Reality Check (HOW Story 13)

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Story 13Reality Check

“Well, if you do accept his proposal, just know—”

“There is no proposal,” Aliyah said irritably as she looked out the passenger window of Reem’s car, her elbow propped on the seal.

“—that you won’t be getting much community support,” Reem finished.

“That’s shocking,” Aliyah said sarcastically. “You know, given the outpouring of support I received after my divorce.”

The sound of snickering prompted Aliyah to turn her head, and she saw Reem’s eyes narrowed humorously through the wide slit of her black face veil. A confused grin formed on one side of Aliyah’s mouth. “What’s so funny?”

“You,” Reem said, nodding her head in Aliyah’s direction. “Your sarcasm is killing me.”

Aliyah shrugged, a grin still on her face. “A bitter sense of humor is therapeutic, believe it or not.”

“Oh, trust me, I believe it,” Reem said. “It’s just funny, that’s all.”

“Well,” Aliyah said, “I’m glad I make someone smile.”

Reem was silent momentarily. “Don’t say that,” she said.

“I didn’t mean it as self-pity,” Aliyah said. “I’m really glad I have that effect on at least one person in the world.”

“You make a lot of people smile.”

“Now it’s my turn to laugh.”

“Why do you beat yourself up like that?” Reem said, concern in her tone as she glanced at Aliyah before turning her attention back to the road.

“I don’t beat myself up,” Aliyah said. “I’m just realistic.”

“That’s not realistic,” Reem said. “It’s cynical.”

“Two sides of the same coin,” Aliyah said, humor in her tone.

“I’m serious. You can’t keep seeing the glass as half empty every time you think of yourself.”

Aliyah shrugged. “I just haven’t been feeling very optimistic lately.”

“That’s understandable. You’ve been through a lot,” Reem said reflectively. “I don’t know how you stay so strong, mashaAllah, barakAllahufeek.”

“Strong?” Aliyah repeated, humored disbelief in her tone.

“Yes,” Reem said firmly. “But everyone has a limit, and I think you’re reaching yours.”

Aliyah glanced out the passenger window again. Is it that obvious? she thought sadly.

“That’s why you need to know what you’re up against if you accept Jacob’s pro—, I mean,” Reem corrected, “if you ever marry Jacob.”

“Like I said, there’s no offer of marriage,” Aliyah said, still looking out the window. “But if something like that did ever happen, don’t worry, I’m aware of how Muslims treat their brothers and sisters who choose something they wouldn’t.” She snorted. “I got a crash course from Deanna.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“What?” Aliyah said, eyebrows furrowed as she turned to Reem. “That my best friend was stabbing me in the back for over ten years?”

“No.” Reem shook her head. “That you have no support system if you get married.”

Aliyah shrugged. “I never really thought about it, to be honest. I’m so used to hearing Muslims bash polygamy, I kind of drown it out. I wouldn’t dream of them supporting me if I were in it.” She grunted laughter. “I’d count it as a miracle if they touched my feet and shoulders when I lined up next to them in Salaah.”

Reem chuckled. “Seriously?”

“Maybe not the prayer part,” Aliyah said, a trace of humor in her voice. “But I wouldn’t expect their support. At this point, I’m not sure I’d want it.”

“Why not?” Reem sounded genuinely surprised.

Aliyah sighed, her eyes growing distant momentarily. “It’s nice to have support, of course. But it’s exhausting expecting good from people. It’s so much easier to only expect good from Allah.”

“But Allah created us as an ummah for a reason. We need each other. That’s part of the good He’s given us on earth.”

“But I can’t create an ummah by myself, Reem. If Muslims are going to ostracize me because my marriage looks different from theirs, what can I do about it? The way I see it, those aren’t people I want in my life anyway. What if I start thinking like them? I don’t want to view right and wrong through the lens of my personal insecurities. Allah can give His blessings to whomever He wants, however He wants, and I don’t have a say in that, especially in someone else’s life.”

Astaghfirullah,” Reem said, her tone regretful. “May Allah forgive us. We’re so arrogant and ungrateful.”

“That, we are,” Aliyah said pensively. “So, nope, I’m not expecting support from anyone for anything I do. After my family disowned me when I became Muslim, Deanna was the closest thing to a family I had.” She rolled her eyes. “And you saw what happened with that.”

“Your family disowned you?” Reem’s voice was high-pitched in shock, her wide eyes going from the road to Aliyah then back to the road.

Oh. Aliyah had forgotten that she hadn’t shared that information with her Qur’an teacher. “Yes, unfortunately,” she said, surprised by the calmness of her voice. “They won’t accept my calls, they won’t let me visit, and they returned all the mail I sent them.”

Laa hawla wa laa quwwata illaa billaah,” Reem uttered in dismay. There is no movement or power except with God.

“Don’t sound so shocked,” Aliyah said, embarrassed laughter in her voice. “I’m used to it. Life goes on.”

Laa ilaaha illaAllah,” Reem said, still in shock. “How can you survive without your family?”

Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “I don’t have a choice, that’s how.”

SubhaanAllah,” Reem said as she guided the car into the parking lot outside the athletic complex. “I can’t imagine how strong you have to be to deal with that. May Allah reward you with the highest level of Paradise.”

“And you too, Reem,” Aliyah said sincerely.

“But do me a favor,” Aliyah said as Reem put the car in park and removed her keys from the ignition. “Can you stop talking to me about Jacob? I don’t like it.”

“I’m sorry,” Reem said. “It’s just that I’m worried about what would happen if you marry him.”

Aliyah rolled her eyes as she unfastened her seat belt. “That’s not going to happen, insha’Allah. I never want to put anyone through what Nikki put me through.”

“I doubt Nikki was trying to break up your marriage.”

“Whether she was trying to or not,” Aliyah said, “she did.”

Reem was quiet as she unfastened her seat belt and opened the driver side door. “You shouldn’t say that,” she muttered before she stepped out the car, Aliyah following suit. “Things happen, and they’re not always anybody’s fault.”

“She could’ve told me that she was Matt’s ex-girlfriend,” Aliyah said after they closed their doors.

“Isn’t that how you found out?” Reem pressed the button on her keychain to lock the car.

“Yes, but that was after I already let her into my life.”

“You taught her about Islam,” Reem said as they walked toward the building. “If that’s the only good that came out of it, then that’s a huge blessing, mashaAllah.”

Aliyah sighed. “That’s true. It’s just hard to see it that way. Right now, I can barely stand the thought of marriage, after what I went through.”

“May Allah make it easy for you. I can only imagine. I hope you find someone that makes you happy.”

“No, no, no,” Aliyah said, shaking her head emphatically. “That is not something I hope for.”

Reem’s eyes widened, turning to Aliyah as they neared the front entrance. “Why not? Don’t you want to be happy?”

“Yes,” Aliyah said. “But not because of a man. What if I never get married again? I think I can still be happy.”

Reem chuckled and shook her head. “You Americans.”

“What?” Aliyah said, chuckling herself. “It’s true. I don’t need a man to be happy.”

“We need companionship in this world,” Reem said. “Allah didn’t create us to live alone. That’s why we have friends, neighbors, and family. Maybe it’s not the only thing that makes us happy, but it’s an important part of it.”

Aliyah shrugged. “Important, maybe, but not essential.”

***

Jumu’ah, the epiphany came to Jacob as he watched his sons run up and down the indoor basketball court taking turns dribbling a ball along with about fifteen other boys. About ten feet from Jacob stood Matthew, arms folded over his chest, eyes concentrating on Ibrahim. Next to Matthew was a woman dressed in wide-legged jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and hijab. Jacob assumed she must be Matt’s new wife. She seems nice, Jacob found himself thinking after he greeted Matt with a perfunctory wave and salaams.

How did I end up with someone like Deanna as a wife? This question had haunted Jacob for the past month. It was only recently that he began to notice how strikingly different other Muslim women were from his wife. Their humble mannerisms, their easy smiles, the comfortable banter between them and their husbands. For years, these were interactions Jacob had associated with putting on a front. “We have to show people what a real relationship looks like,” Deanna would often say, and Jacob had agreed.

Now, he wasn’t so sure.

But it was difficult to extricate himself from this mentality because this was how he had been taught to think about Islam itself. Somehow the requirement to call others to worship God alone had turned into a marketing campaign that was more about optics than obligation. Personal struggles were unaddressed or outright denied if it meant risking presenting a “negative image” of Islam—and supporting open sin or wrongdoing was preferable to religious obligation if it meant presenting a “positive image” of Islam.

But Jacob was growing exhausted from living a life rooted in optics. Though it had been difficult for him to admit, part of the reason he felt stuck in his marriage was fear of looking bad in front of other Muslims—and fear of making Islam look bad. If he, the husband of a marriage guru and a source of marital inspiration himself, couldn’t stay married, what did that suggest about his faith? It was his religious duty to stay married, he’d kept telling himself. If not for himself, then for his sons and other Muslims. “People look up to you,” Jacob was often told, as if that alone laid in front of him the obvious course of action he should take when making a decision.

O Allah, if You know this matter to be good for me regarding my religion, my life, and my welfare in the life to come; then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless me in it…

After praying the Istikhaarah prayer about whether or not to divorce Deanna, this was the part of the supplication that stayed with him. Up until a month ago, it had never occurred to Jacob to consider whether or not his marital decisions were about protecting his faith and soul. Everything had been about only one aspect of that prayer—his worldly life.

Optics over obligation.

During his doctorate studies, Jacob had been neglectful of Jumu’ah, the obligatory weekly congregational sermon and prayer, because he didn’t feel comfortable being associated with most Muslims. At the time, not only did he have self-righteous convictions about religious-based clubs, he also had self-righteous convictions about religious-based gatherings. He would occasionally agree to speak at Muslim Student Association events because he felt he owed that to other Muslims, but he wouldn’t participate in the MSA otherwise. Unfortunately, his attendance to the Friday prayer had been approached similarly. It was as if his occasional attendance was some sort of favor he owed to Islam and the Muslims.

“You can’t pick and choose how you worship Allah,” a young undergrad student had said to Jacob. The way the student’s voice was a mixture of concern and admonition had annoyed Jacob. Who does he think he is? Jacob had thought at the time. I don’t need a masjid to worship my Lord.

How did he end up with someone like Deanna as a wife? Because at the time he married her, she was a reflection of Jacob himself. He’d arrogantly neglected the rights of Allah when it suited him, and she arrogantly neglected the rights of His servants when it suited her.

***

“Aunty! Aunty!” Younus eagerly waved with one hand while bouncing a basketball with the other. The shouts of his brother prompted Thawab to look toward the sidelines, and when he saw Aliyah, Thawab grinned shyly and waved too. At the sight of them, Aliyah grinned and lifted a hand in a wave, but she cringed at the prospect of seeing Deanna at the athletic complex. She quickly scanned the faces of the adults and exhaled in relief when she saw Jacob standing alone near Matt and Nikki.

“Mommy!” Ibrahim dropped his basketball and ran toward his mother, prompting one of the volunteers to rush on the court and grab the rolling ball before it obstructed the movement of the other boys.

Aliyah spread her arms wide and kneeled as Ibrahim met her with an enthusiastic embrace. “As-salaamu’alaikum, cookie monster,” she said, brushing the top of his head with a kiss.

“Did you see me, Mommy?” Ibrahim said, breathless. “I was bouncing the ball and running fast!”

“Yes, I did see you,” Aliyah said, still holding him close. “And I want to see more,” she added as her gaze met that of the coach who was nodding his head in her direction as he held Ibrahim’s basketball. “So you better go back out there.” Ibrahim released Aliyah and rushed back to the court. A smile lingered on Aliyah’s face as she watched him.

“That looks tough,” Reem said good-naturedly after Ibrahim resumed running the length of the court, bouncing the ball at the same time.

“Have you ever played basketball before?” Aliyah asked.

“No,” Reem said, shaking her head. “But I’ve shot around a few times. I prefer football, personally.”

Aliyah’s eyes widened. “Football?”

“Soccer, I mean,” Reem said.

“Oh yeah,” Aliyah said. “I forgot the rest of the world calls that football.”

As-salaamu’alikum.”

At the sound of someone behind her, Aliyah turned and found Nikki smiling at her.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Aliyah said, embracing Nikki briefly.

“Thanks for meeting us here,” Nikki said. “Matt really wanted to take Ibrahim to his first basketball practice.”

“It’s no problem,” Aliyah said sincerely. “I understand.”

After Nikki defended her online, Aliyah’s heart had softened to Matt and Nikki. Though Aliyah preferred to spend as much time with Ibrahim as possible, Aliyah didn’t put up a fuss when Nikki asked if Aliyah could pick up Ibrahim from the athletic center Saturday morning. “You can drop by during the week any time,” Nikki had added. “I don’t mind. Matt works late most nights, so I could use the company, and I’m sure Ibrahim would be thrilled to see you.” Aliyah had thanked Nikki and said, “I just might take you up on that.”

“Anyway,” Aliyah added with a grin, nodding her head toward her Qur’an teacher, “Reem wants to give me some tennis lessons.”

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Reem said, leaning forward and extending a gloved hand to greet Nikki.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Nikki said, a curious smile forming on her face as she shook Reem’s hand. “You play tennis?”

“Yes, a bit,” Reem said, releasing Nikki’s hand. “I used to want to play professionally.”

“Really?” Nikki sounded surprised.

“But I gave up that dream,” Reem said humorously. “I’m not sure the world is ready for a niqaabi tennis champion.”

Nikki chuckled and shook her head. “But that would be something, wouldn’t it? Having a fully covered Muslim woman competing in professional tennis matches?”

“I would love that,” Reem said, awe in her voice. “But it’s not realistic.”

“It is if you want it to be,” Nikki said encouragingly.

Reem laughed. “Insha’Allah.”

“I think we left our rackets and balls in the car,” Aliyah said, remembering just then.

SubhaanAllah. I’ll go get them.” Reem swiftly turned and walked toward the exit.

“I admire women like that,” Nikki said, her eyes following Reem. “Whenever I wear hijab, I feel like people are staring at me. I can’t imagine how it feels to wear a face veil.”

“I know what you mean,” Aliyah said. “It took a long time for me to feel comfortable in hijab, and I still feel judged, especially at work. I definitely don’t think niqaab is for me.”

“Matt was saying that some scholars say it’s obligatory.”

Aliyah shrugged. “That’s what Reem believes, but I don’t agree with that.”

Nikki nodded thoughtfully. “Does she have children?”

Aliyah furrowed her brows. “Reem?”

“Yes.”

“Two. A boy and a girl.”

“How old are they?”

“They’re a year younger than Ibrahim.”

“Both of them?”

“They’re twins,” Aliyah said.

“Four-year-old twins?” Nikki sucked in her breath. “That must be a handful.”

“Her mother helps out a lot. She usually keeps them whenever Reem goes out.”

“It must be nice to have help.”

The sad reflection in Nikki’s voice prompted Aliyah to glance down at Nikki’s shirt. A knowing smile spread on Aliyah’s face. “Are you pregnant?”

Nikki averted her gaze as an embarrassed grin toyed at one side of her mouth. She glanced cautiously behind her then lowered her voice. “Ten weeks. But Matt doesn’t want anyone to know.”

MashaAllah,” Aliyah said in congratulations. “This is your first, right?”

“Yes.”

“How are you doing?”

“It’s hard,” Nikki said reflectively, exhaling her words. “I feel sick most days. I almost didn’t come out today.”

“How’s your appetite?”

“I can’t eat anything except white bread and potato chips.” Nikki frowned. “It’s a horrible diet, but I have to eat something.”

“Just keep up with your prenatal vitamins, and you should be fine insha’Allah.”

“I gag every time I take them, so it’s a chore getting th—”

“Isn’t that that crazy Muslim chick?”

Aliyah stiffened as she heard the loud whisper coming from a small crowd gathered near the court. She willed herself not to look in that direction.

“Looks like it,” another voice said. “Or that whore mistress.”

“Isn’t it funny how they cover up like that? Like their stuff is all holy, but they get around like everybody else.”

Laughter. “I bet they’re—

“Are you here for a purpose, or just to harass people?” It took a few seconds before Aliyah registered that it was Nikki who was speaking, her face contorted as she looked toward the crowd. “Yes, I’m talking to you. I heard what you said about Muslim women, and I think it’s ignorant and immature.”

Aliyah glanced uncomfortably toward the small crowd then back at Nikki. “It’s okay,” Aliyah whispered, panic choking her as she placed a hand on Nikki’s arm. “Just ignore them,” Aliyah said.

“Is everything okay?” Matt said, appearing at Nikki’s side suddenly, concern on his face as he looked at his wife.

“Everything’s fine,” Aliyah said quickly. “They were just—”

“No, it’s not fine,” Nikki said, glaring toward the crowd before rolling her eyes and turning away. “I’m sick of people’s disrespect.”

“What happened?” Matt said as he put his arm around Nikki’s shoulders and led her away.

“These people were sitting there saying…” Nikki’s voice faded as she walked with Matt toward the other side of the gym.

Cheeks aflame, Aliyah turned her back to the crowd and concentrated her attention on the boys on the basketball court, but it was difficult to stay focused. Couldn’t he at least give salaams? Aliyah thought, offense stinging her. Here she was, coming to pick up their son—a day later on his request, and Matt was acting like she wasn’t even standing there. Was it “inappropriate” to greet his son’s mother?

“Sorry about that,” Reem said, appearing at Aliyah’s side, the straps of two tennis racket cases over her shoulder and a can of tennis balls in her hand.

“I don’t give a f—” someone behind them said, and Aliyah winced at the profanity. “She had no business talking to us like that. We weren’t even talking to her.” Overcome with angry annoyance, Aliyah clenched her jaw, but she refused to turn around and give them the satisfaction of her acknowledgement.

Reem glanced curiously behind her. “What’s their problem?”

“Who knows?” Aliyah shrugged nonchalantly and rolled her eyes, still facing forward. “You ready to play tennis?”

“My sister and my cousin are supposed to be coming too,” Reem said as she handed Aliyah a tennis racket then readjusted the strap of her racket case on her shoulder.

“Are there enough courts?” Aliyah said, adjusting the strap on her shoulder.

“If there aren’t,” Reem said, “we can just play doubles.”

Reem did a double take and nodded her head to the right. “Isn’t that Jacob?”

Aliyah glanced hesitantly in Jacob’s direction and found him still looking toward the court. “Yes. Younus and Thawab are part of the summer basketball league.”

MashaAllah,” Reem said. “I saw them waving at you earlier.”

The distant sound of rhythmic drumming interrupted Aliyah before she could respond, and Reem reached into an abaya pocket and withdrew her mobile phone.

Waynak?” Reem said as she put the phone to her ear. “Tayyib.”

Reem put the phone back in her pocket then gestured toward Aliyah as she walked toward the exit. “They’re at the tennis courts waiting for us.”

***

“Reem!”

Aliyah looked around to see where the voice was coming from, and two tennis courts down, she saw a woman dressed in shorts and a tank top waving her arm toward them as she held a tennis ball in her fist and a tennis racket in her other hand. Opposite the woman was another woman dressed similarly. Confused, Aliyah glanced toward Reem, who waved in response and started walking in the direction of the two women.

“Mashael, this is my friend Aliyah,” Reem said once they were at the court and the women stood opposite them. “Aliyah, this is my sister Mashael and my cousin Nora.”

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah said, reaching out her hand to greet the two women one after the other. Each leaned forward to touch cheeks with Aliyah as they shook her hand.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Mashael and Nora said, both smiling widely. Up close, Aliyah could see the resemblance between Reem and her sister, and their cousin shared a similar olive complexion.

“My sister says you don’t know how to play tennis,” Mashael said, teasing Aliyah good-naturedly.

Aliyah laughed self-consciously and nodded. “It’s true,” she said. “But I’m hoping to learn.”

“Reem’s the tennis champ in our family, mashaAllah,” Mashael said. “But we play okay.”

“They play well too, mashaAllah,” Reem said.

“Will you play in your niqaab?” Aliyah hadn’t meant to speak her thoughts aloud, so she was relieved to see Reem smiling with her eyes in response.

“I know,” Reem said, laughter in her voice. “It’s a bit much, right?”

“Yes it is,” Nora teased in lighthearted banter. “We’re always telling her she’s going to give people a heart attack dressed like that.”

“I haven’t had any problems, alhamdulillah,” Reem said honestly. “As long as I have my ID, people are pretty accommodating.”

Nora and Mashael shook their heads, knowing smiles on their faces. “I don’t know how you do it,” Nora said.

“You’re American?” Mashael said, looking at Aliyah curiously.

“Yes,” Aliyah said, finding the question awkward.

“I mean, originally?” Mashael clarified.

“Yes,” Aliyah said.

MashaAllah, so you converted?”

“Yes, alhamdulillah.”

Wallah,” Mashael said, swearing by Allah, “you guys are much better Muslims than we are.”

Nora nodded emphatically. “Wallah, it’s true.”

Aliyah frowned in discomfort. “I don’t think so. We all have our challenges.”

“Are we going to play tennis or what?” Reem said as she unzipped the racket case and pulled out her racket. “Or are you guys going to stand here chatting the whole time?”

***

Aliyah was tired and a bit agitated by the time Reem dropped off her and Ibrahim to the apartment that afternoon. Upon Reem’s urging, Aliyah had accepted a last-minute invitation to have lunch with Reem’s family. The visit was pleasant enough, so Aliyah knew her agitation wasn’t connected to the visit. Eating lunch at Reem’s house had actually been a blessing because now Aliyah didn’t have to prepare lunch for herself or Ibrahim. And with the extra plates Reem had made for them, Aliyah probably wouldn’t even have to prepare dinner.

Perhaps her annoyance was due to having been out all day without her car, Aliyah considered. She had agreed to ride with Reem only because she’d assumed she and Ibrahim would come home right after basketball practice.

“Is everything okay?”

As Aliyah put the plates of food in the refrigerator, in her mind’s eye, she saw Matt’s concerned expression a moment before he put an arm around Nikki. Aliyah gritted her teeth in offense.

“Can Younus and Thawab come over?” Ibrahim said, his small voice coming from behind her.

“No,” Aliyah snapped without turning around.

A moment later, Aliyah sighed, feeling bad for getting upset with her son. She closed the refrigerator and turned around, forcing a smile as she met Ibrahim’s confused gaze. “I’m sorry, Himy,” she said, using the affectionate abbreviated form of her son’s name. “Now isn’t a good time for Younus and Thawab to come over.”

“But they asked if they could,” Ibrahim whined.

“They’re welcome to come over another time,” Aliyah said sincerely. “But not now.”

“Then can I go over their house?”

Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled. She wished there was some way to arrange a play date for the boys. “For now, you’ll see them every Saturday for basketball, insha’Allah.”

Ibrahim pouted. “But we can’t play the Wii there.”

“I know, Himy, and I’m sorry.” Aliyah’s heart ached as she watched her son walk out of the kitchen, shoulders slumped.

Nobody cares about you.

The realization came to Aliyah so suddenly that it was like a knife in her chest. Winded, Aliyah pulled out a chair and sat down, propping her elbows on the table as she held her forehead in her palms.

That was why she was so agitated. It wasn’t that Matt should have given her salaams or asked if she was okay. It was that his ignoring her highlighted how insignificant—and alone—she actually was.

To her family, as long as Islam was part of her life, she wasn’t part of theirs. To the Muslims, she simply wasn’t part of their lives. As a single divorced woman, on a practical level, she was no one’s responsibility. But on a theoretical level, she was everyone’s responsibility.

Men are the maintainers and protectors of women, the Qur’an said.

But Aliyah was still grappling with what that verse was supposed to mean in her life. Was it in reference to only marriage? Or did it apply to other contexts? And had her belief in the latter incited offense that Matt had completely ignored her?

Aliyah sat up and folded her arms on the table in front of her as she gazed thoughtfully toward the floral centerpiece.

Nobody cares about you.

This time the realization was not as painful. It came to her as more matter-of-fact, more resolute. This was nothing to sulk about. It was merely something to keep in mind. She was in this world alone, and she’d have to learn to survive alone. As difficult as it was to accept, the united, loving ummah that she’d learned about in her Islamic classes was almost mythical in modern reality. There was no Muslim community looking out for her. There was no band of Muslim men (or women) rushing to her aid or making sure she was okay. They simply didn’t care.

Well, if you do accept his proposal, just know that you won’t be getting much community support.

Reem was right to warn Aliyah about the reality in which she lived. Reem herself faced that grim reality in her own life. Reem put her heart into teaching Qur’an to the community only to read Facebook statuses attacking her for doing just that. She dressed in the manner that she believed Allah instructed only to be constantly challenged and criticized because Muslims felt it was extreme. She tried hard to separate her culture from religion only to be accused of teaching an “Arab version” of Islam. How Reem, in the face of all that, kept coming back to the community day after day, Aliyah couldn’t fathom. Aliyah herself was finding it difficult to even enter the masjid these days. Part of Aliyah had died after seeing how eagerly Muslims participated in online discussions tarnishing her name and honor.

But Reem had a husband and family who cared for her. Aliyah didn’t. And that support system must certainly be a source of strength.

But who was Aliyah’s source of strength?

“Girl, you know I love you!”

Sadness knotted in Aliyah’s chest as she recalled Deanna’s oft-repeated statement of affection.

God, I miss her sometimes, Aliyah thought sadly. Moments like these, she wondered if she’d made the right decision cutting off Deanna as a friend.

***

Deanna grunted as she pulled her car into the parking lot in front of Cassie Studios Saturday morning. What happened to all that peace and love, and tolerance and reconciliation that Aliyah was always running off at the mouth about from her Islamic studies classes? Deanna thought bitterly. Good Muslims do not refuse to speak to each other for more than three days, so always seek reconciliation and make peace between people. Aliyah was the one constantly mentioning that hadith. Deanna wasn’t sure if she was remembering the wording correctly, but even if the wording of the prophetic statement was off, the principle remained. Aliyah was wrong. It was sinful for her to cut off their friendship and refuse to interact with Deanna.

Not that Deanna cared if they remained friends.

“It’s okay if you miss your best friend,” Deanna’s mother had told her. “Losing a friend can make anybody upset.” But Deanna had contorted her face. “Miss her? I’m just mad I didn’t cut her off first.”

Apparently, all that talk about “love for the sake of Allah” was just a front for Aliyah. It was a ploy to get Deanna to trust her, pamper her, pay her bills, and allow her to get close to Jacob. How could I have been so blind?

Stop complaining, Deanna thought in self-rebuke, abruptly halting her mental tirade as she brought her car to a stop in a parking space near the studio entrance. I’m the better person in this situation, she told herself. So she needed to act like it. She recalled the inspirational quote that her husband kept on his office wall. Be the change. Stop bickering. Be the bigger person. Stop criticizing. Be the better person. Stop settling for less than the best. Be YOU.

Empowered by these words, Deanna turned off the car and pulled the keys from the ignition before removing her designer shades and checking her appearance in the rearview mirror. A thin floral scarf hung loosely around her head and adorned the long, soft brown curls that framed her face. There was a flutter of concern as she realized that she hadn’t shown her hair in public in more than ten years, but she quelled the discomfort by reminding herself that this was for a good cause. Besides, she was still wearing hijab, she rationalized, even if it didn’t cover all of her hair. Something was better than nothing. She’d worry later about what to do during the photo shoot because she needed the photographer’s input on that one.

But first she needed to explain to Cassie her purpose for making the appointment.

“May I help you?” the receptionist asked after the bells above the entrance chimed as Deanna stepped inside.

“Yes, you may.” Deanna’s mouth spread into a full-teeth smile as she walked toward the receptionist’s desk. She pulled her large handbag over her shoulder and adjusted the straps. “I’d like to speak to Cassie Thomas-Daniels please.”

The woman lifted an arched eyebrow as her eyes traced Deanna in a quick once-over. “You have to make a special appointment to speak to the owner.”

“I have an appointment,” Deanna said, maintaining her wide smile. “Cassie and I spoke on the phone last week.”

“Your name?”

“Dr. Deanna Janice Bivens.”

The woman’s eyebrows rose in recognition. “You’re the author of You Can Have Him All To Yourself?”

Deanna lifted her head in pride. “Yes, I am.”

The woman nodded, the shadow of a smile on her face as she typed something into the laptop on the desk in front of her. “One moment please,” she said before standing and walking down a hallway toward the back. “I’ll tell Cassie you’re here.”

“Dr. D.J. Bivens,” Cassie said once they were in her office. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

Deanna pursed her lips proudly as she sat down opposite Cassie’s desk. “Thank you.” She couldn’t bring herself to say more than that because she didn’t want to waste too much time on small talk. She reached into her purse and pulled out her smart phone, holding it in the air. “Do you mind if I record our meeting? I don’t want to interrupt our conversation by writing notes.”

A frown line creased Cassie’s forehead, and in that moment Deanna was reminded of Aliyah. Cassie and her younger sister resembled each other significantly. Cassie had a thicker, fuller figure, but she shared Aliyah’s smooth skin tone and sculpted facial features. Like Aliyah, Cassie kept her kinky curls natural and well kempt though Cassie had dyed hers brown. A flash of anger swept through Deanna as she thought of Jacob admiring this beauty. She had to stop Aliyah’s madness, fast.

“I prefer not,” Cassie said apologetically. “But I can make an audio file myself and send you the transcript,” she offered.

“No problem,” Deanna said, forcing a smile to hide her annoyance that even Cassie’s voice intonations were similar to Aliyah’s. She put the phone back into her purse.

After starting the audio file, Cassie said, “You mentioned on the phone that you wanted to do a special photo shoot for your marriage counseling business?”

“Yes,” Deanna said tentatively. “But I want something more than that, mainly to counter the ‘crazy Muslim woman’ story.”

“Well, that story is no longer trending, so I’m not sure if you’ll be able to use your photos for that purpose.”

“I don’t plan to use them for that,” Deanna said.

Cassie creased her forehead. “I’m sorry. I must have misunderstood. Tell me what you have in mind again.”

“I want you to use them,” Deanna said.

“Me?” Cassie furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.

“Your company provided the photos of Aliyah, right?”

“Aliyah?”

“Ally, your sister.”

“Yes…” she said tentatively, her expression conveying skepticism.

“Now I want you to provide photos of me.”

“I’m sorry. I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” Cassie said. “Cassie Studios doesn’t work with the media. We do only photography.”

“But you have contacts, don’t you?” Deanna was on the verge of irritation. She had driven nearly two hours for this meeting.

“Yes, but—”

“Don’t you want to make money?”

Cassie paused thoughtfully. “What do you mean?

Deanna smirked as she saw that she had Cassie’s attention. “You and I have something in common, Cassie,” Deanna said. “Ally has caused far too many problems in our lives.”

Cassie glanced cautiously toward the audio recording. “I wouldn’t say that.”

Deanna waved her hand dismissively. “I know you don’t want to admit it, and that’s okay. But I’m here to offer you an opportunity to make money. A lot of money,” she added. “I want to do a photo essay of the truth behind the ‘crazy Muslim woman’ story.”

“You mean a visual memoir?”

“Yes, but one that puts Ally in her place.”

Cassie shook her head, eyes narrowed in confusion. “Excuse me?”

“Ally needs a reality check.” Deanna grunted. “And my husband does too.”

“I’ll tell you what I can do,” Cassie said after a thoughtful pause. “You and I can create the photo essay. Then I’ll share it with some of my media contacts. Depending on the angle we take, we might be able to spark renewed interest in the story.”

“I already know my angle.”

“What’s that?”

“She’s the crazy mistress. I’m the hot wife.”

Cassie creased her forehead doubtfully. “Was Ally really your husband’s mistress?”

“No, of course not,” Deanna said, contorting her face. “I’d kill her if she was.”

Cassie drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “I like your angle, but you don’t want to expose yourself to a possible libel suit.”

“Let me worry about that,” Deanna said. “But for now, I need your advice on the best way to do the photo shoot.”

“Visually speaking,” Cassie said, “what is your overall goal for the shoot?”

“The same one that Ally had.”

Cassie shook her head, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“To get my husband’s attention,” Deanna said. “And I want to do the same.”

Next: Story 14 of 22 (released daily as countdown to WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short movie).

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…inshaaAllah