Now a short MOVIE and bestselling novel!
It all began with this widely popular short story series:
Story 21: Speak To Me
Deanna dreamt that Jacob was in a lush green field walking toward her, a smile on his face. “Thank you, Deanna,” he was saying. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.” She was overcome with tears as she said, “I’m sorry, Jacob. Forgive me for everything.” But he didn’t seem to hear her. He continued to walk toward her, a smile on his face, but with each step, the grassy field expanded and stretched, until he was far from her, out of reach… I don’t want to lose you, her heart cried as she lost sight of him. Then pray, she heard a voice in her head. Pray…
The stiff pillow beneath her cheek was moist from tears when Deanna opened her eyes. She squinted in the darkness, and her chest constricted as her eyes adjusted to reveal that she was not in her comfortable bed at home. The stale stench of the jail cell burned her nostrils, and she became nauseated as she lay in a fetal position. She clenched her teeth as her stomach heaved, and she swallowed to thwart the bile rising to her throat.
“I divorce you.” Anger flared in Deanna’s chest as she recalled Jacob pronouncing the blasphemous words that sealed her fate. If it hadn’t been for him, she wouldn’t be in jail right then. And if it hadn’t been for him, she would never have fought her mother. What had he been thinking enraging her like that? Why had he threatened to annihilate their relationship? Or was the divorce pronouncement his idea of a cruel joke?
Or maybe Aliyah had put him up to it.
The possibility was so enraging that Deanna sat up in bed, eyes narrowed indignantly. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. It was just like Aliyah to pull a stunt like this. Perhaps Aliyah had even expected Deanna to fight with her mother and end up in jail.
Oh, if only it had been Aliyah and not her mother on the balcony stairs that day. Then Deanna wouldn’t be so racked with guilt about her lying in a coma. It would serve Aliyah right to be rendered practically useless after all of her surreptitious plotting to steal Jacob.
“This is why your life is so messed up. You’re selfish and immature. You have no regard for anyone but yourself. Even God means nothing to you.”
Deanna winced at her mother’s words. For a fleeting moment, she felt a pang of guilt, and she was overcome with shame at her spiteful thoughts. Was it true that even God meant nothing to her?
“Our Lord died for us and gave his blood,” Deanna’s mother had said. “And if you want to go to Heaven, you need to accept his sacrifice.”
Deanna recoiled at the thought of returning to the religion of her parents. Her mother’s words had only been a ruse to guilt Deanna back into joining the church. Ever since Deanna had accepted Islam, her parents had made it their life’s mission to get Deanna to recant her faith. Perhaps Deanna did belong in Hellfire, she considered bitterly. But she would be remiss to fall prey to the trappings of a man and woman who lived only in the peripheral of God’s Word. So how dare they judge Deanna for merely being a reflection of themselves.
But what kind of parents refused to help their daughter take revenge on the husband who had scorned her? What kind of parents would argue about religion, of all things, while their daughter needed their support? Where was the love? Where was the compassion? All Deanna had wanted was her husband to apologize and mend their relationship. But now she was in jail. I want Jacob back! her heart screamed. Aliyah cannot win!
Then pray, a voice said in her head. Pray…
The words from the dream tempered the fury in Deanna’s chest as she recalled Jacob smiling at her. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Chin quivering as she was overcome with emotion, Deanna was reminded that Allah could help her get her husband back.
The supplication of the one who has been wronged is answered, even if it comes from a disbeliever. She recalled the words from an Islamic lecture she’d heard years ago, and they gave her peace of mind. She had been wronged, so her du’aa would be answered. Jacob belonged to her, she said to herself, emboldened by possessive pride. And no one could take what was rightly hers.
Thursday morning after Aliyah had finished the final session with the interns, she walked down the hall leading to her office. It had been two days since her uncle had suggested that she pray and get advice about marrying Jacob. Aliyah’s first thought had been to talk to Salima, but Aliyah had withheld, reminded that Salima had already offered her perspective. “If you’re trying to decide on whether or not to marry him, then there are only three things to consider,” Salima had said. “Allah, the man, and you.”
But that was easier said than done, Aliyah thought to herself.
“I barely even speak to Professor Thomas.”
Hearing someone mention her name distracted Aliyah from her thoughts, and she slowed her steps, curiosity piqued, wondering where the voice was coming from.
“Then be sure to keep it that way.”
Aliyah recognized the second voice just as she saw that Jacob’s office door was open.
“The last day of the internship is tomorrow,” the person said, impatient annoyance in his voice, “so you have nothing to worry about.”
“Dr. Stanley,” Aliyah heard Jacob say, his voice rising in upset, “you know full well this has nothing to do with One Plus One.”
“That’s the only project that I work on with Professor Thomas,” Dr. Stanley said.
“Then let me put it to you another way,” Jacob said. “If I so much as hear that you’ve looked at her the wrong way, or that you’ve said anything to make her uncomfortable, you’ll regret it.”
“Is that a threat?” Dr. Stanley said, disbelieving humor in his tone.
“I don’t issue threats,” Jacob said, his voice even and composed.
“You know what?” Dr. Stanley said in apparent aggravation. “I don’t have time for this. I have work to do.”
“Good,” Aliyah heard Jacob say just as Dr. Stanley stormed into the hall, grunting. Dr. Stanley halted his steps, a shocked expression on his face when he saw Aliyah. Aliyah’s eyes widened as they met each other’s gaze. Her heart raced as she realized that Dr. Stanley would think she was eavesdropping.
After a few seconds, Dr. Stanley huffed, shook his head, and walked past her, his face contorted in disapproval. Fearing Jacob would come out of his office soon, Aliyah hurried to her office and fumbled with the keys until she unlocked the door and pushed it open.
Aliyah turned and saw Jacob standing behind her, a confused expression on his face.
“Were you outside my office the whole time?” There was a tinge of disappointment in his voice.
Aliyah opened her mouth to speak but had no idea what to say for how mortified she felt right then.
“Do you have a class right now?” Jacob asked, disappointment still in his voice.
“No…” Aliyah said.
“Then meet me in the first floor conference room in five minutes,” Jacob said, turning and walking away.
After Jacob disappeared behind the exit door, Aliyah exhaled in a single breath and bowed her head in embarrassment. She hoped she hadn’t angered Jacob. Sighing, Aliyah closed her office door and locked it. She started to walk toward the staircase then decided against it. She didn’t want to chance running into Jacob. As she made her way toward the elevators, she mentally prepared herself for an interrogation. Having a last minute meeting with her department head couldn’t be good.
In the elevator, Aliyah’s thoughts shifted to the conversation she’d had with her uncle about marrying Jacob. She had taken Benjamin’s advice and reflected on the underlying reasons for her objections. It was true that, as an American, she had an inherent cultural bias against marrying Jacob. Intuitively, Aliyah understood that this prejudice wasn’t rooted in her religion, but she still found it difficult to extricate herself from it.
It was one thing to know that something was wrong, but it was another thing entirely to do what was right. It was similar to the dilemma she’d faced when she was Christian and had learned about Islam for the first time. But this time, it wasn’t as simple as renouncing false religious doctrine and affirming what she knew God required of her. She wasn’t choosing between worshipping a prophet of God and worshipping God Himself. She was choosing between saying yes or no to marriage. And she didn’t have to marry Jacob.
But she wanted to.
And she hated herself for it.
The elevator doors opened, and Aliyah stepped onto the first floor. As she rounded the corner, she smiled and greeted the students and colleagues passing in the hall. Through the soundproof glass that ran the length of the conference room, Aliyah saw Jacob standing with his arms folded, a troubled expression on his face as he looked toward the whiteboard, eyes distant.
MashaAllah, Aliyah muttered instinctively, averting her gaze. It was the most irrational thing to notice right then, but Jacob really did look handsome in the three-piece business suit and tie, though his suit jacket was hanging on the back of the chair behind him. Her heart ached for how much she would regret not marrying him.
Jacob turned at the sound of the conference door opening, and Aliyah gave him a tightlipped smile before finding a seat a comfortable distance from him. The door slowly closed and sealed shut, and Aliyah felt trapped and exposed at once. Ironically, reflecting on her marriage dilemma had highlighted not only the depth of her American cultural prejudices, but also the depth of her feelings for Jacob.
For years, Aliyah had felt at ease in Jacob’s presence and found him easy to talk to, even in passing. But it was only in the last couple of days that she realized that this had never been the case with other men, even ones she’d dated or befriended before becoming Muslim. With other men, there had always been a grating discomfort, an invisible barrier that separated her from them. So Aliyah had made peace with forever being “socially awkward.” It was simply her lot in life, she had concluded, that she would be unable to express herself effectively or be properly understood. Her friends misunderstood her, her classmates misunderstood her, and even her own family misunderstood her. No matter how hard she tried, she always managed to confuse or offend someone.
“I didn’t intend for you to hear that,” Jacob said apologetically as Aliyah sat down. He was still standing in front of the room, but he was facing Aliyah, his gaze distant as he looked at something beyond her. “I had planned to be gone by the time the morning session ended. I apologize for that.”
Aliyah exhaled in relief as she realized that Jacob wasn’t upset with her. “I’m sorry that I overheard. I didn’t mean to h—”
“It’s okay,” Jacob said, waving his hand dismissively. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.” He coughed laughter. “Of course, now Dr. Stanley will think I planned it like that. I told him you didn’t even know I was coming.”
Aliyah chuckled. “Sorry about that,” she said good-naturedly.
Jacob laughed and shook his head in response. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I should’ve closed the door or met somewhere else.”
Assuming the best, Aliyah thought to herself, ticking off something else she’d come to like about Jacob. Whatever blunder she or anyone else made, he tried to put the best face on it. But it wasn’t like that with other Muslims she’d met. For them, if you didn’t speak a certain way, dress a certain way, or view the popular personality in a certain way, you were whispered about, made fun of, and cast out of social graces. Till today, it remained a confusing and frustrating experience for Aliyah. But she’d never felt that confusion and frustration around Jacob.
Even before Aliyah started working at the college (when she’d interacted with Jacob when visiting Deanna or attending one of their marriage workshops), she felt a sense of calm and safety in his presence. He was always unassuming and nonjudgmental. When someone spoke, he listened humbly and attentively. It was as if he actually valued what they were saying and wanted to understand their point of view. But with most others, their listening was merely obligatory and intermittent. And if a statement could be interpreted negatively, it would be interpreted negatively.
“Why would you say something like that?” Deanna often scolded Aliyah. “You have no people skills.” But do people have people skills? Aliyah often wondered in aggravation. If others truly had the people skills they prided themselves in, why was it so hard for them to understand Aliyah, a person?
Learn how to COMMUNICATE, Juwayriah had posted on Facebook some time ago. If you’re a grown a$$ man or woman and you STILL don’t know how to speak properly, then SHUT UP.
“Could this cost us our jobs?” Aliyah asked Jacob, concern in her voice.
Jacob drew his eyebrows together and shook his head. “No, insha’Allah,” he said. “If there’s anyone whose job is at stake, it’s Dr. Stanley.”
“He won’t tell Dr. Warren we ambushed him or anything?” Aliyah hoped her question conveyed the lighthearted humor she intended.
“Allahu’alam,” Jacob said, acknowledging that God knew best. “But the most you have to worry about is an uncomfortable professional relationship.”
“So he’s not trying to take your position anymore or get me fired?” Aliyah said.
“I don’t know about that…” Jacob said doubtfully. “I’m just saying that him seeing you outside my office won’t affect much one way or the other. But the important thing is that he’s going to leave you alone from now on, insha’Allah,” Jacob said. “I assume he hasn’t been a nuisance or anything?”
Aliyah shook her head. “No, alhamdulillah.”
“Good,” Jacob said, smiling to himself. “Then he got the memo.”
Aliyah drew her eyebrows together. “The memo?”
Jacob shook his head, the shadow of a smile still on his face. “Nothing.”
“But should I be worried about anything?” Aliyah said hesitantly.
“Here?” Jacob said rhetorically, humor in his tone. “Always. But after my meeting this morning, you shouldn’t have to worry about Dr. Stanley bothering you directly.”
There was an awkward pause as Aliyah debated whether or not to speak her thoughts aloud. “When will you be coming back?” she asked finally.
Jacob lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “I took off indefinitely,” he said. “But the way things are looking, I could be back as early as next month.”
“So everything is settled with Deanna?”
“No,” he said, frowning. “But it looks like they’ll keep pushing the trial date, so there’s no reason to stay on leave.”
“When is the trial supposed to be?” Aliyah said.
“For now, next May.”
“Next May?” Aliyah repeated in surprise. “Why so late?”
“Well, apparently, in cases like these,” Jacob said, “having a trial set for ten months later is the norm. And that’s best-case scenario, I’m told.”
“Best-case scenario?” Aliyah said, her face contorted. “And Deanna is just supposed to sit in jail until the court date?”
“That’s what it looks like,” Jacob said, a shadow of sadness in his eyes.
“What happened to innocent till proven guilty?”
“Did it ever exist?” Jacob said, lighthearted sarcasm in his tone.
There was thoughtful silence.
“So what will you do?” Aliyah asked, genuine concern in her voice.
Jacob shrugged. “Pray. Keep busy. Focus on Younus and Thawab.”
At the mention of the boys, Aliyah was overwhelmed with sadness. There was so much she wanted to ask but was unsure if she had a right to. “How are they doing?” she said quietly, picking up a pencil that was lying on the conference table. She toyed with the pencil before adding, “I mean, with everything going on?”
“Alhamdulillah,” Jacob said honestly. “They’re good boys, mashaAllah, so they’re taking it well.”
Aliyah glanced up at Jacob hesitantly. “Did you tell Deanna?”
Jacob furrowed his brows. “About what?”
Aliyah averted her gaze and tapped the eraser of the pencil on the table absentmindedly. “About what you asked my uncle.”
She heard Jacob sigh, and he was silent for some time. “I want to,” he said sincerely. “But she’s not well, and truthfully, I don’t know if she will be any time soon.”
Aliyah nodded, only slightly surprised to hear about Deanna’s condition. Over the years, there had been several moments when she’d sensed that something wasn’t quite right about Deanna. But Aliyah had brushed her suspicions aside, feeling guilty for thinking negatively about her friend. Aliyah didn’t know much about mental health issues, so she’d always felt that it wasn’t her place to pass judgment.
“Will she be getting help?” Aliyah asked.
“I’m working on it,” Jacob said. “But given the circumstances, it’s not easy. Involving psychiatrists at this point will complicate her defense,” he said. “But not involving them will complicate her mental illness.”
“So it’s confirmed?”
“Is what confirmed?”
“Her mental illness.”
He shook his head, a sad expression on his face. “She’s still undiagnosed at this point.”
Aliyah nodded, empathizing with the stress that Jacob must be going through.
“But I did talk to Younus and Thawab,” Jacob said. “Younus more than Thawab, of course.”
“Everything?” Aliyah couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.
Aliyah didn’t know what to say.
“I didn’t mention you by name,” Jacob clarified, “but I talked about the different possibilities for our future.”
“You don’t think it’s too soon?” Aliyah said, worry in her voice as she looked at him. “I mean, with everything that happened with their mother?”
Jacob’s gaze grew distant, and he shook his head. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I know this isn’t anyone’s idea of a perfect family. But this is what Allah has given us, and I’ve made my peace with it.”
“But won’t it be hard for Younus and Thawab to adjust?”
“I imagine so,” Jacob said. “But this is just one of many tests they’ll face in life. I’m not doing them any favors by pretending that life stops when trials happen.”
Aliyah’s thoughts grew distant as she doodled on the table then erased the penciling.
“But no one loves my sons more than I do,” Jacob said, “so I’ll be there for them every step of the way insha’Allah.”
“But what if they don’t like me?”
“Like you?” he said, surprise in his tone. “You’re practically family.”
Aliyah recalled the awkward looks that Younus had given her the last couple of times she had seen him. “Younus doesn’t speak to me anymore.” Aliyah felt stupid for sounding like a little kid, but she felt it was important for Jacob to know.
“What makes you say that?” Jacob said, concern in his voice.
“He used to be excited to see me,” she said. “But when I saw him at the basketball court, he was giving me strange looks.”
Jacob nodded as if understanding. “He saw some YouTube clips from Will’s Truth Hour when they were talking about the ‘crazy Muslim woman’ and ‘hot Muslim mistress’ rumors.”
Aliyah felt sick all of a sudden.
“So he had a lot of questions,” Jacob said.
“Did you answer them?” Aliyah said, barely finding her voice.
“Yes,” Jacob said. “Younus and I had a long talk, a few actually.”
Aliyah nodded, unsure what to say.
“But I don’t worry too much about Younus,” Jacob said. “Insha’Allah, he’ll be okay.”
“How can you be so sure?” she said doubtfully. “That’s a lot to digest.”
“How can we be sure about anything?” he asked rhetorically. “But I’m prayerful, and that’s what keeps me from worrying too much.”
Aliyah felt ashamed of herself momentarily. She wished she had that level of faith. “But what if we’re wrong?” she said weakly. “What if we’re about to ruin their lives?”
Jacob drew his brows together, vague amusement on his face. “Ruin their lives?” he said, a question in his eyes as he looked at Aliyah.
“This might traumatize them,” Aliyah said weakly. “One day I’m Aunty Aliyah and the next I’m their new mother.”
“Deanna will always be their mother,” Jacob said. “So I would never tell them you’re replacing her.”
“But won’t it be confusing?”
“In the beginning, yes,” he said thoughtfully. “But they’ll adjust insha’Allah.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Aliyah said, casting her eyes to the side.
“Nothing is that simple,” Jacob said, “even if everything turned out the way the world says it should.”
Aliyah’s thoughts grew distant, and she began doodling on the conference table again.
“There’s no such thing as the perfect family, Aliyah,” Jacob said. “In this world, the most we can hope for is living a life that’s pleasing to Allah.”
“And how do you know what that is?” Aliyah asked.
“We don’t,” Jacob said. “That’s what self-reflection, naseehah, and Istikhaarah are for.”
Aliyah thought of how, still, after reflecting on what was best, getting advice from her uncle, and praying about everything, she remained indecisive.
“But I’m not naïve,” Jacob said. “I know we have a long road ahead of us. But as a father, what’s most important to me is that my sons understand their higher purpose in life. I don’t want to trivialize their struggles,” he said. “But I don’t want to exaggerate them either.”
“What if the community doesn’t accept us?” Aliyah felt self-conscious for worrying about what people think, but she couldn’t help voicing her thoughts aloud. “You saw what they did when they thought you wanted a second wife.”
“We either be patient,” he said, “or find a new community.”
“You’re willing to move?” Aliyah said, her voice rising in pleasant surprise.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about,” he said honestly. “For the sake of my sons more than anything. But I’m still praying about it because there are a lot of good people here, mashaAllah.”
“But do you think it’ll be better anywhere else?” Aliyah said doubtfully. “From what I hear, Muslims are pretty judgmental no matter where you go.”
“People are judgmental no matter where you go,” Jacob said. “But there’s definitely something to say for a new start. People are most accepting when they aren’t given the opportunity to have an opinion.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you really think we’d be the first blended family in this community?” Jacob asked. “It’s just that others came to the community already remarried,” he said. “Or no one knew anything about their former wives or husbands. So they were accepted for who they are, no questions asked.”
Aliyah nodded reflectively. “I never thought about it like that.”
“When people know anything about you,” Jacob said, “they feel they have a say in what you should do with your life. It’s just human nature.”
Aliyah rolled her eyes. “I don’t think so. It’s just minding other people’s business.”
“I agree,” Jacob said. “But that’s why Allah talks so much about avoiding suspicion, assuming the best, and guarding our tongues. Humans have a natural tendency to get involved in things that have nothing to do with them. I’m not saying it’s right,” he said. “But it is natural.”
Aliyah grunted. “Everyone is an expert in everyone’s life,” she said in lighthearted sarcasm. “Except their own.”
Jacob chuckled. “That’s the unfortunate truth,” he said. “But there’s not much we can do about it. All we can do is focus on our own lives and souls. People are people, and I don’t think they’ll be changing any time soon.”
“But it’s wrong,” Aliyah said, a tinge of aggravation in her voice. “We’re not just people. We’re Muslim.”
“And Muslims are people, Aliyah,” Jacob said. “I’m not saying it’s fair to have to move my whole family to another city just to live in peace. But this is the world we live in. If your life choices make people uncomfortable, they feel justified in mistreating you,” he said. “Even if you’ve done nothing wrong.” He shrugged. “It’s sad. But it’s really more their problem than yours.”
“It doesn’t feel like that,” Aliyah grumbled.
“Allah is the best teacher,” Jacob said. “Remember that.”
Aliyah was silent as she considered what Jacob had said.
“So don’t worry too much about people,” he said. “They have their lesson coming.” There was a thoughtful pause before he added, “As we all do when we focus on things that are none of our business.”
“Astaghfirullah,” Aliyah muttered reflectively, invoking God’s forgiveness.
“But if it weren’t for my sons,” Jacob said, “I wouldn’t even consider moving. Living your life based on people’s definition of right and wrong is exhausting,” he said. “Allah is my Lord, and that’s who I’m focused on, bi’idhnillah.”
Aliyah sighed. “I wish I had your resolve.”
Jacob nodded reflectively. “It took me a long time to get here,” he said. “But it’s natural to worry about what people think. I don’t think we can help it.” He paused thoughtfully. “But I suffered so much from trying to do what everybody thought I should, I just don’t have the capacity anymore.”
Aliyah rubbed the eraser of the pencil on the table, her thoughts distant.
“Now I see these tests as an opportunity for my family to draw closer to Allah,” Jacob said. “So I don’t put too much stock in the superficial ideals of the world. I’m going on with my life, with or without people’s approval.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sayed asked, an uncertain expression on his face as he looked at his wife. He was dressed for work and holding up his mobile phone as he asked the question, and Reem was in front of their walk-in closet, nervously sliding clothes to the left and right as she looked for something comfortable to wear under her abaya.
“No,” Reem said without turning around. “But you already called in sick at work, so we should go ahead and do it.”
“Reem, I’m more than happy to just spend the day with you. With Hana and Muhammad at your mother’s house, we can do whatever you want.”
“I need to heal,” Reem said, still looking toward the closet.
Sayed creased his forehead. “Dr. Goldstein suggested this?”
“No,” Reem said. “But it’s something I need to do.”
There was an extended pause. “Why?” Sayed said.
Reem yanked a maxi dress from a hanger and turned to face her husband. “I don’t know,” she said, slight agitation in her voice. “It’s just the first thing that came to mind, so that must mean something.”
“I support you,” Sayed said tentatively. “I just don’t want you to do anything you’ll regret.”
Reem coughed laughter. “It’s a little too late for that,” she said. “Being born into this family has made me do a lot of things I regret.”
“But if your parents find out—”
“Mashael agreed to keep our names out of it,” Reem said. “I’m trying to heal, not ruin our lives.”
“What next though?” Sayed said. “I mean, if he agrees to become Muslim?”
“We plan a wedding insha’Allah,” Reem said matter-of-factly as she slipped out of her housedress and tossed it to the bed.
“You can’t be serious,” Sayed said, his eyebrows drawn together in concern. “Your father should be involved before it goes that far.”
Reem grunted as she pulled the maxi dress over her head. “He’s been involved the whole time,” she said. “Just in making sure it never happens.”
“But that’s his right,” Sayed said defensively. “I’d hate to wake up and find out Hana is married and I didn’t know anything about it.”
“Then wake up now,” Reem said, smoothing the cloth of the maxi dress with her hands. “Stuff like this only happens when parents go to sleep on their children and ignore their needs.”
“He’s trying to protect her.”
Reem met Sayed’s gaze with her eyes narrowed. “He’s trying to protect her?” Her tone conveyed disbelief. “He’s not trying to protect her, Sayed. He’s trying to protect himself. And our family image.”
“But we don’t know anything about Sheldon.”
“And why’s that?” Reem said, folding her arms challengingly. “Because he’s so mysterious?”
“You know what I mean,” Sayed grumbled.
“We’re losing Mashael. Did you know that?” Reem said. “Just like my family was losing me when I was in high school.” She huffed and shook her head. “Right now, she cares what we think. But one day that will change, Sayed. Everybody has a breaking point.”
Sayed nodded thoughtfully. “I just don’t want you stressed out any more than you already are.” He sighed. “And the truth is, I’m worried about Mashael. I wish she would just listen to your parents. What if Sheldon turns out to be a bad person? Then what?”
Reem drew in a deep breath and exhaled in a single breath. “I don’t know, Sayed,” she said, impatience in her tone. “There are a lot of what ifs. But what we do know is, Mashael thinks he’s a good person. The least we can do is be there for her. If he turns out to be a bad person, at least we’ll be part of her life when she finds out. If we turn our backs now, then she has no one to turn to when she needs help.”
“But you’re being impulsive,” Sayed said, his voice soft in rebuke. “And we agreed to avoid that,” he reminded her. “This decision has long-term consequences, so we have to be ready for everything that comes along with it.”
“I’m ready,” Reem said, walking to the closet and removing an abaya from a hanger. “If I’m going to rebel for the sake of anything, it should be this. I don’t want to lose my sister.”
“But you’re not in high school anymore,” Sayed said. “You have a lot at stake.”
“Like what?” Reem said, meeting Sayed’s gaze challengingly as she laid the abaya over the bend in her arm. “My parents’ good opinion of me? Because I think I lost that years ago.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Sayed said. “There’s no way you can know how this will affect your family long-term.”
Reem was silent as she put her arms into the sleeves of her abaya and lowered her chin as she buttoned the front. “Did I tell you I tried to kill myself when I was seventeen?”
Sayed’s expression conveyed shock, concern, and confusion. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it.
“Yes, I know,” she said sarcastically. “It’s not exactly what you expect to hear from a good Saudi girl, is it? But that’s how far this family drove me.”
Reem looked pointedly at her husband. “Do you know how it feels to think dying is better than living?” she said. “Even though you know you might end up in Hell?”
Sayed’s lips formed a thin line, but he didn’t say anything.
“So don’t tell me about risks and sacrifice and family,” Reem vented, eyes glistening in emotion. “I almost lost my life, Sayed,” she said, her voice becoming shaky. “And my soul. And you know what my parents did about it?”
Sayed didn’t respond.
“Nothing,” she said angrily. She turned and yanked a khimaar from a hanger before meeting his gaze again. “Because they had no idea. And you know why they were so oblivious?”
There was an extended silence.
“Because they didn’t even try to see me,” Reem said as her eyes filled with tears and her chin quivered. “I walked around like some stupid robot.” Her voice became high-pitched from emotion. “I smiled at everybody and pretended like everything was okay. Then one day I decided to just end it all, you know? Eff it. And you know who saved my life?”
Sayed didn’t know what to say.
“A group of friends who saw me down the pills at school,” she said. “They forced me to throw it all up. And when I came home later that day barely even walking straight, you know what my father said to me?” She huffed at the memory. “‘Be more careful about your appearance, Reem,’” she mocked in exaggerated falsetto, “‘because if you look like you don’t care, who will want to marry you?’”
Silence filled the space between them for some time.
“So yes, maybe this is impulsive,” Reem said, wiping her eyes with the palm of her hand. “And maybe it’s the stupidest thing I’ll ever do. But right now, my sister is alive, and she still believes her family cares about her,” she said. “And I don’t want her to ever find out she’s wrong.”
Aliyah’s cell phone rang just as she and Ibrahim walked into the apartment late that afternoon. After she closed the door and locked it, Aliyah looked at the display. It was a number she didn’t recognize. Aliyah’s thoughts went immediately to the conversation she’d had with Larry about Jasmine. For a fleeting moment, Aliyah considered letting the call go to voicemail, but she felt bad for trying to avoid her new Muslim sister. She pressed the green icon instead.
“Hello?” Aliyah said as she put the phone to her ear.
“Is this Aliyah?” a female voice said.
“This is Yasmeen,” the woman said. “I met you at the mall the other day? You were with Salima.”
“Oh, Jasmine?” Aliyah smiled knowingly.
Aliyah heard Jasmine laugh good-naturedly. “Yes, that’s me,” her chipper voice said. “But I’m Muslim now.”
“MashaAllah,” Aliyah said, excitement in her voice, unsure what else to say.
“But I’m still trying to learn everything,” Jasmine said.
“Of course,” Aliyah said sincerely. “It takes time.”
“I want to start with the basics, you know?”
“I understand,” Aliyah said as she motioned Ibrahim to the kitchen and walked behind him. “You have to take everything step by step.”
There was an extended pause, and Aliyah sensed Jasmine was trying to figure out the best way to ask for her assistance.
“Can you help me learn everything?” Jasmine said in a small voice. “I mean, whenever you have time?”
Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled as she opened the refrigerator and gazed absently inside for some time. “I’m really busy these days…” she said as she pulled out a glass casserole dish sealed with a plastic top. “So I’m not sure how much help I’d be.”
“Anything you can do is fine,” Jasmine’s voice said through the phone.
“The masjid has new Muslim classes,” Aliyah said as she set the casserole dish on the counter. “Maybe you can go to those?”
“I kind of wanted one-on-one, you know?” Jasmine said hesitantly. “I’d feel strange sitting in class with a bunch of strangers.”
“So do you think you can help?”
Aliyah kneeled down to remove a nonstick skillet from a lower cabinet. “Not much,” she said honestly. “But I can see what I can do.”
“I really appreciate it,” Jasmine said eagerly.
“When do you want to start?” Aliyah said, overcome with dread as she realized she was agreeing to precisely what she didn’t want to do.
Aliyah set the skillet on the stove and poured a tad of olive oil in it, mentally kicking herself for agreeing to help. “I’m busy most of this weekend, so I’m not sure if—”
“I don’t need much time,” Jasmine interjected.
“O-kay…” Aliyah was unsure what to say.
There was a thoughtful pause.
“How about this?” Aliyah said. “I can meet you this weekend insha’Allah, and then I can introduce you to some other sisters who might be able to help. How does that sound?”
“That’s fine…” Jasmine said tentatively.
“Good, alhamdulillah,” Aliyah said. “Which day is best for you? Saturday or Sunday?”
“Saturday,” Jasmine said quickly.
Aliyah wondered if Jasmine still planned to eat Sunday brunch with Larry’s family after they came from church. “How does ten o’clock sound?” Aliyah said.
“Ten o’clock is perfect,” Jasmine said. There was a brief pause. “Can you text me your address?”
Aliyah drew her eyebrows together and glanced sideways at the phone. She hoped Jasmine wasn’t expecting a personal invitation to her home. “I’ll text you the address to the masjid,” Aliyah said. “We can meet there for about thirty minutes insha’Allah. But I won’t be able to stay much longer because I have somewhere else to go.”
“The masjid?” Jasmine sounded disappointed.
“Unless you have somewhere else we can meet,” Aliyah said, trying to sound amiable. “I’m open.”
There was an extended silence. “I guess the masjid is fine…” Jasmine said finally.
“Good, then I’ll see you Saturday at ten insha’Allah,” Aliyah said.
After ending the call, Aliyah chatted with Ibrahim about his day as she stood at the stove, heating the leftovers. As she set Ibrahim’s plate of food in front of him and started to prepare her own, her phone chimed and vibrated from where it lay on the counter next to the refrigerator. Still holding her plate, she walked over to the counter and glanced at the screen.
Any closer to your decision about Jacob? Benjamin’s text message said.
Aliyah hesitated briefly before powering off the phone and joining Ibrahim at the table. She didn’t want to think about Jacob right then.
Friday evening Aliyah slowed her car to a stop in front of Salima’s house for the Muslim Marriage Monologues gathering. Aliyah was running late because both she and Ibrahim had fallen asleep that afternoon and slept longer than they intended.
Any closer to your decision about Jacob?
Aliyah thought about her uncle’s text message as she put her car in park. She still hadn’t responded. She was supposed to visit Benjamin and his wife Saturday afternoon, but she really didn’t know what to tell him. Aliyah couldn’t deny that there was a part of her that was ecstatic about the idea of marrying Jacob. Other than the social awkwardness they’d face if they remained in their Muslim community, Jacob seemed like the perfect match.
But Aliyah couldn’t bring herself to believe that this theoretical perfection would translate well into reality. As much as she shared Jacob’s and her uncle’s beliefs about doing things for the sake of Allah instead of for people, Aliyah wasn’t convinced that she was up for another round of bullying from Muslims. Not to mention the humiliation she’d face once Deanna found out.
“Will Younus and Thawab be here?” Ibrahim asked as he unbuckled his seat belt, his eyes glistening in excitement as Aliyah looked at him through the rearview mirror.
She forced a smile as she thought of Younus and Thawab being bona fide brothers to Ibrahim. Her son would probably bask at the idea. “I don’t think so, cookie monster,” Aliyah said affectionately, unbuckling her seat belt. “But I think Haroon will be, insha’Allah.”
“Yes!” Ibrahim said as he opened his door.
“Whoa…” Aliyah said, laughter in her voice. “Wait for me.”
“Sorry, Mommy,” Ibrahim said, his body halfway out the door as he waited for Aliyah. She opened the driver’s side door, and Ibrahim shot out the car and ran to the door before she could call him back to walk with her.
After joining him at the door, Aliyah grinned at Ibrahim and rubbed his head before ringing the doorbell. He smiled back at her with the excited innocence that only a child could have. The door opened less than a minute later, and after offering a hurried greeting, Salima ushered Aliyah and Ibrahim inside. Salima told Aliyah that they had just introduced the first sister; she then led Ibrahim to where the other children were.
“Speak to me,” Aliyah heard a voice proclaim from the living room seconds before she joined the crowd of women. “Tell me what’s really on your mind. On your heart.” The woman was someone Aliyah didn’t recognize, but Aliyah felt connected to her at once. “Because I refuse to believe that a simple wedding invitation could tear your life apart….
I know he’s not the man you thought he should be.
And I know he’s not the ‘prince charming’ you envisioned for me
Oh, and I know, I’m not the daughter I used to be
But we already knew that, didn’t we?
What was it? Six years ago, when I said I believe in God now?
And maybe a year after that when I said I believe in Heaven and Hell?
And then I became Muslim, but you already knew that too
So I’m trying to understand what my being happy will ruin for you
Is it that our children will have funny sounding names?
Or that having a bearded son-in-law fills you with shame?
But don’t worry. You don’t have to claim him. I accept him as all mine.
But I thought that’s what the invitation said. Did you look inside?
Or how about this? Maybe you can just call him your daughter’s weird friend
Because I’m no more excited to introduce you to him
It’s not easy to know your future in-laws are casting you out
Before you even had a chance to find something stupid to fight about
But I get it. My marriage is like my religion. It’s all wrong.
It challenges your superior notions of right and wrong
But I wonder. Can you even keep up with what you believe?
I mean, since there’s no God up there, and hence no rules, no clarity?
But you don’t need to answer that. There really is no point
Because with atheists, there’s only one possibility. Disappoint.
You have no critical thinking, or compassion, or an open mind.
You don’t even have your own human heart on your side
But that’s okay. The ceremony is still at end of June
Come if you like. But staying home is fine too.
But either way, we’ll be there. He and I.
Saying I do and all that, planning the rest of our lives.
But I don’t even know why I’m saying this to you
It’s not like you even opened the invitation I sent you
Or at least that’s what my mind keeps telling me
Since you don’t— and won’t
Speak to me.”
There was an explosion of applause, and Aliyah forced a smile as she brought her hands together and clapped along with the rest of the women. But there was a part of her that had left the room while listening to the woman’s words. The poem had touched Aliyah in a way that she did not fully understand. As the other sisters gathered around the woman to ask questions and compliment the poem, Aliyah excused herself and found the closest bathroom.
She stepped inside and closed the bathroom door softly then locked it. She stood still holding the handle, taking a moment to gather her thoughts. She then opened her purse and rummaged for her phone. She pulled it out and unlocked it before opening the text message conversation between her and Benjamin. For several seconds she stared at his words. Any closer to your decision about Jacob?
She hesitated briefly before typing her reply. I can’t marry him.
But before she pressed send, her legs grew weak and tears filled her eyes.
Speak to me, a voice said in her head, and she thought of her parents and siblings and how much she missed them. She thought of Matt and Nikki and how they were starting a family together. She thought of Deanna and how she would probably never know happiness again. She thought of Mrs. Michaels lying helpless in the hospital. She thought of Salima losing her husband and two of her children overnight. She thought of Younus seeing those horrible media clips about his mother. She thought of Thawab running up to her and saying “Aunty Aliyah!” before giving her a warm hug. She thought of Ibrahim shouting, “Yes!” whenever he got to spend time with his friends. She thought of Jacob taking his sons and moving to another city…
And she thought of how unbearable it would be to know she’d never see him again.
Speak to me. Tell me what’s really on your mind. On your heart.
Her gaze was fixed on the unsent message on her mobile screen. I can’t marry him. The thin cursor blinked back and forth after the last word like a heart beating in uncertainty. The right arrow icon that would solidify the message remained dutifully in place, as if waiting for her command.
“But I’m scared,” she muttered aloud as tears slipped down her cheeks. “I’m scared.”
But if you walk away now, a voice in her head said, you don’t even have your own human heart on your side.
There was a knock at the door, and Aliyah started, her thoughts interrupted.
“One second,” she called out as she quickly set her mobile and purse on the sink counter. She reached forward and turned a faucet knob before filling the palms of her hands with water then washed her face.
But I get it. My marriage is like my religion. It’s all wrong. It challenges your superior notions of right and wrong.
But I wonder… Can you even keep up with what you believe?
Hands shaking, Aliyah dried her face with a paper towel and tossed it in the small trashcan. She then picked up her cellphone and hesitated only briefly before pressing the right arrow icon. The swooshing sound confirmed that the message had been sent. Heart racing at the realization of what she’d just done, she averted her eyes from her reflection in the mirror as she picked up her purse and dropped the phone inside. She then pulled the straps of her purse over her shoulder before opening the bathroom door and rejoining the women.
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