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“We are in high school now.” Latifah hugged herself with her free arm as the wire of the phone twisted and stretched behind her in her bedroom. “Can you believe it?”
It was late Monday afternoon in early September, and school had been in session two weeks.
“I wish you were at the Muslim school,” Maryam said through the receiver.
Latifah rolled her eyes. “Let’s not go there. You know what my parents think about that.”
“Maybe you can change their mind.”
Latifah pulled the phone away from her ear, contorting her face and staring at the phone as if it were Maryam herself. One hand was on her hip as she put the phone back to her ear.
“Do I look like an idiot to you? Why pay four hundred dollars a month for insults, bullying, and discrimination when I can get that at public school for free? That’s what my mom says.”
“At least you’ll be around Muslims.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Latifah said with a shrug. “But it sure hurts more when it’s Muslims, to tell you the truth.”
Maryam was silent for so long that Latifah feared they had gotten disconnected.
“I’m still here.” Maryam’s voice sounded sad and distant. “I’m just wondering what I’ll do if my mom forbids me from talking to you.”
Latifah wrinkled her nose. “Now what on earth are you talking about, girl?”
Maryam sighed. “I’m not allowed to talk to Samira anymore.”
Latifah was silent momentarily. “You mean that Desi girl who used to live in Saudi?”
“Why? What’d she do?”
“My mom says her mother put her in public school.”
Latifah blinked repeatedly, a smirk forming on one side of her mouth. “And…?”
“And nothing. So Ummi thinks she’ll corrupt me or something.”
Latifah burst into laughter. “If that ain’t the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
“I’m serious. That’s why she can’t come over anymore.”
“So…” Latifah squinted her eyes, a grin lingering on her face. “…you think your mom will say the same about me?”
Latifah sighed, her expression growing more concerned as she registered what her friend was saying. “Do you really think she’d do something like that? With me, I mean?”
“Why not? She did it with Samira.”
Latifah felt her chest tighten in anxiety. She would hate to lose Maryam’s friendship. They’d known each other since third grade.
“Maybe it’s not because of public school,” Latifah said thoughtfully. “I wasn’t in Muslim school last year. If that was the reason, your mom would’ve said something by now.”
The line went silent for several seconds, and Latifah sensed Maryam was thinking about what she’d said.
“I think it’s because her mom’s divorced,” Latifah said. “And because they listen to music and stuff.”
“Divorced?” Maryam chuckled. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
Latifah lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “You tell me. My mom says immigrant Muslims get all superstitious about divorced women.”
Maryam laughed. “And you say we’re always stereotyping you guys?”
The sides of Latifah’s mouth creased in a smile. “Yeah… That’s true.” She shrugged. “I guess we’re all prejudiced, huh?”
“Guess so,” Maryam said. But Latifah could tell she meant it in good humor.
“Should I ask her?” Maryam said.
Latifah drew her eyebrows together. “Ask who what?”
“My mom. About Samira.”
“Why not?” Latifah shrugged. “I think you deserve to know.” She paused. “But wait, I thought you said she said it’s because of public school.”
“But maybe I misunderstood.”
“So…” Maryam said, humor in her tone, “…there’s no chance you’ll be registering at the Islamic academy?”
Latifah laughed. “That’ll be the day.”
“You really don’t want to go to school with Muslims?”
“Of course I do. I just don’t want to be made fun of because I have brown skin.”
“They don’t do that in public school?”
Latifah detected genuine curiosity in Maryam’s voice. She sensed Maryam needed to believe non-Muslims did worse.
“I can’t say they don’t,” Latifah said. “But it never happened to me.”
“Never?” Maryam’s tone was of awed disbelief.
“What about hijab?”
Latifah waved a hand in the air and rolled her eyes. “Let’s not go there. Does ‘rag head’ ring a bell? Don’t remind me.”
Latifah heard Maryam breathe through the phone, and she couldn’t tell whether it was because Maryam had bad memories of public school herself or because she was relieved that terrible things happened in public schools.
“Latifah?” Maryam’s voice was tentative, as if unsure of something.
“If Muslims weren’t so prejudiced, would you come back to Muslim school?”
Latifah drew in a deep breath and exhaled. The truth was, part of her wanted to come back anyway, even with all the racism and teasing. It wasn’t easy walking around a public high school wearing a khimaar and jilbaab, which she was sure looked to the students like some ridiculously oversized dress.
Latifah hated herself for thinking it, but it bothered her that none of the boys would even notice her because of how she dressed. She felt so ugly and rejected next to all the girls with neatly styled hair and fitting clothes.
Latifah was beginning to wonder if Muslim school had been all that bad after all.
“Yes,” she said with a sigh. “Honestly, I would.”
“…So Crispus Attucks was the first to die for American independence…”
Tuesday morning, Latifah sat in U.S. history class with her head propped up by a fist against her cheek. She stifled a yawn as she doodled in the margins of her notebook.
“…What makes Attucks’s legacy so dynamic is that he was actually a black slave.”
Latifah halted her doodling and narrowed her eyes toward the front of the room. Had she heard the teacher correctly? Other students looked as surprised as Latifah was. They looked around at each other with quizzical expressions.
The teacher chuckled. “That’s right. America’s first martyr in the American Revolution was a black man.”
Latifah studied the teacher’s dark eyes and pale peach complexion that was framed by a closely trimmed beard. What was his background? He definitely wasn’t Black…
“I never heard of him,” a student said, his tone suggesting that he thought the teacher was making this all up.
“You have internet at home, young man?”
“Google him, and see what you come up with.”
The boy contorted his face but clamped his mouth shut. Latifah sensed the student feared having an extra homework assignment.
“This week,” the teacher continued casually, “we’re going to study the dynamics of the revolution and why it happened in the first place. What this means is—”
The classroom door opened, and the teacher stopped talking midsentence to look toward the door.
“Is this…U.S. History 101?” a girl asked tentatively, glancing uncertainly at a white slip of paper in her hand.
Latifah did a double take. The girl was wearing hijab.
“Yes it is,” the teacher said, smiling broadly. He took the slip of paper from the girl and gestured toward the desks that were arranged in a semicircle. “Please take a seat.”
The girl bit her lower lip and glanced around the room. The girl caught Latifah’s gaze and did a double take herself.
Wait… Latifah thought. I know those eyes.
The girl smiled as she appeared to recognize Latifah at once.
Latifah looked to her left and right, but both seats were taken.
“She can take my seat,” the girl on Latifah’s right said, standing and gathering her books.
Latifah knew why the girl gave up her seat, but Latifah wasn’t offended. For once the stereotype was correct. The Muslim girls did want to sit next to each other.
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” Samira whispered, leaning toward Latifah as she slid into the seat. A broad grin was on her face.
“Wa-‘alaiku-mussalaam,” Latifah whispered back, grinning in return. “Why are you two weeks late to school?”
Samira rolled her eyes. “Saudi Arabia. They had my school records all messed up.”
“So for the rest of the week,” the teacher said, prompting Latifah and Samira to look forward, and Latifah was surprised to find the teacher smiling at her and Samira, “we’ll be covering the American Revolution. You will read chapters one and…”
“Miss Bilal and Miss Saadiq,” the history teacher called out over the commotion of students rushing out the class after the bell rang.
Latifah started. She halted arranging her notebook in her backpack as she lifted her gaze to the teacher.
She and Samira exchanged uncertain glances.
The teacher chuckled as he motioned with his hand for them to come to his desk. “It’s okay. You’re not in any trouble.”
Some students who were making their way to the door glanced curiously at Latifah and Samira before leaving the room.
When the last students had shuffled out, the teacher sat on the edge of his desk and crossed his arms over his chest. Latifah and Samira stood in front of him, their expressions awkward.
“So you’re Samira Riaz Saadiq?” he asked, his smiling eyes on Samira.
“Yes…” Samira said, stealing a glance at Latifah before turning her attention back to the teacher.
“Is your father Riaz Saadiq, the computer engineer who left to Saudi Arabia some years ago with his wife and children?”
Samira’s jaw fell open in surprise.
The teacher laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“You have brothers and sisters?” Latifah asked, her forehead creased as she looked at Samira.
“No, just two brothers. They live with my dad.”
A smirk formed on the side of Latifah’s mouth. “That’s cool. I do too.”
“Really?” Samira looked genuinely surprised.
“Well,” the teacher said, lifting the palms of his hands as he smiled, “don’t let me intrude. I just wanted to see if it was luck or coincidence that I saw my old friend’s name on my roster.”
Samira regarded the teacher curiously. “You were friends…with my dad?”
“That’s so cool,” Latifah said, breaking into a grin.
“I’m Mr. Butt, by the way.”
Samira and Latifah stared at the teacher uncertainly, their eyes growing wide.
Mr. Butt laughed. “Now you know why I didn’t write it on the board.”
“Are you…I mean…” Latifah said. “You’re serious?” She had no idea how she’d sat in class for two weeks and didn’t pick up on that name.
“I’m very serious.” He maintained a pleasant expression. “I didn’t have any problems with it in Pakistan, but here, it’s quite a stir.”
“You’re from Pakistan?” Samira’s eyes grew even wider.
Latifah rolled her eyes as laughter escaped her throat. “Oh no, here we go with the Desi club.”
“It’s quite a lot of us, huh?” Mr. Butt said.
“Too many if you ask me,” Latifah said jokingly.
Mr. Butt laughed. “I can’t say I disagree with you.”
“Were you really friends with my father?”
Mr. Butt’s eyebrows rose as he drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “We weren’t close, but he left an impression.”
Samira looked uncertain.
“In a good way,” Mr. Butt said.
Samira smiled shyly.
“MaashaAllah,” Latifah said, imagining how cool Samira’s father must be.
“Yes, maashaAllah,” Mr. Butt said with a nod.
“You’re Muslim?” Latifah’s eyebrows were drawn together as a disbelieving smile formed on her face.
Mr. Butt looked confused momentarily, but his expression remained. “Yes. Most Pakistanis are.”
Latifah’s smiled widened as she turned to Samira. “Wait till Maryam’s mom hears about that.”
“I’m sorry?” Mr. Butt said, his forehead creased.
“Maryam is Samira’s friend,” Latifah said, casually glancing at Mr. Butt then Samira. “But Maryam’s mom won’t let Maryam talk to Samira anymore because she thinks Samira will be a bad influence because she goes to public school.” Latifah smirked. “Wait till she finds out we have a Muslim teacher—from Pakistan.”
Samira’s eyes grew large. “What?”
Latifah frowned as she looked at Samira. It took a moment for Latifah to understand the hurt in Samira’s eyes. “Didn’t Maryam tell you?”
“No…” Samira’s tone was defiant, and Latifah immediately regretted what she had said.
“I’m sorry, I…”
Samira’s nose flared as turned and stomped to her desk, where she retrieved her bag.
“Samira, wait.” Latifah reached out a hand, trailing behind Samira. “I honestly thought you knew.” Latifah watched helplessly as Samira yanked the zippers closed on her backpack.
“I hate Desis,” Samira said as she pulled a strap of her bag over her shoulder.
Latifah took a step back at the words, her eyes narrowed in confusion. “Wh… Why?”
“They’re a bunch of self-righteous punks!”
“Woe, woe, woe,” a deep voice came from the front of the room.
Latifah turned to find Mr. Butt standing and waving his palms at them.
“Hold on a minute,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea if you take a second to pull yourself together before you go out there.”
He walked to the classroom door and closed it before turning to face Latifah and Samira, his arms crossed authoritatively.
“I know you’re upset, Miss Saadiq,” he said. “But trust me.” He gestured his head toward the door behind him. “That’s not where you want to be if you need a good cry.”
At his last words, Samira halted her steps, remembering just then where she was. Tears glistened in her eyes, and she quickly wiped them away with the back of her hand.
Latifah rushed to Samira’s side and guided her to a desk as Samira’s shoulders slouched, her backpack sliding to the floor in a thud.
“Here,” Mr. Butt said as he walked quickly to his desk and opened a drawer. “I have some cola.”
Samira’s knees seem to give out as she sat down.
There was a popping and sizzling sound as Mr. Butt opened the can and handed it to Samira. Samira accepted the drink and slowly took a sip, but her eyes were dazed.
“Do you think she needs a nurse?” Latifah asked, turning to Mr. Butt, concerned.
“Hmm… Let’s give her a few minutes. I may have to take her to the counselor though. Your words seemed to have triggered a difficult memory…”
Latifah’s heart was heavy in regret as she leaned her head against the glass of the school bus window that afternoon. The engine hummed and grumbled as she grew lost in thought from where she sat a few seats behind the bus driver.
Why do you talk so much? Latifah scolded herself. She wished she hadn’t opened her big mouth. If she’d kept her thoughts to herself, then maybe none of this would have happened.
Thank God Samira opened up to Mr. Butt. Latifah knew Samira would’ve never wanted to talk to a school counselor.
“I think I know how you feel,” Mr. Butt had said after Samira divulged her parents’ divorce and that it happened because her mother wasn’t Pakistani. She also mentioned how her forced friendship with Maryam had been suddenly cut off.
Mr. Butt had pulled his desk chair in front of Samira, and Latifah sat next to her, unsure whether she should stay or leave. It was a blessing that it was lunchtime and no classes were in session. Otherwise, things wouldn’t have worked out as they had.
“My parents nearly disowned me when I told them I wanted to be a teacher.” He chuckled. “Of history of all things.”
“Really?” Samira had asked, her eyes blinking in intense interest though her voice was weak.
“I was supposed to be a doctor.”
“Because of my parents. My father’s a doctor. My mother’s a doctor. So I was supposed to be a doctor too.”
“I suppose it’s like you said. We Desis can be a bit self-righteous at times. Our culture doesn’t believe in careers that don’t bring honor to the family, especially for sons.”
“So they just disowned you?” Samira found that difficult to believe.
“Not in the way Americans think of it. They still spoke to me. But I was a shame to the family.”
“Why didn’t you just become a doctor?”
Mr. Butt laughed. “I guess I’m supposed to have a really good answer to that. But to tell you the truth, I really don’t know. I was young. I was hotheaded. History fascinated me, so I majored in it.” He shrugged. “I didn’t realize I couldn’t do much with it until I couldn’t find work.”
“But what did you do?” Samira brought the can of cola to her lips, her eyes wide as she looked at Mr. Butt.
“I went back to school.”
“Back to school?” Samira contorted her face. “Why?”
“Maybe I just needed to clear my head. I don’t know. But I got my master’s in African-American history.”
It was Latifah’s turn to be surprised. “You did?” It was the first question she’d asked.
“Yes, I did,” he said, a distant look in his eyes that Latifah couldn’t interpret.
“Wow…maashaAllah,” Latifah said.
“But…” Latifah hesitated before speaking her thoughts aloud.
“Why?” he finished for her, smiling.
Latifah nodded, grinning.
“Black history fascinated me,” he said honestly. “And with all I was going through with my parents…well, reading all those stories of people like Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass and—”
“Crispus Attucks?” Latifah asked knowingly, her eyes sparkling.
He nodded, chuckling. “Yes. They made me realize I could persevere too.”
“You could what?” Samira asked, her eyebrows drawn together.
“Persevere,” he said. “Keep going, even though everything says you can’t or shouldn’t.”
“Do you wish you were a doctor now?” Samira asked.
Mr. Butt’s expression grew thoughtful. “Yes and no,” he said finally. “Yes because I think it would make my parents proud, and no because I don’t want to be a doctor.” He forced a smile, but his eyes were sad. “Money and status aren’t everything.”
The bus whinnied as it came to a stop, and Latifah’s body was jerked forward slightly. Latifah wondered what Samira was doing right then.
After the talk with Mr. Butt, Samira seemed more composed, and she attended the rest of her classes. But it bothered Latifah that the light was gone from Samira’s eyes. Samira appeared drawn into herself in a way that didn’t seem to fit her personality.
Saturday morning Basma woke to a loud pounding on the front door. She glanced at the clock and saw that it was 9:02. Groaning, she pulled the covers over her head.
But the pounding continued.
Who is that?
Basma sighed and sat up. She looked at her husband next to her, sound asleep. If only I could sleep like that. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling as she laid the back of her head against the headboard.
At the repeated ringing of the doorbell, Basma threw the covers from herself until her feet rested on the carpet of her bedroom floor. What in the world? Grumpy from irritation, Basma hurried downstairs, her cotton shawar khameez wrinkled from sleep.
“Who is it?” she called out near the door. Her hand went to her head as she realized she had forgotten her head cover.
At the door, she squinted through the peephole.
Basma’s right hand immediately went to her heart.
What was she doing here?
Basma smoothed down stray hair strands with both hands then pulled at her shawar khameez to straighten it. She took a deep breath before unlocking the door and holding it open.
Samira stepped inside and stood in front of the door so that it remained ajar.
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” Samira said. She frowned as she met Basma’s gaze.
“Wa’alaiku-mussalaam.” Basma’s reply was hesitant, uncertainty written on her brow as she waited for an explanation for the unannounced visit.
For a few seconds, they just stared at each other, Samira’s eyes red and withdrawn.
“Here.” Samira averted her gaze as she held out a folded piece of paper.
Basma looked at the paper cautiously. “Is…this for Maryam?”
Samira grimaced. “No. I’m not allowed to talk to her, remember?”
Basma winced. The girl’s expression was accusing, reminding Basma of a child threatening a tantrum.
“Did your mother send this?” Basma took the folded paper from Samira’s hand.
“No. My mom’s sleeping. She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“I wrote it for you.”
Basma blinked in shock. She glanced at the paper in her hand, unsure she should accept it. But before she could respond, Samira turned and walked out, pulling the door closed behind her.
Basma went to the window and peered through the curtains as Samira disappeared down the street, appearing troubled and lost in thought.
“I’m not allowed to talk to her, remember?”
The words came back to Basma suddenly, and her face flushed in offense.
How dare Joanne lie to her daughter. Basma’s hand trembled as she let go of the curtain. Joanne was the one who cut me off.
Instinctively, Basma walked to where the phone sat on a small table next to the couch. Still holding the folded paper, she picked up the phone and dialed Joanne’s number with shaking hands.
Heart pounding, she held the cordless receiver to her ear and paced the living room. The voicemail picked up after the fifth ring.
“Hi, this is Joanne,” Joanne’s too-perky recorded voice spoke through the receiver. “Sorry I missed your call…”
Annoyed, Basma disconnected then pressed redial.
When the voice mail picked up again, Basma started to hang up but stopped herself.
“…Please leave a message,” Joanne’s recording said.
At the beep, Basma drew in a deep breath, her heart pounding as she thought of Samira’s accusing glare.
“Next time you want to play victim,” she said, “try telling the truth.”
Basma hung up and walked over to the table and returned the receiver to its base. She had half a mind to drive the two blocks to Joanne and pound on her door, waking her as Samira had done.
Basma was halfway up the stairs when she glanced down, remembering the folded note in her hand.
Basma slowed her steps and unfolded the paper, her eyes eagerly grazing its contents.
I just wanted to say I forgive you because I know you can’t help who you are. You think public school makes me a bad person so I feel sorry for you. Here’s something I read that made me realize you don’t understand Islam like you think you do: “Whosoever removes a worldly grief from a believer, Allah will remove from him one of the griefs of the Day of Judgment. Whosoever alleviates [the lot of] a needy person, Allah will alleviate [his lot] in this world and the next. Whosoever shields a Muslim, Allah will shield him in this world and the next. Allah will aid a slave [of His] so long as the slave aids his brother” (Muslim). I met a real Muslim at public school and he told me about this hadith. I hope you can become a real Muslim too.
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