With a Heavy Heart: Story 7 in ‘Hearts We Lost’ series

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“Say [O Muhammad to the people] ‘If you love Allah, follow me. Allah will love you and forgive your sins. For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’”

—Qur’an, Ali Imraan (3:31)



Sharif sat quietly on the carpeted floor of his living room, having completed Asr prayer minutes before. The conversation with Hasna returned to him, this time in his heart instead of his mind. His cruelty gnawed at him, and his chin quivered in recognition that this was not his first sin of this kind.

It was a quiet heartlessness that defined him, Sharif realized at that moment. Not the quiet dignity that Rashad had imagined.

He wasn’t being modest in saying he was not fit for the role as imam. He was being honest.

Sharif knew the darkness that lurked in his chest. Why should it be inflicted on anyone, let alone dozens of believers imagining that he would offer them guidance of some kind?

It was like playing part in a sick ruse for Sharif to accept the title Imam before his name, and then ask others to recite the lie on their tongue. It was better to back out now than to one day have the curtains pulled to reveal a charlatan in scholar’s garb.

Sharif felt like the emperor in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes. The people had stood in shock as the emperor paraded proudly before them, imagining himself to be sporting the most exquisite of garments, while he wore nothing but his underwear, oblivious to what was plain to everyone else.

Except in Sharif’s version, the roles were reversed. It was the people’s illusion, not the emperor’s, that cloaked the emperor in royal garments, whereas Sharif himself knew all along what everyone else could not see.

“Look.” Sharif flinched at the memory, and it was as if his father stood before him right then. Dawud’s thinning patience was detectable in the raised tone he was using with his oldest son. “Just take out the garbage, and mop the floor.”

“Wali’s old enough to clean up. Why can’t he do it?” Sharif rarely talked back to his father, but that night he had somehow gotten the nerve.

It had been a Wednesday, the night before Asma’s birthday, and Dawud and Nadirah had planned a small party for the following evening. But the preparation needed to be done the night before because everyone except their mother had work and school the following day, which meant that there was no time for major cleaning before the guests arrived.

“I didn’t ask Wali. I asked you.”

“Wali’s not a kid anymore.”

“Sharif!” This final breaking of patience by his father was meant to stun Sharif into realizing his transgression.

But Sharif’s voice grew louder than he had ever dared to speak to his father before. “I’m tired of this. I can’t stand this stupid house.”

At this point, Sharif had expected a hand across his face, or at least an intimidating lecture, but Dawud showed no visible reaction to his son’s outburst.

Sharif, in a show of defiance, angrily grabbed the overflowing garbage and yanked it from the plastic canister, not bothering to tie the black plastic ends. An empty can and orange peels fell to the floor in that motion. He then opened the back door and tossed the bag outside, not caring that its contents spilled onto the ground. After slamming the door shut, nearly shattering its glass window, Sharif pulled the mop from the kitchen closet and jabbed it into the pail of dirty water. He then slapped the mop across the kitchen floor, leaving streaks of soiled water on the white-marbled tiles, meanwhile mumbling complaints under his breath.

The entire time, Dawud stood in the doorway of the kitchen watching his son grumble and mutter protests just loud enough for him to hear, but Dawud himself did not utter a single word. Dawud’s face was remarkably calmer than it had been moments before, and when Sharif had thrown the filthy mop back into the closet, not bothering to even close the door, Dawud had only looked at his son. There was a quiet resolve in Dawud’s eye and it was as if he were seeing Sharif for the first time, this Sharif could feel under his father’s gaze.

Dawud and Sharif looked at each other for a moment. Sharif’s nose flared and he was breathing aloud. Dawud’s lips were drawn together in disappointment, his expression calm.

“We’ll speak in the morning,” Dawud said after nearly a minute had passed.

Sharif saw his father turn and retreat to his room.

A second later, Sharif heard his father’s door close. The soft sound underscored the solidity of his father’s promise, and a change in the direction of a father-son relationship that had carved a friendship that would remain forever frozen in time.

That was the last time Sharif ever saw his father alive.

No one ever knew the exact cause of death. The official autopsy report listed heart failure. But Sharif’s father had been a healthy man. He exercised regularly and ate only natural foods. He made all his food from scratch and kept himself abreast of natural remedies and herbs. Nadirah said that the report couldn’t possibly be true.

For Sharif, however, it had taken several months to even accept the fact that his father was gone, and that he would never see him again. For those months, Sharif didn’t think of the autopsy or what the doctors said.

He couldn’t even admit that his father had died.

Daily, Sharif lived in denial as his heart ached for his father, and he tore his mind to pieces frantically searching for any evidence of there being some mistake.

Many nights he woke from sleep, heart racing because he thought he heard his father’s car turning into the driveway or his key turning in the front door or him entering Sharif’s room.

Sometimes Sharif would dream his father had really returned and was lightly punching him in the shoulder, saying playfully, “Wanna play Go-car-go?”

Yes, Daddy, Sharif would whisper to the darkness although he was in his last years of high school and hadn’t played with his cars in years.

Presently, as he sat on the carpeted floor of his living room, there was that familiar emptiness, a hollowness that spread in his chest. Upstairs, the sound of the vacuum wheezed back and forth, a sign that Asma was finishing her chores.

In the solitude of the moment, Sharif felt the burning behind his lids. He bowed his head and bit his knuckles to suppress the whimper crawling in his throat.

“This is my son,” his father would say with a pride that spread to his smiling eyes.

“Is there anything else you care about other than making that boy happy?” his mother would complain, playfully rolling her eyes.

“If he’s happy, Nadirah,” his father would reply, “I’m happy.”

A soft sound escaped Sharif’s throat as the sound of Asma’s vacuuming faded upstairs.

Heart failure.

Yes. It was true.

Because Sharif had been his heart.

***

Shall I tell you of my brother,

Of my sister, my confidante, my friend?

Or shall I tell you of my father, my mother

My neighbor—

Or my sin?

 

We spend our days in laughter

And our nights in rest

Our prayers are but mumbled words

And movement of the limbs

 

Yet another home explodes

And tumbles to the ground

Ashes of dirt form clouds

Rising, floating, settling down

A young boy shades his eyes

The sun is blaring

He cannot see

He is looking for his mother

And at home, my mother is serving tea

 

I am on bed, reclining, relaxing

On my face is a smile forming

At one corner of my mouth

I do not hear the boy whimper

I do not hear the boy cry

I do not see his mother

I do not see her die

 

The phone rings

I answer

It is my confidante, my friend

She is telling me of a party

Tonight

Be there, she says

I laugh

Of course I will

Where else would l I be?

 

The boy’s cry grows louder

Until it is a sob

Tears spill from his eyes

And slip, like rivers, down his cheeks

He has been robbed

 

Stolen

His heart is stolen

He is all alone

Daddy was stolen years ago

Now Mommy is gone

 

Somebody help me,

He cries

Somebody hear my plea

Abi, Ummi

Can you hear me?

 

Can you hear me?

My mother calls from downstairs

Hurry, I am serving tea

With a sigh, I toss aside my magazine

But not before saving my place

I want the jeans in the picture

The ones with the cuffs trimmed in lace

I’ll die if I don’t get them,

I think to myself

Abi’ll say no, Mom’ll say,

Buy ‘em yourself

 

But I don’t have enough money

I’ve nothing in my pockets

 

And the boy has nothing in his hand

Quietly, he kneels

Something is glistening in the sand

A ring

His mother’s ring

From her wedding day

He holds it a moment more

His whimpers die until they’re but soft whispers

Like dust clouds upon the shore

 

In the kitchen, I frown

My tea is cold

And it’s not chai today

Peppermint, I think angrily, is getting old

I gulp the honey-sweetened liquid

And return to my bed

 

The boy stands

His legs are weak

I pick up my magazine

I find the picture I want

And grin

Soon they’ll be mine

Soon, I think, but I don’t know when

 

I am on bed, reclining, relaxing

On my face is a smile forming

At one corner of my mouth

I do not hear the boy whimper

I do not hear the boy cry

I do not see his mother

I do not see her die

 

The phone rings again

I answer

It is my confidante, my friend

She is telling me of the party

It’s no longer tonight

Be there, tomorrow, she says

I sigh and shake my head

Where else would l I be?

 

For I spend my days in laughter

And my nights in rest

My prayers are but mumbled words

And movement of the limbs

 

Somebody help me,

The boy cries again

Somebody, anybody, hear my plea

 

Abi, Ummi

Can you hear me?

 

Shall I tell you of my brother,

Of my sister, my confidante, my friend?

Or shall I tell you of my father, my mother

My neighbor—

Or my sin?

 

Sharif stood in the kitchen of his home late Thursday night, the thin newsletter still in his hand.

He had been unable to sleep and had come downstairs hoping that food would satisfy his grumbling stomach even if it wouldn’t satisfy his hunger for ideas for tomorrow’s talk at Jumu’ah.

Sharif had thought nothing of the stack of junk mail on the table—credit card advertisements, department store magazines, and colorless newspapers. It had been out of sheer boredom and detached curiosity that he had picked up the newsletter that lay on top. He was planning to skim it as he ate a bowl of cereal with milk. Brain food, his father would have called it, this late night breakfast meal. And that’s just what Sharif needed, some food for his brain.

Sharif couldn’t even safely call his want for ideas mental block. He had no ideas that could be blocked in the first place. But he had been suffering from anxiety, mental and otherwise. And he knew of no one who could give him any idea what he should talk about from the mimbar the following day.

Sharif had been carrying the newsletter to the refrigerator when he read the title. Islam’s Call. He frowned, his curiosity simmered by disappointment. He tossed the newsletter back on the pile.

Why did so many Muslim periodicals carry bland names? he wondered. It didn’t help that the publication looked like it was produced from a cheap ink-jet printer with a dying cartridge instead of a decent printing house.

Sharif had started to skim through the junk-mail pile in favor of perusing a local drugstore’s discounts on cough medicine and chewing gum when he saw the poem.

“Shall I Tell You?”

Intrigued, Sharif reached for the newsletter again and began reading.

It wasn’t until he had finished that he realized he hadn’t eaten or sat down, nor had he remembered to.

The house was quiet except for the occasional creaking of a floorboard or the distant ringing in a vent, and it was in the quiet stillness of his home, the darkness of night surrounding him, that the inspiration suddenly came to him.

Carrying the paper to his room, Sharif skipped the stairs two at a time, suddenly inspired to write his first Friday khutbah.

Sharif had never stood before a congregation to deliver a talk, and he had spent the whole of Thursday—from Fajr to ‘Ishaa—drafting and redrafting his speech, taking a break to only pray, use the bathroom, or get something to eat. But nothing he wrote had satisfied what he wanted to convey.

Imam Rashad had offered to help, and for a moment Sharif had actually considered accepting the offer. But then he remembered his own agony as a victim of the imam’s droning during Friday khutbah’s of years before, and Sharif changed his mind.

Yes, Sharif was desperate. But he wasn’t that desperate. Even if he were, there were less extreme measures he could take.

In his room, Sharif turned on a lamp and sat in the chair in front of his desk. He quickly opened the half-filled notebook he had been using earlier and began to scribble down his ideas before they left him.

After filling three handwritten pages, he glanced at the newsletter that lay next to him on the desk.

Umm Sumayyah.

He wanted to give due credit when he quoted from the poem. But he doubted the author would even care about the oversight of an insignificant imam of a masjid as small and unknown as his. To date, there were only fourteen families who frequented the masjid, and due to jobs, busy schedules, and Imam Rashad’s impeccable reputation in holding a crowd’s interest—for sleep—many of them attended Jumu’ah elsewhere if they could help it.

From that perspective, except for knowing the ethics of avoiding plagiarism, Sharif thought he would be doing the author a favor if he left her name out of his speech. She probably wouldn’t want the connection.

Sorry, Umm Sumayyah, he apologized in his mind as he jotted her name down on his notebook. Think of it as charity. If you’ve been to any of our Jumu’ah’s in the last ten years, or have known anyone who has, you’ll understand my predicament.

Before going to bed, Sharif made sajdah for gratefulness, prostrating to Allah to thank Him for allowing him to come across the newsletter, which was most likely intended to be trashed or recycled. Wali had probably forgotten to sort the recyclables (again), but this time Sharif was grateful to his brother. Things didn’t happen for no reason. Allah had a plan for even the loosening of a single leaf from a branch, or for allowing Wali to forget his chores.

And finding the newsletter had been the loosening of Sharif from a bind.

For the first time since he arrived in the States, Sharif felt good about his first day on the job. It was true that he did not belong in the imam position. But he also knew that, after spending six years in Riyadh for this expressed purpose and after hearing his mother say that this had been his father’s dream, Sharif really didn’t have much of a choice.

***

When Sharif glanced out the window of the imam office early Friday afternoon, he saw that the parking lot of the masjid was almost filled. It took a second for him to register what this meant, and when he did, his chest tightened in anxiety.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Imam Rashad had casually told Sharif on the phone the day before, after Sharif had turned down the imam’s offer to assist him in writing the talk. “But we told a few people that we have a new young imam taking over the khutbah this week.”

Sharif had said he didn’t mind, and until now he had forgotten about the comment. He had imagined that the former imam was inviting some old friends who would be doing Rashad (and Sharif) a favor by stopping in to show their support. That way, Sharif wouldn’t have his sister and brother as the only members of the congregation (besides Brother Rashad), smiling politely and pretending to be inspired while trying their best not to glance at their watches or nod off (though he imagined that Wali wouldn’t mind stretching out right in front of him).

But this was far more than a “few”, and they were not all old. They were of varying ages, races, and ethnicities.

Sharif willed himself not to look out the window again and instead sat at the imam’s desk—which was now his—and held his forehead in his hand, his elbow propped on the desk as he made silent prayers to Allah that the task before him would be made easy.

Sharif didn’t appreciate being put on the spot like this though. He suspected that a full-fledged advertising campaign had taken place, even if only by word of mouth. He wondered who else had been involved. He imagined today’s crowd couldn’t be the work of Imam Rashad alone.

His mother? Brother Karim? Sister Irum? Perhaps, all three had a hand in this.

Didn’t they realize that Sharif had spoken only once before a crowd? And that was during a freshman speech course at Howard. But that crowd had been students who themselves had to face the same crowd when they delivered their own speech. In such an environment, there had been little room for judgment, especially since, except for the professor, they all were to be in the same uncomfortable position as Sharif had been when he spoke (if one could call reading quickly from a paper held in front of his face a speech at all).

However, today was entirely different. Sharif wouldn’t be excused for stutters, or for his mind going blank, or for reading from his notes if he got too nervous to go through with this.   And he wouldn’t be given a chance to start over (as his kind professor had given him rather than allow him to fail).

Sharif didn’t even have the margin of error on his side.

You couldn’t stand before a group of Muslims and make blunders in information related to their souls and expect them to excuse you.

Sharif drew in a deep breath, continuing his dhikr, but it was difficult to keep from getting both overwhelmed and anxious. Sharif could only pray that in Rashad’s passive mention of the “new young imam from Riyadh” to those “few” people, Rashad hadn’t shared Sharif’s so-called “way with words” or “quiet dignity.”

At the reminder, the anxiety in his chest returned.

He couldn’t do this, he feared, not now.

A second later, the adhaan sounded through the intercom of the masjid, announcing that the time for Jumu’ah had arrived.

***

“Innalhamdalillaah. Nahmaduhu…” Sharif began by reciting the du’aa that the Prophet customarily used to open his speeches. He was conscious that the Arabic, and corresponding translation, would be foreign to many community members, who usually began talks by simply seeking refuge in Allah.

“Verily, all praise is due to Allah,” Sharif said. “We praise Him and seek His help and ask His forgiveness. And we seek refuge in Allah from the corruption of our souls and from the ill of our deeds. He whom Allah guides, there is none who can misguide him. And He whom Allah leaves astray, there is no one who can guide him. And I bear witness that nothing has the right to be worshipped except Allah alone, Who has no partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad, peace be upon him, is His servant and Messenger.”

Sharif took a deep breath and let his gaze fall to his notes that lay on the podium before him, the drumming in his chest having slowed after the opening du’aa. But he was acutely aware of more than fifty men, women, and children hanging on to his every word.

The crowd was not enormous, and was in fact much smaller than Sharif had feared, but it didn’t escape Sharif that almost every face in the prayer area was that of someone he did not know. He recognized the attire of the men and women from Pakistan, and the features of those from Egypt, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Among them, too, were Americans, whom Sharif had recognized at once. And, of course, there were those from areas he could not determine.

The women sat behind the rows of men, and, except for those for whom the masjid was home, they were all covered in Islamic attire, the color and style varying based on ethnicity, Islamic inclination, and preference. Sharif was taken aback when he saw that several women were wearing the traditional black jilbaab that he associated with Saudi Arabia, but he was pleased. The sight warmed him and made him feel for a small moment that he was back in Riyadh.

“I begin this khutbah by saying words that were inspired by the those of Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, after he accepted his role as caliph of the Muslims, although I know my task before you is much humbler. And I apologize in advance for my faulty speech, as I know these words are probably not the most appropriate for a Jumu’ah khutbah. But I spent the entire day yesterday and several hours into the night trying to find the right words to share with you today. But because of a single fact that I fear will become more or less apparent to you, if not today then someday shortly thereafter, I had extreme difficulty in fulfilling this task. And that is because I am not qualified to be standing here at all.”

Sharif took another breath and rearranged his notes although they were already situated before him. The ruffling of the papers distracted him as the sound was carried through the microphone, setting Sharif’s heart pounding again and making him painfully aware of the expectant crowd.

Faltering, Sharif wiped beads of sweat from his forehead and felt his hands tremble as he realized the honesty of his last words. Self-conscious that his nervousness was betraying him, Sharif went on to share the words he had adapted from the speech of Abu Bakr in hopes of making them suited for today’s talk.

“As most of you know, I have been chosen as the Imam of this community although I am not the best among you, nor am I the most knowledgeable in this task. So, I ask each of you, if I ever fall into error, please correct me and show me the right path. If I do what is right, based on the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger, peace be upon him, I ask your support and assistance, because I cannot do this alone.

“Truth and righteousness are a trust, and falsehood and impiety are a breach of that trust, so I ask Allah to guide me, and you, to Truth and righteousness, and away from falsehood and from any deeds that are displeasing to Him…”

Completing the first part of his speech, Sharif recited some verses from the Qur’anic chapter Qaaf, as it was a soorah the Prophet sometimes recited during Jumu’ah.

In the second part of the khutbah, Sharif recited the verses that he felt most apt in addressing those members of the congregation who had been taught that the essence of Islamic faith rested in the heart alone.

Do men think that they’ll be left alone on saying, “We believe” and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly make known those who are truthful from those who are lying.

When Sharif glanced at the crowd, he was moved to see that many of them had tears in their eyes. He himself was reflecting on the meaning of the Arabic words before he conveyed them in English, and their powerful meaning gripped him, as he wondered which group he would be assigned during the final trials of life.

“And who of us truly believes?” he asked rhetorically, his tone conveying a sincerity that suggested he didn’t know if he himself was included amongst the truthful believers. “And who of us is lying?”

Tears filling his own eyes, he recited, his voice rising with the beauty of the Words of Allah,

Behold, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day—

These are indeed Signs for men of understanding—

Those who celebrate the praises of Allah,

Standing, sitting, and lying on their sides.

And contemplate the [wonders of] creation

In the heavens and the earth, [praying]

“Our Lord! You did not create this aimlessly.

Glory to You! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire.”

“…Our Lord, we have heard the call of one calling to faith [saying],

‘Believe in your Lord,’ and we have believed.

Our Lord! Forgive us our sins,

Blot out from us our iniquities

And cause us to die in the company of the righteous.”

In closing, Sharif said, tears still in his eyes, “These are the characteristics of the righteous, those who do not merely say, ‘I believe’ and then expect an eternal reward after they die.

“They are those who testify openly that, ‘Yes, I believe, and I dedicate my heart, my words, my actions, and my entire life to you, O Allah.”

Sharif looked out at the crowd, eyes squinted. “But shall I tell you the characteristics of those who will lose in the Hereafter, people like me and you, who—as Muslims suffer around the world, or even next door—relax in the comfort of their lives worrying about the latest fashion or television show?”

He paused. “I think these people are best described in a poem by the author Umm Sumayyah titled, ‘Shall I Tell You?’…”

After leading the prayer, Sharif had planned to retire to his office, but he was swarmed with handshakes and warm embraces. The brothers asked about the university where Sharif had studied, how long had he lived in D.C., and if he knew so-and-so. Some of the older brothers surprised Sharif by asking if he was married. Brother Karim also came up to greet him, a proud smile on his face as he drew Sharif into a hug. Imam Rashad too came to greet him.

“Now,” Rashad joked, patting Sharif playfully on the back, “the brothers don’t have to bring pillows and blankets to Jumu’ah anymore.”

After they recovered from friendly laughter, Rashad asked Sharif if it were okay if he entered the office to take out some of his belongings and make a few phone calls.

Sharif chuckled in response and said, “To me, it’s still yours.”

By the time Sharif left the prayer area, most of the congregation had gone home.

In the lobby, Sharif smiled at the scene of Muslims chatting amongst themselves, the sun’s rays spilling through the glass windows and reflecting light on the marbled tiles beneath where they stood. Sharif heard laughter amidst the conversation, the sound soothing Sharif and reminding him that he had just completed his first Jumu’ah as an imam.

He had stressed so much over the talk that it was difficult to believe that it was actually over. There had been a few blunders, he reflected a moment before he decided to find Wali and Asma, but Allah had pulled him through.

Feeling exhausted from the long night and the morning’s stress, Sharif glanced at his watch. He had borrowed their mother’s car and had to pick her up after work. He still had two hours before that time, but he wanted to go home and rest.

As he passed the imam’s office, he saw Imam Rashad sitting behind the desk jotting down some notes on a sheet of paper. When their eyes met, Rashad greeted Sharif with a heartwarming smile, in that single gesture letting Sharif know how proud he was of him. Sharif saw in Rashad’s eyes that he felt that they had made the right decision when they asked him to take the position as imam.

Sharif was moved, at that moment immediately reminded of his father and how he had once sat behind that same desk. Right then Sharif wondered what his father would think of him now, and if he would have made him proud.

He hoped so.

Sharif heard Asma’s voice, and he walked toward the other end of the lobby where he saw some sisters chatting amongst themselves.

“I know!” a voice said, and he was certain that it was his sister.

Sharif saw Asma facing his direction talking to someone who was wearing the black jilbaab that he had seen some women wearing earlier. The woman’s gloved hand was holding that of a young boy, who tugged at her hand before glancing in the direction Sharif.

Distracted, Sharif halted his steps and stared at the boy. The child’s smooth brown features held a distant familiarity that Sharif could not place. He had seen the boy somewhere, Sharif was certain, but where…?

“Asma,” Sharif said, his eyes lingering on the boy for a few seconds.

Sharif glanced at his watch from where he stood a comfortable distance from his sister and the woman, remembering his tight schedule just then.

Asma continued chatting with the veiled woman, apparently having not heard him. The woman then laughed at something she had said.

Sharif wanted to get his sister’s attention, but he didn’t want to come too much closer because he could see that the woman’s veil was lifted, most likely because she was facing the hall that led to the women’s entrance to the prayer area.

“Asma,” he said taking a step closer so that his sister could hear him, cautious not to approach from an angle from which he would see the woman’s face.

At the sound of Sharif’s voice, the woman stopped laughing. Glancing behind her, she pulled the veil over her face, suddenly aware that a man was approaching. In that moment, Sharif was able to make out the brown of her cheek that matched the smooth complexion of her son.

It was then that Asma noticed her brother, her face immediately reflecting an apology as her eyes widened slightly, realizing that she hadn’t registered the passing time.

“Asma, we have to go,” he said as she looked at him.

“I know. I’m sorry. I forgot you were waiting.”

Asma quickly greeted the sister with a cheek-to-cheek hug, saying that she would call her later, and playfully rubbed the head of the boy before joining Sharif.

“I have to get some things from the imam’s office,” he said. “But you can go on to the car.” He handed her the keys.

“And if you can find Wali,” he added, “that would help.”

“He left already.”

Sharif creased his forehead. “How? I have the car.”

“He said he was going somewhere with a brother.”

Sharif shrugged. “Okay, as long as Mom doesn’t mind.”

On the drive home, Sharif noticed that Asma was unusually quiet. She stared distantly out the window, clearly disturbed by something, a marked contrast to the playful attitude she had had during the conversation with the veiled woman.

“Where did you find that poem?” she asked, glancing at Sharif for the first time, her eyes reflective.

He met her curious gaze before turning his attention back to the road. “You mean the ‘Shall I Tell You’ one?”

“Yeah.”

“I found it on a pile of old newspapers in the kitchen last night.”

Asma creased her forehead as she studied her brother curiously, as if seeing him for the first time. “Really?”

“Yes.” Sharif laughed. “You’d be surprised the treasures you can find when Wali doesn’t sort the recyclables like he’s supposed to.”

Asma rolled her eyes, a grin lingering on her face. “When does he ever do anything he’s supposed to do?”

Sharif chuckled uncomfortably, realizing their conversation was bordering on backbiting Wali. It also reminded Sharif himself of his own flaws the night he spoke to his father for the last time.

“Well…” Sharif sighed thoughtfully, feeling an awkward kinship to his brother’s struggles. “Wali’s a man now. He has a lot to do, so we shouldn’t give him a hard time.”

“What does he have to do?” Asma laughed. “Sleep all day?”

“Asma, don’t say that.”

“I’m serious. That’s all he does.”

She shook her head, grinning. “I bet when he wakes up, he actually thinks he cleaned the whole house.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

Asma laughed again. “Like Mom always says, He’s living in a dream world.”

“She didn’t mean that, Asma,” Sharif said, although he imagined that Asma was probably correct in her summation. “She meant that he’s still trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life.”

“And I’m sure he’s getting all the answers in his dreams.”

Sharif started to respond in disagreement—

But his sister’s last words jogged a memory.

in his dreams.

The boy.

In his dream.

That’s where Sharif had seen him.

Sharif pressed the breaks so quickly that the car jerked him and his sister forward. The car screeched to a halt, and their backs slammed against the leather seats with the sudden stop.

He had nearly run the red light as the realization came to him.

“Sha-rif,” Asma said, her voice raised. Her eyes were scolding as she glared at him.

But Sharif barely registered her reaction.

The imam sat in his office facing the area…smiling proudly as he thought of Sharif…

Imam Rashad.

Light from the sun illuminated the lobby, making the marbled tile glow…

The sun’s rays shining through the lobby’s glass windows that afternoon.

Sharif heard laughter, as if coming from a heavenly source, but he realized the sound was in front of him…

The woman’s laughter he had heard.

Sharif walked toward her, seeing only the soft black fabric of the jilbaab… Her veil was lifted but she was not facing him. She was talking to someone… He drew closer until he was but a step away. That was when she heard him and quickly dropped the veil over her face, glancing behind her, sensing that a strange man was approaching …Her gloved hand held the palm of a young boy whose skin glowed the same golden brown…whose cheek he could barely make out as he neared…

The woman Asma had been speaking to.

Sharif’s heart raced, the pounding now a discomfort in his chest. He felt the palms of his hands grow moist as they gripped the steering wheel, the traffic light a dim red glow in the bright afternoon sun.

Asma.

He glanced at his sister, whose face was contorted, still recovering from the sudden stop.

“Sharif, you should be careful,” she said, annoyed. “You’re driving like Wali.”

Sharif said nothing as the light turned green and he carefully lifted his foot from the break and gently pressed the gas pedal, the car moving forward smoothly this time.

When he pulled the car into the driveway of their home, Sharif was still silent, his mind a flood of thoughts. It was difficult to think clearly.

Who was the woman? Was she divorced? Was the boy her son?

In the house, Asma walked into the kitchen, and Sharif followed, realizing that the answers to these questions lay with his little sister.

As Asma rummaged through the newspapers and sales papers that still lay on the table from last night, Sharif opened the refrigerator and surveyed its contents although he could not even think of eating right then.

“Where’d you put that newsletter?” she asked. “I was looking for it all day yesterday.”

“Who was that woman you were talking to?” Sharif asked, his voice calm, his mind only vaguely registering that she had been asking him something else. Sharif detected a slight quiver in his speech, but he was pleased by the natural tone in his voice.

With one hand, he removed the carton of milk from the top shelf and closed the refrigerator with the other. He then reached for a box of cereal that was on top of the freezer, setting the box and milk on the counter while he found a glass bowl and a spoon for himself.

“What?”

After pouring the cereal and milk, he held the bowl and turned to see Asma looking at him, the question still on her face. He leaned against the counter casually and repeated himself before lifting a spoonful of cereal to his mouth.

“That woman. The one with a son. Who is she?”

Asma wrinkled her nose, distracted from her own inquiry as she registered his. “A woman?”

“Yes, Asma,” Sharif said, a slight edge in his voice. “You were talking to a woman when I was looking for you.”

“No I wasn’t.”

Sharif groaned.

But a moment later, his frustration was halted as he wondered if he had imagined the whole scene…

Was that possible?

But how…?

He creased his forehead. “You weren’t talking to someone when I came to get you?”

Asma blinked, her face still contorted. In the few seconds that it took her to process her brother’s question, Sharif doubted his sanity.

But he was certain that he had seen a veiled woman when he had—

“You mean right before we left?”

“Yes,” he said, growing slightly aggravated with all the questions. “She was wearing a black abaya. She had a little boy with her.”

For a moment, Asma just stared at Sharif.

“You mean Iman?”

Sharif laughed. “No. I’m talking about just now, Asma. Right before we left the mas—”

“I know,” she said, still staring at Sharif, a question on her face. But this time Sharif sensed that it was not connected to what she had asked moments before.

“That was Iman,” she said.

Asma studied her brother a second more. “Why?”

For a few seconds, Sharif just stared at Asma, his face registering the confusion he felt right then. “Iman? Hasna’s sister?”

A hesitant grin creased one side of Asma’s mouth, mild amusement in her eyes as she registered understanding of the source of Sharif’s confusion.

“Yeah, I know,” she chuckled a second later, shaking her head in agreement. “I was shocked too when I first saw her.”

Sharif’s heart pounded self-consciously. How did Asma know about the dream?

No, he stopped himself. That was impossible.   She must be referring to something else. He hadn’t mentioned the dream to anyone.

“Hasna says she looks like a ninja in all that black.” There was laughter in Asma’s voice as she shook her head again.

What?” Sharif was agitated by the mention of Hasna, and by the comment that mocked the jilbaab. But his mind couldn’t focus on that right then.

“Even Sister Mona thinks it’s too much.” Asma shrugged as she thought of something.

“I wouldn’t wear it,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s too much. If that’s what she thinks she’s supposed to wear, why should it bother anyone else?”

“But who was that boy then?”

“What boy?”

“Next to her.”

“Adam.”

Sharif blinked, hoping that nothing drastic had happened while he was gone.

Amused laughter was in Asma’s expression as she drew her eyebrows together, placing a hand on her hip as she studied Sharif. “Don’t tell me you forgot Adam too while you were gone.”

Adam…

It was then that Sharif remembered the e-mail from his mother a few years back.

Just writing to let you know Sister Mona had a healthy baby boy last night. They named him Adam.”

…Oh.

Sharif didn’t know what to say.

Asma’s expression changed, distracted by a sudden thought. She glanced at the junk-mail pile on the kitchen table, her face appearing worried just then.

“Sharif, do you remember where you put that newsletter you found?”

“What newsletter?”

“The one with the poem in it.”

“Yeah, it’s uh…”

Where was it?

“I think it’s on the desk upstairs in my room.”

“Can I have it back if you’re finished with it?”

Sharif carried his bowl of cereal to the table, his mind befuddled, unable to fully comprehend what he had just learned.

He sat down, his body feeling heavy in the wooden chair.

Iman?

No… That was impossible.

He must have misinterpreted the dream… Maybe it was his wife’s sister he had seen…?

But no, he had been sure that the woman was his wife…

But how…?

“You can have it,” Sharif said to Asma, distracted as he sought to understand what this all meant. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Asma started out the kitchen to retrieve the newsletter from his room, but she halted in the doorway.

A second later she turned to Sharif, an uncertain expression on her face. She waited for him to meet her gaze.

Sharif looked up, but his mind wasn’t on Asma.

“Who told you about that poem?”

It took a second for Sharif to register her question although he was looking directly as his sister when she spoke.

“Nobody,” he said, turning his attention back to his meal.

“Then why did you read from it today?”

He shrugged. “I just saw it in the newsletter and decided to.”

He reached for a newspaper as he brought a spoonful of cereal to his mouth. He opened the first page, chewing the food as his eyes skimmed the headlines, his mind elsewhere.

“You didn’t know whose it was?”

He paused his reading, slightly annoyed by Asma’s constant questions. “No. I just saw it on the kitchen table.”

He looked at her again, annoyance in his contorted expression as he regarded her. “What does it matter to you anyway?”

“Because that was just a sample. I didn’t want anybody to see it yet.”

Eyebrows drawn together, it took Sharif several seconds to understand what Asma was saying.

You did that newsletter?”

“Yes,” she said, defensive, apparently offended by his surprise.

“By yourself?”

“Well, it was Sister Irum’s idea. But me and Iman collected the articles and everything.”

“Wait a minute.” He set down his spoon, giving his sister his full attention. “So that, uh, Calling to Islam—”

Islam’s Call,” she said.

“That’s not real?”

Asma shrugged. “Not yet, but it will be inshaaAllah.”

She shrugged again, self-conscious just then. “That was just a sample. We wanted to show it to Imam Rashad and…well, to you, I guess, to see if we could use it for the masjid.”

“But where did you find the articles?”

“We just asked people to write them,” she said. “Sister Irum said that’s better.”

“So you know Umm Sumayyah?”

Asma creased her forehead. “Umm Sumayyah?”

“The one who wrote the poem.”

Her face relaxed. “Oh yeah. I forgot about that,” she said, chuckling with a wave of her hand. “That’s just a pen name.”

“A pen name?”

“Yeah.” She smiled, obviously proud of herself. “You like it?”

For a second Sharif just stared at his sister, in that moment seeing her for the first time. So much had changed since he had left. He felt old right then, and completely disconnected from the community he was to lead—and from his own family.

He had known that Asma had grown into a young woman. But that poem…

He had no idea she could put words together like that. He was stunned. And impressed. He didn’t know what to say.

“So Umm Sumayyah is a pen name for you?”

Asma blinked, her smile fading as her eyebrows drew together. She shook her head a second before saying, “Not for me. For Iman.”

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