Jamilah made a quick stop at her apartment on Post Street, where she iced her injured wrist and swallowed two ibuprofen tablets. Shamsi was still at work, of course.
Jamilah wondered if she should tell Shamsi what had happened. Shamsi would tell her family, and it would get back to Jamilah’s mother. She didn’t know if she wanted her mom imagining her daughter chasing down bike thieves. She’d think her Jamilah had lost her marbles. She already does, Jamilah thought.
Jamilah grabbed her spare lock – a flimsy cable that she’d bought before she became a messenger – and headed downtown.
When she walked into Low Ball, the young receptionist looked up and exclaimed, “I was wondering what happened to you! I’m sorry about your bike, hon. I’ve got your stuff right here.”
“Oh, I got the bike back,” Jamilah said casually.
“You’re kidding! That’s amazing. You have to tell me about it.”
“I can’t right now,” Jamilah said. “I need to get back to work. Tell you what, buy me lunch tomorrow at the Flying Spaghetti and you’ll hear the whole riveting tale.” A girl has to survive somehow. I’m down to my last twenty bucks for the week.
“You’re on,” the receptionist said.
Jamilah finished out the day, her wrist throbbing. She could have taken the day off, but she hadn’t gone through all that hassle only to sit around at home. She ran some blueprints from SOMA to an architectural firm at Battery Point, made a dash to the Wharf, a pickup in North Beach coming back, and then a pickup at a restaurant in Chinatown. She hated Chinatown jobs because the locals always treated her like a foreign invader, and no one ever wanted to sign for anything. Finally she had to lug a little envelope all the way up Potrero Hill, her legs straining, arms pulling on the handlebars, sweat dripping from her brow.
As she rode, she thought about the deal.
The Deal. She could hardly believe it had worked. It was like her own personal miracle. Was it possible that she would have found the bike anyway, without this bargain? There was no way to know, but Allah had come through for her, and she owed Him.
She wasn’t afraid. When she had made the deal she had felt trepidation, but now she was strangely excited. Somehow in her heart she had been expecting this change; maybe she’d even been contemplating it subconsciously. Whatever the case, it was time for a sea change, and this was it.
Her biggest worries centered around work. There were no messengers wearing hijabs in San Francisco. What would Jen say? What about the clients? And what about law school? Would this make it more difficult to get a scholarship? Was she shooting herself in the foot, sabotaging her own ambitions? What were her options?
And what was the story with Hassan? What Muhammad had told her had changed her perspective. She wondered what sort of hardships Hassan had been through to make him so introverted. She thought of him practicing martial arts alone in the park, and saw it in a different light. Maybe he was not disdainful of others as she had thought. Maybe he cut himself off from human interaction because he was going through inner turmoil. Or maybe he didn’t know how to speak to others. It was kind of sad, when you thought about it.
The ride to Layth and Kadija’s place in Bernal Heights was uphill all the way – a tedious trudge after a long day. Jamilah’s wrist radiated pain up her arm; her feet ached; and the cut on the inside of her mouth throbbed. She’d been worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with Muhammad and Hassan, but they slowed their pace to hers. She was glad for that.
“Hassan,” Muhammad said, “let Jams ride the Krypton.”
“She’s had a hard day.”
Jamilah was annoyed. “I didn’t ask for help. I’m fine.”
“Too big for her anyway,” Hassan said.
“Then let me ride it,” Muhammad said.
Hassan shrugged and braked to a stop. “Okay.” He and Muhammad switched bikes and resumed riding.
“Kryptoooooooon!” Muhammad hollered into the night air, reaching up with both hands, and weaving Hassan’s racing bike back and forth across the right lane. “Take me away, baby!” A car swerved and sped past him, honking.
Jamilah focused on her breathing as they climbed up Mission Street. The street name was appropriate, she thought. She was going up Mission, on a mission.
Jamilah could smell the tortillas and beef from the Mexican taquerias and Salvadoran pupusa restaurants that lined Mission Street. They rode past a grand old movie theater that had been turned into a church, roadside stands selling fruits, vegetables and clothing, vegan cafes, alternative bookstores, and brightly colored wall murals depicting farm workers breaking their chains and raising their fists. On one street corner an old man in a poncho stood, playing the guitar and singing “México lindo y querido” in a tremulous and sad voice. Jamilah knew enough Spanish to translate the song: “beautiful and beloved Mexico.” She understood the sadness in the man’s voice. For her it was “Palestine lindo y querido”, and unlike the old man, she could never go home.
Muhammad was his usual talkative self. He was so skinny that the uphill slog hardly bothered him. “You guys want to hear a joke?” he called out.
“Oh, please no,” Jamilah groaned. But Hassan said, “Sure.”
“Alright,” Muhammad continued blithely. “A Palestinian, an Israeli and a supermodel are riding in a train car. Suddenly the train enters a tunnel. It’s an old style train with no lights in the carriages so it goes totally dark. Then there’s a kissing noise and the sound of a slap.
The train comes out of the tunnel, and the Palestinian and the supermodel are both sitting there like nothing happened, but the Israeli has his hand on his cheek like he’s just been slapped.
The Israeli is thinking: the Palestinian must have kissed the supermodel and she tried to slap him but missed and slapped me by mistake.
The supermodel is thinking: The Israeli fellow must have tried to kiss me but actually kissed the Palestinian and got slapped for it.
And the Palestinian is thinking: This is great. Next time the train goes through a tunnel, I’ll make another kissing noise and slap the Israeli bastard again.”
Jamilah laughed despite herself, then said, “That’s racist, Mo.”
“Why? Because I said bastard?”
“No, because… I don’t know. Never mind.”
“Okay,” Muhammad said. “Then make it an alien, Mother Theresa and Fu Manchu.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Jamilah protested. “Hey Hassan,” she said, “don’t you ever laugh?”
“He’s a stoic,” Muhammad said. “I have never seen that brother laugh. But I’m trying. Five nine, tell us a joke.”
They rode in silence for a full block, then Hassan said, “What happened to the fishing boat that sank in piranha-infested waters?”
“They turned into fish food,” Jamilah said between breaths.
“No,” Hassan said. “The boat came back with a skeleton crew.”
Muhammad laughed. “That’s funny, dude! But that joke you told last week was about fish too. What’s up with the fish?”
“I like fish,” Hassan said. “The downtown suits envy us messengers because we seem free, right? But no human being was ever as free as a fish.”
The riders dismounted in front of Layth and Kadija’s apartment. It was a comfortable one-bedroom flat on a quiet street.
They were mounting the steps when Hassan stopped.
“What’s up, five nine?” Muhammad asked.
Hassan was looking at a silver Lexus parked across the street. The license plate read, “PLSTNGRL”. Jamilah recognized it – she’d seen it parked in front of the Hammerhead Courier garage often enough. It was Sahar’s car. Palestine Girl. Daddy’s little sweetheart, Jamilah thought sourly.
Sahar was a customer service rep at Hammerhead. Most customer service reps didn’t drive luxury cars, but Sahar’s father Adel happened to own the company. They were moneyed Palestinians who had been expelled from Kuwait in 1991, after the first Gulf War, and had promptly started a profitable business here in SF. What did they know of deprivation? Sahar’s customer service job couldn’t pay much, but somehow the tall, fair-skinned beauty always wore the latest brand-name clothing, and her lustrous black hair was impeccably styled.
Jamilah, on the other hand, was short, olive-skinned, and had frizzy brown hair that wouldn’t stay in place. She wore no makeup because she was out in the wind and the rain all day. By five thirty – quitting time – she was either dried out by wind and sun, or waterlogged, weary and bruised. At times like that she hated being in the same room as Sahar, beside whom she felt like a savage.
“So what if Sahar’s here?” Muhammad said. “She’s cool.”
“Did you invite her?” Hassan demanded.
“Not really,” Muhammad said. “She asked me after work if you and I were doing anything, and I told her we were coming up here. She knows Kadija from work, I guess – she knows all the clients. She must have invited herself.”
Jamilah wondered what that was about. Was there something going on between Hassan and Sahar? She felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought, strangely enough.
Hassan reached for the doorbell, then paused. “Can I talk to you guys for a sec?”
“Sure, dude,” Muhammad said. “What’s up?”
“You know what you said about me not laughing? You’re right. I used to have a sense of humor, but…” Hassan gazed at the dark street. “Well, life shut it down. I’m trying to get back to the person I used to be, but it’s hard. And I appreciate you, Muhammad, because when I’m around you I feel normal again. So jazak Allah khayr, may Allah reward you for that. And I’m glad to get to know you too, Jamilah. I’ve been wanting to meet you properly, but it’s hard for me to approach people.”
Jamilah was stunned. The words were not what she would have expected to come out of Hassan’s mouth. She was beginning to realize that she had misunderstood this powerful man. She had thought him arrogant, but at this moment he seemed more vulnerable than any man she’d met.
Muhammad gave Hassan a hug. “It’s alright, dude. I like you just how you are. A bad-ass Arab, daily eating carob.”
“I don’t like carob,” Hassan said.
“It’s the only thing I could rhyme with Arab.”
Jamilah felt like a voyeur, witnessing this moment of candor between the two men, but she said, “It’s alright, Hassan. I appreciate you helping me out today. But would you really have cut off that gangster’s thumb?”
Hassan smiled. “Nah. I’m nonviolent.”
“Whatever! I saw the look on your face. You were going to kill that guy.”
“Looks don’t kill,” Hassan said.
“Well… how could you go after a guy with a knife? And what if he’d had a gun?”
“If he’d had a gun, he wouldn’t have pulled a knife,” Hassan said. “I knew he’d back down. The talkers always do. It’s the quiet ones you have to worry about.”
“Like you,” Jamilah said.
Hassan smiled and shook his head, then rang the doorbell.
They were greeted by an elegant looking African-American woman. Jamilah had expected Layth’s wife to be white, for some reason. Wrong assumptions, again. Kadija gave Jamilah a hug and said, “It’s nice to meet you. Louis told me what happened to you today. How exciting.”
“Oh, sorry,” Kadija said. “Layth. I knew him before he converted and I’m still not used to the new name.”
Jamilah noticed everyone shedding their shoes at the door. Her socks had holes at the heels and smelled of sweat. Embarrassed, she removed them and stuffed them into her shoes.
As she stepped into the apartment, wonderfully familiar food aromas flooded her nostrils. It smelled like her mother’s Middle Eastern cooking.
“It smells delicious in here,” Jamilah told Kadija.
“Oh, you can thank Louis,” Kadija said. “He’s preparing some of his secret Iraqi recipes.”
“Iraqi? That’s cool. You are so lucky to have a husband who cooks.”
“I know it,” Kadija agreed. “Why don’t you men go into the kitchen and keep Louis company? Jamilah, let’s sit in the living room.”
The living room was attractively furnished. The hardwood floors gleamed, and a large bay window looked onto the street. African prints and a framed poster of a mosque hung on the walls. A large bookshelf in the corner was crammed with books and CD’s from top to bottom. Kadija led Jamilah to a large leather sofa.
The Quran played softly on the stereo. It was a good, familiar sound.
Jamilah’s gaze came to rest on Sahar. Sitting on the loveseat facing the window, she looked like a celebrity in her black jeans and designer leather jacket, with her hair perfectly coiffed as usual, and her nails manicured and polished. Two gold bangles graced her wrists.
Jamilah was acutely aware of her own appearance. Strands of hair had slipped out of her ponytail and projected in odd directions like broken bicycle spokes. Her clothes smelled of sweat, her cheek was slightly swollen and she had blood stains on her pants. She must look like a refugee from a war zone.
“Hey Sahar,” Jamilah said. “How’s it going?”
“Hey kiddo,” Sahar said. “Busy day today, huh? I heard about the thing with your bike.”
Kiddo? Jamilah felt a furious desire to grab Sahar’s gleaming hair with one hand and smack her across the cheek with the other, but instead she forced a smile. “Yeah,” she said. “It was something else. But I actually came up here for another reason.” She turned to Kadija. “You look familiar.”
“I work at Janey-Bass,” Kadija said. “We use Hammerhead for deliveries. I’ve seen you come in for pickups.”
“Oh, right! What do you do there?”
“I’m a copyeditor,” Kadija said. Jamilah noticed the pride in Kadija’s tone. She wondered if Kadija had faced many challenges to get where she was.
“That’s so cool!” Jamilah said. “You have to tell me all about your job sometime. But the reason I came tonight is that your husband said you might be willing to teach me some things.”
“I’d be happy to try,” Kadija said.
“Well, the thing is…” How was Jamilah going to do this with Sahar listening? Ignore her. She doesn’t exist. “My bike got stolen, and I was panicked, and… I made a deal with Allah.”
“What kind of deal?”
“I promised Allah that if He helped me get my bike back I would pray, and fast, and wear hijab. And He did. So now I need to learn.”
“Are you serious?” Sahar interrupted. “That’s crazy. I mean, it’s great that you got your bike back, but you don’t have to get all religious and start covering up like an old lady. I mean – sorry, Kadija. I didn’t mean you.”
Jamilah always tried to be nice to Sahar, partly because she was a fellow Palestinian girl and work colleague, and partly because her father was the company president. But now Jamilah’s temper boiled over and she said, “Listen, bimbo. What I do and wear is none of your business.”
Sahar’s face twisted into amazed indignation. “Excuse me?” she exclaimed.
“Whoa,” Kadija interjected, putting her hands out. “Both of you take it easy. Sahar, I think Jamilah wanting to wear hijab is a good thing. It’s about being modest and obeying Allah, no matter what age you are. And Jamilah, we don’t talk to people like that in this house. You’re both my guests, and I want you to show respect. Now apologize to each other.”
Jamilah’s face flushed. She felt like a grade schooler who’d been chastised by the teacher. “I’m sorry, Sahar,” she mumbled. “Truly. It’s been a rough day, that’s all.”
Sahar waved her hand toward Jamilah as if brushing her away. “Whatever.” She stood and traipsed into the kitchen. Jamilah heard her exchanging words with Hassan, but couldn’t make out what was said. A minute later Sahar stormed out of the kitchen, put on her designer shoes and left.
Jamilah reclined into the sofa cushion and put her hands on her forehead. “Great,” she said. “Just what I need. I have to work with her tomorrow. I get so angry sometimes, and I end up hurting people.”
“Sahar is alright,” Kadija said. “She can work your nerves, but she has a good heart. She’ll be fine tomorrow. Listen, there’s something I want to explain. Don’t take it as a criticism. Think of it as your first lesson.”
“What is it?” Jamilah said warily.
“We don’t make deals with Allah,” Kadija said. “Making a deal implies that each side needs something from the other, and they’re coming to an accommodation. But Allah needs nothing from us. He is free of all wants. Our ‘ibadah, our worship of Him, is for us, to bring peace to our souls, and guide us through life, and bring us closer to Allah. So I’m happy that things worked out for you today, but I wouldn’t want you to start doing these things – praying and such – because you feel trapped or obligated. It has to come from your heart, or it won’t stick.”
“That makes sense,” Jamilah said. “But I don’t feel trapped. I feel good about it.”
Kadija smiled widely. “Okay, ma-sha-Allah. Let’s go in the bedroom and I’ll show you some outfits.”
Kadija had Jamilah try on a lovely olive pintucked dress and something called an Amira hijab – a two-piece fitted blue scarf that circled her face and draped over her shoulders and chest. The scarf fit perfectly, but the dress was too long in every respect.
“No problem,” Kadija said. She went to the closet and brought out a sewing machine. “I can adjust the dress in five minutes.”
“Hold on,” Jamilah said. “I can’t let you do that. That’s a beautiful dress, I can’t let you ruin it.”
“Lesson number two,” Kadija said. “Accept a gift graciously. I have other dresses, don’t worry. And I’m certainly not going to ruin it.”
Kadija set up the sewing machine on a small desk and began working. Jamilah sat in a stuffed chair and rested her head on one arm. She felt comfortable in this place. There was something motherly about Kadija.
“What do you know about Hassan?” Jamilah asked.
“Very little,” Kadija replied, not looking up from her sewing work. “He’s Louis’s friend. They go out to dinner sometimes. Louis says that Hassan is an expert in four different fighting styles, and that they mostly talk about Islam and martial arts.”
“What about his past?”
“I can’t help you there, honey,” Kadija said. “Louis has never spoken about that. Either he doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to say.”
When the dress was ready, Kadija said, “Now let me show you how to do wudu’.”
Under Kadija’s guidance, Jamilah began the ritual ablutions for prayer. She washed her hands three times, then mouth, nose, face, right arm, and left arm. She felt some strange and powerful tide of emotion rising from her gut. Her hands began to tremble and her legs felt weak. She passed her wet hands over her hair, and cleaned her ears as Kadija showed her. By the time she washed her right foot then left foot she had begun to weep. Kadija wrapped an arm around her shoulders and said, “That’s it honey, you’re done.”
Jamilah broke into open sobs, to her own mortification. She felt she would collapse, but Kadija caught her around the waist and helped her to the bedroom. They sat on the edge of the bed, Kadija stroking Jamilah’s shoulders as she continued to make moaning and choking noises. She felt unbearably embarrassed. It was as if something immense inside her, something roiling under pressure, were being released. She heard Layth say, “Is everything alright in there?”
“Fine, Louis,” Kadija called. “Give us privacy.”
“We’ll be praying ‘Ishaa’ in a minute, are you joining us?”
“No, we’ll pray in here. You go ahead.”
Jamilah sat up straight and composed herself. Kadija fetched a box of tissues and Jamilah blew her nose and wiped her face.
“I’m so sorry,” Jamilah said between gasping breaths. “I don’t know what that was about.”
“Wudu’ is a powerful thing,” Kadija said. “It purifies you, wipes away all your sins.”
“I don’t have sins,” Jamilah said. “ I’ve never been with a man, I don’t drink or do drugs…”
“That’s all good,” Kadija said. “Maybe you’ve been feeling a gulf between you and Allah, and the wudu’ has closed that gulf, and what you are feeling is that inner tension letting go.”
Jamilah nodded her head. It did feel like that. She’d been holding so much anger and fear. Fear of failure, fear of losing her mother’s love, fear of not living up to her father’s ideals.
Jamilah put on the hijab and the dress. It fit perfectly – Kadija was quite a seamstress. There was a full length mirror on the closet door and Jamilah examined herself. She looked like a different person. She could almost see herself in an earlier time, standing on the land of her ancestral home in Bethlehem, looking out over the rocky hills and olive trees. A time before the Nakbah, the catastrophe of 1948 in which Palestine was lost to the Zionists. That version of her was not alienated from her own mother. That version of her was bright eyed and composed, and knew where she fit in the universe. That version of her was strong as the land itself.
I’m strong too. Me, as I am now. “The people of Palestine are under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back.”
Kadija laid out two beautiful musallas. One prayer rug was green with tassels, and featured an image of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. The other had a geometric pattern of lines and stars. She laid them side by side, facing Makkah.
Jamilah followed Kadija in prayer, moving as Kadija moved. Kadija recited out loud, so all Jamilah had to do was listen. She didn’t experience another wave of emotion, but the salat felt peaceful and comfortable. She was on the right track. What would her mother say if she could see Jamilah now? Would she be proud? Or would she think her daughter was playing games, or being brainwashed?
What about Shamsi, and Adel, and the clients, and the other messengers at Hammerhead…
Jamilah willed herself to stop thinking about all of that. Her spiritual life was between her and Allah. Everyone else would have to take care of themselves.
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.