it’s just a bunch of talk. It might be hurtful, but they’re not saying they don’t want you around.”

“Reem,” Aliyah said, a lighthearted grin on her face, “can you step out of teacher mode for just one second? This is not a tafseer class. I know what I’m talking about. For the past ten years, I practically lived in that masjid, so I’m not guessing. If you’re not married, you’re not welcomed. Yes, people tolerate you because they have to. But outside community gatherings like Jumu’ah and Eid prayer, they practically have official rules that divorced women can’t participate.”

Reem laughed. “I don’t believe that.”

Aliyah shrugged, a pleasant expression on her face. “Denial is a luxury that only the privileged can afford.”

Through the wide slit of her black face veil, Reem’s eyes narrowed in hurt and confusion as she looked at Aliyah. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Reem,” Aliyah said, a knowing smile on her face, “all I’m saying is, I live a reality that you can’t understand.”

“Don’t forget I’m part of this community too.”

“You’re active in the community,” Aliyah said. “But you’re not part of it. There’s a difference. You don’t even bring your son or daughter around. I’m not saying you have to, but the fact that you don’t means you have the privilege of another community. I don’t have that privilege.”

“Everyone has options.”

“I didn’t say I don’t have options,” Aliyah said. “This whole conversation started when I said I’m pursuing other options for myself instead of depending on other people. But I’m saying I don’t have the privilege of another community.”

“That’s not true though,” Reem said. “You have the privilege of any community you want to be part of.”

A shadow of a smile lingered on Aliyah’s face. “When the Arabs get together,” she said, “do you invite Americans?”

Reem narrowed her eyes in confusion. “They’re speaking in Arabic. Why would we invite Americans? You wouldn’t even understand what we’re saying.”

“That’s my point,” Aliyah said. “The Arab community is an option only for you, not me. So if I took your advice about being proactive in participating even when I think I’m not welcomed, I wouldn’t even understand the conversation.”

“I meant in this community, not with the Arabs.”

“But why are those two different things, Reem?” Aliyah said challengingly. “If we’re supposed to be a united ummah like you said, then why are Arabs excluded from that?”

“We’re not excluded,” Reem said. “I’m just saying there’s no point in inviting English speakers to Arab social events. It makes no sense.”

“We invite Arabic speakers to American social events,” Aliyah said. “What’s the difference?”

“Everyone is speaking English at your events,” Reem said. “But at our gatherings, we only speak Arabic.”

“I hear people speaking different languages at our events,” Aliyah said. “But even if we did speak only English, don’t you all know English?”

“Most of us do, yes. But our events give us the opportunity to relax and bond with other Arabs without the culture or language barrier.”

“And why can’t Americans also bond with Arabs?”

“You can,” Reem said, “when we come to your events.”

“Look,” Aliyah said, “I don’t have a problem with Arabs having their own events sometimes, because I’m sure if I were in a foreign country, I’d want to bond with people like me too. But my point is that the Arabs are your real community. I don’t have a real community. When most Americans convert to Islam, we have in our minds that all Muslims are our brothers and sisters, and we really expect other Muslims to see us that way.”

“And we do,” Reem said.

“But that’s not true,” Aliyah said. “You keep us at a distance and come around only to earn blessings for teaching Qur’an or Arabic and being kind to us.”

Reem’s eyes conveyed hurt. “I don’t keep you at a distance.”

“I don’t mean you specifically,” Aliyah said. “I’m talking about the culture of how Arabs and other immigrant Muslims deal with Americans.”

“I don’t see you as any different from my Arab friends.”

Aliyah’s eyebrows rose. “I think you do.”

“Aliyah, I’m really hurt that you’d say that,” Reem said. “I love you like my own sister.”

There was a thoughtful pause. “Think about it like this,” Aliyah said. “My son is twenty years old and your daughter is nineteen, and they want to get married. Is that okay?”

Reem’s eyes narrowed in distaste. “No. She’ll have to marry someone who shares her culture and language.”

Aliyah grinned and shook her head. “See? That’s what I mean. Then you do see me as different from your Arab friends. And there’s no way I could ever really be your Muslim sister because I don’t share your culture or language.”

“Marriage has nothing to do with what I’m talking about,” Reem said.

“But it has everything to do with what I’m talking about,” Aliyah said. “A real Muslim community should fulfill all our needs, not just Qur’an, Arabic, and Islamic studies. The community should be where we meet new friends, establish bonds of Muslim sisterhood and brotherhood, and where our children can meet their future spouses. If that’s not even a possibility for us, then it’s not a community. It’s a charity project where we’re sent home at the end of the day.”

“That’s why it’s important for you to be more active in your community,” Reem said. “For us, our parents and family help us get married. Americans can do something similar with each other.”

“And why do you assume that Arabs should marry Arabs and Americans should marry Americans?”

“It’s what makes the most sense,” Reem said. “I know in Islam it’s allowed to marry outside your culture, but it’s not encouraged. It can cause too many problems in your marriage and family.”

“I never heard that it’s not encouraged,” Aliyah said, “but I agree it can be a challenge for everyone involved. But that’s not my point. I mentioned marriage because family is the foundation of a community. And if we just assume that Arabs and Americans should have their own separate families, then there’s no such thing as the Muslim community you keep talking about.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect Arabs and other Muslims to welcome strangers into their families,” Reem said.

“Strangers?” Aliyah said, humor in her tone.

“You know what I mean.”

Aliyah shook her head. “I don’t think I do. You mentioned Arabs and other Muslims as one group and strangers as another. Who are the strangers you’re talking about?”

“Aliyah,” Reem said, annoyance in her voice, “it’s not an obligation for Muslims to intermarry with no care whatsoever for lineage and culture. There’s nothing wrong with preserving your bloodline and traditions.”

“Preserving your bloodline and traditions?” Aliyah said in disbelief. “I thought Muslims married based on personal preference and spiritual compatibility. So I don’t see how lineage and culture should even be mentioned in the context of marriage.”

“That’s why it’s not a good idea for Muslims to intermarry,” Reem said. “Understanding the importance of bloodline and family tradition is common knowledge in Muslim cultures. When they begin to intermarry, these things are lost because others don’t respect our traditions.”

“And they pollute the bloodline,” Aliyah added, sarcastic humor in her tone.

Reem sighed. “Let’s not talk about this anymore. It’s not something I think you can understand.”

“That,” Aliyah said, nodding emphatically, “I agree with completely. I view my Muslim brothers and sisters as a single group regardless of what country they’re from. And from what I read, that’s what the Sunnah tells us to do. So unless it’s based on someone’s personal preference and not a family or cultural rule, the idea of preserving bloodlines and cultures is not something I have the capacity to understand.”

“I think they’re finished,” Reem said, emotion gone from her voice. She gestured toward a court where the man and woman were gathering their tennis balls in preparation to leave. “We should go before someone else comes.”

Aliyah nodded and followed Reem to the court, but her mind was still on the troubling conversation they’d just had.

***

As-salaamu’alaikum, stranger.”

Aliyah had just finished playing tennis with Reem and was standing on the sidelines of the basketball court waiting for Ibrahim’s group to the finish their last round of drills. She turned at the sound of a familiar voice.

“Why do you look so shocked?” Larry said teasingly, a playful grin on his face. “I still exist.”

An amused grin formed at Aliyah’s lips as she shook her head and turned her attention back to the court. “Wow.”

“Can I at least get the salaams?”

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam wa rahmatullaah,” she said with measured deliberation. “Stranger.”

“Man,” Larry said, laughter in his voice, “a brother can’t catch a break these days.”

“A brother?” Aliyah repeated, playful disbelief in her voice. “You’re the one who went AWOL on me.”

“M-I-A, maybe,” Larry said in lighthearted in apology. “But not AWOL.”

Aliyah shrugged, a shadow of a smile on her face. “Same difference. Either way, you have a lot of explaining to do.”

“Okay,” Larry said as if in confession. “I messed up. I hope you can forgive me.”

Aliyah was immediately reminded of Nikki saying something similar. Her smile faded at the thought.

“What?” Larry said, confusion in his voice. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No.” Aliyah shook her head. “It’s just that I seem to be hearing that a lot lately.”

“Hearing what?”

I messed up,” she repeated. “I hope you can forgive me.”

There was a thoughtful pause. “I take it you’re talking about that social media madness from a few months back,” Larry said.

Aliyah coughed laughter. “No, I haven’t received any apologies for that.”

“You’re serious?” Larry sounded genuinely surprised.

“Dead,” Aliyah said.

Larry exhaled in a single breath. “Wow.”

“You can say that again.”

Nobody apologized?”

“Well, one, if you count Jacob,” Aliyah said with a shrug. “But he wasn’t even responsible for what happened.”

An awkward silence followed.

“Have you spoken to Deanna or anybody?”

Something in the way Larry asked the question made Aliyah’s heart stop. “What happened?” she said, her eyes wide in panic as she looked at Larry. He was probably here for Younus and Thawab, she realized. “Is Jacob okay?”

Larry averted his gaze. “Insha’Allah.”

“What do you mean, ‘Insha’Allah’?” Aliyah didn’t mean to sound as if she were scolding Larry, but saying insha’Allah wasn’t telling her anything.

“I mean insha’Allah,” Larry said firmly, a trace of annoyance in his voice. “You know who he’s married to.”

“Larry,” Aliyah said, her voice a demanding plea, “tell me what happened.”

Larry shrugged. “I don’t know really. But it looks like Deanna and her mother had a fight or something.”

Aliyah drew her eyebrows together and shook her head in confusion. “So…” she said, unsure how to form the question in her mind.

“So Jacob’s mother-in-law is lying unconscious in some hospital.”

What?”

“It doesn’t look good, Aliyah,” Larry said, his voice subdued. “Deanna is being held at the county jail. Her bail hearing is scheduled for next week.”

Aliyah felt lightheaded all of a sudden. There had to be some misunderstanding. “I mean, she couldn’t have…you know?”

Larry pursed his lips and shook his head as if to say he didn’t know any more than he’d shared.

“But that’s so…” Aliyah’s face was contorted in confusion. “Are you sure there isn’t some mistake?”

“I’m sure.”

“But Deanna practically adored her fam—”

As-salaamu’alaikum, Aunty.”

At the sight of Younus and Thawab, Aliyah quickly closed her mouth and forced a smile. Before she replied to the boys’ salaams, Ibrahim appeared at her side.

As-salaamu’aliakum, Mommy!” Ibrahim said, breathless. “I made a lot of shots today. The coach said I’m really good.”

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam, Younus, Thawab, and my cookie monster,” Aliyah said playfully. “I bet he did,” she said to Ibrahim. “Because you are really good, mashaAllah.”

Aliyah placed her hand on Ibrahim’s back as he hugged her, and her eyes met those of Younus, who was looking at her with an odd expression on his face. The look in his eyes made her uncomfortable, and she was tempted to ask what was bothering him. But she forced a smile instead, imagining that he probably knew about his mother. In response, Younus made a poor attempt at a pleasant expression, his lips forming a thin line before turning his attention to his uncle.

“Will Daddy be back soon?” Younus asked.

“I’m not sure when he’ll be back,” Larry said. “But why don’t we go get some ice cream?”

“Ice cream!” Thawab said cheerfully. “I want some.”

“Oooh,” Ibrahim said. “Can we get ice cream too?”

Aliyah’s eyebrows rose in apology, and she started to shake her head.

“Why don’t you two join us?” Larry said before she could refuse. “It’ll be my treat.”

“Yes!” Ibrahim said.

“Larry, I don’t know…” Exhaustion was in Aliyah’s voice as she spoke. She wasn’t in the mood to hang out with Larry. She was still trying to wrap her mind around what he’d just shared.

“Can Ibrahim come with us then?” Younus said, folding his arms over his chest. He still had that odd look in his eyes as he looked at Aliyah.

Aliyah opened her mouth to refuse, but Ibrahim interrupted her.

“Mommy, please,” he said, his face twisted in a pout. “I never see Younus and Thawab anymore.”

The truth of his words stung, and she felt horrible. It had been months since Ibrahim spent time with his friends. “Okay, but I need to—”

“Yes!” The boys sang out the word all together, making Aliyah laugh midsentence.

“—go home and take a shower first,” she finished. “And so do you.”

“I’ll pick up you and Ibrahim in an hour then, insha’Allah,” Larry said.

Still smiling, Aliyah nodded. “Okay, insha’Allah.”

***

She’ll have to marry someone who shares her culture and language.

Reem cringed at the memory. How could I say something like that? she scolded herself, her gloved hands gripping the steering wheel as she drove home. Though it was how she honestly felt about the idea of her daughter marrying an American, it was incredibly rude. She shouldn’t have said that to Aliyah. Perhaps Reem herself was being defensive. She had been offended by what Aliyah was saying about Arabs.

But Reem couldn’t deny that Aliyah was right. It was true that Reem was not fully invested in the non-Arab community, and she did come around only to teach Qur’an and tafseer and to earn blessings for being kind to Americans. But Reem genuinely liked Aliyah. So what did it matter whether or not Reem would want Aliyah’s son to marry her daughter? Why did everything boil down to marriage? Was that really the measuring stick of sisterhood and brotherhood in Islam? Certainly, love for the sake of Allah was not limited to who could marry whom.

Denial is a luxury that only the privileged can afford.

Reem was really hurt by Aliyah’s comment about privilege. All wasn’t well in Reem’s life, and all certainly was not well in the Arab community. Yes, Reem and Sayed preferred that Hana and Muhammad socialize with only family and other Arabs, but that didn’t mean they were privileged. It was definitely a blessing to be part of two different communities and to not have to worry about whom their daughter and son would marry, but life was so much more complicated than that.

As Reem exited the interstate toward home, she was filled with dread as her thoughts shifted to the dinner party that her family was hosting that night. Her father’s eldest son was visiting from Saudi Arabia with his wife and children, and they would be staying for three weeks. Reem loathed the idea of seeing Fahad sitting in her mother’s living room relaxing and eating as if his presence were the most natural thing in the world.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sayed had told her early that morning. “I’ll make sure Hana and Muhammad aren’t around him too much.”

Her husband’s words had eased some of her anxiety, but not all. What if Fahad’s teenage sons had turned out like their father had been at their age?

***

“Exactly!” Aliyah said, laughing in agreement as she and Larry sat across from each other at a table in the mall. Their bodies were turned toward the play area where Ibrahim, Younus, and Thawab were maneuvering bumper cars and ramming into each other at every opportunity. They had finished eating their ice cream thirty minutes before. “If there’s not even a chance of our children marrying each other,” Aliyah said, “then that’s not a real friendship.”

She had shared with Larry the conversation she’d had with Reem, but she didn’t tell him that it was Reem who’d made the comments. To avoid backbiting, Aliyah had said that she had run into an old Arab friend from the masjid.

“They certainly keep us at a distance,” Larry said, a smirk on his face as he shook his head.

“I really like the sister,” Aliyah said reflectively. “But her comments about intercultural marriage really annoyed me. I don’t see how they don’t see that at divisive to say their children can only marry someone from their country.”

“Because they’re racist,” Larry 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.”

Aliyah was silent, uncomfortable with the offensive terminology in connection to her Qur’an teacher. “I don’t think I’d call them racist,” she said. “Because they do have a point.”

Larry looked at Aliyah, eyebrows raised. “You’re serious?”

“I don’t agree with it,” Aliyah clarified. “But you can’t deny that there is some value to having your children only marry into families you already know.”

“And your Arab friend doesn’t already know you and Ibrahim?” Larry said skeptically.

“That’s a good point,” Aliyah said, chuckling self-consciously. “I guess I don’t think of myself as being someone she really knows, if you know what I mean.”

Larry narrowed his eyes in curiosity. “So you think you have to be from the same culture to really know someone?”

“No,” Aliyah said tentatively. “But if someone thinks that no one should be in their family except people from their culture, then that thinking prevents them from ever really getting to know me. Because there’s always this barrier and air of superiority that clouds everything.”

“You think your friend feels superior to you?”

“Yes,” Aliyah said honestly, frowning briefly. “But it’s not intentional, so I don’t blame her for it. It just makes conversations hard because she’s always trying to teach me something instead of just taking a moment to actually listen to what I’m saying. It’s like she feels obligated to make me see the world differently, but she almost never considers that she can benefit from seeing the world differently too.”

“Did something happen to make her treat you like that, or is she like that in general?”

Aliyah furrowed her brows as she considered the question. “I don’t know. But we did become close around the time I was getting divorced, so maybe she felt sorry for me and wanted to help.”

“That happens a lot to introspective people,” Larry said. “Especially if you tend to keep to yourself. Other people hide their pain through being talkative, sociable, and outgoing. They’re so good at masking pain that they even hide it from themselves. But it’s hard for people like you to wear a mask when you’re hurting. So people feel sorry for you and think they need to save you.”

Aliyah wrinkled her nose. “Maybe that’s what Deanna thought she was doing.”

Larry nodded thoughtfully. “I think the jury is still out on Deanna. But my hunch is that she was jealous of you and resented you for it.”

Aliyah coughed laughter. “Deanna was always saying I was jealous of her.”

“She was just projecting,” Larry said. “Narcissistic people have a hard time processing negative feelings unless they’re about other people. So anytime they feel something negative in connection to another person, they think it’s because of that other person instead of themselves.”

Aliyah creased her forehead. “You think Deanna is narcissistic?”

A disbelieving grin formed on Larry’s face. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? That woman has some serious issues.” He huffed. “I count it as a blessing that my brother will probably be finally free of her.”

Aliyah contorted her face. “Don’t say that.”

“Why not?” Larry said. “It’s the truth.”

“There’s nothing good about Deanna spending the rest of her life in prison,” Aliyah said, frowning in disapproval. “What if her mother dies, Larry? Would you count that as a blessing too?”

“Of course not,” Larry said. “It’s terrible what happened to Mrs. Michaels, and I really pray she pulls through. I’m just saying there’s a silver lining here, and that’s my brother finally being able to move on with his life.”

Aliyah gritted her teeth in annoyance, her gaze on the boys bumping their cars into each other.

“I swear,” Larry said, “when I picked up my nephews this morning, Jacob looked like he was finally starting to have some peace of mind.”

“Did he say that?” Aliyah asked challengingly. “Because I have a hard time thinking he’s at peace with his wife in jail and his mother-in-law on her deathbed.”

“Of course not,” Larry said. “I’m talking about how he looked, not what he said.”

“Maybe you were doing a bit of projecting yourself,” Aliyah said flippantly.

Larry laughed and nodded. “Maybe I was.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “But I’m not going to apologize for being happy for my brother. Before he married Deanna, Jacob was vibrant, charismatic, and inspirational. I used to look up to him. But after he married Deanna, it was like a part of him died and I’d only get glimpses of who he used to be. And this morning I saw a glimpse of the brother I remember.” A reflective grin lingered on Larry’s face. “Call me insensitive or cruel or whatever, but I’m happy there’s a chance I’ll have my brother back.”

Next: Story 16 of 22 (released daily as countdown to WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short movie).

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