Soul Talk (HOW Story 18)

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 18: Soul Talk

“You’re talking about Jacob Bivens,” Salima said, “the math professor?”

“Yes,” Aliyah said hesitantly, holding the cordless phone to her ear as she sat cross-legged on her bed Saturday evening. After listening to Jacob’s voicemail message earlier that day, Aliyah remained indecisive about calling him back. If he was calling to ask about marriage, she didn’t want to endure an awkward conversation. But what if he was calling about work? He had appointed her to head the internship in his absence, so shouldn’t she call him back if he wanted to discuss that?

Ukhti.” Salima’s voice was soft as she referred to Aliyah by the endearing term my sister. “If you’re trying to decide on whether or not to marry him, then there are only three things to consider,” Salima said. “Allah, the man, and you.”

“But I don’t know if he’s calling about marriage…” Aliyah said tentatively. “It could be about something else. Like work.”

“And does your uncle work at the college too?” Salima said doubtfully.

“No,” Aliyah said. “But he and Jacob are friends, so Jacob might have wanted my uncle to tell me something about the internship program we’re working on together.”

“Why wouldn’t he tell you directly?”

“Well…” Aliyah was uncomfortable revealing anything about what was happening with Deanna. Thus far, it appeared as though the media hadn’t gotten ahold of the story, and Aliyah didn’t want to be the one to reveal Jacob’s family crisis. She sensed that she could trust Salima, but Aliyah’s general rule was, If it’s someone else’s business, it’s not mine to tell. “…he’s on vacation,” she said finally, “and I’m not sure when he’ll be back.”

“Then what’s the dilemma?” Salima said. “Just call him back.”

“The thing is…” Aliyah said, wondering the best way to explain her apprehension. “Remember all those rumors about me and Jacob?”

“Yes…”

“They weren’t completely false.”

“Okay…” Salima said, as if unsure where the conversation was heading.

“He wanted to marry me when we were in college, and Deanna tried to make him marry her instead.” Aliyah hoped she wasn’t confusing Salima. “And then about six months ago, he talked to my uncle about marrying me as a second wife, and Deanna blamed me for it.”

“But Aliyah, what does that have to do with calling him back?” Salima said. “He’s your colleague and department head. You’re going to have to talk to him sometimes. So I don’t see what the problem is.”

“I just don’t want him to think I’m a tease or anything.”

“A tease?” Salima said, humored disbelief in her voice. “What in the world would make you think something like that?”

“Larry said if I call men I don’t intend to marry, then I’m a tease.”

“Larry, Jacob’s brother?” Salima said, surprise in her voice.

“You know him?” Aliyah said.

“I wouldn’t say I know him…” Salima said in an apparent effort to sound diplomatic. “But he plays basketball with Jamil sometimes.”

“Do you think he’s right?”

“That you’re a tease if you call men you don’t intend to marry?” Salima spoke as it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard.

“Not in those words…” Aliyah said, self-conscious all of a sudden. “But that it’s wrong?”

“If you have no reason to call,” Salima said. “But if you have a reason to call, then there’s nothing wrong with it.”

There was a thoughtful pause. “Does Larry want to marry you or something?” Salima said, as if a thought had come to her just then.

“He asked,” Aliyah said tentatively. “But I said no.”

Salima chuckled. “Okay, now it makes sense.”

“What makes sense?”

“Why you’re so confused,” Salima said. “You have no idea whether you’re coming or going.”

Aliyah was unsure whether she should feel relieved or offended.

“You’ve been through a lot,” Salima said. “And this situation with Jacob and Deanna, and now Larry, is making everything muddled in your mind.”

“Well, this hasn’t been my best year…” Aliyah said, sad humor in her tone.

“That much is obvious,” Salima said, but Aliyah sensed that she meant it kindly. “You just have to give yourself time to heal. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Aliyah started to respond then realized she had no idea what to say. She hadn’t expected the conversation to shift to her personal struggles.

“I don’t mean to criticize you,” Salima said, her tone soft and apologetic. “But it’s clear you’re walking on eggshells.”

“I really act like that?” Aliyah had hoped to sound lighthearted, but she just sounded sad.

“When I first met you in Sister Reem’s class,” Salima said, “I knew you were one step from falling apart. And I only knew it because I had been in the same place too.”

Aliyah felt a lump in her throat as she was overcome with sadness.

“I don’t know what’s causing all your pain,” Salima said. “But I know you’re going to have to stop bottling it up for everyone else’s sake. One day, you’re going to have to just let go and do you.”

“What do you mean?” Aliyah said, surprised that she found her voice. Tears stung her eyes, but she didn’t understand her emotional reaction.

“First of all,” Salima said, “you’re going to have to talk to somebody. Whatever’s bothering you, you can’t keep trying to figure it out alone.”

Aliyah coughed laughter, immediately reminded of her phone call to Larry. “Talking to someone is how I got into this mess.”

“Not to a man,” Salima said. “And not about work,” she added. “And not about the Islamic ruling on phone calls or other meaningless stuff. Those are just distractions that keep you from focusing on what’s really wrong.”

“How do you know all of this?” Aliyah said, embarrassed humor in her tone.

“Once you’ve been through hell and back,” Salima said, “it’s not hard to see the fire in other people’s eyes.”

***

After the phone call with Salima, Aliyah sat on her bed, gaze distant and arms folded, the cordless lying next to her. When I first met you, I knew you were one step from falling apart…

Aliyah was the youngest Thomas girl, and her memories of childhood were relatively carefree. Her parents loosely ascribed to the “tough love” philosophy of childrearing, but other than the “You should be grateful you even have parents” mantra, Aliyah’s memories of being the middle child in the Thomas home were one of security and comfort. Alfred and Naomi encouraged their children to share their thoughts and frustrations and told them they could talk to them about anything. Perhaps that was why Aliyah had been so open about her growing interest in Islam while she was in college.

Her uncle Benjamin was already Muslim at the time, but Aliyah had been oblivious to any serious family tension after his conversion to Islam. She was aware that her parents, as well as other family, did not approve of him leaving the church, but Aliyah was too young and naïve to really grasp what that meant. Yes, her parents and cousins and aunts and uncles gossiped about him at family gatherings and on the phone, and she heard a lot about how even members of the church felt sorry for Valerie because she was married to Benjamin.

But none of this prepared Aliyah for what would happen to her. For one thing, her family and church members gossiped about everything. A person could be gossiping about someone then get up and go to the bathroom, and the people still sitting at the table would gossip about that person, then get back right to gossiping with her once she returned.

So how was Aliyah supposed to know that the gossip about Benjamin “ruining” Valerie’s life by becoming Muslim was any weightier than the gossip about the preacher having an affair? If anything, in Aliyah’s mind, the latter was worse. But to Aliyah’s surprise, her family and others still went to church faithfully every Sunday, gave generously when the preacher asked, and greeted the preacher and his wife with wide smiles and friendly enthusiasm. So Aliyah had assumed her unpopular choice would be treated similarly. “No topic is off limits,” her parents would say. “Anything that you want to talk about, we’re here,” they’d say. So naturally, Aliyah confided in them about her spiritual transition.

Then her parents refused to speak to her ever again.

The shrilling of the cordless phone interrupted her thoughts, and Aliyah’s shoulders jerked at the sudden sound. For a fleeting moment, Aliyah thought it might be Jacob but realized it was her home phone ringing, not her mobile phone. She picked up the cordless and saw Reem’s name and mobile number on the caller identification display.

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah said after pressing the talk button and putting the phone to her ear. Her voice was cheerfully cordial.

Wa’alaiku mus salaam.” Reem’s subdued tone made Aliyah sense that something was wrong. “I’m not going to keep you long,” Reem said.

“It’s no problem,” Aliyah said sincerely. “I’m not busy.”

“Well, I am,” Reem said curtly.

Aliyah’s eyebrows rose in surprise, but she didn’t say anything.

“From now on,” Reem said, “I won’t be giving you any private tennis lessons or Qur’an classes.”

“Okay,” Aliyah said, surprised that she didn’t feel offended or upset. Deep down, she was actually relieved at the news. An awkward silence followed, and Aliyah sensed that Reem had expected a different response.

“So if you want to study Qur’an,” Reem said, her voice full of emotion, “then you can come to the masjid classes like everyone else.”

“Okay,” Aliyah said. “But I appreciate you taking the time to teach me,” she said sincerely. She didn’t want Reem to think she had taken the classes for granted. Amidst all the stress and chaos in her life, learning Qur’an was one of the few things that brought her peace of mind.

However, Aliyah couldn’t deny that Reem’s insistence on being part of her personal life was putting a strain on their relationship. One minute Reem wanted to be the Qur’an teacher, then the next she wanted to enmesh herself in Aliyah’s personal life. But Reem had never taken a moment to ask what Aliyah wanted or needed, or if she wanted to be friends with Reem at all. Reem just offered advice, asked personal questions, and made unilateral decisions on what Aliyah needed to know. But whenever Aliyah showed the slightest sign of having feelings and limitations of her own, Reem took offense. To Aliyah, it was a lose-lose situation. Reem would always view herself as the generous giver and Aliyah as the humble receiver, and if Aliyah stepped out of the ingratiating role that Reem had assigned her, Reem behaved as if she’d been wronged.

“I know you’re really busy and you didn’t have to teach me,” Aliyah said, hoping to part on good terms. “So jazaakillaahukhairan.”

“Next time someone offers to make special arrangements for you,” Reem said, her voice tight in offense, “you should be more respectful.”

“Reem,” Aliyah said, “I apologize if anything I’ve said or done has offended you. But I really don’t understand your definition of respect. If I’ve ever disrespected you, I didn’t mean to.”

If?” Reem said in exasperation. “For the past few weeks, all you’ve been is disrespectful. I would’ve never imagined you would treat a Qur’an teacher like that.”

“How did I disrespect you during Qur’an class?” Aliyah said, careful to keep her tone level.

“I’m not talking about Qur’an class,” Reem said. “I’m talking about how you treat me.”

“And how do I treat you?” Aliyah said, exhaustion in her tone.

“Are you seriously going to act like you have no idea what I’m talking about?” Reem’s voice said through the receiver.

“I’m not acting,” Aliyah said. “I really don’t recall mistreating you during our classes.”

“I just said this isn’t about Qur’an class.”

“But you said you would’ve never imagined I would treat a Qur’an teacher like this,” Aliyah pointed out.

“A Qur’an teacher deserves respect in and outside of class.”

Aliyah felt herself growing annoyed, but she struggled to keep calm. It had been Reem’s idea for them to have a relationship outside of class. How could she blame Aliyah for that? Casual relationships weren’t bound by formal rules. “Reem, if you recall,” Aliyah said, “you were the one who initiated the idea of us being friends. When you and I became friends, the rules of student and teacher no longer applied.”

“In Islam, for certain people, there is adab that applies at all times,” Reem said in a didactic tone, referring to the rules of proper Islamic etiquette.

“You mean like how we’re supposed to treat our elders?” Aliyah said, sarcasm in her tone.

There was an extended silence, and Aliyah sensed that Reem had forgotten that Aliyah was a few years older than she was.

“That’s different,” Reem said defensively. “A Qur’an teacher has a status above everyone else.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Aliyah said. “That’s why I asked you if I ever mistreated you during class. And since I haven’t, I’m confused as to why you feel I’ve disrespected you as a Qur’an teacher. You can’t mix friendship with a teacher-student status. Otherwise, I can claim you disrespected me. I’m the elder, whether we’re in class or not.”

“I didn’t have to change my schedule around to suit you,” Reem said, ignoring Aliyah’s point. “That was a huge sacrifice for me. So you have no right to criticize my family and call us racist cultural Muslims.”

“What?” Aliyah said, humor in her tone. “When did I call your family racist cultural Muslims?”

“Maybe you never said it outright,” Reem said. “But that’s obviously what you meant when you said Sayed and I are wrong to require that our children marry Arabs.”

“And what does your family marrying only Arabs have to do with your status as a Qur’an teacher?” Aliyah said defensively.

“You know what, Aliyah?” Reem said, frustration in her tone. “I’m not going to have this conversation with you. I think you’re really arrogant and self-centered. And the only person who seems to matter to you is yourself. I used to feel bad for you, but now I see I made a big mistake. No wonder Deanna pretty much lost her mind around you. You send so many mixed messages.” Reem huffed. “The reason you don’t have any friends is because no one fits into your narrow, judgmental image of what a friend should be. So find another Qur’an teacher, and find another friend. I refuse to subject myself to your disrespect anymore.”

The dial tone hissed in Aliyah’s ear, and she slowly set the cordless phone next her on the bed, shell-shocked as she pressed the off button.

“Let me clarify something, Aliyah,” Reem had said when she’d convinced Aliyah to let her teach private Qur’an classes without pay. “This is not something I do for everyone. As you know, my schedule is really busy. But you’re one of my best students, mashaAllah tabaarakAllah, and I’d hate to lose you. So this is something I want to do for myself, honestly. I know you might not understand this right now, but, truthfully, it would be an honor if you allow me to teach you privately.”

Aliyah got choked up as she recalled the conversation. O Allah, what is wrong with me? Aliyah thought in dismay. Was she really partly to blame for Deanna’s deteriorating condition? And had she really done something to deserve Reem talking to her like that? Aliyah had apologized to Reem Friday night, and Reem had said Aliyah should always feel free to express herself without apology. So what happened?

“You don’t have to apologize,” Reem had said Friday night. “I was offended, but you didn’t say anything wrong…You had every right to say what you did. I don’t believe in micromanaging people’s pain. I went through that with my family when I was in high school, and I vowed to never do it to anyone else. So if you feel I’ve done something wrong, then say it. No matter how upset I get, we’ll get through it insha’Allah.”

Tears welled in Aliyah’s eyes as she sat dumbfounded, her gaze staring distantly toward the framed quote on the wall. You are the author of your life story.

What should I write? Aliyah asked herself, pensive in the realization she was getting it all wrong.

O Allah! her heart begged. Help me write this story!

***

“Yes you will,” Sayed said, raising his voice as he glared at Reem and pointed to her mobile phone that now lay on their bed.

“No I’m not,” Reem said as she stood in front of the mirror affixed to their dresser, yanking the brush through her hair as it got caught in tangles. She couldn’t believe that, after everything that had happened, her husband had the audacity to insist that she was wrong.

“I’m telling you as your husband,” Sayed said, speaking firmly and deliberately, “you are going to pick up that phone and apologize to Aliyah. Nothing she’s said or done deserves that. I’ve told you over and over again, you need to stop taking out your anger with Fahad on the people you love. If you knew what it meant to be a Qur’an teacher, then you would understand that the Qur’an isn’t just rules of recitation, beautiful sounds, and tafseer. It’s life, Reem. It’s life.”

“This has nothing to do with Fahad,” Reem said flippantly, her head jerking slightly as she continued to brush her hair.

“You might think this has nothing to do with your oldest brother,” Sayed said. “But it has everything to do with him. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that you called Aliyah right after we sat through a difficult dinner with Fahad and his family?”

“No I don’t,” Reem said. “Yes, I was tired of Fahad, but I’m tired of Aliyah too.”

“Why? Because she has feelings like everyone else? She doesn’t have to be your friend, Reem. It’s not a religious obligation.”

“But I teach her Qur’an, so she should respect me.”

“But what does respect mean, Reem?” Sayed said. “Our desire for our children to marry Saudis isn’t an Islamic rule, so she has every right to disagree with it. Take a moment and look at it from her point of view. One thing I learned from Cathy is—”

“Do not mention her name to me,” Reem interjected, speaking over him. She was offended that he would bring up the woman he almost married before he acquiesced to his family’s desire for him to marry her.

“—that, for converts to Islam, Muslim friends are not just part-time playmates. They’re people they hope to build an ummah with. They have no Muslim family, so every friendship is one step closer to building a future for themselves and their children.”

“Then they need to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around their idea of a perfect ummah,” Reem said. “Part of the reason they have so many problems is they think everyone should live like the Sahaabah.”

“Is that a wrong assumption?” Sayed said challengingly. “We should behave like the Companions of the Prophet, sallaallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.”

Reem slammed the brush down on the dresser and turned to face him. “Am I such a terrible person that Aliyah has the right to talk to me like that?”

“And is she such a terrible person that you have the right to talk to her like that?” Sayed said. “SubhaanAllah, Reem. Take a step back. She didn’t disrespect you. She just expressed the same thing you’d feel if your Saudi friends said our children could never marry theirs. You wouldn’t want anything to do with them.”

“I didn’t have to help her,” Reem said. “I was doing it for the sake of Allah.”

“Really?” Sayed said, sarcasm in his tone. “If this was about Allah, then you wouldn’t have quit based on hurt feelings. Qur’an teachers don’t pick and choose who learns Allah’s Book.”

“She can find another teacher.”

“I sincerely hope she does,” Sayed said reflectively, shaking his head. “I really do. May Allah replace you with someone better.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re not in an emotional place to be her teacher right now, let alone her friend. So until you take a long, honest look at yourself and learn what it means to teach Qur’an, I think this is your loss, not hers. Allah doesn’t need us, remember that. We need Him. And when we use His Book for our own purposes, there is no blessing in that.”

Reem’s eyes glistened in hurt, and she folded her arms in a pout. “I can’t believe you’d say something like that to me. Everything I teach is from authentic sources. I don’t speak from myself when I talk about Allah.”

“Teaching is not only in words, Reem,” Sayed said. “How you treat people is talking about Allah, especially when you expect privileges because you teach about Allah.”

“Respect isn’t a privilege,” Reem said, sniffing indignantly. “It’s a right.”

“If it’s a right, then Aliyah deserves it too.”

Reem contorted her face. “Americans have no respect for religious knowledge. That’s what I’m talking about.”

Astaghfirullah,” Sayed said, his voice stern. “Then why is it that Allah chose so many of them to become Muslim?”

A stubborn silence followed as Reem refused to respond.

“Look at the Saudis you’re so excited to have our children marry,” Sayed said. “How many of them are studying Qur’an? How many are even praying?”

Reem still said nothing, but her husband’s words softened her solve slightly.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Reem,” he cautioned. “We don’t have a monopoly on this faith. I think Americans are wise to view religious knowledge with distrust. Don’t forget, that’s how many of them came to accept Islam in the first place. And if they’re sincere, that distrust will lead them to the religious knowledge they can trust.”

“What have I done to make Aliyah distrust me?” Reem said, voice tight in hurt.

Sayed was silent for some time as he looked affectionately at his wife. “Reem, this isn’t about Aliyah,” he said. “This is about you. You’re hurting, and when you’re hurting, one-on-one relationships are hard for you.” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “You need to go to a therapist to help sort this out. You can’t keep lashing out at people every time Fahad comes around.”

Reem clenched her jaw and tears welled in her eyes. “Where am I supposed to find a therapist?” she said in a small voice. “You know what our family thinks about American shrinks.”

There was an extended pause as Sayed met Reem’s gaze doubtfully. “Are you willing to go?” he said.

“As long as no one finds out,” Reem said, averting her gaze.

“Then I’ll talk to Jacob, insha’Allah,” Sayed said. “I’m sure he’ll know someone with no connection to the Arab community.”

***

Early Sunday morning Jacob stood near the window in his home office. He had had a difficult time sleeping the night before, but he wasn’t inclined to go back to bed. He had spent the latter part of the night in prayer and self-reflection. After praying Qiyaam al-Layl, he had sat on his prayer mat and read Qur’an until it was time to pray Fajr. In the qunoot during Witr prayer, Jacob had stood with his hands raised in supplication, begging Allah to forgive him and his wife and to cover their faults from the public. He beseeched Allah to heal Deanna, to protect her from harm, and to guide her to make the decision that was best for her.

Though it was a difficult conclusion (and one that he’d come to only after careful reflection and Istikhaarah), Jacob had told Deanna’s attorney that he would not bear the responsibility for deciding Deanna’s fate. Either they get her a psychological evaluation to determine her mental lucidity or they get Deanna herself to inform them, verbally or in writing, what she wanted them to do about the plea deal. It was obvious that Deanna’s mental state was deteriorating, but Jacob wasn’t completely convinced that Deanna was incapable of making a reasonable decision. If Deanna had the presence of mind to lure him to the jail just so she could vent to him about Aliyah, then she had the ability to decide whether or not she should fight the charges or accept the plea.

Besides, it was a lose-lose situation for Jacob no matter what he did. If he made the decision for her and she suffered a terrible fate, then Deanna would blame him for the rest of her life—and he would blame himself for the rest of his life. And if he made the decision for her and she was exonerated of all charges, then she would feel entitled to demand more of him. And no matter what happened, Jacob was firm in his resolve that he would not remarry Deanna.

The past few months had been terribly lonely and confusing for Jacob as he struggled to take care of himself and their sons in her absence, but the time had been surprisingly tranquil for him spiritually. He was even developing a healthier relationship with Younus and Thawab while their mother was gone. Whenever Deanna had been around, Jacob felt tense and anxious while interacting with his sons. Deanna’s constant criticism about his parental decisions and her incessant yelling at the boys even while he was enjoying a pleasant moment with them put Jacob on edge. Ironically, he didn’t realize just how much he had been on edge until she was gone. It was as if he was finally exhaling after having held his breath for too long.

Call Dr. Warren! The dry-erase marker note on the whiteboard reminded Jacob that he hadn’t called Aliyah back. Crap, he thought to himself in self-rebuke. He needed to talk to her before Monday morning. He glanced at the clock. Was it too early to give her a call?

***

Aliyah was still sitting facing the qiblah on the carpet of her bedroom when the rays of early morning spilled through her window. She had slept for only a few hours Saturday night before deciding to get up and pray Qiyaam al-Layl. But when she had gone to the bathroom, she discovered that she was menstruating. Her heart fell in sadness when she realized she would be unable to offer Salaah for an entire week. Usually Aliyah viewed her period as a “week off” from obligatory prayer, but moments like these she wished she could connect to Allah through formal prayer. Reem’s words had cut deep, and Aliyah really wanted the tranquility of formal prayer to help clear her mind and heart. But since she couldn’t pray, she had sat in self-reflection in between reading Qur’an and crying to Allah in du’aa. Facing the direction for prayer, she had remained there until sunrise, and the spiritual exercise helped calm her heart and unclutter her mind.

“You stay out of my life, and I stay out of yours.” Aliyah cringed at the memory of how poorly she had translated her feelings to Reem. Aliyah had fallen asleep in a fit of agony, regretting how she had spoken to her now former Qur’an teacher, and she hadn’t improved much when she had woken up that morning before dawn. Regret had gnawed at her as she reflected on how she could have better handled the exchange with Reem.

It’s for the better, Aliyah said to herself as the rays of sun lit her room and she thought of Reem’s angry phone call. She had no idea why she felt so certain, but there was a sense of peace in her heart. Everything with Reem would sort itself out, she felt, though Aliyah had no idea how or when. Allah is in charge of hearts, she reminded herself. He is in charge of everything. If Allah had decreed that Reem’s heart would turn away from her, then it must be for a good reason. Aliyah hadn’t intended to insult Reem, and Aliyah was sure Reem hadn’t intended to insult her. Perhaps they were both nursing their own private wounds and simply needed time to heal.

“O Allah,” Aliyah said bowing her head and raising her hands in du’aa. “Give me better than I lost, and give Reem better than she lost. And forgive us both and remove from us any ghill in our hearts. For you are Al-Ghafoor, Al-Wahhaab. Ameen.”

After the prayerful supplication, Aliyah glanced at the clock and saw that it was just after seven o’clock in the morning. She wondered if it was too early to call Mashael. In a couple of hours, Aliyah would need to prepare breakfast for Ibrahim and start getting dressed. She was scheduled to meet Salima for breakfast at ten o’clock. When they had spoken the night before, they planned to meet at the mall restaurant where Aliyah had often taken her son to play with Younus and Thawab. Salima and Aliyah hoped that Haroon and Ibrahim could enjoy themselves in the children’s area while they talked. So Aliyah should probably call Mashael within the next hour in case the conversation took longer than expected.

A vibrating sound interrupted Aliyah’s thoughts, and she turned and saw that someone was calling her mobile. Confused, Aliyah stood and walked over to the nightstand by her bed, wondering who would be calling at this time.

Jacob Bivens, the caller ID display glowed.

After only a slight hesitation, Aliyah pressed the button to accept the call and put the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

As-salaamu’alaikum wa rahmatullaah,” Jacob said.

Aliyah’s spirits lifted at the sound of the familiar voice. “Wa’alaiku mus salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh.”

“I’m sorry to call so early,” he said. “But I didn’t want to miss you.”

“It’s okay,” Aliyah said. “I was awake.”

There was an extended pause. “Aliyah,” Jacob said, concern in his tone, “did Dr. Warren meet with you last week to replace you with Dr. Stanley as stand-in coordinator of the internship in my absence?”

Aliyah got the sudden feeling that she had done something terribly wrong. “Yes…” she said hesitantly.

“And you accepted?”

Aliyah cringed as she was overcome with apprehension and mortification. “Yes…”

Jacob exhaled, as if disturbed by the news. “Then you need to talk to Dr. Warren first thing Monday morning and revoke that acceptance.”

“Why?” Aliyah said, her tone concerned.

“This might not make a lot of sense right now,” Jacob said. “But, trust me, if Dr. Warren appointed Dr. Stanley to oversee the internship, then it wasn’t to help you or One Plus One.”

Aliyah slowly sat on the edge of her bed, dread knotting in her stomach. “What happened?”

“I can explain more later, insha’Allah,” Jacob said, apology in his voice. “But for now, I need you to tell Dr. Warren that based on Article Three of the Faculty-Initiated Program Code, you decline to accept Dr. Stanley as the stand-in coordinator in your place.”

“Okay…” Aliyah said, unsure how to process what Jacob was saying. She hesitated briefly before asking, “But why did you call my uncle about this? Does he know something?”

Several seconds passed before Aliyah heard Jacob exhale. “With everything that’s happening,” Jacob said, “I didn’t feel comfortable calling you myself.”

“You mean because of all those ‘crazy Muslim woman’ rumors?”

“No,” Jacob said, as if choosing his words carefully. “Because Dr. Stanley has a history, and since I’m no longer at the college, at least for the time being, I wanted to make sure someone else was looking out for you.”

“I’m not understanding,” Aliyah said, drawing her eyebrows together. “What history?”

“Aliyah,” Jacob said, “there’s a lot I can’t say because my position bounds me to confidentiality. Even this phone call itself is walking a thin line. But as your Muslim brother, it’s my responsibility to ensure your protection and safety. So I’ll say this. Part of the reason I made it a point to stop by your office each day and walk you to the elevator and to your car was so that Dr. Stanley and our other colleagues would associate you with me and leave you alone.”

“Leave me alone?” Aliyah repeated in confusion. “Why?”

Jacob drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “Aliyah, if I could, I’d tell you everything. But as a member of the staff disciplinary committee, I can’t reveal the details of cases that have come before me. So as far as Dr. Warren and any of our colleagues are concerned, this conversation never happened. But as your Muslim brother, I’m telling you that Dr. Stanley, with the implicit support of Dr. Warren, has been trying for years to have me demoted from department head, and it looks like they’re taking advantage of you and my absence to do it.”

Aliyah felt anxiety tightening in her chest. After having told Dr. Warren she welcomed any help for the internship, Aliyah loathed the idea of going back and telling Dr. Warren that she was formally refusing Dr. Stanley replacing her as One Plus One’s stand-in coordinator. Aliyah had tried so hard to stay out of problems at work, but now it looked like she had unwittingly walked right into a slew of them.

“When you look at the faculty handbook that I mentioned earlier,” Jacob continued, “pay particular attention to the section about faculty-initiated programs and the steps required to have a staff member replace another as the appointed stand-in coordinator. This is the part I need you to reference when you speak to Dr. Warren Monday morning. Right now, this might all sound cryptic, but trust me, with Dr. Stanley involved, your professional reputation, and perhaps even your position, could be at stake. My hope is that this is only a grievance they have with me, but we can’t afford to take any chances.”

“Okay,” Aliyah said, her mind racing to recall where she had placed the handbook. “I appreciate you letting me know.”

“And if you can,” Jacob said, “between now and next week, find out what you can about Dr. Stanley. As I said, I’m bound by confidentiality, so I can’t say much. But his indiscretions are well known on campus, even amongst students. So if you hear any rumors about him, they’re probably true.”

“Can you give me an idea of what I’m dealing with?” Aliyah said, feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

“I can’t speak on that,” Jacob said. “But you need to be careful, personally and professionally. He can’t be trusted.”

How could I have been so naïve? Aliyah thought in self-rebuke. When Dr. Warren first spoke to her about Dr. Stanley, Aliyah should have told her supervisor that she needed time to think over any changes different from what Dr. Bivens had suggested. But Aliyah had been so keen on being accommodating that the possibility that Dr. Warren had intended anything except to make Aliyah feel intimidated had never crossed her mind. No wonder Dr. Warren had seemed to anticipate Aliyah’s resistance.

“And of course, don’t let anyone know I told you to ask about him,” Jacob’s voice said through the phone. “Anything you learn, keep to yourself for future reference. You’re gathering this information for your own protection, not to share with anyone else.”

“Okay,” Aliyah said, doubtful. “But who should I talk to?”

“You’re probably safest talking to someone who’s no longer at the college,” Jacob said, apology in his tone, “if that’s possible.”

“Does my uncle know anything about Dr. Stanley?” Aliyah asked, hopeful that she could rely heavily on Benjamin instead of other people.

“Yes…” Jacob said noncommittally. “Through rumors. But some of the sisters who’ve attended the college should know more.”

“I’ll get on that right away, insha’Allah,” Aliyah said. “JazaakAllaahukhairan for telling me.”

Wa iyyaki,” Jacob said. “I was hoping you would never have to deal with any of this directly. But qaddarAllah,” he said with a sigh. “Allah does what He wills.”

There was an extended silence.

“I’m really sorry about everything that’s happening with Deanna,” Aliyah said, her thoughts shifting to her former friend. “If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.”

“I might take you up on that,” Jacob said, his tone exhausted and reflective. “But right now, we just need your prayers.”

“Of course,” Aliyah said. “I pray for your family every day.”

“Thank you,” Jacob said. “That means a lot.”

“How is Mrs. Michaels, by the way?” Aliyah said. “Is there any improvement?”

Aliyah heard Jacob exhale, and she hoped she hadn’t touched on too sensitive a subject. “Allah knows best, but the doctors say they see signs of improvement, but nothing significant.”

“Do they think she might wake up?”

“They’re not sure,” Jacob said. “But I’m praying she does. For everyone’s sake,” he said, “even mine.”

Aliyah was unsure if she had the right to ask, but her curiosity was piqued. “Why yours?”

“I never really got to talk to her about Islam,” Jacob said, “at least not in depth. There was always so much going on that it never felt like the right time.”

“Well, I pray you get the opportunity,” Aliyah said, unsure what else to say. She had no idea if it was realistic to expect Mrs. Michaels to wake up from a coma, let alone to be lucid enough to have conversations about religion.

“I do too,” Jacob said reflectively. “I really do…”

A thought came to Aliyah suddenly. “If I run into any problems with Dr. Warren or Dr. Stanley,” she said hesitantly, “should I call you or my uncle?”

There was a brief pause as Jacob considered Aliyah’s question. “Whatever you think is best,” Jacob said finally. “You’re welcome to call me anytime, but depending on the nature of the problem, you may feel more comfortable talking to your uncle. Either way, I plan to stay in touch with both of you though I’ll be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

“That’s fine,” Aliyah said. “I understand.”

“But I do apologize for all of this,” Jacob said. “I never intended for you to be in the middle of any of it. But unfortunately, every workplace has its set of problems, and Dr. Stanley is one of ours. And Dr. Warren, though well-intentioned at times, too often lets her resentment of religion, and Muslim men in particular, cloud her judgment, so Dr. Stanley takes every opportunity to exploit that.”

“May Allah protect us,” Aliyah said, unsure what else she could say. It was all so overwhelming.

“Ameen. That’s my prayer,” Jacob said sincerely. “In the end, it is Allah who is our Protector. I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

***

At 10:30 Sunday morning, Aliyah sat across from Salima at a restaurant booth as they watched the boys play together in the mall. The bumper car section wasn’t yet open, but Ibrahim and Haroon were enjoying themselves on the jungle gym next to it. In between smiling and laughing at the boys, Aliyah and Salima ate from their plates of waffles and omelets and sipped from glasses of orange juice and apple juice.

“You seem happy.”

“What?” Aliyah said, still grinning as she looked away from Ibrahim and met Salima’s gaze before putting a forkful of waffle in her mouth.

“You look happy,” Salima said again, a smile creasing the sides of her lips.

Glancing at her son, Aliyah smiled with her eyes as she chewed her food. “I love it when Ibrahim gets out,” she said after a few seconds.

“Ibrahim was out with you Friday night,” Salima said, a friendly smirk on her face, “but you didn’t look happy.”

“Really?” Aliyah’s tone conveyed genuine surprise. “I probably was just tired. I had a long day at work.”

Salima narrowed her eyes as she ate in silence for some time, her expression playfully accusing.

“What?” Aliyah said, laughter in her voice as she grew self-conscious under Salima’s gaze.

“You sounded really upset last night,” Salima said.

Aliyah creased her forehead in confusion. “I did?”

“When we talked,” Salima said slowly, as if to jog Aliyah’s memory.

“Oh yeah,” Aliyah said as if it were a long time ago. She waved her fork dismissively before using it to cut a piece of omelet. “I got up early and made a lot of du’aa, so I feel better, alhamdulillah.” She looked toward the boys and laughed before putting the piece of omelet in her mouth.

Salima pursed her lips suspiciously after Aliyah met her gaze again. “You called Jacob back, didn’t you?”

It took a few seconds for Aliyah to register what Salima was talking about. “Jacob?” Aliyah said, eyebrows drawn together after she swallowed her food.

“Yes, Jacob,” Salima said, widening her eyes playfully, as if to remind Aliyah that he exists. “Jacob Bivens,” she said. “Dr. Jacob Bivens, the math professor you work with.”

Aliyah averted her gaze. “I decided not to call him back.”

“Then he called you back,” Salima said matter-of-factly.

Aliyah lifted a shoulder in a shrug, a hesitant grin on her face. “This morning,” she admitted. “But it wa—”

“Ha, I knew it!” Salima shook her head. She lifted her glass of apple juice, took a sip, and set it back down, smirking. “I swear, if you didn’t have melanin in your skin, you would be blushing right now.”

“Blushing?” Aliyah said, humored disbelief in her voice. “Because my department head called me?”

“No,” Salima said. “Because the man you want to marry called you.”

The smile fell from Aliyah’s face as she met Salima’s gaze in confusion. “The man I want to marry? He’s my best friend’s husband.”

“Former husband,” Salima corrected.

Aliyah frowned thoughtfully. “How did you find out?”

“Jamil told me.”

“Jamil?”

“My brother,” Salima said. “He was with me at the halal store.”

“Oh yeah,” Aliyah said, remembering just then. “He plays basketball with Larry, right?”

“Sometimes,” Salima said noncommittally.

“So Larry told him?” Aliyah said, surprise in her tone.

“Or Jacob,” Salima suggested.

Aliyah drew her eyebrows together in confusion. “Jamil knows Jacob?”

Salima chuckled. “Everybody knows Jacob.”

Aliyah smiled, nodding in embarrassment. “That makes sense. He’s pretty well known in the community.”

“Plus, Jamil works at the law firm that’s representing Deanna.”

A shadow of concern passed over Aliyah’s face. “Everybody knows about the charges now?”

Salima shook her head. “Not everybody. But Jamil and I do.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

Salima pulled her head back in surprise. “Why does it matter?”

Oh. Aliyah shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t. I just thought…” Aliyah didn’t know how to finish her sentence.

“That you were keeping your friend’s secret?” Salima finished, a knowing smile on her face.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Keep doing that,” Salima said, her tone serious. “We’re praying the media doesn’t get ahold of this.”

“I am.” Aliyah sighed as she glanced at the boys. “I’d hate to think what would happen if Younus and Thawab found out.”

Salima raised an eyebrow. “Found out what?”

“Everything,” Aliyah said, sadness in her tone. “Can you imagine?”

“They probably know a lot more than we do,” Salima said reflectively. “Children aren’t as naïve as we think. Don’t forget they live with their parents.”

“But Larry said it happened at Deanna’s parents’ house.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Salima said. “They might not know all the details. But I’m sure they know something’s wrong.”

Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “May Allah protect them. I don’t want to see them hurt.”

“Ameen to the du’aa,” Salima said, her tone pensive. “But I think it’s a little too late to hope they won’t get hurt. Let’s just pray their pain doesn’t cause any serious long-term damage.”

Aliyah ate in silence for some time, her gaze between the boys and her food. “How well do you know their family?” Aliyah said, glancing up at Salima hesitantly.

“Whose family?”

“Larry and Jacob’s.”

Salima averted her gaze and shrugged. “Not more than you, I assume,” she said. “Jamil knows them better than I do.”

Aliyah nodded thoughtfully. She felt inclined to inquire more, but she wasn’t sure what to ask.

“Why?” Salima asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Aliyah said with a shrug. “It’s just that I—”

“Salima?”

At the sound of a strange voice, Aliyah turned and found an attractive young woman standing next to the their table smiling widely at Salima and holding a shopping bag.

“Yasmeen?” Salima said in pleasant surprise. She stood and drew the woman into an embrace.

The woman rolled her eyes in embarrassment and waved her hand dismissively. “Why do you keep calling me that?” she said after they released each other.

“A mother can hope, right?” Salima said teasingly.

“You’re too young to be my mother,” the young woman said, grinning. “But trust me.” She lowered her voice and narrowed her eyes playfully. “I wouldn’t mind having you instead.”

Salima and the woman laughed at the private joke, leaving Aliyah feeling awkward.

“I’m sorry.” Salima gestured a hand toward Aliyah as she sat back down. “Yasmeen, this is Aliyah. Aliyah, this is Yasmeen.”

The woman rolled her eyes as she leaned forward and shook Aliyah’s hand. “My name is Jasmine,” she said as she side-eyed Salima playfully. “But Salima and my boyfriend think Arabizing my name will convince me to convert.”

“You’re not Muslim?” Aliyah said, more for friendly conversation than sincere interest.

“Not yet,” Salima said quickly, answering for Jasmine. “But we’re working on it.”

Aliyah nodded, a polite smile on her face, but something in the way Salima spoke made Aliyah sense that Salima was rushing the conversation for her benefit.

“But give me a call sometime, okay?” Salima said, smiling broadly at Jasmine.

“I will,” Jasmine said apologetically. “It’s just that I’ve been so busy.” She rolled her eyes again. “You know, with Larry and my family and everything that’s going on.”

Aliyah stiffened, the polite smile remaining frozen on her face. In her peripheral vision, she saw Salima eyeing her in between maintaining eye contact with Jasmine, but Aliyah couldn’t bring herself to look at Salima. Aliyah felt pulsating at her temples as the conversation faded into the background then slowly became audible again.

“But let me go,” Jasmine said finally. “I just stopped by the mall to pick up a gift for Larry’s mother. I’m supposed to be meeting them for Sunday brunch.”

“Tell everyone I said hello,” Salima said.

“I will,” Jasmine said before turning to Aliyah and smiling. “It was nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Aliyah managed to utter before Jasmine disappeared into the mall corridors.

Aliyah focused her gaze on her food and ate in silence for some time.

“I wanted to tell you when we discussed him last night,” Salima said apologetically. “But I figured it didn’t matter since you turned him down. I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s not your responsibility,” Aliyah said sincerely, surprised that she found her voice. “It’s just shocking, that’s all.”

“Is it?” Salima said doubtfully. “Larry doesn’t strike me as a one-woman man.”

Aliyah chuckled as she stabbed mindlessly at the food left on her plate. “I can see that.”

“But he seems like a nice brother, mashaAllah,” Salima said.

Aliyah rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Don’t they all?”

Salima grunted agreement. “My husband used to say, ‘Everybody seems nice, Salima. Come up with a better line.’” She laughed and shook her head as if enjoying a pleasant memory. “I guess I’m just a stickler for seeing the good in people.”

MashaAllah,” Aliyah said reflectively. “I’m the same way. But I’m learning that good is complex and layered.”

“That’s so true,” Salima said, nodding in agreement. “When we see everything as black and white, it causes a lot of problems.”

“But how do you work through the gray?” Aliyah said thoughtfully, setting down her fork and meeting Salima’s gaze. “When Deanna and I were friends, I ignored all the warning signs, you know? I kept telling myself that she means well or that this is just her personality or she’s just trying to help. Sometimes I don’t know the forest for the trees.”

“That’s everybody,” Salima said. “The closer a situation is to you, the more difficult it is to see what’s really going on. That’s why we have friends and family to help us figure things out.”

“Or no one,” Aliyah said in dry humor as she gazed toward the jungle gym for some time.

“We all have someone,” Salima said, “even if it doesn’t feel like it at times.”

Aliyah nodded. “That’s true. We always have Allah.”

“I meant people,” Salima said. “No one can do it alone.”

“You sound like Reem,” Aliyah said, meeting Salima’s gaze with a hesitant smile. “But everyone doesn’t have family and friends to depend on. Except for my uncle Benjamin, I have Allah and myself. And I’m starting to realize it’s for the better.”

“You don’t have family?” Salima said, her tone conveying surprise. “I thought you mentioned you wished you could live with your brothers.”

“Yes,” Aliyah said tentatively. “Emphasis on the word wish. It could never happen. They don’t speak to me anymore.”

“Why not?” Salima said, shocked disapproval in her tone.

“I became Muslim.”

Salima and Aliyah remained silent as they watched the boys climb the jungle gym and hang upside down, their legs locked in place on the bars. Droves of men and women slowly drifted into the mall as the gates of several stores opened, and a few more children joined Ibrahim and Haroon.

“How long have you been Muslim?” Salima asked.

“About eighteen years.”

“And your family is still upset?”

“To be honest,” Aliyah said, “I don’t know. They never really offered any explanation. Except that I was being selfish and ungrateful after everything they did for me.”

“Your brothers said that?” Salima asked, surprised.

“No, my parents,” Aliyah said. “But everyone just went along with it.”

“Maybe they didn’t have a choice,” Salima offered. “Whenever grown children fall in line with their parents on things like that, it’s usually because the parents made it clear they don’t have a choice.”

Aliyah nodded thoughtfully. “I can see my parents doing that. They were really good at making us feel bad if we showed even the slightest disapproval of anything they did. When I was younger, I thought we were being raised to be respectful to our elders. Now I know we were just being raised to be compliant with whatever they wanted.”

“Or both,” Salima said.

“Or both,” Aliyah agreed, nodding. “I just don’t think my parents know the difference.”

“Most parents don’t,” Salima said. “Parents learn parenting at about the same pace that children learn life. We’re all going at this alone.”

“You really think so?” Aliyah said doubtfully. “I think we know a lot more than we admit. It’s not that difficult to just take a moment and listen to someone, you know what I mean?”

“I agree,” Salima said. “I’m just saying it’s not easy if you don’t have the right guidance. Don’t forget that a lot of what you know is because of the natural clarity that faith gives you. Without Islam, people are lost.”

Aliyah huffed humorously. “Many Muslims are lost, too.”

“Like I said,” Salima replied, “without Islam, people are lost.”

Aliyah nodded, understanding. “And Islam is sincere belief and humble submission.”

“Exactly,” Salima said. “Allah makes it very simple to be Muslim and go to Paradise. But that doesn’t mean every Muslim understands and embraces what Islam really means.”

“That’s a lifetime effort,” Aliyah said. “I’m still trying to figure it out myself.”

“Good,” Salima said. “It’s when you’re confident that you understand Islam fully that you need to worry.”

There was a brief pause as Salima lifted her glass of juice. “So what’s going on with you and Jacob?” she said before sipping from the glass, her gaze on Aliyah.

Aliyah shrugged. “Nothing,” she said. “He was calling about work.”

“Work?” Salima raised her eyebrows doubtfully then set her glass down. “Are you sure?”

Aliyah smirked and shook her head. “What is up with everyone? Do I have a sign on my head that says, ‘Ask me about Jacob’?”

“No,” Salima said. “But Jacob has a sign on his head that says, ‘I want to marry Aliyah.’”

“I don’t think so,” Aliyah said, shaking her head and grinning self-consciously. She lifted her glass of orange juice and peered inside thoughtfully before setting it back down. “Maybe about thirteen years ago, but everything’s different now.”

There was an extended silence. “Not everything,” Salima said reflectively. “Hearts don’t change so easily.”

Aliyah’s gaze became distant momentarily. “But circumstances do,” she said.

A loud humming noise came from the play area, and Aliyah turned and found a man preparing the bumper car station. Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion as the children left the jungle gym and rushed to line up, Ibrahim and Haroon among them.

“When Jamil was struggling in his marriage,” Salima said, her eyes on the children pushing and shoving to get to the bumper cars, “he said Jacob gave him a lot of good advice.”

MashaAllah,” Aliyah remarked, lifting her glass of orange juice and peering inside again before setting it back down, her thoughts distant.

“And he said Jacob was always talking about the lesson he learned after he let a good sister get away.” Salima met Aliyah’s gaze with a reflective expression on her face. “I remember listening to Jamil and thinking, I wonder who that sister was.” Salima shook her head and smiled at Aliyah. “Now I understand what all the fuss was about, mashaAllah.”

Aliyah averted her gaze, uncomfortable with the attention.

“Trust me,” Salima said, “I don’t think time or circumstance could make that man forget about you.”

“Well,” Aliyah said with a sigh, “for now, I’m focusing on myself and my son. I’ll leave the rest to Allah.”

“That’s always a good plan,” Salima said tentatively. “But there are some things Allah leaves to us.”

“How did everything work out for Jamil and his wife?” Aliyah said, intentionally changing the subject. She didn’t want to talk about Jacob right then.

Salima smiled as if enjoying a private joke. “Well, it turned out he didn’t have to worry about solving any of his marriage problems after all. His wife’s sheikh did it on his behalf.”

Aliyah creased her forehead in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“The sheikh told his wife that she couldn’t be married to him anymore.”

What?” Aliyah felt herself getting upset. “Why would he say something like that?”

Salima shook her head, a reflective frown on her face. “I have no idea.” She shrugged. “But apparently, Jamil wasn’t committed enough.”

Aliyah contorted her face in disapproval. “How would the sheikh know how committed Jamil was to his marriage?”

“Not to the marriage,” Salima said, a sad smile creasing the sides of her lips. “To the sheikh.”

Aliyah’s heart fell in sadness, recalling how betrayed she’d felt after she trusted the imam’s perspective on Matt more than she did her intuition. “Why do they do that?” she said, shaking her head, upset. “What happened to focusing on Allah?”

Ukhti,” Salima said, melancholy in her tone, “for some people, focusing on Allah and focusing on their sheikh are one and the same.”

Aliyah shook her head, still upset. “I don’t understand that thinking though. Isn’t a sheikh supposed to teach people about Allah and Istikhaarah and du’aa? Certainly, the sheikh didn’t believe it was obligatory for Jamil to follow him.”

“I don’t understand it either,” Salima said. “But it’s rare to find someone who admits they don’t have all the answers. Everyone wants to think their group, madhhab, or sheikh has the answer to everything.”

“Even who you should be married to,” Aliyah muttered, disappointment in her tone.

“Even who you should be married to.” Salima nodded, pursing her lips. “But the good news is, it was for the best. Jamil is doing much better now, alhamdulillah. And if I’m completely honest, I was happy to see her go. She was pulling Jamil away from Allah, and it was hard to watch.”

SubhaanAllah. I can’t imagine,” Aliyah said, sighing. “I really miss my classes, but I’m not willing to go back to being taught that critical thinking and religiousness are mutually exclusive. When I became Muslim, I decided to submit to Allah, not to human beings.”

“The problem is,” Salima said reflectively, “we learn about Allah from human beings. So it’s not as simple as people versus Allah.”

Aliyah nodded. “That’s true.”

“But Jamil and I have been blessed to find some pretty good teachers in the last couple of years, mashaAllah,” Salima said.

“You mean Reem’s tafseer classes?”

Salima creased her forehead then shook her head. “I only review my hifdh with Sister Reem.”

An expectant grin spread on Aliyah’s face. “You memorized the whole Qur’an?”

A smile creased one corner of Salima’s mouth as she nodded. “Yes, mashaAllah.”

“Are you serious?” Excited laughter was in Aliyah’s tone.

Salima chuckled. “Yes, mashaAllah, but I don’t like to broadcast it.”

“Why not?” Aliyah said, eyes still wide in pleasant surprise. “MashaAllah, barakAllahufeek. That’s one piece of news that deserves to be broadcasted everywhere.”

“It’s a heavy responsibility though,” Salima said, a hesitant smile lingering. “I got my ijaazah about ten years ago, so I want to—”

“You have your ijaazah too?” Aliyah said, unable to contain her excitement.

Salima chuckled. “So I want to find a teacher to recite to before I start teaching again myself.”

“I thought you recited with Reem,” Aliyah said.

“That’s for my hifdh,” Salima clarified. “Reem doesn’t have her ijaazah yet, so we just focus on my memorization. But I’m still trying to find someone with a formal certification in reciting and teaching Hafs.”

“Can you help me? I mean, if that’s okay,” Aliyah added quickly. “I’ve been studying Hafs for a while, but I need a new teacher.”

Salima creased her forehead in confusion. “A new teacher?”

Aliyah averted her gaze momentarily. “Long story. But Reem stepped down from the position.”

A shadow of concern passed over Salima’s face. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine. For me,” Aliyah added for emphasis. “But Reem wanted more than a teacher-student relationship, and well…” Aliyah was unsure how much she should share. “…I’m not comfortable discussing my private life with someone just because they think I need a friend.”

Salima nodded knowingly, a pleasant expression on her face. “I know the feeling,” she said. “People take one look at my head wrap and start offering to teach me the Arabic alphabet and Al-Faatihah and even the fundamentals of Tawheed.”

Aliyah laughed, relieved. “So it’s not just me?”

“Trust me, I’ve been there,” Salima said. “Sometimes people ask if I know how to pray and if my husband was Muslim.” She shook her head, grinning. “It never ends.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” Aliyah asked, curious.

“Sometimes,” Salima said honestly. “But they mean well, so I try not to get offended. And there are people who need help with those things. It’s just hurtful that the assumption is either ignorance or neediness when they meet me.”

“Do you think it’s a cultural thing?” Aliyah asked thoughtfully. “Because we’re American?”

“Yes,” Salima said. “The general assumption is that people from Western countries are ignorant of Islam, even if they’re Muslim. So well-intentioned people from Muslim countries see us as an opportunity to earn blessings by teaching us about our religion.”

“But what if we know more than they do?” Aliyah asked rhetorically. “What then?”

Salima chuckled. “Then we have the opportunity to earn blessings.” She shook her head, smirking. “But, trust me, that doesn’t always go well. I’ve had people never speak to me again after they hear me recite Qur’an.”

Aliyah drew her eyebrows together. “But why?”

Salima shrugged. “They probably just don’t know how to deal with me anymore. But to be honest, I’ve experienced that with Americans too. For most Muslims, if they can’t place you into a simple category, they get confused and leave you alone.” Salima smirked. “That is, if they don’t just call you misguided and try to convert you to their group.”

“What type of Muslim are you?” Aliyah said in agreement, mocking the question she was often asked.

Salima laughed. “Or who’s your sheikh?”

“Thank God I’m not the only Muslim who just wants to be Muslim,” Aliyah said, “without the prefix.” She shook her head. “But it gets lonely sometimes.”

“Then stay lonely,” Salima said. “It’s better than doing something you don’t believe Allah asks of you.”

SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said, relief in her voice. “I’m so glad I talked to you. I was starting to feel bad for keeping to myself.”

“Never apologize for your personal boundaries,” Salima said. “Wherever you can find authentic knowledge about your faith, take advantage of it. But don’t let people bully you into committing yourself to one group, teacher, or school of thought. If that’s what works for them, cool. But some of us are just trying to hold on to our faith and go to Paradise. And we don’t need a special club membership for that.”

“You can say that again,” Aliyah agreed.

***

Aliyah was home from the mall and Ibrahim had already fallen asleep after lunch when she realized she hadn’t called Mashael. After the conversation with Jacob, Aliyah had completely forgotten. Though Aliyah was exhausted after spending most of the morning at the mall, she decided to call Mashael before lying down herself.

“I’m sorry I’m just getting back with you,” Aliyah said after Mashael answered and they exchanged salaams. “But if you still want to come over, you can.”

“Can I?” Mashael sounded eager and grateful.

“Yes…” Aliyah said tentatively, sensing Mashael was ready to jump in her car right then. “But later this afternoon is better.”

“That’s no problem,” Mashael said quickly.

There was a brief silence. “Can you give me an idea what this is about?” Aliyah said.

“It’s about marriage,” Mashael said in a low whisper, apparently in an effort to keep her family from overhearing.

“Oh…” Aliyah said, uncomfortable. “But you know you can’t…” Aliyah’s thoughts trailed as she realized it wasn’t wise to offer advice before hearing everything Mashael wanted to say. Even if listening to Mashael’s story wouldn’t change Aliyah’s advice, it would certainly affect Mashael’s receptiveness to it.

“Today’s not good?” Mashael said, concern in her voice.

“No, no, no,” Aliyah said quickly, realizing that Mashael had misunderstood her unfinished statement to be related to the time of the visit. “Today’s fine. I just need to lie down for a couple of hours.”

“Is five o’clock okay?” Mashael said, hopeful.

Aliyah smiled. “Yes, insha’Allah. Five o’clock is perfect. I’ll text you my address now.”

Next: Story 19 of 22 (released daily as countdown to WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short movie).

Read the bestselling novel:

Watch the WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE:

…inshaaAllah